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California Indians and Their Environment: An Introduction (California Natural History Guides) Hardcover – 19 May 2009

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 270 pages
  • Publisher: University of California Press; 1 edition (19 May 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0520244710
  • ISBN-13: 978-0520244719
  • Product Dimensions: 18.8 x 12.2 x 4.1 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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"One of the best books of its nature to ever cross the trail is the scholarly yet accessible California Indians and Their Environment."--Press Democrat "Anyone seriously interested in the cultural history and daily lives of California's Indians will want to check out a copy of this reference book."--Salinas Californian "Indispensable for anyone interested in Native cultures and in human interactions with the California environment... Essential."--Choice "A valuable resource for all Californians who wish to learn more about the tremendous biological and cultural diversity that surrounds us."--News From Native California "[A] pivotal work... I recommend this book to anyone interested in California Indians and their interactions with their environment."--Economic Botany

About the Author

Kent G. Lightfoot, Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, is author of Indians, Missionaries, and Merchants: The Legacy of Colonial Encounters on the California Frontiers (UC Press), among other books. Otis Parrish is a member of the Kashaya Pomo Tribe.


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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Dennis Littrell TOP 1000 REVIEWER on 5 Mar. 2010
Format: Hardcover
Lightfoot, who is a UC, Berkeley Professor of Anthropology, and Parrish, who is an elder of the Kashaya Pomo tribe, bring the reader up to date on the latest research on California Indian culture with an emphasis on ecology from a historical and anthropologic perspective.

Much of the book is devoted to the pyrodiversity collecting economies of the California natives. The Indians routinely set fire to the land in order to increase the supply of desirable plants and animals. The main point is that because of the great range of different ecologies in California it was natural for the native Californians not to develop the kind of dependency agriculture typically found elsewhere in the world. The fact that El Nino and La Nina extremes and other phenomena made for a diverse and unpredictable abundance of various food sources made it natural for the native populations to diversify their techniques for food gathering.

There are a number of color plates showing important plants and animals harvested by the Indians as well as maps and charts showing where the various tribes and tribelets flourished. Included are notes on particular species and how they were gathered and processed by people in various parts of the state from the Northwest Coast Province to the Southern Desert Province. The writing is academic with the usual amount of specialized vocabulary but fairly easy to read.

One of the things I found out that I always wanted to know was how prehistoric people were able to make soup. It turns out that the California Indians, who were great weavers of baskets, actually made baskets that were water tight. The question then is how do you heat the water to make soup over an open fire? You don't.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 9 reviews
19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
This Natural history guide is great! 21 May 2009
By Richard D. Norris - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I read the first half of this book in part of a day and quite enjoyed the whole thing. The authors make a strong case that the California coastal Native Americans made intensive use of fire to clear shrub lands and promote the growth of plants and animals that they used. Native peoples were not the only source of fire, of course, but it is striking that the parts of the state where natural sources of ignition are common from lightning strikes (the Sierra Nevada and Sonoran deserts) are not the places (namely the coast) where low intensity fires like those set by native people were most common. The book has extensive discussion of fire as a tool of native people and also discusses coastal peoples at some length and their archaeological record. In contrast, interior Indian populations are not discussed in much depth. There is little discussion of genetic diversity of California Indians or their likely points of origin outside California. However, the book is well referenced and is a great source of recent academic literature in archaeology, environmental history and cultural anthropology.

The second half of the book is a series of annotated lists of native plants (and some animals) used by Native people. These native uses are discussed for major geographic regions in the state and often have rather extensive entries on major food plants or those used in tool manufacture. The second half of the book is not introduced with much in the way of an overview and so is better as a reference work than as something to read straight through.

On the whole, I find the California Natural History Guides to be really excellent stand-alone books. They are not field guides in the usual sense (the one on California Water has extensive discussions of how the State water system works, for example) but rather are written as fact-filled books that carry a distinct point of view and are fairly complete in their treatment. The California Indians volume clearly has an agenda--namely to demonstrate that the native people of the State were actively modifying the landscape and managing resources. I highly recommend the book for anyone interested in native uses of resources, California pre-history, and a sense of what our state was like before Europeans turned up.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
A fine introduction 5 Mar. 2010
By Dennis Littrell - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Lightfoot, who is a UC, Berkeley Professor of Anthropology, and Parrish, who is an elder of the Kashaya Pomo tribe, bring the reader up to date on the latest research on California Indian culture with an emphasis on ecology from a historical and anthropologic perspective.

Much of the book is devoted to the pyrodiversity collecting economies of the California natives. The Indians routinely set fire to the land in order to increase the supply of desirable plants and animals. The main point is that because of the great range of different ecologies in California it was natural for the native Californians not to develop the kind of dependency agriculture typically found elsewhere in the world. The fact that El Nino and La Nina extremes and other phenomena made for a diverse and unpredictable abundance of various food sources made it natural for the native populations to diversify their techniques for food gathering.

There are a number of color plates showing important plants and animals harvested by the Indians as well as maps and charts showing where the various tribes and tribelets flourished. Included are notes on particular species and how they were gathered and processed by people in various parts of the state from the Northwest Coast Province to the Southern Desert Province. The writing is academic with the usual amount of specialized vocabulary but fairly easy to read.

One of the things I found out that I always wanted to know was how prehistoric people were able to make soup. It turns out that the California Indians, who were great weavers of baskets, actually made baskets that were water tight. The question then is how do you heat the water to make soup over an open fire? You don't. You heat some rocks and put the hot rocks in the basket moving them around with a wooden paddle to keep them from burning the sides of the basket. This problem had always bothered me because I liked to imagine living in the prehistory but I was stymied in my imagining by the inability to purify water by boiling it. I simply could not figure out how to do it since there were no metal containers to put over the fire.

Another thing that bothers me is the thick stand of tan, dead cattails on the pond outside my back window obscuring my view of the pond and its wildlife. I would like to see them burn, and lo and behold I found in this book a photo of cattails burning! It seems that the native Californians routinely burned the cattails.

There was much I didn't find out however. (But of course this book is merely an introduction.) The text reveals that the Indians harvested and ate the pine nuts of the Foothill or Gray pine tree (Pinus sabiniana, AKA as "Digger Pine") but how they economically got the nutmeats out of the hard shell is not explained. I've harvested the seeds myself and found them delicious roasted or not, but cracking the shells is incredibly labor intensive. There must have been some trick they used, but I haven't discovered it.

There is also mention of the California black walnut (Juglans californica) which I have also harvested and eaten. Again cracking the nuts and extracting the nutmeat is so labor intensive that by hand I was able to obtain but a third of a cup of nuts after an hour's worth of work. I wonder had the native Californians did it, but this book doesn't say.

Another problem in obtaining food is catching the abundant waterfowl, quail, rabbits and such without the use of firearms. This is a formidable task for the lone hunter, but the Indians worked co-operatively and employed nets and snares, sometimes driving the animals into a narrowing gap where they waited with clubs and bows and arrows.

Probably the most conspicuous natural food in California harvested by the natives is the acorn from oak trees. I have harvested and processed acorns myself. The book identifies the favorites of the various Indian tribes. It seems that the acorns of the Black Oak, the Blue Oak, and the Tan-oak (not really a true oak) were the most desirable. My limited experience agrees that the acorns of the Black Oak are tastier than those of the Valley Oak. However I want to note that the great Valley Oak which can yield as many as 500 pounds of acorns from a single tree (p. 320) has relatively little tannin in the acorns which need little to no leeching, whereas the Black Oak acorns need a lot of leeching.

Finally I want to report that the authors identify the California Buckeye (Aesculus californica) as a "less desirable, fall-back food source" that contains tannin like acorns that has to be leeched out before the seeds can be eaten. However I understand from other sources that the California Buckeye contains some kind of poison that is not identified. The authors do state that the seeds are "prepared" as a fish poison. (p. 224) It's not explained here but the seeds are crushed and dumped into ponds and the poison from the buckeye kills or stuns the fish so that they can be easily harvested. I have been meaning to leech some buckeye seeds myself to taste them, but I will wait until I get more information on just how extensive the leeching has to be!

The Index could use a little work, e.g., the last reference to the Valley Oak is on page 320, not 319 as the Index has it, and we are referred in the text to "fish poison" on page 224 as noted above, but there is no Index entry. There is also some avoidable word for word and paragraph for paragraph repetition in the entries on how various foods were used by the Indians from one tribe to the other. However the General References (for further research) covers 37 dense pages.

Overall though this is a fine addition to the prestigious line of Natural History Guides edited by Phyllis M. Faber and Bruce M Pavlik for the University of California Press.

(Note: The following books by Dennis Littrell are now available at Amazon.com:

Yoga: Sacred and Profane (Beyond Hatha Yoga)
Dennis Littrell's True Crime Companion
Novels and other Fictions
Cut to the Chaise Lounge or I Can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote!
The Holon
Teddy and Teri
High School from Hell
Let's Play Overkill!
Like a Tsunami Headed for Hilo
Understanding Evolution and Ourselves

Coming soon:

The World Is Not as We Think It Is)
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
Rave review from a reservation Native Californian 1 Feb. 2010
By Kawee Tah Kayah u - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This book is daunting, but well worth the read.

While the book is huge, the print is small, it is several classrooms of material for teachers of all grades, and for reservation or urban cultural centers to base a class on tradition.

For any Native Californian, this book is a good reference to show your children, grandchildren and friends that indeed we existed and thrived for more than 200 years ( I was told recently by a friend from a foreign country that I could not be Native Californian, there was no one here before the Spanish, that apparently is what is taught in some foreign COLLEGES, let alone lower grades).

The foods, medicinal and other plant use portions are phenomenal, and bring back my Grandmother and Aunts. The pages brought back my childhood, in the silver trailer by the creek. No addresses in those days, no post office boxes, just one huge mailbox down on the road leading to Dry Creek lane, the little road my Dad put in with a little bobcat.

Gathering acorns, and seaweed, my Dad getting abalone, and cooking it after softening it with rocks, ON rock. My Mom, who was white could never believe he could cook right in the fire pit without ashes, she could not do it on a commercial BBQ on the rack.

What a great book. I think some areas of the ancient days are missing, at least for me, and would love to see another book about why the matriarchal tribal customs existed. I wondered. Today we have a male chair because my age group some years ago decided to give the guys a chance! The women were left to take the children and Elders to the mountains while the men and boys defended their escape. It left the women (in our family we called them all the Aunties) to run the community business. I would also like to see a comparison to ancient Asian and Hebrew medicine and the Shamans of California, but am not the person to do the research, too busy with gang abatement, sorry.

The book is great, give to children and grandchildren, to grandparents, aunts and uncles. For once a book that does not make us look like the bunny people in hides, out in the brush awed by the killers and what ended up being worse than Hitler to our amazing state and the original citizens.
California Indians and Their Environment 25 Mar. 2013
By Jonathan - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
An outstanding little softcover book! Very detailed information concerning the Native Californians and their ways of life. Highly recommended for those who's interests lie in Native plants, technology, and their uses!
Good 11 Dec. 2012
By Full Box of Cookies - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Not only do you learn a lot about the Indians but the different plants, in California, listed next to their picture and then it will tell you how the Indians used them. Easy to use.
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