Published on November 23, 2014 by Amy
Food was an integral part of Shoshone culture, life and tribal identity. Because the Shoshone eked out a marginal existence in the arid Great Basin area of the western United States, no aspect of their diet came easily to them. They had to develop specialized hunting and snaring methods to obtain animal foods and spent months every year preparing and preserving the plants that they ate. Hence, their religion and culture revolved around the hunt and harvest.
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No aspect of the life of the Shoshone affected them more than food. Because food was difficult to find and required intensive labor on the part of the tribes every year, their lives literally revolved around food. While most of the Native American tribes followed herds and moved with the seasons, the arid region the Shoshones called home made finding sustenance a particular challenge.
Like other Great Basin tribes, the Shoshone were nomadic, and a typical year would find them ranging from north in the summer to south in the winter, following their sources of nutrition. They ranged from Arizona, Utah and Nevada to Colorado, Montana and Wyoming. Food was so integral to their identity that the various tribes were named after what they ate. One tribe was the “Salmon Eaters,” another “Sheep Eaters.” Tribes were named after their preference for squirrel, roots and sunflower seeds as well. These names were dynamic and could change at various parts of the year. Hence, a group known as “Root Eaters” at harvest time might be called “Rabbit Eaters” in the spring.
Being a pre-industrial society, the Shoshone had to do all preparing and preserving of their foods by hand. They lived in arid lands, and most of the available vegetation was in the form of roots. Roots are hard, difficult to chew and swallow, and require work to make them edible. The Shoshone discovered that roots became softer when boiled, so they devised a method to boil them by putting hot rocks in baskets of water. Through this labor intensive process of slowly heating the water to boiling and then keeping it hot enough to soften the roots, the vegetables could become soft enough to eat. Even so, the Camas roots favored by the Shoshone were so difficult to digest that they made Caucasian visitors sick. White travelers began avoiding these root vegetables, filling out their diet with available meat sources instead.
There were a number of animals available to provide protein in the Shoshone diet. Some tribes hunted wild Bighorn sheep, antelope and buffalo, while others hunted smaller game, such as rabbits When in season, salmon could provide much-needed protein, as well as the fatty acids that the Shoshone needed to keep their hearts and brains working. Procuring large animals was dangerous and required the combined effort of the Shoshone hunters.
When they hunted antelope or deer, they often worked together, beating their legs to make noises to scare the animals in a particular direction. The spooked animals ran away from the first group of hunters, only to find themselves trapped in a corral, where they were shot. This hunting process was difficult and arduous, and the Shoshone developed spiritual beliefs around it. A shaman could be chosen to live among the animals, praying and getting them used to his presence before the hunt.
Not only was the hunt featured in Shoshone religious rituals, but the harvest was featured prominently as well. The welfare of the tribe depended on the bounty of the harvest, in order to survive the brutal winter to come. Hence, no effort was spared to make sure that the tribe was spiritually involved in harvesting. Religious ceremonies and festivals occurred at the time of the harvesting of pine nuts. Like other Shoshone foods, pine nuts were difficult to obtain and required a labor intensive process to harvest. The Utah tribes gathered to harvest the pine nuts in the fall. First, they gathered the green pine cones, then roasted them until they split and the seeds could be gathered. The seeds were still not ready to eat, however. They had to be parched, cracked and winnowed before they were edible. The Shoshone might make a mush out of the seeds or eat them whole.
The incredible effort required to keep a tribe alive in the dry Great Basin area made the gathering of food of utmost importance to the Shoshone. Unlike modern inhabitants of these states, the Shoshone could not take for granted that they could survive the winter. From the beginning of spring through the end of harvest, every day in the life of the Shoshone featured the gathering, preparing and preserving of food. Hence, food became the center of their religion and even their identity.