Western Mono Indians
by Mary Ann Resendes
The Western Mono belong to the Uto-Aztecan language group that may once have occupied the Colorado Plateau. Several Uto-Aztecan subgroups diverged, with the Numic subgroup, ancestors of the Mono, Paiute, and other groups, occupying much of the Great Basin and South Eastern California. Between 890 and 900 A.D., a severe drought forced the groups to move, with one group, the ancestors of the Northern Paiute, traveling along the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada to seek relief from the drought. They eventually traveled over the crest where they traded with the ancestors of the Yokuts Indians, who had moved up the western slope to escape the drought. When the drought ended, the Yokuts went back to the Central Valley, which had turned into a lush wetland rich in plant and animal life, and the ancestors of the Western Mono, began to settle on the western slope.
The Western Mono social structure is based on the tribal group, which is divided into patrilineal lines—children inherit their father’s totem. A totem, usually an animal, represents each of these lines. Members of each lineage play specific roles in the community. Those from the Eagle lineage serve as chief, while those from the Dove lineage may serve as messengers of the chief. These lineages could be divided into two groups called moieties or clans. Each of these divisions could have a chief. The chief’s function was to act as an advisor, decide upon the time for ceremonies, and to see that everyone had adequate food and shelter. But he did not have absolute power. There was no hierarchy; members were looked upon as equals.
Marriage and Family
Parents arranged marriages for their children that were often within the clan, but marriage between relatives was prohibited. After the couple was married, the man lived with the woman’s family until the birth of the first child when they would move into the husband’s village. Families were often extended, including paternal grandparents, and occasionally other relatives. However, a taboo prohibited communication between same sex in-laws. The number of children was limited to maintain a balance with resources; women used certain plants for birth control. Prenatal taboos in which the parents would abstain from meat, salt and hard food to protect the baby’s health were sometimes practiced. The restriction could continue for both parents after the baby was born, or the mother might continue with the diet for three months while the father began a normal diet after the birth. Between 10 and 30 days after birth, the family gathered for the naming ceremony. The paternal grandmother passed the baby through the hoop in its baby basket, and gave the baby its name.
Death was accepted as a normal part of the life cycle. The Great Horned Owl was said to be the messenger of death who speaks the names of those who will soon die. When someone was thought to be dying, relatives were summoned and a professional singer sang outside the house at 6am and 4pm until burial. The body was buried two days after death, head facing west where the spirit would travel two days until reaching the land of the dead. Singing and dancing helped the dead leave their loved ones and begin their long journey.
Spirituality, Shaman, and Ceremony
The Western Mono believed that totemic spirits possessed supernatural powers, and that these spirits guided their people. Some people who possessed exceptional skill, such as hunting, were said to have special powers. Shaman had supernatural powers that were acquired from a dream helper, usually an animal. They had the ability to heal as well as sicken, and they performed in ceremonies or rituals. The Western Mono celebrated several annual ceremonies that included the Rattlesnake Ritual, the Bear Dance and the Annual Mourning Ceremony. The Rattlesnake Ritual took place in the spring when the rattlesnakes emerged. The shaman predicted who would be bitten that year, and provided a preventative cure. The shaman themselves were bitten by rattlesnakes as part of the ceremony, but were always treated and suffered no ill effects. The Bear dance was held in the fall before the bears went into hibernation. It was performed by the members of the Bear lineage to ensure the well-being of the members. The Annual Mourning Ceremony, also held in the fall, was a large gathering that lasted six days and nights. In preparation, mourners collected food and gifts that would be distributed during the ceremony. Along with singing and weeping, there were games and trading, and finally the cleansing and dressing of the mourners in new clothes.
The Western Mono did not have livestock or practice agriculture, but were a semi nomadic hunting and gathering society that traveled to different elevations depending on the season and availability of food sources. The Western Mono were completely integrated with their surroundings, and looked to nature to give them signs as to when it was time to beginning hunting or fishing. Rather than consult a calendar, they looked to nature for signs such as the song of a certain bird or the emergence of catkins on the elm that told them it was time to hunt or gather.
Hunting and Fishing
Hunting was men’s work. The night before a hunt, the men cleansed themselves in the sweathouse, dove into the creek, and then coated their bodies with pungent herbs so that their prey would not detect them. Deer meat was an important staple. The hunters disguised themselves for the hunt by wearing antlers, cloaking themselves in deerskin, and painting their legs white like the forelegs of the deer. Men hunted with spears that were placed into a spear thrower that used leverage to increase throwing power. They also used the bow and arrow. Spear and arrowheads were made of obsidian that was obtained through trade with the Eastern Mono. Some of the deer meat was roasted; drying on racks preserved the rest. Small game was hunted with traps. The Western Mono also fished using spears, traps and weirs.
Gathering was an important communal activity in which both women and children participated. There were a wide variety of food that could be gathered such as manzanita berries, gooseberries, seeds, mushrooms, beetles, and various larvae. Acorns and pine nuts were staples of the Western Mono diet. While pine nuts were available on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada, pinyon nuts from the east side were preferred. Women and children gathered acorns once they had fallen to the ground. Each family had its own gathering place. Once the acorns were gathered they were stored in conical granaries until they were processed.
Dwellings varied with available resources. Some structures were similar in style to those used by their neighbors to the west, the Yokuts. These structures include a conical thatch-covered structure and oval grass covered structures. Mono groups who live at higher elevation, like the North Fork Mono lived in conical bark houses. Each village usually had one sweathouse that was used only by men as a gathering place and for cleansing. The floor of the sweathouse was about four feet below ground, and had a bark roof that rose about three feet above ground. Outside of the sweathouse, rocks were heated until they were white hot and carried inside with sticks. Water was poured over the rocks to create steam.
Men wore deerskin breechclouts and women wore skirts; children went without clothing until puberty. When the weather turned cold both men and women wore a of rabbit skin blanket or a cape made of tanned skin. Men, women and children went barefoot in mild weather. Sandals were worn during long journeys in hot weather, and moccasins were acquired from the Eastern Mono for use in cold weather. Both men and women wore adornments. Necklaces made of shells were acquired in trade with coastal Indians. They pierced their earlobes to wear feathered quail bones. Face paint was used for special ceremonies and rituals—each lineage had its own markings. Both men and women wore facial tattoos.
The Western Mono were not directly impacted by the Spanish and Mexican settlements which were located along the coast. However, the Gold Rush brought and end to the Western Mono way of life. Prospectors invaded the foothills and mountains, bringing disease, and sometimes killed and enslaved the Indians. The Gold Rush created a need for agriculture and resources, so herding and the lumber industry moved up into Western Mono land. Settlers fenced in land where Indians had once traveled and gathered food. California became a free state in 1850, however, this freedom did not extend to the Indians who continued to lose their freedom. Laws were passed that allowed Indians to be declared as vagrants, allowing them to be forced to work for up to four months without pay. During this time, congress had also passed an act to allow three commissioners to negotiate treaties that would have given the Indians ten reservations on 7.5 million acres of land, cattle, and provisions. The Indians honored the treaties, but California legislators lobbied to defeat the treaty, and the senate secretly rejected it in 1852. The results were not known until 1905, and Indians lands continued to be lost during this time. Rancherias were formed in the early 1900’s for landless Indians, but the struggle continued as the Indians faced assimilation and termination in which they lost much of their culture and many rancherias. A lawsuit reinstated the rancherias in 1983. Currently, there are two Western Mono rancherias, the North Fork Rancheria, and the Auberry or Big Sandy Rancheria.