Outdoors Photos by Christopher Nyerges

Native intelligence

Rick Adams is a man of many timeless — but largely forgotten — skills 

By Christopher Nyerges 01/14/2010

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D uring a class I was teaching on making arrows the Native American way, Rick Adams quickly stepped up to help other students with some of the fundamentals of straightening wood shafts, cutting nocks and securing feathers and stone arrowheads.

As I watched the 61-year-old Adams, wearing a hand-beaded Billy Jack-style hat, it was clear that here was a man who knew his way around primitive technologies; one of those rare people who actually knew things by experience — not by surfing the Internet.

After class, I learned that Adams had picked up some of these ancient skills through members of his wife Karen’s tribe, the Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians. Though married to Karen for 41 years, Adams said that it was only in the last six years that he became interested in learning the day-to-day survival, hunting, cooking and other crafts of native people that are often taken for granted.

“I used to watch what some of the elders did, but I had to do a lot on my own to try to make some of the weapons and tools,” said Adams, who can create a functional hunting bow from a tree branch and arrows from mule fat shafts or the shafts of any straight wood.

Later, while attending a wild food cooking class, Adams also exhibited his culinary knowledge, commenting that the acorn powder we were processing through a hand-crank grinder didn’t look like that used by his wife’s people. This was true, largely because I process acorns using modern implements and, once they are leached of their tannic acid by soaking or boiling, I run them through a meat grinder at a coarse setting.

“My wife and I have gone acorn gathering with her great-aunt and mother,” Adams explained. “We gathered about 100 to 150 pounds of acorn at a time. Then we took them home to start checking them and drying them. This is done by first shelling the acorn and making sure that there are no worms or any bugs in it. Then they are dried and stored in a safe place for use later.

“When you want to use some, you grind the amount you want and then leach it in cold water until you achieve the right taste. The time of leaching varies depending on the acorns you are using. Then we cook them up into acorn soup, which we call ‘to’oh,’ or acorn bread,” he said.

A teacher in his own right, Adams is competent in the full spectrum of traditional skills — tracking, shelter building, bone and rock tool creation, tanning, starting fires and making weapons. He’s attended some wilderness skills schools, such as Earth Skills, Tom Brown’s Tracker School and my School of Self-reliance. But, as Adams pointed out, taking classes is only the beginning.

“You need to spend as much time as you can doing these things if you want them to become part of you,” he said.
Along with all his many other skills, Adams is also able to create traditional musical instruments, showing up one day with a clapper stick, which was made from the branch of an elder tree that I cut for him. Elder, with its easily hollowed pith, is an ideally suited wood for this percussion instrument.

To make the clapper stick, Adams peeled the bark and sanded the wood. He then hollowed the stick and added a hole for different sounds. Then he painted tribal designs over its surface. Then, slapping it on his thigh and palm, Adams demonstrated how the clapper is used at ceremonies.

“When I have been to ceremonies … the only instruments that were used were the whistle, the clapper and the earth drum,” said Adams. “The songs were sung and each singer was keeping time with a clapper. The dancers had whistles. … These clappers are very special to each person and should always be respected for their power in the songs.”

In addition to learning the ways of the Pomo, Adams has begun to learn from his wife some of tribe’s vocabulary. So far, he has greeted me by calling me “paluchi” (white man) and said goodbye by calling me “bah’tea” (old man). But that’s OK. Adams, who is my age, and I are still friends.


Christopher Nyerges is the editor of Wilderness Way magazine and director of the School of Self-reliance. He can be reached at Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041, or christophernyerges.com.

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