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Yosemite Native American Indian clothing: Rabbit Skin Robes

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avatar Yosemite Native American Indian clothing: Rabbit Skin Robes
July 09, 2011 03:54PM

Paiute wearing rabbit skin robes, upclose photo of rabbit skin robe similar to ones found in Yosemite.

In the early spring of 1851, in order to stop the attacks on gold miners and ranches in the lower foothills, the Mariposa Battalion led by James Savage went up the Sierra Nevada to capture the infamous Chief Tenaya and his band of Ahwahneechees. This incident was when whites first discovered the hidden Yosemite Valley.

Chief Tenaya voluntarily turned himself in so the rest of his people could escape. Not satisfied with only the capture of Chief Tenaya the battalion moved on to round up the rest of Tenaya’s people. But by the time the Mariposa Battalion arrived at Tenaya’s main village they found it and other camps empty. The Ahwahneechees had left in such a hurry they left behind everything; basketry, acorn caches, bark houses, small drums, Paiute foods like piuga (dried Pandora Moth larvae), kutsavi (Mono Lake brine fly larvae), tuba (pine nuts), Kua (grasshoppers), and clothing. The Battalion burned everything.

The doctor for the Mariposa Battalion, Dr. Lafayette H. Bunnell, documented the items found in the abandon camps on pages 78 and 79 in his book The Discovery of Yosemite.

On page 79 Bunnell describes the clothing found in the camps;

“There were also found at some of the encampments, robes or blankets made from rabbit and squirrel skins, and skins from water fowls.”

--- from “The Discovery of the Yosemite”.... by Dr. Lafayette H. Bunnell

These type of robes were made by Great Basin Indians, mainly Paiute, Monos and Washoes. The robes were called “wega” singular. The most common were robes made of Jack rabbit skins. The robes took up to 180 hundred rabbits and strips of rabbit or squirrel fur were twirled so they were soft on both inside and out and woven together with some sort of plant or sinew.

Paiute tribes as far away as Arizona wore Rabbit robes, as found in Yosemite

Because Paiutes and other Great Basin Indians like Monos, and Washoes lived in cold desert and high mountain areas like the high mountains of Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada rabbit robes meant life or death in the life of Indians.

Nevada Indian making rabbit skin robe

Here are some references about how important these rabbit skin robes were to Paiutes, including those in Yosemite;

“Rabbitskin blankets were vital to the life of every Paiute Indian. They were worn about the shoulders during the day and used as a blanket by night. They were soft and very warm, welcome even in the summer where desert nights are always cool. In winter they could mean the difference between life and death.”

-- from “Survival Arts of the Primitive Paiutes”..... by Margaret M. Wheat

Surviving the high desert nights of eastern Oregon for the Northern Paiute (Wada-Tika) people required that each member of the tribe own a rabbit blanket to keep them warm. Each blanket required a hundred or more rabbit pelts...
...Jack rabbit were plentiful in the old days...today it is difficult to make these blankets, due to the scarcity of jack rabbits in Harney County. In the last 50 years the rabbit population has dwindled so much that it is difficult to ge even 10 to 20 hides in the winter, when the fur is thick (and thus preferred). Rabbit bounties in the 1950’s and other means of eradication have left few rabbits...

---Minerva T. Soucie (Burns Paiute)
The Art of Ceremony: regalia of Native Oregon

So one item of clothing every Paiute and Great Basin Indian had to have was a rabbit skin robe or a blanket of any other type of animal. They also made moccasins of rabbit skin tied with twined plants or sinew. Jack rabbit was the most common item for clothing because Nevada had millions of Jack rabbits. Skins of water fowl were used as rain coats.

This was only one item of Yosemite Indian clothing, but the most important. I will continue to write about other items of clothing that were traditional and indigenous for Yosemite Native Americans.

Paiute Jack rabbit drive. Rabbits used to be in the millions in the Great Basin, but farmers, ranchers and U.S. Fish & Wildlife poisoned the majority of them because they would ruin areas. So the rabbit numbers are smaller instead of massive as they once were.
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