Editor’s note: Joseph Lent, a Native descendant of the Bridgeport and the Mono Basin Paiute people, is the author of this post. He originally wrote it for the Mono Basin Historical Society; it is published here with permission.
Kootsavi-gwaytu; the land of the koodzavi, modernly referred to as the Mono Basin, has been populated by the Koodzavidukadu, also called the Kootsa-duka’a, since as long as time can be remembered. Though there are more than a few variations of the spelling of this band’s title, all transliterate to mean the same thing, the “Brine Fly Larvae Eaters.” This band of indigenous people, which belong to the Numu, or, the Northern Paiute nation, have lived and thrived amongst the diverse and seemingly harsh climates of the Mono Basin for thousands of years. The great lake, referred to as Kootsabaa’a by the Natives, has always been a focal point of this band’s identity and sustenance. The waters are considered to be sacred and are upheld as being of extreme traditional value. Kootsa-baa’a translates to mean the “waters of the koodzavi,” or, the “waters of the Brine Fly Larvae.” When considering the Koodzavi-dukadu and their long standing in this landscape, one must look back in to traditional history to receive a greater understanding of their tenure. Some of their earliest oral histories and traditions speak of a time when Kootsa-baa’a was fresh and could sustain fish life; they also speak of the times before the modern-day islands, or paa’a-gatudu, were formed and existed. Paa’a-gatudu is the traditional word used in reference to the islands of Kootsa-baa’a. One oral history even speaks to a time when the mother of the Numu, the Paiute people, traveled to the large lake and was constrained to live there; she could not proceed any further north because of a large wall of ice which hindered her travels. It was here where she met a powerful man which she wed and then eventually gave birth to the modern-day progenitors of the Northern Paiute people. Could this have been the southernmost edge of the North America glacier as it receded north at the beginning of the Holocene? How long ago was it possible that Mono Lake could support fish life? How long ago did the lake become so low where the islands which now stand in its waters emerged? Many traditions and oral histories of the Numu are not line with the theories of modern science, but it does make one think and weigh in other possibilities.
So, in this ever-changing landscape of fire and ice; through times of drought and floods; fires, earthquakes, and even through times of warmth and abundance; the Koodzavi-dukadu lived and adapted through it all. These people were masters of their environment, using and managing the lands in which they lived. I do not believe there was one place where the soles of their feet never touched, nor an occurrence in nature which they did not observe. The natural knowledge which was possessed allowed the Numu to move and process in unison with all of creation. Every mountain had a title applied to it as did every valley, meadow, stream and place of congregation. This is where the title of this article comes into play. Every spring had a name or term of reference which the Numu used; one of these was called Pa’mogo-baa’a, “Frog Spring.”
When we look at the geography of the Mono Basin it may be somewhat hard to imagine it as anything more than a desert with a dead sea lying in the center of it. This however is a false assumption. The basin was filled with a diversity of wildlife; big game, rodents and winged fowl. The basin even held a large population of frogs, pa’mogo as they are called by the Koodzavi-dukadu. The many fresh water springs which are spread all through the basin, in early historical times held a native population of frogs. One place in particular was what is now known as Goat Ranch. Goat Ranch was traditionally called Pa’mogo-baa’a by the Paiutes and was also a large campsite in pre-historic times. Pa’mogo-baa’a lies at the southern mouth of Bridgeport Canyon and was a main trail route between Pogaitu, Bridgeport, and Koodzavi-gwaytu, Mono Basin. This was an important place to the Numu of old and continues to be a place of importance today in our traditional history even though the Indigenous people have been removed from it.
So why was it called Pa’mogo-baa’a? It was named thus on account of the numerous amount of frogs which inhabited this lush wetland in the early years; this species that once thrived however seems to have disappeared. Hanno pa’mogo miahoo; where have the frogs gone?
A late friend of mine named Paul Williams, a Koodzavi-dukadu born in the 1920s, used to relate to me that when he was a child growing up in the Mono Basin there was an abundance of frogs. These frogs dwelt amongst most springs in the basin, but Pa’mogo-baa’a was more renowned as such. During these times there was also an abundance of sheep and sheepherders in the area, Basques, which were experts at baking the famous “sheepherder bread.” The Basques would employ young Paul as a frog catcher; he would catch as many frogs as he could and then the sheepherders would trade them from him for loaves of sheepherder bread. He would take these loaves home to his family and they would become part of the evening meal. The Basques in turn would prepare for themselves one of their favorite dishes, roasted frog legs. Mmmmm.
So where have the pa’mogo gone? And where also is the yagwadza’a, the toad? These amphibians are believed to have survived the great ice age; how are they surviving today … or if they even are at all? The closest thing we see nowadays is the pamagaza’a, the desert horned toad. He also holds many great tales of his own.
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Joseph Lent retains all rights to this post. If you would like to obtain permission to publish or use this post, please contact the Mono Lake Committee’s Education Director, Rose Nelson, and she can pass your request on to him. Top photo courtesy of Justin Hite.