Born and raised in Carson City, Mike Williams is a member of the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe. He is dedicated to creating accurate replicas of the canvasback duck decoys woven by his ancestors in ancient times, as a way of honoring and perpetuating their culture, heritage, and traditions.
According to the archaeological record and their own oral traditions, the Numu (Northern Paiute) were resident in Nevada for many thousands of years before they encountered Euro-Americans. They lived in proximity to large lakes and wetlands where their lives were sustained by the native vegetation, wildlife, fish, and fowl. The discovery of the beautifully preserved ancient decoys in Lovelock Cave was hailed as one of the most significant archaeological discoveries in the western United States, and the tule duck decoy was named Nevada’s state artifact in 1995.
The traditional Numu way of making duck decoys utilizes the stem of the tule reed, a member of the sedge family that is indigenous to Nevada. Mike gathers tule stems in the fall, before they are damaged by freezing temperatures. These stems are carefully cut, twisted, woven, and bound into the shape of a duck. Mikes makes the binding string from Indian hemp (Apocynum cannabinum), also harvested locally. He colors the decoys with natural red ochre from northern Nevada mountains and black shading from the resin of pinion pine trees. Feathers may be added for effect.
Mike shows audiences how he creates a tule duck decoy and tells the story of the object, also explaining what it represents in modern times. His audiences gain a better understanding of the powerful role this humble object had in the everyday lives of the Numu, and an appreciation for its symbolic significance in recognizing a culture that has flourished and adapted to changes in the Great Basin for many thousands of years.
“It’s my purpose in life to teach this art and pass it on,” says Williams. In doing so, he preserves Northern Paiute art and culture for future generations. Mike was the recipient of the Nevada Governor’s Arts Award for Excellence in Folk Arts in 2008.
This film is part of Nevada Stories, an online video project of the Nevada Arts Council’s Folklife Program, funded through a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.