Tales Tools Tell


A couple of years ago, I received an unsigned letter. Typed. No postmark. No return address. Among other things, the letter writer described the discovery of some unusual wooden implements in a remote part of the canyon. The anonymous author recognized there might be some scientific interest in these items but did not want me or anyone else to know where they were located for fear that the nps would find and remove them.
The letter included several color slides, each view carefully selected to prohibit any recognition of the setting or photographer. The slides showed three hand-carved paddle-like objects. One had a long, curving, tapering blade about 30” long and a slim cylindrical handle of similar length that ended in an oval knob. The other two were stubbier, with long straight blades and stout cylindrical handles terminating in unmodified blunt ends. The letter stated that the author had found these tools on the north side of the Canyon more than a mile from the river. (That certainly helps to narrow down the possibilities!)
I had never seen anything like them, and I did not know what their original function could have been. They did not appear to be designed for paddling boats, and the setting they were found in—over a mile from the river—supported this impression. They did not resemble typical prehistoric farming implements either, which usually consisted of simple hardwood digging sticks about four feet long, with sharpened, fire-hardened, chisel-like tips. The author of the letter thought that they might have been used for digging mescal roots, as they showed slight wear on the edges and resembled implements reportedly used for that purpose in Baja Mexico today. However, I had never heard of this particular type of tool used for digging mescal (Agave) in the Southwest, and to my knowledge, no similar tools had been found in the Canyon, despite the importance of Agave harvesting to the prehistoric and historic Native occupants of the region. Certainly some type of function related to food procurement seemed most likely, but what?
For help in solving the puzzle, I went to the library and dug up the oldest ethnographies I could find. Fortunately for us, during the late nineteenth century and first decades of the twentieth, numerous young aspiring anthropologists, convinced that traditional Native American cultures would soon be extinct, took it upon themselves to record the everyday items and customs of so-called “vanishing” Native America. The individuals who compiled these reports didn't always appreciate what they were being told, but they dutifully wrote down the information, for the benefit of you and me and the living descendants of those traditional cultures. We should be grateful for their foresight, blind though they may have been.
As I paged through Alfred Kroeber's Walapai Ethnography (1935), Leslie Spier's Havasupai Ethnography (1928), Isabel Kelly's Southern Paiute Ethnography (1964), and rummaged farther afield in Spier's Yuman Tribes of the Gila River (1933) and Julian Steward's Ethnography of the Owen's Valley Paiute (1933), I came upon a lot of fascinating information, including many descriptions of wooden tools and their uses, but none of them fit the images in hand. The closest approximation I could find was Spier's description of a Havasupai hoe, “a wooden spade-shaped affair with a disproportionately long narrow blade with a handle in the same plane… used to scrape up the sand into ridges when irrigating and for scraping out weeds.” Many library hours later, though, I struck real paydirt in Castetter and Bell's Yuman Indian Agriculture (1951). A sketch illustration in the chapter on “agricultural implements” closely matched the slide image of the tool with the long curving blade. Later, I discovered an original version of this illustration in Forde's Ethnography of the Yuma Indians (1931), and a similar photograph in Kroeber's Handbook of California Indians (1925).
From these books, I learned that the tools with long, curving blades were common among the Yuma, Cocopa and Mohave along the lower Colorado River. The Yuma Indians called them “analtahau'k”. Castetter and Bell called them “side-scraper hoes” and reported that they were used exclusively for weeding. According to Castetter and Bell, “The operator worked in a

kneeling position, making sidewise thrusts by which he cut weeds at the ground line or loosened soil around hills of plants.” I never did find a good illustration of the straight-bladed tools, but from Omer Stewart's Culture Element Distribution of the Ute and Southern Paiute (1942), I learned that the Shivwits and Kaibab Paiutes used hoes with “spatulated ends” for weeding, probably quite similar to the two shorter implements in the slides. From these scraps of archival information, I tentatively came to the following conclusion: these were agricultural implements, probably used for weeding in the manner described by Castetter and Bell, possibly cached by Shivwits or Kaibab Paiutes (based on their location north of the river), perhaps sometime in the 1800s. The dating is highly speculative, based purely on the fact that this was the time when mounting pressures from Spanish slave raiders and later Mormon settlers forced the Southern Paiute out of their prime farming areas near today's Utah-Arizona border and into the remote reaches of inner Grand Canyon. The cache could be much older, however. Without being able to examine or date the implements directly, it is difficult to say anything more conclusive. One interesting implication of this reconstruction is the possibility that Southern Paiute gardeners acquired their agriculture know-how from lower Colorado River Yuman-speaking tribes, rather than from the Hopi, as anthropologists have previously assumed.
For the longest time, I couldn't decide what to do with these scraps of esoteric speculation. The anonymous letter writer clearly did not want the implements to be found, nor did he/she seem to want me to do anything with the information other than know they were there. On the other hand, after looking through the catalog records and archives at Grand Canyon National Park and the Museum of Northern Arizona, I could find no record of any similar tools having ever been collected or reported from the Canyon. Ultimately, it seemed important to write this down, so that others may know that such tools were once used and cached in the Canyon, and so the person who found these unusual artifacts can learn a little more about them.
Sometimes I pull out the slides and stare wistfully at those old tools, thinking how incredible it would be to examine them more closely someday. I would like to identify the wood (hard or soft species? local or imported?), find out how old they really are, whether there is pollen embedded in the wood that could reveal what plants were growing in the fields when the tools were used, whether there is wear or polish on the blades that could confirm their function, or other marks that could tell us more about how they were made. Mostly, though, when I stare at those celluloid images, I just feel thankful that the canyon is still big and wild enough to hide such rare and fragile things, carefully stashed where their owners left them, cradled in the canyon's folds, full of stories still untold.

Helen Fairley
Castetter, Edward F. and Willis H. Bell. 1951. Yuman Indian Agriculture: Primitive Subsistence on the Lower Colorado and Gila Rivers. University of New Mexico, Albuquerque.
Forde, C. Daryll. 1931. Ethnography of the Yuma Indians. University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnography 28(4): 83–278. Berkeley.
Kroeber, Alfred L. 1925. Handbook of the Indians of California. Bureau of American Ethnology 78. Washington, dc.
Kroeber, Alfred L., ed. 1935. Walapai Ethnography. Memoirs of the American Anthropological Association. Menasha, Wisconsin.
Spier, Leslie. 1928. Havasupai Ethnography. Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History 29(3):81–392. New York.
. 1933. Yuman Tribes of the Gila River. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
Steward, Julian H. 1933. Ethnography of the Owens Valley Paiute. University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnography. 33(3):233–350. Berkeley.
Stewart, Omer C. 1942. Culture Element Distributions: XVIII, Ute-Southern Paiute. University of California Press, Berkeley.