Reviving an ancient art.
From his home in north central Nevada, Mike Williams drives a brief distance on bumpy farm roads to the shore of Stillwater Marsh, where he strides through winter grasses to a thicket of tule stalks, and peers across the same freshwater pools his ancient ancestors knew well. He bends to inspect the brown mottling that can spread naturally across the tule stems. Sometimes the mottling is too dark, or its pattern too chaotic; other times, it is lovely — a spray of chestnut freckles amplifying the cool oat-colored skin.
Williams lives on the marsh’s edge in a subdivision of the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe reservation. His people have populated this part of the Nevada high desert for thousands of years. “The tribe here is called Tui Dicutta, or ‘cattail eaters,’ because they used cattails and tule for food,” he says. The interpretation does not take into account the varied use the early Native Americans made of plants that have grown so abundantly here for centuries. By weaving or bunching the tule (pronounced too-lee) stalks, or stripping them into parts, they created items for survival, including cone-shaped huts, cigar-shaped boats, and protective clothing — hats, sandals and, skirts — that helped them to endure the desert’s searing winters and sweltering summer sun. Their lives were so entwined with the marsh that their hair, fingers, and nostrils were likely full of its musky scent.
In Tui Dicutta lore, the marsh is presided over by Fox Peak, a mountain of the Stillwater Range, which cuts upward from the water’s east shore. For a few minutes, Williams studies the peak’s silhouette. The mountain symbolizes his people’s origin. It inspires their strength and their sense of identity. “It is a spiritual place,” he says.
Eighteen years ago, Williams sought a connection with the ancient people who inhabited this place. The craft he wanted to revive would have him transforming the living marsh grasses into hunting decoys – the kind his ancestors floated onto the water to coax migrating birds out of the sky. There was a problem, though: No one he knew could teach him how to make them.
Echoes of the past. The Stillwater Marsh spreads like a hawk’s wing in pools and streams across 20,000 acres of high desert terrain. From it, a patchwork of farmland constellates south and east across a valley encircled by choppy mountain ranges and outcroppings that in places display the abstract animal and cosmos shapes of Native American petroglyphs. Both farms and marsh are fed by waters flowing from the Sierra Nevada mountain range 100 miles to the west.
Williams’ mission today is to identify the tule that makes the most beautiful ducks. His decoys do not return to the marsh for hunting use, but are in art and historical collections across the country, from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. to the Havre de Grace Decoy Museum on the Chesapeake Bay, to the offices of three American presidents.
One reason the decoys have gained such fame is that he replicates one of the most celebrated of the diving ducks to frequent the marsh – the canvasback. Long bodied, strong-beaked, elegantly necked, the male canvasback has signature vivid colors: a flame-colored head set off by a black-feathered breast and tail and a middle section of pure white. Every spring, hundreds and hundreds of canvasback ducks join thousands of other migrating birds to rest at Stillwater Marsh during their long flights from wintering grounds in the American south to breeding habitat in the far north. In fall, they’ll fly south again.
The public’s attention turned to Native American decoys in the 1920s, when in a cave about 40 miles north of the marsh near the town of Lovelock, archeologists unearthed a buried cache of 11 tule decoys. They were 2,000 years old. “At one time, there was water all the way to Lovelock,” Williams says. “Our people roamed through that whole area. You can go visit the cave and read about it now.”
Tough grass. When Williams first began creating decoys, it took some time to perfect softening and bending the tule stems and securing the parts together. “I was learning as I went,” Williams says. “It took about two years to get started, and I’d say it took me a good 10 years before I felt comfortable with what I was doing.” He hung a black and white photo of one of the Lovelock Cave decoys in his home, and poured over every detail – the way the tail tapers, the width of the body, the way the neck and body attach to one another. He studied old decoys held in local museums. He noted bird behavior in the marsh. He became deeply acquainted with tule.
Sometimes confused with cattail, which has at its top a bushy brown seed bundle, tule is a hard-stemmed tubular perennial that soars to heights of ten feet or more in shallow, fresh water. It is green in spring, golden the rest of the year, and displays no leaves, only a spray of small flowers and seeds that form a lose bouquet at its slender tip. The tule’s outer sheath – sturdy and thin, like stiff waxed paper – encases a woolly membrane that absorbs nutrients from the soil upward.
After harvesting, he soaks the tule in a tub of water for a couple of hours, then drains the water and lets them sit a while. “I like to work with them when they are moist,” he says, “not real dry, but not real wet. This way they are not going to shrink after they dry up.”
He trims the softened stems with a razor knife, then bunches and bends them into the head and body forms. The head and beak are secured to the body with a “scarf” made from strands of the tule’s inner spongy fibers. “I like to get a fine wrap,” he says, sharing one of the techniques that give his decoys a singular elegance. “I studied this head so much. There’s a certain way you have to wrap it – in a figure eight.”
Ingenuity. The female decoys remain unadorned with color. “The archeologists found two plain ducks, which they consider to be the females,” he says. “My painted and feathered ones are the males. When you see the male canvasbacks in the wild, the plain-looking females are with them.” To suggest the male’s vivid shades, he affixes long white goose and turkey feathers to the middle body, tying them into place with string made from wild hemp plants gathered around the valley. Black stain for the breast and tail comes from powdered resin he makes burning pinyon pine logs in his own fireplace. “I crush it up and mix it with water into a paste,” he says. Red coloring for the head and neck comes from ground ochre pigments he finds among the hillsides beneath Fox Peak. “Everything’s natural,” he says. “I feel this is as close as you can get to the original ones. When I take something from Mother Earth, I always give back so she knows I respect her.”
It may seem meaningful enough to some observers that Williams signs and dates each decoy, but in fact the birds carry much more significance than this – which isn’t at all as evident as the signature mark. “Each bird is very sacred and special,” Williams says. “I pray over each bird. I pray that, wherever the duck goes, it remains a symbol of our creator.”