Ground Squirrels General
Ground squirrels, frequently referred to as gophers, were used by many cultures as a supplement to the diet in times and places where meat was difficult to obtain. Ground squirrels were often caught in summer prior to hibernation when it was most fatty. The animal was generally caught by women with hand snares or nooses that were held over the opening to its home until it surfaced and could be trapped.
Ground squirrels were typically captured in spring and late summer [7, 11, 12] with snares, bunting arrows or more recently steel traps [8, 9, 11-13]. The Spokane were reported to hunt ground squirrels throughout the year [18, 32]. Tutchone, Tagish and Tlingit women placed long lines of spring pole snares about their camps, sometimes setting more than a hundred snares in the space of two or three days. Snares were checked frequently because ground squirrels rotted quickly. If any were found still alive, they were clubbed to death or strangled. The snares were rubbed with dirt before they were used, and in winter they were stored in sacks with an aromatic medicinal plant, to make sure the “gopher won’t get wild when it smells the snares”. A number of Southern Tutchone women smeared the snare lines with red ochre paint to guard against it stretching in the rain . The Chalkyitsik Kutchin (Gwich’in) of Alaska used spring pole or tossing pole snares, placing them to the right of the ground squirrel’s burrow or across its trail. They also used modern fixed toggle snares. If a hunter approached close enough, the animal was shot in the head using a rifle; if hit elsewhere, it would have the strength to get back to its burrow and die in an inaccessible place. Steel traps were smeared with dirt to reduce human scent were also used .
Ground squirrels were typically roasted or grilled. When Flathead boys took ground squirrels home, their mothers would roast it . Blackfoot children skinned and roasted the catch themselves . Yukon Indigenous Peoples, including Tutchone, grilled ground squirrels by placing a newly peeled green willow stick into the necks of four or five and a second stick through the hind legs. They dangled the ground squirrels over a fire and occasionally turned them [11, 12]. The Tutchone, Tagish and Tlingit discarded the guts, liver and heart, but considered the remainder, including the head, prime eating. They cooked it fresh or hung it dry. Those with inferior skins were singed before being consumed or hung, instead of being skinned first. After it had been seared and skinned, it was also roasted. The fat was often discarded, but the drippings were conserved in a container. On food scarce days, when the people were up in the mountains, the drippings were cooked with potatoes, rice and salt . To preserve the meat, Tutchone removed the hair, severed the arms and legs so that sticks could be fitted to spread the flesh, salted and smoked it for a few days after which it was dried for seven days to be saved in barrels and cartons [6, 11]. At times, the Southern Tutchone packed ground squirrels in a moose stomach and buried it in the ground to ferment; this would be consumed frozen in winter. The Inland Tlingit used a marmot skin instead of moose stomach to ferment ground squirrels. All three groups ate ground squirrel grease in tiny amounts and often used it as lynx and mink bait .
Uses other than food
The Mountain people usually used the ground squirrel fur . The Kotzebue Sound Inupiat and the Stikine Plateau Tahltan used the skin to make clothes [24, 25]. The Kootenai also used ground squirrel skin to make clothing [1, 5, 7, 14, 24, 34]. Ground squirrel hunting was a past time of Blackfoot children. Apart from hunting, skinning and roasting the ground squirrels, they would play house and tan the skins pretending they were bison hides. They would also use the skins to make toy tipis or trade them with friends for beads and other items . Western Plateau Salish boys also hunted ground squirrels for fun .
Beliefs and taboos
Ground squirrel hunting appears as a choice lullaby theme in the Tutchone, Tagish and Tlingit tradition. Gopher is also under the protection of Mountain Man, so many rules are observed when hunting ground squirrels. One of these is that the face meat must not be cut. Grounds squirrels and rabbits are linked together in the Animal Mother story, thus their flesh must not be prepared together in the same pot because “they get mad at each other”. However, once the meat is fully cooked, it is okay to place the meat side by side in a single container. It is also taboo to call the rabbit’s usual name if gopher is being hunted or the other way around or else “they’ll have the grizzly after you.” Rabbit is “Big Eyes” in the gopher’s presence, while gopher is “Little Eyes” in the rabbit’s presence .
Arctic ground squirrels was a widely used traditional food species found in a variety of arctic and alpine tundra regions in northern North America. They were numerous in the Stikine Plateau, inhabiting the meadows of its alpine and subalpine valley floors . They were found all over the mountains inhabited by the Mountain (Sahtu) people and at higher altitudes in the Tanana region [21, 27, 28]. They were quite numerous in sandy river bottoms located along the northern coast of Alaska, the Mackenzie Delta, east of the Franklin Bay . They were also quite numerous in sandy clay hills near the mouth of the Coppermine and at different areas along the south region of Coronation Gulf .
Arctic ground squirrels were typically hunted in summer (including the Han and Upper Tanana) [22, 29]. In late summer, while the Tanaina men were hunting caribou and mountain sheep, the women and children snared ground squirrel in the mountains . Others hunted at different times of the year. For example, Koyukon women and children snared the animal in autumn [18, 32]. From mid-August to mid-September, Stikine Plateau Tahltan families went to settlements in the alpine region where the women and children would snare a large numbers of arctic ground squirrels, while the men hunted bigger game . The Ingalik hunted them from April to June using snares . The Ahtna are reported to have used snares and deadfalls to capture a ‘mountain squirrel’, likely either an arctic ground squirrel or hoary marmot, which they ate and used skins from to make loose shirts .
The Stikine Plateau Tahltan enjoyed eating arctic ground squirrels, which were abundant in alpine meadows and subalpine valleys floors of the Stikine Plateau . They stockpiled large numbers of ground squirrels in early autumn by splitting and drying. They were often dried in dry salmon skins and prepared for drying by detaching the backbone and other big bones and keeping the stomach flesh intact. The head and tail would be detached as well. With the carcass lying on its stomach or ventral plane, the flesh was sliced from the dorsal plane of the spine, pelvis and ribs to around the midpoint of the ribs. A longitudinal slice was prepared on both sides of the rib cage at this midpoint. The legs were separated at the joints from the pelvis and shoulder blades. The spine with the connecting pelvis and parts of the ribs, shoulder blades and guts were detached leaving the legs, frontal parts of the ribs, and breastbone connected to the intact stomach flesh. The flesh was extended with small sticks and hung above a smoke-filled fire .
Arctic ground squirrel was a traditional food consumed by Yukon First Nations . The Chandalar Kutchin (Gwich’in) usually boiled or roasted it and did not remove the skin manually; they torched the fur and placed the carcass in a pot, opening the stomach and leaving the entrails inside. They also dried and stored the flesh, boiling the dried meat when needed. The children sucked the roasted tails as a between-meal snack 
Arctic ground squirrels are also reported to have been eaten by Western Inuit who used the skins to make clothes . It was an important animal source food for Copper Inuit during May and June, the interval between the end of the seal hunt and the departure from their snow settlements on ice, and the trek inland for the summer caribou expedition. Arctic ground squirrels caught near the mouth of the Coppermine and along the south region of Coronation Gulf were used to make clothes .
Blood children caught black-tailed prairie dogs with snares and called it Omachk-okatta . The Plains Cree are reported to have eaten prairie dog . The Sioux caught prairie dog, considered to be a healthy traditional food; young prairie dog continues to be eaten today. The animal was skinned, boiled three times, and made into soup .
Columbian ground squirrels were abundant in the sandy soils of the plains and foothills of the Mid-Columbia Indian territory . The Mid-Columbia Indians usually caught them by rerouting a stream or pouring water down their burrows, forcing them out to areas where they were effortlessly shot or clubbed . Southern Okanagan boys hunted with bows and arrows; snares were never used. Sometimes they would force the animals out of their burrows by pouring water down the entry hole and slaughtering them with sticks as they emerged . Southern Okanagan singed off the fur and roasted the ground squirrel on the spit .
Ground squirrels that were trapped and roasted by Blackfoot , as well as other plains cultures, are likely to have included Richardson’s ground squirrel.
Franklin’s ground squirrel is reported to have been eaten by the Red Earth Cree of Saskatchewan .
1. Ignace MB: Shuswap. In: Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 12: Plateau. edn. Edited by Walker DE, Jr. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution; 1998: 203-208.
2. Pattimore JH: Toward Inuit Self-Sufficiency in the Keewatin District, N.W.T. In.; 1983.
3. Friesen TM, Arnold CD: Zooarchaeology of a focal resource: Dietary importance of Beluga Whales to the Precontact Mackenzie Inuit. Arctic 1995, 48(1):22-30.
4. Morrison DA: The Kugaluk Site and the Nuvorugmiut: The Archaeology and History of a Nineteenth-Century Mackenzie Inuit Society. Hull, Quebec: National Musems of Canada; 1988.
5. Brunton BB: Kootenai. In: Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 12: Plateau. edn. Edited by Walker DE, Jr. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution; 1998: 223-228.
6. Cruikshank J. In: Athapaskan Women: Lives and Legends. edn. Ottawa: National Musem of Man; 1979: 26-41.
7. Honigmann JJ: The Kaska Indians: An Ethnographic Reconstruction. New Haven: Yale University Press; 1954.
8. Hungry Wolf A: Charlo's People: The Flathead Tribe of Montana. Invermere, B.C.: Good Medicine Books; 1974.
9. Hungry Wolf A: Some Teachings of Nature, by Atsitsina. In: Blackfoot People. edn. British Columbia: Good Medicine Books; 1975: 53-57.
10. Stratas D, Crossing P: Selkirk First Nation How-To Book: Living in the Traditional Way. Whitehorse: Yukon Literacy Council; 1993.
11. McClellan C: My Old People Say: An Ethnographic Survey of Southern Yukon Territory-Part 1. Ottawa: National Musems of Canada; 1975.
12. McClellan C: A History of the Yukon Indians; Part of the Land, Part of the Water. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre; 1987.
13. Nelson RK: Hunters of the Northern Forest: Designs for Survival among the Alaskan Kutchin. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press; 1973.
14. Wein EE, Freeman MMR: Frequency of Traditional Food Use by Three Yukon First Nations Living in Four Communities. Arctic 1995, Vol. 48, No. 2:161-171.
15. Hall ES, Jr.: Interior Northern Alaska Eskimo. In: Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 5: Arctic. edn. Edited by Damas D. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution; 1984: 338-344.
16. McClellan C: Tutchone. In: Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 6: Subarctic. edn. Edited by Helm J. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution; 1981: 493-498.
17. McKennan RA: Getting a Living. In: The Chandalar Kutchin. edn. New York: Arctic Intitue of North America, Technical Paper No. 17; 1965.
18. Ross JA: Spokane. In: Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 12: Plateau. edn. Edited by Walker DE, Jr. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution; 1998: 271-282.
19. Snow JH: Ingalik. In: Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 6: Subarctic. edn. Edited by Helm J. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution; 1981: 602-607.
20. Teit J: The Salishan Tribes of the Western Plateau. In: The Salishan Tribes of the Western Plateaus. vol. 45. Washington: Bureau of American Ethnology 1930.
21. Gillespie B: Mountain Indians. In: Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 6: Subarctic. edn. Edited by Helm J. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution; 1981: 326-234.
22. McKennan RA: Economic Life. In: The Upper Tanana Indians. edn. New Haven: Yale University Publications in Anthropology Number 55; 1959.
23. Department of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada: The Canadian Indian: Yukon and Northwest Territories. Ottawa: Information Canada; 1973.
24. Albright S: Tahltan Ethnoarchaeology, vol. Department of Archaeology Publication Number 15. Burnaby, B.C.: Department of Archaeology: Simon Fraser University; 1984.
25. Burch ES, Jr.: Kotzebue Sound Eskimo. In: Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 5: Arctic. edn. Edited by Damas D. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution; 1984: 303-311.
26. de Laguna F, McClellan C: Ahtna. In: Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 6: Subarctic. edn. Edited by Helm J. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution; 1981: 641-650.
27. Hunn E, Selam J, family: Animal and Plant Resources. In: Nch'i-W na "The Big River", Mid-Columbia Indians and Their Land. edn. Seattle: University of Washington Press; 1990.
28. McKennan RA: Tanana. In: Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 6: Subarctic. edn. Edited by Helm J. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution; 1981: 562-568.
29. Osgood C: The Han Indians: A Compilation of Ethnographic and Historical Data on the Alaska-Yukon Boundary Area, vol. Yale University Publications in Anthropology Number 74. New Haven: Department of Anthropology Yale University; 1971.
30. Post RH: The Subsistence Quest. In: The Sinkaietk or Southern Okanagan of Washington. edn. Edited by Spier L. Menasha, Wisconsin, U. S. A.: George Banta Publishing Company Agent; 1938: 11-33.
31. Slobodin R: Kutchin. In: Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 6: Subarctic. edn. Edited by Helm J. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution; 1981: 514-518.
32. McFadyen Clark A: Koyukon. In: Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 6: Subarctic. edn. Edited by Helm J. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution; 1981: 582-590.
33. Townsend JB: Tanaina. In: Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 6: Subarctic. edn. Edited by Helm J. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution; 1981: 623-628.
34. Mandelbaum DG: The Plains Cree: An Ethnographic, Historical, and Comparative Study, vol. 1st edition. Regina: Canadian Plains Research Center; 1979.
35. Stefansson V: My Life with the Eskimo. In: My Life with the Eskimo. edn. New York: The Macmillan Company; 1913.
36. Hungry Wolf A: Teachings of Nature. In: The Blood People: A Division of the Blackfoot Confederacy. Volume 1st edition, edn. New York: Harper & Row Publishers; 1977: 180-195.
37. Stene J: A nutrition study on an indian reservation. Journal of the American Dietetic Association 1928, 3(4):215-222.
38. Meyer D: Appendix I: Plants, Animals and Climate; Appendix IV: Subsistence-Settlement Patterns. In: The Red Earth Crees, 1860-1960. Volume 1st edition, edn.: National Musem of Man Mercury Series; 1985: 175-185-200-223.
Ground Squirrels General
Ground squirrels are medium-sized rodents in the same large family as marmots, tree squirrels, and chipmunks. In North America, ground squirrels include the arctic ground squirrel, the Columbian ground squirrel, the black-tailed prairie dog, the Richardson’s ground squirrel, and the Franklin’s ground squirrel.
Ground squirrels are smaller than marmots, but larger than tree squirrels and chipmunks. Unlike tree squirrels, ground squirrels are semi-fossorial spending a lot of their time in underground burrows. There are mainly vegetarian, most often grazing on plant material, but also including some insects and sometime also some small vertebrates. They live in colonies and many individuals occupy the same burrow and foraging areas. They all store fat reserve in the fall and hibernate during the winter.
The Arctic ground squirrel (Spermophilus parryi) is the northern most North American ground squirrel, occurring from the northern west coast of the Hudson Bay and across northern Canada up to Alaska. There are perfectly adapted to the extreme environment found throughout their arctic range.
They have short limbs, small rounded ears, and a bushy tail. In the summer, their fur coat is reddish-brown and speckled with white spots on the back, while in the winter it is mostly grayish. Adults typically weigh 747 g, but almost reach 1 kg just before the hibernation begins.
Their winter dormancy is the longest of all ground squirrels, lasting for seven months. They emerge from their burrow in the middle of April and males establish territories, while females select the burrow in which they will give birth to a litter of around 7 young after a gestation of 25 days. Adults are preyed upon by the grizzly bear, red and Arctic fox, gray wolf, wolverine, many birds of preys, jaegers, and gulls.
The black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus) occurs in scattered and threatened colonies in a central North American band from Saskatchewan to Mexico, but once ranged continuously across the entire Great Plains. They closely resemble other North American ground squirrel species, but are not in the same genus, and are entirely yellowish tan in colour except for the black tip of their tail.
The Columbian ground squirrel (Spermophilus columbianus) has a limited range, occurring in eastern British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon, in northern Idaho, and in western Alberta and Montana. They closely resemble and are closely related to other North American ground squirrel species that are in the same genus, like the arctic ground squirrel, the Richardson’s ground squirrel, and the Franklin’s ground squirrel.
The Richardson’s ground squirrel (Spermophilus richardsonii) occurs in a small patch of unbroken prairies and pasture between central southern Canada and northern United States. They closely resemble and are closely related to other North American ground squirrel species that are in the same genus, like the arctic ground squirrel, the Columbian ground squirrel, and the Franklin’s ground squirrel.
The Franklin’s ground squirrel (Spermophilus franklinii) occurs in scattered, but abundant colonies, in a narrow parkland band across the Canadian prairies and in north-central states. They closely resemble and are closely related to other North American ground squirrel species that are in the same genus, like the arctic ground squirrel, the Columbian ground squirrel, and the Richardson’s ground squirrel.
Wilson DE, Ruff S: The Smithsonian book of North American mammals. Vancouver, BC: UBC Press; 1999.