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Wild Women Of The West: Maggie “Ta-bu-ce” Howard

COWGIRL LIFE

Wild Women Of The West: Maggie “Ta-bu-ce” Howard

Young Native American woman, ca. 1880s.

The dark clouds that hovered over a crude trail in Yosemite Valley in May 1899 broke loose with a torrent of rain that nearly knocked Paiute Indian Maggie “Ta-bu-ce” Howard and her fourteen-year-old niece, May Tom, off the rocky path where they walked.  Mighty claps of thunder echoed around the majestic granite walls of Yosemite Falls, and huge boulders shook from the sound.  A powerful wind charged down the mountain and tossed leaves, twigs, and brush into the air.  Maggie and May Tom hurried to an outcropping of craggy rocks and huddled underneath them.  Lightning flashed violently, and the wind raged on without ceasing.  It was as if the sky just beyond their crude shelter was in an angry pursuit to destroy them.   

As soon as the rain eased a bit, the pair raced toward a grove of trees, and it was there they made camp.  The following morning they had planned to travel to their home in Indian Village along the Merced River.  In spite of the wind and continual rain, Maggie and May Tom eventually managed to fall asleep.  Their uneasy slumber was interrupted sometime in the night by a massive pine tree that blew over on them.  May Tom was killed instantly.  Maggie’s collar bone was broken; the bones in her right leg were fractured, and her ankles and feet were severely injured.  

When the two didn’t arrive home the evening of the storm worried relatives had gone in search of Maggie and her niece. They were heartbroken by what they saw.  May Tom’s mother and brothers took her body back to the valley where they lived, and Maggie was transported to a doctor.  He set her bones in casts that extended over most of her frame.  She was unable to move until the bones mended in late August.  Maggie couldn’t recall anything after the tree hit her, but the lifetime limp she acquired as a result of her injury served as a reminder of the events leading up to the tragedy.

Naturalist and explorer John Muir referred to the storms that occurred at Yosemite as “not easily borne.”  Maggie was in complete agreement.  According to the June 3, 1910, edition of the Hayward, California, newspaper the Hayward Daily Review, it is estimated that Maggie “Ta-bu-ce” Howard was born in 1867 at Mono Lake thirteen miles east of Yosemite Valley.  She was a Paiute Indian and her name Ta-bu-ce meant “grass nut” or “sweet-root.”  Her father, Joaquin Sam or Kosana as his tribe called him, was a medicine man who made frequent trips to Yosemite to gather acorns and pinon nuts.  He would bring them home to Maggie’s mother who would grind them into meat to use to make bread.  Kosana passed away at the age of eighty while en route home from Yosemite Valley.  A snowstorm overtook the group of Indians he was traveling with, and they were unable to make it over the Sierra Mountains before Kosana died from exposure.  He was buried near what is now the Yosemite Museum.  

When Maggie grew up she moved to the area where her father had made many pilgrimages.  She lived in the Indian Village at the mouth of Indian Canyon.  Maggie worked as housekeeper and cook at the Sentinel Hotel in 1877.  The Sentinel Hotel was built in 1876 and was one of the first hotels in Yosemite.  It was owned by James Mascon Hutchings, and his family.  After several years in the Hutchings’s employment, Maggie became an independent contractor working as a maid and preparing food for prominent families in the area.

Outside of her day job, Maggie practiced and lived out the traditions she learned from her Paiute ancestors.  She prepared meals originated by her ancestors that consisted of acorn water-biscuits and porridge made with powdered acorns and seasoned with insect pupae known as ka-cha-vee.  She cooked all her food with heated rocks.  The dishes were placed in water-tight baskets called hikis.  Maggie made the baskets herself. According to the October 29, 1931, edition of the Mariposa County, California, newspaper the Mariposa Gazette, acorns were a main staple of the Paiute Indian diet.  It was a source of food the Native Americans never worried would disappear.  “The acorn crop is usually bountiful and they [the Indians] gather large supplies which they then grind into meal and make into nutritious ‘bread’ and ‘mush,’ the article read.  “The Indians filled sack after sack with the nuts of the black oak.  When Maggie was questioned as to how she would manage to eat so many acorns, she replied, “I eat plenty.  Some I take to my family at Mono Lake.  No oak trees at Mono Lake-no acorns at Mono Lake.”  

Maggie used a recipe passed down from generation to generation to make meals for her family and friends.  The acorn bread she made was not only used in her daily meal, but was also sold to Yosemite visitors.  Acorn Bread:  two cups of acorn meal, half cup of milk (or water), one tablespoon of baking powder, two cups of wheat flour, three tablespoons of butter or olive oil, one egg.  Add a third of a cup honey or maple syrup or sugar, if available.  Combine all the above ingredients and pour into a loaf pan.  Bake at four hundred degrees for thirty minutes or until done.  Yields a moist bread with a sweet, nutty flavor.

The recipe she used for acorn-meal was also handed down from generation to generation.  Start with one cup acorn-meal, one teaspoon of salt, two and a half cups of water, one teaspoon honey or sugar, one eighth cup of hickory nuts or black walnuts, crushed.  Boil the water with the salt.  Add the acorn-meal and continue boiling for fifteen minutes.  Turn off heat.  Allow to cool for about five minutes.  Stir in the honey and nuts.    

Maggie’s skills at basket weaving were exceptional.  She interlaced strips of American dogwood, big-leaf maple, buck-brush, deer-brush, willow, and California hazelnut together to make containers of various shapes and sizes.  Pieces of blackened fern were added to the basket for color.  Women like Maggie knew the names of all the plants for basketmaking, where to find them, and the best time to gather them.  She also knew how to prepare them for use.  The plant materials had to be peeled, trimmed to correct width, fineness, and length, soaked in cold water, and boiled or buried in mud, according to their use.  

Among the type of baskets made were large conical shaped baskets known as burden baskets.  They were used to carry heavy and bulky loads.  These baskets were supported on the back by a strap passing over the wearer’s forehead.     

Visitors to Yosemite could not resist hiking or riding to Indian Village to admire Maggie’s baskets and talk about life in the valley.  She was happy to answer all questions posed to her about her work, the meals she made from acorns, and the customs of the Paiute Indians.  She would allow pictures to be taken of her if she was politely asked and adequately paid.  She resented tourists who snapped a photograph without permission and then hurried away without giving her any money for the privilege. 

Maggie sustained on a modest income made from the sale of her baskets and tips earned from visitors who appreciated the lectures she delivered about Yosemite.  She was good at watching her money and prided herself on being thrifty.  She managed to save $1,800.  She spent more than nearly twenty years interpreting Indian life to Yosemite park guests.  

In 1939 Maggie traveled to San Francisco to take advantage of the offer an ophthalmologist made to her to remove the cataracts in both her eyes.  Newspaper reporters and cameramen who had heard of the Indian woman’s first trip to a major city turned out in droves at the railroad depot to capture the momentous occasion.  Maggie was overwhelmed by the crowd, traffic, and imposing buildings.  The flash from the cameras added to her anxiety, and she barely made it to the Stanford University Hospital before collapsing from the pressure.  

Maggie recuperated from the surgery at a friend’s home in Albany, California, before returning to Yosemite to continue healing.  Although the cataracts had been removed, Maggie’s eye- sight was far from being perfect.  She was fitted for two pairs of glasses, one to help with her near-sightedness and the other to assist with far-sightedness.  She struggled with knowing which pair to wear when.  She worried that she would never be able to get it straight and never be able to see well enough to take up basket making again. The cost for the glasses, hospital stay, and operation contributed to Maggie’s despair.  She was concerned about how she was going to make a living.  It wasn’t until the doctor who performed the cataract surgery made it clear to her that he was paying for the procedure and subsequent care that Maggie felt any kind of relief.

By the summer of 1940 Maggie’s good health had been restored and she was back to her daily routine at Indian Village.  She entertained thousands of park visitors with demonstrations of authentic Indian life and customs.  Stationed under an oak tree, she would pound acorns, sift the meal, pour it into a sand basin, leach out the bitter tannic acid, and bake small acorn cakes.  She also made beaded jewelry. 

Life passed calmly for Maggie until World War II.  Frightened by the news, she left Yosemite to be near her sons, Willie Mike Williams and Simon “Slim” Lundy, both living at Mono Lake.  Maggie was married three times.  Her first husband was Jack Lundy, her second Billy Williams, and third was Dan Howard.   

Maggie’s Native American religious beliefs were very important to her.  Prior to every meal she offered prayers to the animal gods she believed watched over her and her children.  She was a superstitious woman who believed witches sought her out to do her harm.  Maggie often relayed a story to friends about a witch that tormented her.  The witch placed a rock inside her that made her ill.  The rock was eventually removed by a medicine man.  Maggie told how the medicine man chanted, prayed, and waved his hand over her body before extracting the offensive rock that was making her sick. 

Maggie Howard passed away on January 25, 1947.  Historians speculate the woman known as the first Indian demonstrator in Yosemite was over ninety.  According to the February 2, 1947, edition of the Nevada State Journal, Maggie died of natural causes near tribal grounds at Mono Lake.  

The burial ceremony was in keeping with that of Maggie’s Paiute ancestors.  Relatives and friends sang and danced around her body as she was laid to rest.  The Nevada State Journal noted that “Maggie’s passing severed one of the last links in the chain which connects the present with the days when Indians roamed the valleys and mountains free from restraint of the white man.”

In addition to the impact Maggie had in sharing Native American culture with tourists who traveled to Yosemite, she was remembered by all who knew her personally as “dignified, self-sufficient, and always of good cheer.”

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Chris Enss is a New York Times Bestselling author who writes about women of the Old West.

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