Living in harmony with the Mono Basin
"Thus, through the year, the Kuzedika moved in an established sequence from one favored locality to another according to the availability of food. Their routes of travel were well-defined; the basin was honeycombed with trails linking their seasonal camp sites."
—Thomas C. Fletcher, Paiute, Prospector, Pioneer
Before the first European Americans set eyes on the Mono Basin, a small group of people calling themselves Kutzadika'a inhabited the Mono Lake region. The name Kutzadika'a roughly translated means "fly eaters." About 200 people spent most of the year in the Mono Basin following the annual cycle of food gathering.
Kutsavi, or alkali fly pupae, were a significant source of food for the native people of the Mono Basin. Each summer the Kutzadika'a people would harvest the alkali fly pupae from the shallow waters of Mono Lake. The pupae are rich in fat and protein necessary for the metamorphoses of the adult fly. High in calories, kutsavi was an excellent source of food that could be stored easily. William Brewer of the California Geologic Survey remarked of the food in 1863, "The Indians come far and near to gather them. The worms are dried in the sun, the shell rubbed off, when a yellowish kernel remains, like a small yellow grain of rice ... The Indians gave me some; it does not taste bad, and if one were ignorant of its origins, it would make fine soup." The thought of eating insects seems unsavory to most people, but in the context of sociological and cultural comparisons, we can contrast modern American culture with historic Kutzadika'a culture and ask ourselves a fair question: Why do we choose to eat food predominantly low in nutrition, requiring tremendous energy to produce and process, instead of eating of food produced naturally, higher in energy and nutrition?
KUTZADIKA'A or MONO?
The origin of the word Mono (pronounced "mow-no," not "mah-no," the Greek word for one) is uncertain. The most accepted theory is that Mono is a Yokut word for "fly eater." The Yokut people are native to the western Sierra Nevada slopes above present-day Fresno, some 200 miles from the Mono Basin. How did the word Mono travel to this region? Perhaps the word was first used to describe the Southern Paiute in the Owens Valley who also harvested alkali fly pupae. The Kutzadika'a people do not have Mono in their language and history does not offer a clear explanation of its origin.
CIRCLE OF THE SEASONS
The Kutzadika'a did not live in the Mono Basin all year. In the autumn the people would move to pinyon camps in the hills north or east of the lake. Here they would camp and collect pinyon nuts, a pine nut, highly nutritious food with a balance of fat, protein, and carbohydrates. Because of its fat content, the nut could be easily stored, providing a reliable food source throughout the winter months. After the pinyon harvest the people would go on rabbit drives, killing large numbers of jackrabbits and cottontails for food and skins, their principal clothing source. Long before the first European Americans arrived in the Mono Basin, the people would hunt pronghorn antelope by driving them into corrals. By winter the people moved east of Mono Lake to milder, lower elevation valleys. By late spring the Kutzadika'a returned to the Mono Basin, making camps along Rush Creek and other freshwater streams. From these locations the women would collect kutsavi, or alkali fly pupae, from Mono's shallow waters. Every other year in summer the Kutzadika'a would collect piagi, or Pandora moth larvae, from the surrounding Jeffrey pine forest. In addition to these foods, the Kutzadika'a gathered roots and berries, hunted seasonal game in the mountains and nearby valleys, and hunted waterfowl along Mono's shores and freshwater streams. The Mono Basin did not provide abundant food year round, but it did provide enough food seasonally to sustain a population of nearly 200 individuals before the first European Americans arrived in 1852.
A FAMILIAR STORY
Where are the Kutzadika'a today? The mining boom in Aurora and Bodie led to an insatiable need for wood and other resources, and the two towns cut the surrounding pinyon pine forest for firewood, which deprived the Kutzadika'a of an important seasonal food source in the form of pinyon nuts. Additionally, increasing settlement in the Mono Basin pushed the native people from their prime camping and food gathering lands, which were typically close to fresh water as this was the land most desirable for ranching and agriculture.
Violent conflict between Kutzadika'a and the European American settlers was rare to non-existent, but the native people were forced to occupy marginal land from which they could no longer effectively hunt or gather food. In time the Kutzadika'a had no choice but to work on surrounding ranches since they could no longer gather food reliably. Families moved to Mono Basin ranches and farms and worked for the new landowners in order to survive on the very land that was theirs.
Today there are still Kutzadika'a living in the Mono Basin and Eastern Sierra. The Kutzadika'a community has worked to obtain federal recognition of their tribe for many years; their most recent effort happened in 2019 and the Mono Lake Committee sent a letter in support of federal recognition.