Maidu (Native Americans of California)

Maidu, a group of three languages (Maidu, Konkow, and Nisenan; see "Language") and in modern times a tribe of Indians. Maidu comes from their self-designation and means "person." Konkow comes from the Anglicization of their word for "meadowland." Nisenan comes from their self-designation and means "among us."

Location Traditional Maidu territory is along the eastern tributaries of the Sacramento River, south of Lassen Peak. This country features a great variation in terrain, from river and mountain valleys to high mountain meadows. Today, most Maidus live on two small reservations in Butte County and share one in Lassen County and one in Mendocino County.

Population Roughly 9,000 Maidus lived in the early nineteenth century. In 1990, two lived at Berry Creek and five at Enterprise Rancheria. Also in 1990, 154 Indians of mixed tribes, including Maidu, lived at Susanville, and 577 Maidu and other Indians lived at Covelo. The 1995 Maidu population is considered to be approximately 2,500.

Language Maiduan is a Penutian language. Its three divisions—northeastern or mountain (Maidu), northwestern or foothill (Konkow), and southern or valley (Nisenan)—were probably mutually unintelligible.

Historical Information

History Prior to about 1700, when they abandoned it to the Paiutes, Maidus also controlled territory east of Honey Lake into present-day Nevada. Maidus first met Spanish and U.S. expeditions and trappers in the early nineteenth century. Initial contact was peaceful.


The Maidu were relatively successful in avoiding missions, but many were killed in 1833 by a severe epidemic, possibly malaria. The 1849 gold rush led directly to theft of their land, disruption of their ability to acquire food, more disease, violence, and mass murder. Most survivors were forced into ranch and farm work and onto reservations. Although some groups signed a treaty in 1851, it was never ratified; each Maidu received a land claims settlement payment of about $660 in 1971.

The Konkow Reservation was established as Nome Lackee in 1854, but its residents were forced nine years later to abandon it and march to the Round Valley Reservation. The few surviving Nisenan lived near foothill towns and worked in local low-paying industries at that time. Many Maidu children attended assimilationist boarding schools around the turn of the century. Maidu culture underwent a brief revival in the 1870s under the influence of the Ghost Dance. All rancherias were purchased between 1906 and 1937 under legislation providing for "homeless" California Indians. Following the death in 1906 of the last hereditary headman, much of the people’s ceremonial regalia was sold to a local museum.

Religion Maidu religion was closely related to their mythology. Konkows and Nisenans, but not the Maidu proper, practiced the Kuksu cult, a ceremonial and dance organization led by a powerful shaman. Only those properly initiated could join. Members followed a dance cycle in which dances represented different spirits.

Shamans trucked with the spirits, cured, interpreted dreams, and conducted ceremonies. Spirits were said to live in natural geographic sites. Shamans had at least one spirit as a guardian and source of power. Female shamans were assumed to be malevolent.

The Nisenan observed an annual fall mourning ceremony and other ritual dances as well. Doctors could be of either sex, although women were considered less likely to hurt a patient (doctors could also poison people). Religious specialists included religious shamans, poison shamans, singing shamans, and weather shamans.

Government Of the three main Maidu divisions, the valley people, or Nisenan, had the largest population and the most number of tribelets (permanent villages). Village communities (consisting of several villages, with size in inverse proportion to elevation) were autonomous. The central village had the largest dance or ceremonial chamber, which doubled as a home to the headman. This office, which was inheritable only among the Nisenan, was chosen by a shaman. He or she (women might become chiefs among Nisenan) was generally wealthy and served primarily as adviser and spokesperson.

Customs The Maidu observed many life-cycle taboos and restrictions. Gender roles were fairly rigidly defined. There was no formal marriage ceremony other than mutual gift-giving. Couples lived in the woman’s home at first and later in a home of their own near the man’s family. If a woman gave birth to twins, she and the babies were often killed. The Nisenan practiced cremation; the other two groups buried their dead with food and gifts. All three burned the house and possessions after death and held annual mourning ceremonies for several years thereafter.

Most fishing and hunting areas were held in common. Theft from a neighbor was severely punished, although theft from someone of another community was not punished by the home community. Murder and rape were dealt with by blood revenge (of the guilty party or a near friend or relative) or by payment. Lying was generally avoided. The community policed its boundaries against poachers.


A Nisenan youth. Of the three main Maidu divisions, the valley people, or Nisenan, had the largest population and the greatest number of tribelets (permanent villages).

A Nisenan youth. Of the three main Maidu divisions, the valley people, or Nisenan, had the largest population and the greatest number of tribelets (permanent villages).

Games include hoop-and-pole, tossing games, dice games, and hand games and often contained wagering, music, and song. Tobacco was their only cultivated plant. It was smoked in elderberry pipes at bedtime and during ceremonies.

Dwellings The Maidu settled in small village groups, with the headman, dance hall, and ceremonial chamber in the central village. Hill dwellings were pole-framed, brush- or skin-covered houses in winter and brush shelters in summer. Most mountain people remained in their villages during the winter. In winter, valley people lived in earth-covered, domed pit houses, with door and smoke openings in the roof. They used brush shelters in summer.

Diet Maidus were mainly hunters and gatherers. Their staple was the acorn, from which they made mush, bread, and soup. They also ate pine nuts, manzanita, roots, and insects. Game included deer (hunted in communal drives), elk, antelope, and bear (for hides). Meat was baked, dried, or roasted. Fish included eel, salmon, and trout. Taboo foods among the Maidu proper included coyote, dog, wolf, buzzard, lizard, snake, and frog. Konkows refused to eat bear and mountain lion. The Nisenan ate neither owl, condor, nor vulture. Maidus drank wild mint tea and manzanita cider.

Key Technology Nets, weirs, and spears served a fishing equipment. The people hunted with bow and arrow and stone (basalt and obsidian) spears and knives. Other tools (stone, grass, and wood) included scrapers, arrow straighteners, pestles, mortars, and pipes. They used a buckeye drill to start fires and tule mats for seats, beds, roofs, doors, skirts, rafts, and beds. Musical instruments included drums, rattles, flutes, whistles, and a bow.

Trade Little individual travel occurred between villages greater than 20 miles apart, but trade was widespread among nearby villages and groups. Goods also changed hands as a result of gambling games. The Konkow traded arrows, bows, deer hides, and foods for shell beads, pine nuts, and salmon. The Maidu proper traded bows and deer hides to enemy Achumawi for beads, obsidian, and green pigment. The Nisenan traded acorns, nuts, berries, wood, and skins for fish, roots, grasses, shells, beads, salt, and feathers. Goods could also be purchased with shell and baked magnesite cylinder beads.

Notable Arts Fine arts included baskets; necklaces; shell, bone, and feather earrings; and other bead and feather work. Petroglyphs, mostly circles and dots, with a few people or animals, were created perhaps as early as 1000 B.C.E.

Transportation Dugout and tule (rush) canoes were used for water transportation.

Dress Dress was minimal year-round. In summer, men wore nothing or a buckskin breechclout. Women wore apron skirts of buckskin, bark, or grass. Bear, deer (bird and fowl feather to the south), and mountain lion fur robes and blankets were added in cold weather. Only the northeastern group wore moccasins and snowshoes. Both sexes wore tattoos and shell, bone, feather, and wood ornaments.

War and Weapons Posting regular sentries against enemies was a common practice. Although all groups recognized foreign enemies, most warfare occurred between villages or village communities. Favored tactics included raiding and ambush. Arrows were often poisoned. Other weapons included spears, sticks, slings, and elk hide armor. The Konkow tortured captured males, whereas the Nisenan simply killed them. Women prisoners were generally kept in the household.

Contemporary Information

Government/Reservations Berry Creek (1916; 33 acres; Butte County) and Enterprise (1906; 40 acres; Butte County) are the two Maidu rancherias. Maidus also live on the Greenville Rancheria (Plumas and Tehama Counties), Shingle Springs Rancheria (El Dorado County), the Susanville Rancheria (1923; 150 acres), and the Round Valley Reservation (1864; 30,538 acres) with other tribes. Most rancherias are governed by elected tribal councils.

The Chico Rancheria (Mechoopda Maidu) is governed by an elected tribal government. There were about 70 residents of a population of 400 in the early 1990s.

Economy Unemployment among the Maidu community remains chronically high. Because of the small land base and limited resources, economic development remains extremely limited.

Legal Status The Berry Creek Rancheria of Maidu Indians; the Greenville Rancheria of Maidu Indians; the Enterprise Rancheria of Maidu Indians; the Mooretown Rancheria of Maidu Indians; the Shingle Springs Rancheria of Maidu Indians; the Susanville Indian Rancheria of Paiute, Maidu, Pit River, and Washoe Indians; and the Covelo Indian Community of the Round Valley Reservation are all federally recognized tribal entities. The Mechoopda Tribe of Maidu Indians was rerecognized in 1992.

The Maidu Nation and the North Maidu Tribe are currently unrecognized.

Daily Life Maidus have generally assimilated with other Indians and with the general population. A few Maidu still speak their language, make baskets, and hold ceremonies. Social problems abound: Education levels are low, whereas levels of crime, alcoholism, and suicide remain stubbornly high. Housing, sanitation, and health care is generally poor. Many Maidus suffer from diabetes. The Maidu hold an annual bear dance in Janesville, and efforts have increased to preserve the language and culture. Maidus are also active in pan-Indian activities.

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