September 13, 2022
The visitor center and museum at Fremont Indian State Park with I-70 running in the background, Aug. 13, 2022. (Photo credit: Elaine Clark | KUER)

Fremont Indian State Park exists to keep an ancient tribal way of life alive

KUER 90.1 | By Kristine Weller

Along I-70, near Sevier, Utah, sits Clear Creek Canyon. One thousand years ago, it was home to one of the largest communities of Fremont Indians ever discovered.

During interstate construction in the 1980s, ruins of more than 100 structures built by Fremont Indians were found. They date from the 10th and 11th centuries. After hundreds of thousands of artifacts were excavated, the actual village site was destroyed by the freeway’s construction. Fremont Indian State Park was established to preserve the site’s treasures.

The park’s indigenous skills day is a celebration — with live demonstrations — of what is known about these people.

Isaac Fralick, a volunteer is showing how arrowheads, knives and other tools the Fremont would have used are made. He starts with an obsidian rock and a copper percussion tool, which he calls a “copper bopper.” Using the tool, he hits the edge of the rock. Each strike breaks off the outer portion, revealing the shiny black stone underneath. It’s called flint knapping.

“I’m just shaping it and thinning it down over time, just slowly working the piece to the shape you want,” Fralick says.

Isaac Fralick is using a copper percussion tool to flint knap some obsidian. He is a self-taught flint knapper. The mat on his leg protects him from getting cut by the sharp stone. Fralick said the bigger pieces usually take 40 minutes to pre-form and then another 30 minutes to an hour to finish. (Photo credit: Kristine Weller | KUER)

By breaking off pieces, sharp edges are revealed. Obsidian edges can be finer than steel scalpels, and Fralick already has a few bandages on his fingers from the process. Once he has the shape he wants, he uses a big quartzite rock to grind the edge. This reduces the sharpness of the piece and makes it more sturdy.

The Fremont didn’t have a “copper bopper,” though. They used hammerstone and antler to shape their pieces.

And they aren’t necessarily “Fremont.” Archeologists call them “Fremont Indians” because the first site was found by the Fremont River, and the Southern Paiute call them mokwic, meaning “the small people.” Who they were and even what they called themselves is a mystery.

What is known is they were originally hunters and gatherers who traveled seasonally. Two thousand years ago, they began to build pit houses. These communities had granaries and sunshades that provided a communal space. They made pottery, toys and clay figurines. Around this time, they also began to hunt with bows and arrows and grow corn.

In the Fremont Indian State Park museum, a pithouse is shown. Pithouses were made by digging into the ground. Brush covers the roof and a ladder was used to get in and out. The Fremont people most likely lived in small, loosely organized bands. (Photo credit: Kristine Weller | KUER)

Fralick showed the arrowhead-making process and Rena Pikyavit is demonstrating how blue corn was used to make bread. Pikyavit, a ranger’s aid, has worked at the park for eight years and is Navajo, Apache and Paiute.

The natives would first grind the corn between two rocks until it was a powder. The corn flour was then used to make flatbread.

Once Pikyavit’s deep blue mixture is ready, she shapes it with her hands. It’s more difficult to form than regular flour; it doesn’t stay together as easily. But her skilled hands are able to flatten the mixture into a tortilla.

Next, the bread goes into the fire.

“The natives used to make it on the fire, in ash,” she explains. “And people always say, well what? The ash? And I go, you just wipe it off. It’s not going to hurt.”

Pikyavit puts her bread on a flat pan on top of the fire, though. After it’s cooked she and the volunteers serve it to visitors with honey butter.

Rena Pikyavit shapes fry bread. She demonstrated how to traditionally make fry bread and another native bread that is like a tortilla. After that, she made the bread Fremont Indians would have had, ash bread. Ash bread is made of blue corn and flattened into a tortilla. It is then put into the ash of the fire to cook and is a dark blue color. (Photo credit: Kristine Weller | KUER)

Rena Pikyavit’s son, Nathanial Pikyavit, is demonstrating how atlatls are thrown. Before the advent of the bow and arrow, the Fremont used atlatls, or spear-throwers, for hunting.

“It’s an Aztec word that means throwing darts,” says the park ranger. “It’s mainly just an extension of your arm.”

Some visitors try their hand at using the atlatl to throw a spear at hay bales and fake target deer. It’s a big favorite among kids. A group of them throw the collection of spears, hurry to pick them up and do it all again.

While the Fremont lived in the area for 1,000 years, the Little Ice Age during the 13th century made life more difficult, so they started to leave.

“When that Ice Age hit and they split, a good portion of them went south and became Hopi people, and then the ones that stayed intermixed with that Numic speaking group,” Nathanial Pikyavit said. “They became the Paiutes, Utes and Shoshones.”

Nathanial Pikyavit demonstrates how to throw an atlatl. The atlatl is the wooden portion on the bottom. It has a hook to attach to the metal spear. Pikyavit stands next to his younger brother. His brother and the kids seen in the back threw the spears over and over, practicing until they could hit the targets. (Photo credit: Kristine Weller | KUER)

Although the Fremont were absorbed into different cultures, their legacy lives on at Fremont Indian State Park. Evidence of their lives is documented here.

Back with Isaac Fralick, he takes a break from flint knapping and picks up a traditional, double flute. It’s very sensitive, even moisture from his breath can affect the sound. He’s a bit hesitant to play for everyone, but another volunteer encourages him.

While he plays, everyone listens intently. It is a peaceful, reminiscent sound.

Throughout the day, visitors have learned about people whose culture no longer exists. Yet it is easy to imagine them here living their daily lives, to imagine kids playing with clay figurines and learning how to throw an atlatl.

As the tune Fralick plays comes to an end, the sound of I-70 fills our ears again. But even though the drone of traffic is a constant companion in the canyon, in some areas, you can hear a hint of what sounds the Fremont people may have heard so many years ago –– water, birds and wind.

Copyright 2022 KUER 90.1. To see more, visit KUER 90.1.

Don't have time to listen subscribe to KSUT Tribal Radio Podcast and listen whenever.