Foods of the Desert Culture

The seasonal gathering and grinding of wild seeds, pinon-nuts and acorns where they could be found or traded for was a mark of the Desert Culture. Sunflower, Sand Grass or Indian Rice, Blazing Star, Screw Beans, Hone Mesquite, Mustard and many others were made into a thick type of soup after grinding. The grinding was done on a slab of stone, sometimes made of basalt, called a metate, and various flat and round stones were used to grind with. These are called manos. Sometimes, with certain seeds a small mano was used in a winnowing tray to separate the seeds from their husks. Other plants were used for seasoning or for tea, and still others had medicinal properties. "The Uses of Native Plants by Nevada Indians," compiled by Flo Reed, July 1962, reprint 1971, and published by the Nevada State Department of Education, is a good publication to read about these things.

PineconeThe pinon-nut which grows on a certain type of pine tree, was a staple. These were roasted by piling the cones on sagebrush fire, or in a hot rock oven. They were then eaten from the shell or ground into a thick soup. This soup was sometimes fed to babies in lieu of milk. The old people still eat the soup with their fingers in a delightful licking process. Pine nuts could be traded, as could acorns, from the California slopes of the Sierra Nevada. On a trip of several days a supply of nuts could be stored in a bag made of buckskin or of the intestine of an animal, and the women could carry them in their large burden baskets, on their backs, with a tumpline over the forehead to help support it.

Pinon nuts could be stored, in the cones, in huge piles, and if the trees did not bear the next year (they're quite temperamental), the people could go back and camp there until they were eaten.

Currants, raspberries, chokeberries, elderberries and rose-berries were eaten either raw or dried and mixed with other foods.

Sometimes a "Band" took a name from the seeds they ate, such as the Wada seeds of the Honey Lake Northern Paiutes. They were called Wadakut, or Wada eaters.

CattailMany types of roots were harvested, sometimes with a digging stick made of mountain mahogany, a very tough wood, with a handle of antler. They were eaten raw, or roasted or dried and ground into soup as the particular root demanded. Bitter-root, Camas, Garlic, Nut Grass, Sega Lily, wild caraway, wild carrot and trail potato were some of these.

It took some knowledge about when all of these things were ready to eat, and some walking to go and get them. This is why we call the Desert Culture a Semi-Nomadic or Semi-sedentary Culture. It was easier for everybody to pack up and go there than it was for the food to be brought home. Sometimes, however, if long distances were not involved, this was done too.

RabbitMoles, shrews, weasel, skunks, badgers, coyotes, bobcats, black and grizzly bears, ground squirrels and chipmunks, gophers, mice, kangaroo rats, wood rats, voles, muskrats, porcupines, cottontails, pygmy rabbits, black-tail and white-tail jack rabbits, deer, prong-horn antelope, mountain sheep, elk and turtles were some of the "red-blooded" meat available. The rock chuck was considered a delicacy. Mountain lion was present in some parts as was the desert ram. Ants and grasshoppers and the larvae from the lake fly were eaten. These were not all present at one time and in one place, and you had to know where and when to go to get them. How to get them was important too.

Perhaps the buffalo was present also in the Great Basin at one time. It became extinct here before it did on the plains to the east. These huge animals were often driven over cliffs and stoned or dubbed to death. Antelope were charmed into rope corrals by the antelope shaman, who had this power. Perhaps feathers were tied to the rope, and moving in the wind, attracted the curious beast. Snares of woven bark were used on small animals. Sometimes nets were stretched and rabbits were driven into them, then killed with clubs or their necks wrung. The rabbit drives were a "communal" gathering, where several bands got together and joined their nets together. The larger animals were sometimes hunted with the atlatl, or throwing spear, or with the bow and arrow after it appeared in the Great Basin about 500 A.D.

No single part of an animal, such as the deer, was wasted. An old Washoe man told of the way a deer was cleaned by his grandfathers. The deer was killed near water, and without draining the blood from the cavity, the stomach was entirely removed and washed out. Blood, heart, liver, kidneys, and lungs were then placed in the stomach container, the meat being cut up. It was then either allowed to become cool and eaten like head cheese, or it was roasted in the coals.

Deer brains were dried and later used for tanning the hide after it had been soaked and the hair "slipped." Bones were used for a great variety of tools, charms, and ornaments. Even the hoofs were dried and made into "tinklers" or pendants. Intestines were a delicacy, but also were used for containers.

Fish were a delicacy, sometimes a staple of diet. The cut-throat trout was present in many lakes and streams. In the spring, when the fish went up the Truckee River to spawn, old men have described the trout, which sometimes weighed to twenty-five pounds apiece, as making the river black. They were thrown out with the hands, speared, netted arid sometimes caught with bone fish hooks. At Falcon Hill, a cave on the shore of now dry Winnemucca Lake, a fisherman's cache was found. It contained spear points, nets, awls, and bone knives probably used for cleaning the fish. This lake was 500 feet deep at about 9000 B.C., and has had water in it in the memory of men now living. The Northern Paiute who live at Pyramid Lake are called Kuyuitkuht, after the strange looking sucker which inhabits the medium depths of the lake and come to the shores every spring to spawn. The belly-flank of this fish is eaten extensively, and contains rich oils. The Indian used set lines to catch fish, and they were sometimes a hundred feet long with several hundred hooks. Fish were eaten raw, or dried, smoked or roasted. There were other fish, such as the catfish and the chub.

Many of the tall marshes in the old Lahonton drainage system harbored myriad waterfowl. Some nested and stayed all summer, some dropped down from the huge migratory flights, northward in the spring, southward in the fall. The subsistence on these birds, together with fish in the Lake, leads to a feeling on the part of some anthropologists that there was, here, a specialized food gathering sub-culture. In any event, Indians made life-like decoys to attract these succulent morsels, threw nets over them when they landed, or stalked them and shot them with small projectile points attached to arrows. Decoys have been found in caves along the Humboldt Sink.

To summarize here, the element of food is a primary element of culture. The Desert Culture was one of nonselective food gathering. The fruits of the land were harvested, and harvested well, but nothing was put back, and very little cultivated. The scarcity and widespread growth of the food alone determined that the bands should be small, perhaps not more than fifteen people in a group. It also determined that they should move from place to place, wherever there was food at that time. It encouraged, no, necessitated Specialists in the techniques of food gathering and of hunting. The incentive was strong. It was to work or starve. The reward was immediate. It was a full belly.

(Poehiman, Chas. H. ed. Know Your Nevada Indians.
Published by the Nevada State Department of Education. Reprint 1973.)

Nevada Indians' Food and Fiber Resources

Root Crops


Salad Plants


Native amaranth

Miners' lettuce


Pine nut

Sweet cicely

Wild onion



Wild caraway


Bracken fern

Sego lily



Yellow bells



Indian potato

Wild rye



Rice grass















Sand dropseed






Fruits and Nuts

Animal Foods

Fiber Plants










Blue elderberry



Oregon grape


Wild flax

True wild grape



Wild rose




Water fowl


Ground cherry



Silver buffaloberry