What’s YOUR main source of protein? Burgers? Pork chops? Tofu? Peanut butter? Beans and rice? All of those are easy to find in 21st Century America. We don’t even have to prepare them ourselves if we don’t want to.
But for the Paiute Indians of the Great Basin, finding food to sustain life was such a constant struggle that each Paiute band was named after the main source of food available in its immediate geographical region. These bands included Fish-Eaters, Grass-Nut Eaters, Cattail-Eaters, Ground-Squirrel-Eaters, Jackrabbit-Eaters, etc. The Mono Lake band were the Kutzedika’a, “Brine-Fly-Larvae-Eaters.”
Brine-flies live at the edge of Mono Lake, a unique body of water east of Yosemite near the California-Nevada border, with a biology, geology and history all its own. The lake is surrounded with bizarre rocky towers formed of calcium-carbonate limestone. Its water is alkaline and undrinkable; no fish can live in it. The Kutzedika’a people who lived around it drank from fresh-water creeks flowing into the lake from the Sierras. And they ate the foods that they could harvest around the lake, such as kutsavi, the larvae of the brine-flies, pine-nuts from the stunted piñons that grew on the nearby slopes, and piaghi, the fat, juicy caterpillar of the Pandora moth they harvested every other year from the stands of Jeffrey pines south of the lake.
Here’s a picture of a handful of brine-fly larvae. They don’t look very appetizing to us, but to the Kutzedika’a they were the difference between life and death by starvation. What do they taste like? I’ve never tried them myself, but one 19th Century white traveler called them salty like sardines, while they reminded a 20th Century visitor of wheat germ. They must have been tasty as well as nutritious, since every year the Kutzedika’a traded them for acorns and other foodstuffs harvested by Indians from other regions.
In The Second Promise, an old Kutzedika’a woman and her granddaughter, Una, have taken Cali under their protection. Cali and Una were making bead projects, but one day, there’s something more important than beading.
The old woman made Cali and Una put away their beadwork and go with the younger women to the lake, each carrying a winnowing basket shaped like a giant, slightly curved tear-drop. Knee-deep in water, they scooped up load after load of the wiggling larvae of the brine fly which rimmed the bank in a thick dark layer. Swarms of flies rose in front of them in a soft, buzzing mass. Una joined them, but Cali stood back from the shore and watched the water fall through the loose weave of the baskets in a dribbling cascade, splashing the women’s skirts and scattering sunlight. Then the women dumped the larvae out of their baskets and spread them out on the sand, still wriggling, to dry before wading in again to scoop up more. Back at camp, the women rubbed off their shells. The old woman pointed to the larvae as she rubbed. Kutsavi, she said, and grinned her gap-toothed grin.
Here’s a winnowing basket like the ones the Kutzadika’a women used:
Mono Lake, shown in the pictures by my husband Paul Abernathy, is a beautiful, fascinating place.
Despite its undrinkable water, Mono Lake is a stopping place for hundreds of thousands of birds migrating on the Pacific Flyway.
And plenty of unusual small creatures live in the lake. Only recently, in a NASA-funded study, biologists were amazed to discover that some bacteria at the bottom of lake are able to exist and reproduce using arsenic instead of phosphorus. Since arsenic usually poisons living creatures, these unique bacteria are actually being called “a new life form”. Here’s a picture of Felicia Wolfe-Simon, the astrobiologist who made this astounding discovery.
The Kutzedika’a people did not know about arsenic-tolerant bacteria, but they knew all about brine flies. If you visit Mono Lake, you’ll be aware of them too. They are like a thick, black, moving carpet of insects ringing the shoreline. As you approach, they rise up from the water and the shore, buzzing in annoyance, and you think they are about to land on you, but they don’t. You walk through, and the carpet of flies does not touch you. It just rises and buzzes to make room for your feet, and then settles back down again. This huge mass of insects lays huge numbers of eggs, which develop into larvae during the late summer. The larvae form their own floating carpet around the edge of the lake.
Cali couldn’t bear to look at the wriggling larvae drying on the hard sand at the edge of the lake, but when she got hungry enough, she ate them anyway, toasted over a fire or mashed into a paste. Next time you see a can of sardines or a jar of wheat germ, think about what it would take to survive if you were one of the Kutzedika’a people back in the 19th Century. And think about how much harder it would be after the 1860’s, when white settlers began cutting down most of the piñons and Jeffrey pines to fuel their towns and mines.
Nowadays, many middle-class Americans try to be locavores, choosing foods grown close to home. The Kutzedika’a and other Native peoples had very few choices about what to eat, but I like to think of them as the original American locavores.