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Mountain And Desert - The Great Divide

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



WEST of the Great Plains, and extending almost the full length of the continent, rises the long wall of the Rocky Mountains — the Great Divide of North America. To the east of this chain lie the open prairies, grassy and watered, and beyond these the ancient forest lands, rich in vegetation. To the west, extending to the coastal ranges which abruptly overlook the Pacific, is a vast plateau, at its widest occupying a full third of the continental breadth, the surface of which is a continuous variegation of mountain and valley, desert and oasis. To the north this plateau contracts in width, becoming more continuously and densely mountainous as it narrows in the high ranges and picturesque glaciers of the Canadian Rockies. In the central region it opens out into broad inter-montane valleys, like that of the Columbia, and eventually expands into the semi-arid deserts of the south-west, the land of mesa and canyon, wonderfully fertile where water is obtainable, but mainly a waste given over to cactus and sage-brush. Still farther south the elevated area contracts again into the central plateau of Mexico, which becomes more fruitful and fair as the Tropic of Cancer is passed, until it falls away at the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.

This plateau region of North America is well-nigh as distinct ethnically as it is physiographically. In the mountains of British Columbia and up into central Alaska its aboriginals are Athapascan tribes, whose congeners hold the Barren Lands of the north and the Plains as far as Hudson's Bay; and in the south, in eastern New Mexico, in Arizona and south-ern Texas, and on into Mexico itself, Athapascans are again found in the Navaho and Apache peoples. Between these limits, however — penetrating now westward to the Pacific, now eastward into the Plains — is a succession of linguistic stocks who are the characteristic autochthones of the mountain and desert region, colouring with their beliefs and civilization other intrusive tribes who have taken a habitation beside them.

The northerly of these stocks is the Salishan, comprising more than sixty tribes, of whom the Flathead and Pend d'Oreille are perhaps best known. Southern British Columbia, western Montana, and most of Washington, where they surrounded Puget Sound and held the Pacific coast, is territory which was once almost wholly Salishan; although, around the headwaters of the Columbia, the Kutenai formed a distinct stock consisting of a single tribe. Adjoining the Salish to the south, and extending from the Columbia valley in Washington and Oregon eastward to central Idaho, were the tribes of the Shahaptian stock, made famous by the Nez Percι and their great Chief Joseph. From central Oregon and Idaho, through the deserts of Nevada, Utah, and southern California, east-ward into the mountains of Wyoming and Colorado, and finally out through the lower hills of New Mexico into the Texas plains, were the tribes of the great Shoshonean family — Bannock and Shoshoni in the north, Paiute and Ute in the central belt, Hopi in Tusayan, and Comanche on the Great Plains. To the south dwell the most characteristically desert peoples of all — the Yuman Mohave and Cocopo of Arizona and Lower California, the Pima and Papago of southern Arizona, whose kindred extend far south into western Mexico. Another group, culturally the most interesting of all, although territorially the most limited, is formed by the Pueblo Indians — tribes of various stocks forming little islets of race amid the engulfing Athapascans of Arizona and New Mexico - but to these a separate chapter must be devoted.

The cultural characteristics of these peoples vary from zone to zone, both in form and in originality. In the north, where the headwaters of the Columbia and the Missouri approach each other, and where the valleys of these rivers form easy paths that lead down to the sea or out into the plains, it is to be expected that we should find, as we do find, the civilization of the Salish and the Shahaptian approximating in form and idea to that of the neighbouring peoples of coast and prairie. In the central region, where the mountain barriers on each side are huge and the distances are immense, it is equally natural to discover among the sparse and scattered Shoshonean peoples a comparatively isolated culture — inept and crude, with that reliance upon roots and herbs to eke out their meagre supply of animal food which has won for many of them the epithet "Digger Indians." In the more open south, agriculture was practised in some degree by every people — Yuman, Piman, Athapascan, and Pueblo — and civilization was accordingly higher, the arts of pottery, basketry, and weaving being developed into skilled industries, especially among the more gifted tribes. Here, however, there is a sharp line between the dwellers in well-built pueblos and the campers, content with grass hut or brush wikiup in summer and earth-covered hogan in winter — a difference reflected in social organization and in ideas.

The subsistence of the tribes of the mountain and desert area had its own character. The range of the buffalo, nowhere found in such numbers as on the Plains, was restricted to the eastern portion of the region; and the deer kind and other large animals, such as the bear and mountain goat, were not sufficiently numerous to form an economic equivalent. Of smaller animals the hare was perhaps most important, and his dignity is reflected in his mythic roles. Horses were early used, and in recent times the Navaho have become accomplished herdsmen. The dog was, of course, ubiquitous. Vegetable subsistence is abundant in places where water is sufficient, but these are few, and hence it comes that a great part of the religion, especially of the agricultural tribes of the South-West, revolves about rain-making and the rain-bringing powers.



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