As recently as 1850, Tulare Lake, in the San Joaquin Valley, was the largest body of water in the United States west of the Great Lakes, its shores thick with cattails and tule reeds, speckled with brilliant wild flowers, and inhabited by migratory waterfowl and birds of every description. Deer, antelope, and elk drank from its plentiful waters, wolves followed the deer, and the king of predators, the California Grizzly Bear, ruled over it all.
This mighty lake supported as many as 70,000 pre-contact indigenous people of the Yokut tribe, people who sustained themselves with the resources of the lake and rivers that fed it. “Mother earth provided fish, duck, frog, catfish, clam, turtle, mustard green, blackberries, elderberries, cottonwood for shade, and salt grass as far as the eye could see”, an elder remembered.
The Valley Yokut were divided into the Northern Valley Yokut and the Southern Valley Yokut, while the Northern Hill Yokut, the Kings River Yokut, and the Pose Creek Yokut resided in the mountains to the east. All these regional bands were comprised of multiple tribes, among them the Tachi Yokut of the Southern Valley.
The Tachi followed the seasons, finding resources for life and sustenance in the eastern foothills in the summer and taking refuge at the warmer, bountiful lakeside on the valley floor in the winter. From the tule reeds, they made baskets which served many uses including gathering, storing, fishing, cooking and even baby cradles. Their homes were constructed of tule mats over a wood frame. They built canoe-shaped rafts of tule mat to travel up and down the lake and rivers.
The Yokut religious authorities were the shamans, who bathed in secret springs every night and gained supernatural power from animals that came to the springs. These animals were their totems. If a shaman was suspected of doing evil, or using his power in a bad way, he was put to death by the chief.
But neither the chiefs nor the shamans were able to withstand the invading hordes of white farmers, hunters and settlers streaming into the San Joaquin Valley following the California Gold Rush. The Yokut were hunted, relocated, and decimated, and their great, bountiful lake, as if from empathy with its people, withered and disappeared.
Look for the exciting new novel, TULARE, from R Lawson Gamble, to be released soon!