Native Americans of California

California," in the context of this chapter, corresponds approximately to the present state of California. It omits the southeastern deserts because the Indian cultures of those deserts are usually considered part of the Southwest. Nor does it cover the region east of the Sierra Nevada (Great Basin), the extreme northeast of the state (Plateau), or Baja California (Mexico). The region contains two great mountain ranges, the Coastal and the Sierra Nevada; two major rivers, the Sacramento and the San Joaquin, and many minor river systems; roughly 1,100 miles of coast; interior semidesert; and, at least before the nineteenth century, huge areas of grassland in the central valleys. Much of California’s climate may be categorized as Mediterranean, with the north, west, and highlands in general receiving more precipitation than the south, east, and lowlands.

Today’s references to pre-twentieth-century "tribes," such as "Pomo" or "Cahuilla," are nothing more than contemporary conventions. Few, if any, of the roughly 300,000 California Indians (eighteenth century) were organized into true tribes. Instead, the most common form of political organization and the largest autonomous group was the tribelet, or cluster of satellite villages around one or more permanent villages. Perhaps 500 of these groups existed in aboriginal California. Tribelets shared a language, culture, and history. Each contained from some 50 to 500 people. They were often presided over by a headman, or chief, who controlled economic resources and activity. Chiefs were generally very wealthy and greatly respected. Different tribelets were occasionally named and even spoke varying dialects. Members of a tribelet were often related through the male line. Tribelets in northwestern California were, as a rule, less cohesive than in other parts of the region.


A selection of finely crafted California Indian baskets.

A selection of finely crafted California Indian baskets.

With perhaps the highest pre-Columbian population density north of Mexico, California Indians spoke over 300 different dialects of some 100 languages. The three main language families were the Hokan (from the Great Plains), Penutian (possibly from British Colombia and/or the Yucatan), and Uto-Aztecan (from the Southwest). Algonquian (eastern North America), Athapaskan (from Canada), and Yukian (origin unknown) languages were also spoken in California.

Though in many ways quite diverse, California Indians tended to share a number of cultural similarities. Foremost among these perhaps was a dependence on acorns as a staple food. Others included the use of shamans as religious leaders and doctors, especially doctors who cure by sucking; political organization by tribelet; an emphasis on individual wealth and private property; a reliance on such foods as fish, deer, elk, antelope, buckeye, sage seed, and epos root in addition to the primary food of acorns; the manufacture of numerous types of finely crafted baskets; and the use of datura in religious or rite-of-passage ceremonies. Many California people were subjected to strong mission influences in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

In general, although California Indians suffered terribly from contact with the Spanish, they fared even worse at the hands of non-natives around the time of the gold rush and after. The population of Native Americans in the region fell by more than 90 percent, from upward of 200,000 in the mid-nineteenth century to roughly 15,000, within the span of a generation or two. Today, the descendants of these people, still in the process of regrouping, are fashioning renewed lives and identities as Indians of California.

California being relatively isolated geographically, its original occupation by people was probably not the result of mass migrations of major cultures but rather the slow trickling in of a number of small groups over a long period of time. Archaeologists have determined that people were present in some parts of California at least 19,000 years ago. Some believe that human occupation goes back 50,000 years. About 9000 B.C.E., native peoples began the transition from an economy based mainly on hunting to one that also depended heavily on seed collecting. By about 2000 B.C.E., people had adjusted to local environments to the point that they had evolved several different subsistence patterns.

During the hunting period, people probably used darts powered by throwing sticks to bring down ancient species of camel, bison, and horse as well as several species of big game that still exist. They also hunted smaller mammals and fowl, fished, and ate some shellfish and plant food. They lived in open-air dwellings, although they may also have used caves for shelter. The transition to seed collecting took place between roughly 6000 and 3000 B.C.E., particularly along the south coast. In some areas the changeover evolved directly from the hunting economy, whereas in others it seems to have been a function of the westward migration of interior seed-gathering peoples. Milling stones served as the gatherers’ primary tool. During this time, settlements seem to have increased in both size and stability.

After about 3000 B.C.E., Native Americans in California began to show a more pronounced economic and cultural diversity in response to fine-tuned regional and local adaptations. In general, a variety of subsistence strategies was practiced, with one predominating. Tools became more varied, numerous, and well made. At this time, the Windmiller culture flourished in the lower Sacramento Valley. Those people were accomplished artists and craftspeople, having made a number of stone, bone, and wooden tools as well as beads from shells acquired in trade from coastal tribes. They also made pottery, twined baskets, and, most notably, finely crafted charmstones, the exact purpose of which is unclear. The dead were buried prone, with faces down and oriented toward the west. They were decorated with shells and pendants and accompanied by a variety of goods.

Regional and local diversification was sufficiently advanced that by roughly 500 C.E., and in some cases much earlier, the basic patterns and customs of many historical peoples had been established. Population shifts and, in general, increases in village size and complexity also continued during this time, as people continued to take better advantage of food resources. As already mentioned, most California Indians depended on the acorn as a staple food. Acorns were collected on special autumn expeditions organized specifically for this purpose. After removing the kernels from the shell, sun drying them and pounding them into flour, Indian women leached out the bitter tannic acid by a variety of methods, most commonly by repeatedly pouring hot water over the flour. The meal was then boiled into soup or mush or baked into bread. Other common foods, which of course varied depending on the availability of resources, included big game such as deer, elk, antelope, and bear; fish such as salmon and trout; smaller mammals; a huge diversity of seeds, nuts, berries, roots, bulbs, tubers, and greens; insects and their larvae; waterfowl; sea mammals; shellfish and mollusks. The only cultivated crop was tobacco.

From as early as 1000 B.C.E., many California Indian groups created rock art. Most such art was probably made for ceremonial purposes, such as hunting or puberty rituals. Indians either carved or pecked the rock face (petroglyphs) or painted it (pictographs) to make their drawings. Most designs featured geometric patterns such as crosses, stars, wheels, triangles, and dots as well as stylized representations of people and animals.

Trade was well developed in California. Most trade occurred between close neighbors, although long-distance trading was not uncommon either, as an extensive and continuous trail system crisscrossed the entire region. Items were either bartered or purchased with money such as dentalium shells, clamshell disk beads, and magnesite beads. Among the chief items traded were foods, especially salt, acorns, and fish; shell beads; baskets; hides and pelts; obsidian; and bows. Trading generally took place either as part of friendly visits or on ceremonial occasions.

Organized warfare was rare among California Indians. Reasons for conflict ranged from physical offenses such as murder and rape to trespass and sorcery to simple insult. Surprise attacks were often the preferred method of fighting; in any case, pitched battles were generally avoided, and casualties remained low. Armed conflict was generally resolved after a brief period of fighting, with the headmen of each party forming a peace commission to work out the details. Most groups agreed to compensate the other for all damages incurred, such as loss of life and property.

Ceremonialism played an important role in the lives of most California Indians. For most groups, shamans were the religious leaders as well as the curers, obtaining their powers through intercourse with supernatural spirits. Some peoples had secret religious societies, such as those associated with the Kuksu cult. This cult involved a lengthy and complex instructional period and, by referencing and impersonating supernatural spirits, symbolically restored the group to an original, perfect state. Other groups celebrated a World Renewal cycle of ceremonies, an elaboration of first salmon rituals that provided an opportunity to relate history and mythology and to display wealth.

Most groups practiced well-defined rituals centered around life-cycle events such as puberty and death. Other ceremonial occasions were related to subsistence. Shamanic preparation as well as certain initiation rites or ceremonies frequently included the use of psychotropic drugs such as datura (jimsonweed or toloache) to assist in the attainment of visions. Tobacco was also an important part of most rituals. Music and dance were an integral part of most ceremonies. Catholicism arrived by force with the Spanish. Most peoples were influenced by the Ghost Dances of the 1870s.

Marriage generally took place when the couple was recently postpubescent. Northern California Indians observed a relatively rigid and closed class system, based on wealth and perpetuated by marriage (including the bride price) and custom: People were either elite, common, or poor. Some groups also kept slaves. Chiefs and shamans often had more than one wife, as could any wealthy man. Occupational specialists included craftspeople as well as minor officials such as assistant chief, messenger, and dance manager. Games such as hoop-and-pole, the hand game, cat’s cradle, shinny (a form of lacrosse), dice, and athletic contests, as well as music and dancing, were almost universal.

Indians across California first encountered non-natives at widely different times. Along the southern and central coast, Indians met Spanish and English explorers, for example, as early as the mid-sixteenth century. In some of the interior hills and valleys, face-to-face contact occurred as late as the early to mid-nineteenth century, and in some more remote desert and mountain locations not until the early twentieth century, although indirect contact had been established for some time previously in the form of trade items, diffused customs, and disease. Radical change due to contact with non-natives began in the south and central coastal regions with the establishment of the first missions and in the north and interior with the gold- and/or land-induced invasion of Indian territory.

The long-term presence of the Spanish, beginning in 1769 with the founding of a presidio and Franciscan mission in San Diego, had a profound effect on California. Immediate ramifications were of two kinds. Habitat change occurred when European grasses and weeds replaced the original seed-food grasses; overgrazing accelerated erosion and diminished the amount of available surface water; and the amount of much wild game and marine food was reduced. Direct personal change occurred when large numbers of Indians were forcibly transported and confined to Spanish missions from San Diego to San Francisco. There, disease, torture, overwork, and malnourishment, combined with a policy of cultural genocide, both drastically reduced Indian populations and destroyed many cultures. Indians resisted both actively, through occasional armed revolts, and passively, mainly by escaping into the interior, where they introduced horses, firearms, and other elements of Spanish culture. Indians in southern and central California who remained outside of mission life were generally able to adopt resistance strategies and gradually adapt their lives to the new influences.

The missions came under Mexican control in 1834 and were secularized shortly thereafter. The original intention had been to divide mission lands and wealth between the new administrators and the Indians; in practice, the former kept it all for themselves. Many mission Indians worked on the new ranchos (estates), living lives little different from those in the missions. Others drifted into lives of poverty and misery in the white settlements. Some who still had aboriginal homes returned to them, resuming traditional lives as much as possible in the face of cultural dislocation and regular attacks from Mexican colonists. Many Indian groups, particularly in the Sacramento Valley, abandoned their once-peaceful ways and turned to raiding and guerrilla warfare to protect themselves. Some Indians also fought with the Yankees in the Mexican War.

Further dislocations occurred as the United States took possession of California. The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo had no provisions protecting Indian land title. Many Indian peoples living in the regions of the mines as well as desirable farmlands in central and northern California were overwhelmed by the crunch of non-native immigrants and were all but exterminated. After 1850, many Indians living in interior California lost their lives to starvation and unchecked—in fact, government-subsidized— massacres. Vigilantes and other criminals kidnapped more than 10,000 Indian men, women, and children and sold them for use as virtual slaves. Furthermore, disease, in part caused by lowered resistance due to hunger and ill-treatment, probably surpassed kidnapping and murder as a cause of village abandonment. In 1833 a major malaria epidemic struck Indian populations. Later smallpox and venereal and other diseases took a huge toll.

In the early 1850s, U.S. treaty commissioners met with 400 or so chiefs and headmen, representing between one-third and one-half of California Indians. At that time several Indian groups signed 18 treaties, but the state of California, asserting its "state’s rights" and preferring Indian extinction to a negotiated settlement, pressured the U.S. government not to ratify them. The United States did establish several reservations in the 1850s; however, since federal aid was siphoned off by corrupt bureaucrats, and massacres, kidnappings, and land theft continued even on the reservations themselves, most were abandoned in the following decade. Most California Indians were never restricted to reservations but were left to fend for themselves, their land taken and most of their people destroyed.

In the 1870s, federal administration of Indian affairs in the state was placed under the control of churches, which promptly moved to suppress all traditional religious practices. The United States began granting reservations to so-called Mission Indians in 1875. Throughout the last half of the nineteenth century, Indians struggled to support themselves through farming, raising livestock, and subsistence and ruthlessly exploitative wage labor while receiving few or no government services. This pattern continued well into the twentieth century. At the same time, Indians continued to resist government policies such as the abduction and forced settlement of their children at boarding schools and the breaking up of their reservations under the provisions of the hated Dawes Act (1886), all aimed at detribalization and forced assimilation. Although Indian resistance was partially successful, Anglo pressure was inexorable, and the old ways and knowledge declined steadily during the twentieth century.

Following World War II, government "termination" policies favored ending all services to California Indians, a move that resulted in plunging economic and quality-of-life indicators on the remaining reservations and rancherias. In the 1960s, federal housing, health, education, and training programs and a changing political climate combined to provide an environment within which California Indians began to take greater control over their lives. They created new political organizations to meet the new situations. Eventually, interreservation organizations proliferated to meet the needs of Indians.

Cultural change accompanied political and economic change. The establishment of several museums and language classes reflected a growing interest in native cultures. Increasing Indian interest in and control over their own education resulted in greater Indian participation in the educational process at all levels. Indian morale slowly rebounded. The Native American Historical Society led an effort to replace negative stereotypes in school texts; this organization also created a publishing house and a newspaper, Wassaja. Still, in the 1970s, most Indians lived with appalling housing conditions and few job opportunities and were continuing to lose their land base as a result primarily of tax and other government policies.

Today, people once thought to be extinct are in fact still very much present. Many Indian peoples have survived as recognizable, continuous entities. There is much lost ground to be recovered, yet California Indians are tackling the issues of identity, housing, and land within a context of renewed self-determination and pride as well as sophisticated political organizing, economic planning, and communication skills.

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