Growing Up On the Rez in the 50’s

by Clyde M. Hall

I was lucky to be born and brought up amongst “old folks,” being raised in a one-room cabin by my grandmother Hazel Truchot, friends and relatives her age and older. The way that Indian children learn is by watching and not asking too many questions— and then later by doing. I was around for a lot of the “watching” and later the “doing” when it came to traditional ways that were practiced.

I can recall many of my relatives by name, such as Big Rose Koops, the daughter of one of the last of the “mountain men”, Beaver Dick Leigh. And then their’s Elizabeth Watson Quanda, my grandmother’s first cousin. And Emily Truchot Edmo, her sister, and of course my cowboy uncles— Jim, Tom & Ernest Truchot, her brothers. These folks were the sons and daughters of the Native people, the trappers & traders and cowboys of the Old West!

They knew the ways of survival in a rough land and carried the knowledge that was taught to them. Life during those days was damntough for everyone. Big Rose, for example, was a crack shot and always had a cigar in her mouth and rifle or pistol at her side. She could shoot a rabbit or rock chuck just by taking aim and pulling the trigger! That always impressed me. She would then say “well, there will be meat in camp tonite!!” and then chuckle about it. Her little dog would then retrieve what she had shot.

My family living and being a part of the mounted Shoshones (those that used horses) originally had a primitive hunting/collecting and fishing “hoop”. In spite of the fact that they became buffalo hunters in historical time, they still retained their old ways of living. One can say that because of the horses they were able to continue their “hunter/gatherer” ways more intensely than before!

No berry, edible vegetable, fish or creature was overlooked! Grasshoppers, crickets, ants, and larvae of various insects were taken, and bird eggs occasionally. Jack rabbit, cottontail, porcupine, prairie dog, rodents, ground squirrels and badger were an important source of protein as well.

Which brings me to my topic of this narrative and article, the ya ha as it is called in Shoshone, aka rock chuck or ground hog by others— or just plain marmot (varmint is a better word used by some westerners). The “fancy” word in Latin is: Marmota Flavivertris.

To the Shoshone and other Great Basin people, the ya ha was a delicacy to be savored and enjoyed during the late spring to late fall months. The rock chucks gorge and fatten themselves during this time to prepare for their long winter sleep, making them especially tasty to Indian people.

They are so important that they were occasionally mentioned in the traditional stories of the people as well. Rock Chucks go into a true hibernation, and spend about four to six months in this condition. Hibernation has always had great significance— it symbolized death without dying. Thus the long winter sleep reflected a time of initiation, and also opening up to the dreamtime to the Great Basin Native People. (In the traditional form of shamanic work, the body is “shut down” and left, and then one travels off into other dimensions or states of being to bring back knowledge or lost souls.)

No self-respecting Indian camp of one hundred or so years ago would have not had “chucks in the pit”, during the spring to early fall seasons. They were a delicacy to be shared in “teh a teh” fashion with friends and family, served hot or cold with a little salt to taste. Rock chucks, like turkey, have both dark and white meat (the skin is not eaten). The chuck is usually served whole and laid out after cooking on sage. It is best eaten with the hands or perhaps a small knife to help disassemble the parts. The best meat is on the back haunches, front legs, and breast of the animal (it tastes like rich pork). The head is the ultimate delicacy, and is usually given to the eldest of the gathering or the old women as a special treat. The fat on the chucks is especially delicious, flavorful and rich (but beware! the fat has a laxative effect, if you eat too much of it). The ultimate complement of the host of such a delightful repast is to take the grease and spread it in your hair. It is the sign of a good meal and a wonderful time!

In the Early Days on the Rez

In the early reservation period (1880-1910) most Indian people could not leave the reservation without permission. And even when permission was given, getting an elk or deer was a hard scrabble. Most folks lived on whatever the Indian Service was handing out, and the ya ha was a godsend during the months they were up on the surface, because everything was shared amongst extended family members and the chuck was no exception. The chucks have a habit of sunning themselves on warm rocks especially after a big meal, and were easy to obtain. So bringing in a number of ya ha and perhaps some jack rabbit (kam mu in Shoshone or in Latin: Lepus) sometimes meant the thin line between starvation and survival in those times.

When I was growing up in the 50’s my cowboy uncles would sometimes bring home three or four chucks when they were out with the cattle. They would tie them up by their back feet and hang them from their saddle horn in a bunch for my aunts to cook. Enterprising Indian men would come to your home in their pickups, and they were ya ha salesmen! When they drove into our yard, we would go yelling into the cabin “Grandma, that man has big fat ya ha’s in his truck, come and look!!” They would lay about a dozen or so out on the back tailgate with great pomp and circumstance so you could pick out the fattest and biggest ones for about three to five dollars. My Grandmother Hazel was always a shrewd bargainer and would look at the chucks this way and that, and feel their legs and sides. She would then say “they look kind of skinny to me! You must have gotten them where pickins were kind of slim!” She would continue in this manner for some time, bantering with the ya ha entrepreneur who was hoping for high profits and riches, but she usually get him down to about three dollars apiece! I always thought as a child that their fur was kind of pretty, usually a fine brownish red in color. In fact the skins (which are rather tough and thick) could be tanned and made into bags or strips for decoration on various items. They could also be used as “rawhide” (once the hair was removed) and could be used as lashings to hold things together when once dried or cut thin and rolled into bowstrings. But most of the time the hair was singed off during the process I will now describe.

The Fine Art of Cooking Ya Ha

The method and recipe of “baking the chuck” has not really changed for thousands of years! It is one of the only true cooking methods that Native people still remember and use as a contemporary practice. In all the books and articles that I have studied on the early life of the Great Basin Native people, there is mention in passing of cooking methods in holes or pits, but no one has ever described the “hands on” method of doing so! Every Native family has a variance in the baking process but the basics are the same. The following method is my family’s special way.

Preparation of the chuck

Once you have obtained your animal, the first thing is to make an incision with a sharp knife from the vent up to the belly. But the opening should be just large enough to admit three fingers. (I would recommend a small, sharp pocket or skinning knife for the process.) And it is important how the knife is held, you do not hold the knife with the edge down, but rather up. Make a small incision with the point first and then proceed cutting with the point just under the skin. Otherwise, you will slice through the intestines and have a smelly mess!

It is rather a hands-on process from there. You have to reach in the body cavity and pull out the intestines and other “innards”. Be sure to get up through the diaphragm and pull out the heart and lungs. And also be careful not to puncture the bladder or get any of the liquid on the meat. Then discard them. (The old-timers washed out the “innards” and cooked them up too! But these days— and back then too— they make wonderful camp rez dog treats). The body cavity need not be washed out, but my family preferred to do so.

When this is accomplished the chuck can be stuffed with “white sage” (pohopi in Shoshone) in Latin: artemisia-ludoviciana, or other native herbs or a mixture thereof to add accent to the meat. Or it can just be left hollow inside. (If one chuck is too fat and you are cooking more than one you can “beef up” the skinny one by putting the fat in the skinny one’s body cavity or making small slits between the skin and body, and stuffing the fat in the slits and it will cook like it belongs to that chuck!) Using a sharp pocket knife make five small slits on each side of the incision and insert a peeled green willow stick about as thick as a lead pencil and half as long, and whittle a point on one end. The point of the stick is inserted into the slits in the top hole on the right side of the incision. Then put it through the top hole on the left side. Come up through the inside of the next hole on the left side and then through the matching hole on the right. Continue this process in order to “sew up” the incision on the body until it is fully closed. The purpose of this is to keep ashes and dirt out of the body cavity, plus the willow stick adds a tasty flavor to the meat.

A hole or pit must be dug about 12 to 18 inches wide in circumference (or to accommodate the body of the chuck laying sideways) and about a foot to a foot and a half deep.

You start the fire in the pit, then add rocks to be heated and keep the fire blazing away; it is also used to singe or burn the hair off the body of the chuck. My family uses about three feet of wire tied on a hind leg to hold the body over the flames, to move the chuck back and forth through the fire. Don’t worry if the skin become black and blistered (remember chuck skin is quite tough)! The old-timers just rolled it in the flames and hot coals with a forked stick! It is important to burn all the hair off to enable quick baking. Once the hair is burned off, the body should be rubbed with the hands or with sage to remove all the stubble.

The wild herbs and damp straw or water grass must already be gathered, because things need to move rather quickly. Your fire needs to have a lot of coals and hot ashes built up in the bottom of the pit. It does not matter what kind of wood you use, most Native people will use whatever is on hand or easily gathered. The rocks (the size of your fist) should be heated to glowing or nearly so. How many rocks you ask? I would recommend at least four, or more… depending on how many chucks you intend to cook and how big the pit is in circumference. (two to three for the bottom of the pit and the same for the top).

Scoop the hot coals, ashes and rocks from the pit with a small shovel. Leave the dead ashes on the edge of the pit but set the live coals and hot rocks apart and add a little wood to keep the rocks hot and the live coals burning. (A note here: as I told you this is my family’s way of cooking the chuck, other Native families only use hot coals and ashes).

The other method used by Great Basin Native people is to just place the chuck in the hot hole and cover it with a layer of ashes and hot coals followed by the loose dirt mound and fire. Let the fire burn itself out and leave the chuck buried for about and hour. Remember the hot earth and the rocks do most of the cooking! Remove the earth and layers and rocks until you reach the chuck. Remove the chuck to the side of the pit, a small slit is made in the breast to verify the fact that it is done. If the meat is white it is ready to eat. If it is pink or red, recover the chuck and let it cook for another half hour or so. (Some Native folks just stab the chest or breast with a fork or small knife, if blood comes out it is not ready and back in the pit it goes!)

You can then let the chuck cool a bit once it is cooked to your satisfaction, then brush the ashes from the body with your hands or with sage. It is now ready to serve! Nowadays, ya ha is usually served and consumed on newspaper, paper plates or on large platters and plates that you can wash. It is never served using cloth towels or napkins, the odor of the grease is very pungent and long-lasting!

I remember my Grandmother using cloth towels one time thinking she was going to be “highfalutin” with her old friends, but she washed the towels with my school shirts that I had to wear to school! The shirts smelled of rock chuck for several weeks and many washings! much to my embarrassment and ruthless kidding by my school mates.

A modern way of cooking the chuck

Great Basin Native People are very much part of this modern world! We live in houses, watch TV, use computers, and live the American lifestyle. But still, the old ways and traditional food preferences continue. Deer, elk, salmon, buffalo and rock chuck are very much a part of our lives as food items.

The contemporary Indian housewife has modified and improvised the preparation and cooking of the rock chuck to fit the present lifestyle. The rock chuck then can be cooked in the oven! At many a Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner in Native homes, the big tasty rock chuck is cooked and served right along with the traditional turkey or ham and other holiday goodies!

Faux Chuck: A recipe for Italian “Chicken”

Those of you that are faint of heart or just too busy or cannot find a rock chuck or wood chuck in your neighborhood can still experience what a chuck tastes like without having to bother some mighty hunter, or wandering about the woods or desert yourself. Don’t even think of trying to special order one from your local butcher shop!

This recipe can be easily prepared in your own home and barbecue with no fuss or the mess of digging a hole and starting a fire in your backyard! Secure a package of cut up chicken parts from your grocery store or butcher shop. Have on hand any brand of Italian salad dressing. In a baking pan pour the dressing in the pan, place the pieces of chicken in the pan and pour more dressing over the parts. Marinate the chicken overnight in the refrigerator.

The next day, have your barbecue heated and ready for the marinated chicken. Cook the chicken until almost burnt (like Cajun blackened). Serve your chicken to your friends and family with whatever side dishes you want to serve. (Since we are having a faux rock chuck dinner, perhaps with corn or potatoes— something that Native people gave to the world.)

A very traditional Native elder by the name of Evelyn Tindore gave me this recipe with a challenge that if you were blindfolded and were a connoisseur of fine ya ha dining that you would not be able to tell the difference! Needless to say, I ran out and tried it… It is true! The Italian chicken recipe, if properly prepared and cooked does taste like a fine rock chuck dinner!

A Summary & Last Words

I would like to thank a number of friends that live with me on the Fort Hall Reservation for assisting me with their memories, recipes and methods of traditional cooking of the rock chuck or ya ha.

It has been a wonderful exercise in recollection of my own childhood memories and experiences which were “happy days.” I do hope that you enjoy this article as much as I did writing it. And remember… Traditional ways of doing things are quickly forgotten as the generations pass. And meat is meat in the mountains!

To the Shoshone and other Great Basin people, the ya ha was a delicacy to be savored and enjoyed during the late spring to late fall months. The rock chucks gorge and fatten themselves during this time to prepare for their long winter sleep, making them especially tasty to Indian people.