Government workers caught knapping

Mossback attends archeology training and becomes steeped in historical context. He learns how to knap, tries his hand at raft-weaving, and finds out that "discovery" is not always a good thing. Part 2
Crosscut archive image.

Modoc people of Oregon building a canoe of bundled tule reeds. (National Park Service)

Mossback attends archeology training and becomes steeped in historical context. He learns how to knap, tries his hand at raft-weaving, and finds out that "discovery" is not always a good thing. Part 2

Second of two parts

Part of learning context is also to get a hands-on feel for things. Archaeologist Jeff Flenniken, who lead the week's training, is a former Washington State University professor and one of the world's leading experts on flintknapping, which is to say he knows everything there is to know about what happens when you pound rocks together, especially chipping flinty rocks to make arrowheads, spear points, and other hunting tools. This is some of the earliest man-made evidence we have of the Northwest's first inhabitants because little else has survived intact.

Flenniken demonstrated the flintknapper's art one evening by taking a large hunk of volcanic, glass-like obsidian and pounding it with a round river stone into smaller and smaller chunks of what would eventually become a Clovis-style spear point, the kind of deadly weapon that brought down mastadons and other game. Flenniken is a big man with a gray Fu Manchu mustache, an Arkansas address, and passion when he talks about prehistoric man and his abilities. He's traveled the world, from Brazil to the Australian outback, to study ancient and modern flintknapping techniques. (To "knap," according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is to strike something with a short, hard blow, exactly what flintmakers do). He can make the chips fly and an arrowhead appear in no time.

Watching him work, I was struck by several things. One is that prehistoric man knew what he was doing in making a deadly, effective weapon that could bring down a supersized elk, bear, or maybe one of those 450-pound beavers that used to live in these parts. Another is that the the raw materials they are made from formed the basis of an extensive economy. Obsidian may have been one of our region's earliest exports. Flenniken says that Oregon stone has been found in Indian arrowheads, thousands of years old, dug up in Delaware.

This was high-tech stuff: Stone spear points were light, easy to make once you know the technique, have the right materials, and are portable, re-useable, and much better than a club. They cut flesh like butter. In some ways, they're still state-of-the-art. Flenniken showed us photomicrographs of a steel scalpel and the edge of a handmade obsidian blade. Under magnification, the scalpel looked like a bumpy dirt road compared to the straight superhighway of the stone edge. So confident are flintknappers that obsidian tools are superior to modern operating room equipment, that Flenniken has made obsidian tools for use by surgeons. One flintknapper made cutting instruments for his own chest surgery.

Flenniken is eager to dispel our notion that prehistoric man coming via land or possibly sea routes from Asia to North America was some kind of primitive Ogg the Cave Man in cheap furs. He points out that it has only been in the last couple of decades that synthetic modern materials have matched the furs and skins that kept ancient Arctic residents warm and dry. And the ancient Aleuts and Eskimos knew better how to build a safe, functional fireplace than Ben Franklin and his famous stove.

Our instructors also took us into a field to let us learn to use the atlatl, a wooden device that acts like a sling for throwing spears and darts. Their invention preceded the bow and arrow, but they remained in use into post-Columbian times. The name comes from the Aztecs, who could pierce the armor of a conquistador with an atlatl-propelled projectile.

This piece of stone-weighted wood allows anyone to throw a fastball like former Seattle Mariners pitcher Randy Johnson by extending your arm into a deadly, whiplike catapult. What's also cool is that an atlatl allows you to throw farther and with more force than with your arm alone. As we stood in the field taking turns trying to hit a target with aluminum atlatl-tossed spears, I could not predict a person's ability by build, strength, or gender. Some big, strong guys managed to fling their spears only a few feet from their own feet while some short women launched theirs well beyond the targets. Like pitching, fly casting, or a golf swing, it's in the technique, not brute force.

If our target had been a bison, however, and we the hungry hunters, our happy band would have starved. Only one or two people hit the stationary target. A moving critter would likely have scattered or gored us all after the first shot. Prehistoric bison horns could take out a Metro bus.

I was humbled further when Vivian Harrison, also known as Stuyat, of the Yakama Nation led a class in making tule mats. Tules are bullrushes, found in swamps or wetlands, and they formed an all-purpose material much like cedar bark for the coast Indians. Large mats were woven and tied in overlapping pieces to branches to make tents and tipi-like structures. Our class' task was to simply make a small coaster using short tule reeds, sticks of willow, and a needle and thread (yes, the natives had excellent needles). The materials were provided, so we were saved the inconvenience of wading bootless into swamps to cut the proper reeds, preparing them, and making our own tools.

My mat looked like a child's miniature of Huck Finn's raft, with big gaps between the tule timbers that made it unseaworthy. Through the process I gained enormous respect for the ability of Native American women — and this task was mostly for women, as hunting and flintknapping tended to be a man's job — in making the myriad woven objects of daily life, from clothes to baskets to shelters. I also realized the incredible sophistication such objects represent in terms of the selection and preparation of the materials, the skill with which they were made, and how they reflected a refined adaptation to the environment. I lack the dexterity and skill to live that way. Luckily for me, our modern age offers employment to the ungainly.

An interesting element throughout the training was the critique of modernism that is suggested by the role of Native Americans in the historic resources process. One of the important rules in Washington is what is called Executive Order 05-05, signed by Gov. Chris Gregoire. It directs that any state capital construction project that doesn't fall under federal rules requiring review for historic impact must be reviewed by the Department of Archaeology and the tribes. It asks state agencies to be an exemplar in respecting historic resources. And it specifically includes non-archaeolgical sites — such as traditional native ceremonial gathering places or features of religious import — as being part of the cultural resources mix. In essence, if the government is going to build anything in Washington, you have to go through the tribes.

Some state agencies have archaeologists on staff to help them. Many also have tribal liaisons who can assist their agencies move projects through sometimes complex tribal consultations. The tribes aren't involved to obstruct, but they do want to be heard, and they have stewardship over the lion's share of the past since Europeans have only been in the region for a few hundred years at most. In the project to build a new crossing over the Columbia River at I-5, I was told that some 30 tribes were being consulted on the matter.

The training featured several presentations that included a history of treaty rights and the tribal perspective. Determining what is and what is not a cultural resource can have scientific components — that's where the archaeologists and academics come in. But they often have much more subjective or unconventional aspects, too, and these can depend on tribal memory, oral history, and simply a sense of place and tradition. Tribes and archaeologists can sometimes find themselves at odds, say over Kennewick Man and the subject of the origins of native peoples. Academics talk about the land bridge and how North America was first peopled. Many tribes maintain they have been here since time immemorial: No white scientist is going to say they came from Asia.

So the virtual landscape is fraught with cultural landmines. Making some of those landmines visible is important because they can mean the difference between getting a project done or blowing it up. But they can be utterly invisible to non-Indians. Here's an example: The training was located at the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center, a museum and education facility just outside The Dalles. But one of the speakers, Louie Pitt of the Confederate Tribes of Warm Springs in Oregon, pointed out that even the name of the conference site was a red flag to many Native Americans because the word "discovery" is a dirty one. Indians mock the idea that Europeans discovered anything in the Americas, a place already populated, explored, exploited, beloved, cultivated, and settled when Columbus arrived. That Lewis and Clark and their "Corps of Discovery," tromped through Columbia country purporting to discover anything is an insult to 10,000-plus years of human habitation, let alone those who claim to have been here since creation itself. I doubt many whites find the word "discovery" to be insulting.

It is clear from treaty language and law that Native Americans have rights that are protected, and these include ones involving tradition and historic behavior, like hunting, fishing, foraging, and religious practice. The science of archaeology is of great benefit because it can uncover evidence of tradition and behavior to support tribal claims. It also produces, through data, study and understanding, a picture of prehistoric and tribal life that can be humbling to the swaggering braggarts of modern civilization that can't knap a flint or weave a mat or favors fallible steel over the smoky beauty and fearsome precision of obsidian.

A frequent commentator throughout the training was Yakama tribal elder Clifford Casseseka, who offered a tribal perspective. At one point, he pulled a cell phone out of his pocket and held it up before the class. "You all have one of these," he said, "but we had cell phones before Lewis and Clark." He went on to say that the animals transmitted messages to humans, especially the meadowlark who could speak all native languages. The people were close to the animals, and together formed a kind of grapevine that kept all creatures informed. Western civilization has not been the sole source of what we think of as modern conveniences: The life of native peoples was rich and highly attuned in the way that we and our bulldozers are not. The effort to make historic resources part of the calculation is an attempt to keep us in touch with the past, but also broaden our way of looking at things. It adds to the equation of progress consideration for what will be lost as well as what is materially gained.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.