Shasta (Native Americans of California)

Shastatmp107_thumbwere one of four Shastan tribes, the other three being Konomihu, Okwanuchu, and New River Shasta. The origin and meaning of the word "Shasta" is obscure. The approximate translation for their word for their homeland, kahusariyeki, is "among those who talk right."

Location Traditionally, the Shasta lived on both sides of the modern California-Oregon border, roughly in Oregon’s Jackson and Klamath Counties and California’s Siskyou County, regions mostly of mountains and forest. Today most Shastas live on the Quartz Valley Rancheria in Siskyou County, California; the Shasta Nation in Yreka, California; and among the general population.

Population Roughly 3,000 Shastas lived in their region in the eighteenth century. In 1990, 19 Indians (Karuk, Shasta, and Upper Klamath) lived at the Quartz Valley Rancheria. The Shasta had roughly 600 enrolled members at that time.

Language Shasta, Konomihu, Okwanuchu, and New River Shasta make up the Shastan division of the Hokan language family.


Historical Information

History Fur trappers in the 1820s constituted the first non-native presence in the Shasta region. Their influence was relatively benign, in sharp contrast to that of the settlers who soon followed in their wake. Although Shastas often fought each other and their neighbors, they all banded together in the 1850s to resist the Anglo invaders. In 1851, a treaty called for a Shasta reservation in Scott Valley, but the state of California refused to let the treaty be ratified. After the signing, Indians ate a meal at which the food had been poisoned with strychnine; thousands more Indians died during the ensuing attacks by white vigilantes.

The few surviving Shastas were forced onto the Grande Ronde and, later, Siletz Reservations. Among the other treaties that included Shastas was the 1864 Klamath Treaty, in which, unbeknownst to them, their aboriginal homeland was ceded. Shastas participated in the late-nineteenth-century religious revivals, including the Ghost Dance, Earth Lodge cult, and Big Head cult.

Religion The most important ceremony centered around girls’ puberty. There were also war dances and doctor-making ceremonies as well as several personal rituals for luck and protection.

Government Shastas lived in villages of one or more families. Larger villages as well as each of the four divisions had a headman (loose hereditary succession) whose duties included mediating disputes among men and preaching correct behavior. The headman’s wife had similar responsibilities among women.

Customs Shamans were usually women. They cured through the use of supernatural powers, which were also the source of all disease and death (except ill will). They acquired these powers through dream trances, during which a spirit or "pain" taught the shaman its song. An extended training period followed the trance experience. Each shaman acquired certain paraphernalia over the years. They diagnosed by singing, dancing, or blowing tobacco smoke and cured by sucking. If a shaman lost too many patients, she was killed. Shamans’ services were also available to kill an enemy (by throwing a "pain") and to find lost or stolen objects and people. Doctors, who cured by using medicinal plants, were also women.

The Shasta observed numerous life-cycle food and behavior taboos. Puberty activities for boys included an optional vision-seeking quest, which ensured success in male activities such as hunting, fishing, gambling, and racing. The girls’ puberty ceremony and dance were the group’s most important. Marriage required the payment of a bride price. Wealthy men occasionally had more than one wife. Divorce was unusual. The dead were buried in family plots; their possessions were burned or buried. Widows cut their hair (widowers singed it), covered their head and face with a pitch and charcoal mixture until remarriage, and observed several taboos. Souls were said to travel east along the Milky Way to the home of Mockingbird, a figure in Shasta mythology.

Both bitter feuds and friendships characterized Shasta intragroup relations. Payment usually resolved interpersonal differences. Families (through the male line) owned exclusive rights to specific hunting or fishing places within the village territory at large. Money and wealth were measured in olivella, haliotsis, deerskins, clamshell disks, dentalia, and woodpecker scalps. Games included ring-and-pin, shinny, target games, and the men’s grass (hand) and women’s many-stick games.

Dwellings Rectangular winter homes were set about three feet into the ground. With earth side walls and wood end walls, they held between one and four families. All houses faced the water. Furnishings included tule pillows and wooden stools. Some groups used tule or raccoon-skin bed coverings; others used elk or deerskin blankets or imported buffalo hides. The community house was similar, but larger. Boys past puberty and unmarried men slept in the sweat house if their village contained one. The menstrual hut was generally located on the west side of the village. Other structures included brush shelters in spring and summer and bark houses during the fall acorn-gathering season.

Diet Shastas generally ate two meals a day. Venison was a staple. Hunters also brought in bear, fowl, turtles, and various small game. Their methods included stalking and the use of drop pits and traps. Various hunting rituals and taboos included not eating one’s first kill. Meat was boiled, baked (in earth ovens), broiled, or dried. Insects were parched or baked.

Men also fished for salmon, mussels, trout, and eels, using spears, nets, and traps. There were several first-fish-run rituals and taboos. Fresh salmon was generally roasted. Acorns were another staple. In addition to acorns, gathered foods included pine nuts, roots, seeds, greens, bulbs, and berries. Dried foodstuffs were ground into flour. Men were often served before women.

Key Technology Most tools were made of wood, bone, stone, and obsidian. The Shasta also used rawhide and basket containers, bowls of wood and soapstone, imported and domestic baskets, and adhesives made of fish glue, pine pitch, and chokecherry pitch.

Trade The four Shasta groups traded with each other as well as within the different villages of each group. They traded acorns (Achumawi, Wintun) and acorn paste (Rogue River Athapaskans), clamshell beads (northern peoples), and buckskin, obsidian, and dentalia (Warm Springs Indians). They obtained obsidian (Achumawi), buckskin clothing (Warm Springs Indians), otter skins (northern peoples), dentalia (Rogue River Athapaskans), and pine nut necklaces (Wintun). Trade with their northern neighbors generally excluded the Klamath and the Modoc. From their California neighbors, the Shasta received acorns, baskets, dentalia, obsidian blades, juniper, and Wintun beads.

Notable Arts The Shasta specialized in making deerskin containers. Their relatively few musical instruments included deer-hoof rattles, bone and elder flutes, and hide drums.

Transportation They used pine dugout canoes and tule rafts to navigate waterways.


Dress Clothing was made of deerskin and shredded bark. People also wore shell necklaces, ear and nose ornaments, face and body paint, and tattoos. Heads were flattened for aesthetic reasons. Caps were of basketry (women) and buckskin (men). Footgear included buckskin ankle-length moccasins and snowshoes.

War and Weapons The four groups occasionally fought with each other. They also engaged in intragroup feuds, primarily for revenge of witchcraft, murder, rape, and insult to a headman. Other occasional enemies included the Achomawi, Wintun, and Modoc (retaliation for the latter’s raiding). Weapons included the bow and arrow, knives, and rod armor vests. Peace settlements included disarmament and payments. Young women occasionally accompanied a Shasta war party. They might be taken captive but were usually returned as part of the settlement.

Contemporary Information

Government/Reservations The Quartz Valley Rancheria (1939; rerecognized in 1983; Siskiyou County) had an early-1990s Shasta population of two.

Shasta descendants also live on the Grande Ronde and Siletz Reservations (see Upper Umpqua entry in Chapter 3).

Economy Most people work in the timber industry or at local small businesses.

Legal Status The Shasta Nation had not received federal recognition as of 1997. The Quartz Valley Rancheria of Karok, Shasta, and Upper Klamath Indians is a federally recognized tribal entity.

Daily Life Today’s Shasta have little knowledge of aboriginal culture. No Shasta languages are currently spoken. The people are primarily interested in federal recognition, archaeology, and the return of grave items. Residents of the Quartz Valley Rancheria suffer from poor health care. Some Shastas possess heirloom family artifacts.

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