Friday, October 16, 2015

Phacelia Goes Paleo

I know I haven't really been writing much about the goings-on outside of wildflowers lately, so here is a project that has occupied a lot of my time, these last few months.

I'm sure this post will get a substantial amount of hits because of the title, but it has nothing to do with the fad diet, I can assure you.

I'm talking real Paleo - as in Paleolithic.

Every October at the park we have a fundraiser event known as the History Hayride.

Volunteers dress up and play a local character from history, sharing stories and events from their lives and respective time period. This year we had 11 stops, including the founder of the park, a local school teacher, the infamous Black Widow of Hazel Green, a moonshiner, an undertaker and a midwife.

The final stop included a brand new character: the Paleoindian woman.

Demonstrating the atlatl - photo by Bob Salyers
I've been wanting to include Native American history in the hayride for several years, but that can get a little sticky. We know that the Cherokee hunted this area, and at one time our county was mostly their territory, as declared by the Treaty of Holston in 1791.

But, like most of the history concerning Native People and white settlers, it wasn't always very pretty.

So I thought we would take a few more steps back in time, and cover the very first inhabitants of our region.

There has been plenty of evidence uncovered in my state pointing to the presence of Paleoindian people. In our own park we have found a flint scraper and spear point that an expert said were likely Paleo, and Buffalo Valley was named for the bison that used to spend their winters grazing here.

American Mastodon were known to live in the area as well. A mastodon skeleton was found in a nearby county that had cut marks made by flint flake tools found at the dig site.

So we know they were here! It's a very mysterious time period, because we have no idea what they looked like, how they dressed or largely, how they lived. We do know they ate mostly large mammals and gathered nuts, mussels and caught fish. I kind of doubt they ate things like Paleo Pumpkin Pie Cupcakes or Cauliflower Crust Stromboli.

Photo by Bob Salyers
Because it is so wide open for interpretation, I didn't feel like I had to worry too much about specific details, and there was no chance of offending anybody.

For my costume, I took inspiration from the people who are the closest known living relatives of the first immigrants who crossed the land bridge from Asia about 12,000 years ago: the Inuit.

Photo by Bob Salyers
I didn't want anything about my dress or appearance to be recognizable, so I blended elements from various Native American cultures, all the while trying to keep things on the rustic side.

While I didn't use real buckskin for my garment, I trimmed it in real fur and sewed it with artificial sinew.

Photo by Bob Salyers
The coyote fur trim came from an Etsy shop that sells scraps from a furrier, in addition to many other hand crafted natural materials. I also bought some beaver bone beads from them to add to my necklace and spear.

I made some rustic moccasins out of leftover suede fabric, and wrapped my legs in rabbit skins. (Suffice it to say I was NOT cold, ha.)

I made an "ivory" mastodon pendant, which would be a family heirloom, passed down from her ancestors.

Showing the audience my pendant, carved from the tusk of a mastodon that killed my ancestor - photo by Bob Salyers
I made it by combining a mixture of polymer clays and then baking, sanding and buffing it until it looked like ivory. (Here is a tutorial on the process. I swear, you can find ANYTHING on the internet!)

I also crafted a spear, using an actual flint knife found by my parents many years ago. It's most likely Cherokee, but it felt so cool to breathe new life into an old artifact.

Photo by Bob Salyers
I knew lighting would be an issue, since I wouldn't be able to use oil lanterns like the other characters, for obvious reasons.

I experimented with cattail torches, but wasn't able to burn them without the ends falling off.

It didn't want to use bundle torches since they shed embers so badly (not a good combination with a wagon load full of hay).

So I made fat lamps using lard and cattail fluff wicks.

I was amazed at how well they burned. The mussel shell lasted for at least 3 hours!

Photo by Lynette Nenortas
They didn't give off a ton of light, but really added an awesome element to the scene and the narrative.

Luckily, the campfire was bright enough to illuminate the set, for the most part.

We also made a ti-pi from cedar poles and borrowed hides (even though we only had enough to cover one side). It also happens to be camouflaging a concrete picnic table.

It looked much better in the fire light
A Ranger friend of ours let me borrow all kinds of cool things he had made, including the bone tools  attached to my belt.

I arranged bones, antlers and other random bits and pieces to try and make it look like a hunting camp.


Acorns getting processed. My plan was to actually have some "acorn bred" baking, but I discovered that all of my acorns had molded.
Handmade flint tools courtesy of a friend, and an epoxy fluted point cast from an actual artifact found in New York in the 1980's. 

Borrowed box turtle shell fat lamp and deer bone fragments courtesy of the dog yard.
Apparently ants really like lard. Luckily they didn't sting me during my presentation.
 My Paleo-woman stepped out of the transitional period between the Paleo and Archaic eras, after the ice age has ended and most of the megafauna have died out, around 8,000 to 10,000 years ago. She is behind protecting the camp while the rest of her family is out foraging and hunting.

Photo by Carol Denson Williams
When the visitors arrive she acts fearful at first, but then warms up and begins to tell them the story of how her family arrived here, how they live and how things are changing.

It was the final stop on the hayride, and people responded very well to it - especially the kids.

And yes, I know I'm as Caucasian as I could possibly be, but hopefully I captured the spirit of a Paleoindian, even if my skin tone and features don't suggest anything remotely Native American.

I have to admit, waiting between rides alone and silent at at my "camp" with nothing but a fire and fat lamps for light was almost transportive, in a way.

I couldn't help but think if any of these ancient people had been in that exact spot, so many centuries ago.

I had so much fun portraying this character and illuminating a small amount of light onto this obscure segment of history. If I can, I will definitely do it again next year.

Photo by Bob Salyers

So that's what I've been up to, in addition to chasing an almost-2-year-old, caring for the rabbits and trying to enjoy every ounce of this fabulous fall weather.

Until next time...


  1. Aw, this looks like so much fun... Great shots - thanks for sharing. :)

  2. Looks like a fun event! I think you did a nice job with the costume and surrounding atmosphere.

  3. Fun! I love your costume. I love dressing up and learning/teaching about history through story telling. I think people absorb the information so much better that way. This is a piece of history that I haven't learned very much about. I would have loved to have seen your presentation.