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Sunday, August 10, 2003

Patwin legend tells of smokehouse

Jerry Bowen

Triblets inhabited Solano

Little was known about the American Indians who inhabit- ed Solano County and the surrounding area until the late 1800s and early 1900s. By that time, for various reasons, there were virtually none left, disease being the biggest killer after the arrival of the Spanish.

What has been learned of these natives comes mostly from archaeological investigations and from a few early pioneers who actually knew them.

Some of what has been learned is that the Patwin Indians, a subgroup of the Wappo culture, were very different from the tribes of the middle and eastern United States.

They lived in groups of somewhat more than 100 people, which anthropologists have called tribelets and permanently occupied a territory to which they claimed hunting, fishing and gathering rights. Neighboring tribelets, however often ignored such claims, and disputes over the claims were the most frequent cause of warfare.

Each tribelet had a chief, who apparently wielded absolute power. The chief divided the tribelet’s land among families for the gathering of seeds, acorns and wild grains. Hunters brought all fish and meat to the chief to be divided among the households. Chiefs led their triblets in warfare, but did not themselves fight.

On the occasion that there was no clear winner on either side, the chiefs of each tribelet arranged a peace that involved an exchange of gifts. A council of the oldest and most respected family heads of the tribelet advised the chief, but he was not bound by the suggestions of the council.

Patwin tribelets built villages that were fairly substantial in construction and size and were occupied on a permanent basis.

There were four different types of structures: dwellings that were usually occupied by two or more families; a sweat house; a menstrual house and in larger communities, a ceremonial dance house in which religious ceremonies took place. Where it existed, the ceremonial dance house was the principal building in the village.

As far as the sweat house is concerned, its creation is provided in the Patwin legend of the “Great Fire” as follows:

Long ago a man loved two women and wished to marry both of them. But the women were magpies and they laughed at him. Therefore the man went to the north, and made for himself a tule boat.

Then he set the world on fire, and himself escaped to sea in his boat.

But the fire burned with terrible speed. It ate its way into the south. It licked up all things on earth, people, trees, rocks, animals, water, and even the ground itself.

Now Old Coyote saw the burning and the smoke from his place far in the south, and he ran with all his might to put it out. He put two little boys in a sack and ran north like the wind. He took honeydew into his mouth, chewed it up, spat it upon the fire, and so put it out. Now the fire was out, but there was no water and Coyote was thirsty. So he took Indian sugar again, chewed it up, dug a hole in the bottom of the creek, covered up the sugar in it, and it turned to water and filled the creek. So the earth had water again.

But the two little boys cried because they were lonesome, for there was nobody left on earth. Then Coyote made a sweat house, and split a number of sticks, and laid them in the sweat house overnight. In the morning they had all turned into men and women.

I came across a very interesting description of a “seathouse dance” attended by one of our early pioneers, who having gained admittance along with a few other curiosity seekers, were unable to escape until the dance was over. My guess is that after this one experience, they had no desire to attend another.

The following description is best given in the words of the writer as published in Gregory’s 1912 History of Solano and Napa Counties:

“A sweathouse is in the shape of an inverted bowl. It is generally about forty feet in diameter at the bottom and is built of strong poles and branches of trees covered with earth to prevent the escape of heat. There is a small hole near the ground, large enough for the Diggers (American Indians) to creep in one at a time; and another at the top of the house to give vent to the smoke. When a dance is to occur, a large fire is kindled in the center of the edifice, the crowd assembles, the white spectators crawl in and seat themselves anywhere out of the way. The apertures both above and below are then closed and the dancers take their positions; four and twenty squaws en dishabiller (naked as a jaybird) on one side of the fire, and as many hombres in puns naturalibus on the other. Simultaneous with the commencement of the dancing, which is a kind of shuffling hobble de hoy, the music bursts forth; yes, music fit to raise the dead, a whole legion of devils broke loose. Such screaming, shrieking, yelling and roaring was never before heard since the foundation of the world. A thousand cross-cut saws, filed by steam power-a multitude of tom-cats lashed together and flung over a clothesline-innumerable pigs under the gate, all combined, Would produce heavenly melody compared with it. Yet this uproar, deafening as it is, might possibly be endured; but another sense soon comes to be saluted. Talk of the thousand ‘smells’ of the city of Cologne! Here are at least forty thousand in one grand overwhelming stench; and yet every particular odor distinctly definable. Round about the roaring fire the Indians go capering, jumping and screaming, with the perspiration starting from every pore. The spectators look on until the air grows thick and heavy and a sense of oppressing suffocation overcomes them, when they make a simultaneous rush at the door, for self protection. Judge of their astonishment and dismay to find it fastened securely-bolted and barred on the outside. They rush frantically around the walls in hope to discover some weak point through which they may find egress; but the house seems to have been constructed purposely to frustrate such attempts. More furious than caged lions, they rush bodily against the sides, but the stout poles resist every onset. Our army swore terribly in Flanders, but even my Uncle Toby himself would stand aghast were he here now.

“There is no alternative but to sit down in hopes that the troop of naked fiends will soon cease from sheer exhaustion. Vain expectation. The uproar but increases in fury, the fire waxes hotter and hotter, and they seem to be preparing for a fresh exhibition of their powers. See that wild Indian, a newly elected captain, as with gleaming eyes, blazing face and complexion like that of a boiled lobster, he tosses his arms wildly about as in pursuit of imaginary devils, while rivers of perspiration run down his naked frame. Was ever the human body thrown into such contortions before? Can the human frame endure this much longer? The heat is equal to that of a bake oven, temperature 500 degrees Fahrenheit, pressure of steam 1,000 pounds to the square inch. The reeking atmosphere has become almost palpable and the audience absolutely gasping for life. Millions for a cubic inch of fresh air! Worlds for a drop of water! This is terrible. To meet one’s fate among the white caps of the lake, in a swamped canoe, to be worn out by famine, fatigue and exposure, were glorious; but to die here, suffocating in a solution of human perspiration, carbonic acid gas and charcoal smoke is horrible. But there is no avail. Assistance might as well be sought from a legion of unchained imps. Death shows his visage not more than five minutes distant, the uproar dies into a subdued rumble of a remote cataract and respiration becomes lower and more labored. The whole system is sinking into utter insensibility. All hope of relief departed, when suddenly, with a grand triumphal crash the uproar ceases and the Indians vanish through an aperture opened for the purpose. The half dead victims to their own curiosity dash through it like an arrow, taking into their lungs the cold frosty air that cuts like a knife. They are in time to see the Indians plunge headlong into the cold waters of a neighboring stream, to crawl out and sink down on the banks, utterly exhausted. This is the last act of the drama, the grand climax, and the fandango is over.”

In my next column, I’ll follow the transition of a Patwin Village to a historic landmark that still exists today.