Wintun (Native Americans of California)

Wintun, "person." The Wintun people consisted of three subgroups: Patwin (Southern); River and Hill Nomlaki (Central); and Wintu (Northern).

Location Wintuns traditionally lived west of the Sacramento River, from the valley to the Coast Range. Today most Wintuns live on reservations and rancherias in Colusa, Glenn, Yolo, Mendocino, and Shasta Counties.

Population The eighteenth-century population of Wintuns was roughly 15,000, including perhaps 2,000 Nomlaki. In 1990, 147 Indians lived on the four Wintun rancherias, and more lived off-reservation. Also, Wintuns were among 656 Indians who lived on two other shared reservations. The enrolled membership figures were 2,244 Wintu, 332 Nomlaki, and no Patwin.

Language The three Wintun language groups— Wintu, Nomlaki, and Patwin—are Penutian languages.

Historical Information

History In aboriginal times, the Wintuns consisted of nine major groups within the three main subgroups. Some Nomlakis encountered the Spanish as early as 1808, although in general the Nomlaki were outside the sphere of Spanish influence.

By 1800, Patwins were being taken by force to the missions. Wintus first met non-natives in 1826, when the Jedediah Smith and Peter Ogden expeditions entered the region. Malaria epidemics killed roughly 75 percent of Wintuns in the early 1830s. Severe smallpox epidemics followed in 1837. By the mid-nineteenth century, most of their land had been stolen. Ranchers’ cattle and sheep destroyed their main food sources. Miners polluted the fresh water. Then came the massacres. Captain John C. Fremont killed 175 Wintu and Yana in 1846; in 1850, whites gave a "friendship" feast with poisoned food, killing 100 Wintu. In 1851, 300 Indians died when miners burned the Wintu council house.


The so-called Cottonwood Treaty, ratified in 1852, acknowledged 35 square miles of Wintu land, but from 1858 to 1859, California regular and irregular troops killed at least 100 Wintus and displaced hundreds of others. Throughout the 1860s, Wintuns were hunted down and either killed or used as laborers. The 25,000-acre Nome Lackee Reservation was established in 1854 in the foothills of western Tehama County. Indians created a stable existence there based on farming, but by 1863, the reservation had been taken over by whites, and its residents were sent to Round Valley. Many surviving Nomlakis eventually returned to their old territory, working as farm hands and establishing a number of settlements, or rancherias. Most Patwins who survived the missions, military forays, raids, epidemics, and massacres either became assimilated into white society or were forced onto small reservations during the 1850s and 1860s, most of which have since been terminated.

A period of religious revival occurred in the 1870s, during which much traditional practice was replaced with Ghost Dance and, later, Big Head ceremonies. Wintus gathered en masse for the last time at the end of the nineteenth century. Copper-processing plants around the turn of the century poisoned what decent land and water remained in the region. Cortina, Colusa, Paskenta, and Grindstone Rancherias were created between 1906 and 1909. Wintu children were formally excluded from local schools until 1928. Termination and allotment policies during 1952 and 1953 further broke up Wintun culture; only three rancherias survived this period. In the 1930s, and again in the 1970s, dam construction flooded much of their remaining land. Despite an agreement with the Wintu people, the U.S. government removed people from and destroyed the Toyon-Wintu site in 1984.

Religion The rich Wintun mythology included recognition of a supreme being as well as numerous spirits. Wintuns prayed to the sun before washing in the morning, smoking, and eating. Spirits, present in all things, could be acquired by dreaming and going to a sacred place and engaging in ritual behavior. Among the Nomlaki, they could also be influenced by prayer, charms, magic, and ritual. Shamans provided overall religious leadership. Bear shamans could destroy enemies. They received their powers during an annual five-day initiation period of fasting, dancing, and instruction from other shamans. Their curing methods included massage, soul capture, and sucking out a disease-causing object. Some Wintuns practiced the Kuksu cult, in which one or more secret societies, open by initiation to men and some high-status women, performed their own dances and rituals to restore the people to a perfect aboriginal state.

Wintuns did not adopt the 1870 Ghost Dance but rather the 1871 Earth Lodge cult, which preached return of the dead, the end of the world, and protection of the faithful. The Bole-Maru religion came in 1872, and dream dancing was popular toward the end of the century. Among the Nomlaki, virtually every activity and life-cycle phase carried with it ritual restrictions and ceremonies.

Government Like many California peoples, Wintuns were organized into tribelets. The village was the main social, economic, and political unit. Villages were autonomous and had clearly defined territory.

Each village was led by a chief, often hereditary, who arbitrated disputes, hosted ceremonies and gatherings, and engaged in diplomatic relations with chiefs of other villages. The chief, who was materially supported by his followers, had to be a good singer and dancer and generally well liked. The Nomlaki recognized a secret society of higher-status men. These people had a higher degree of authority in public matters and controlled most of the skilled crafts and professions.

Customs The complex girls’ puberty ritual involved seclusion for up to seven months in a special hut, a special diet and behavior, and, later, a dance. Boys had no puberty ceremony, but after killing their first deer they gave away the meat and then bathed. Marriage and cohabitation were synonymous; premarital relations were frowned upon. Wealthy men might have more than one wife. Mother-in-law taboos were present but not absolute. Both men and women observed many food and behavioral taboos related to pregnancy and birth. When a person died, mourners dressed his or her body in good clothes, removed it through a special opening in the rear of the house, and buried it with acorn meal, water, and personal items. The Patwin wrapped their dead with long hemp cords. Souls were said to travel along the Milky Way.

Murder and rape or other sexual transgressions were generally capital crimes. Most intentional crimes could be atoned for by compensating the injured party. Dances were more often social than religious and were often given when food was plentiful. Gambling was also a part of social dances; activities included the grass game (men), hand games, shinny (women), football, hoop and pole, ring and pin, and other contests of skill. Songs could also be social or religious.


Dwellings Four to seven pole-framed, bark-covered conical houses made up a village. Among the Patwin, dwellings as well as the ceremonial and domed menstrual huts were semisubterranean and earth covered. The men’s clubhouse and sweat lodge was semisubterranean and circular, 15-20 feet in diameter, with one center pole. In cold weather single men also slept there.

Diet Men hunted deer and rabbits both communally in drives and individually. They also smoked bear (except grizzly) out of their dens and captured fowl, birds, and rodents. Communal drives were held to catch salmon and trout. Women gathered grubs, grasshoppers, acorns, greens, and seeds. Men and women cooperated in gathering acorns, with men shaking acorns out of trees for women to gather. The acorns were then dried and pounded into meal, after leaching them to remove their bitter taste.

Key Technology Material items included bows (seasoned yew, reinforced with shredded deer sinew and containing twisted deer backbone sinew string), arrowheads (obsidian, pressure-flaked), arrows, and fishing nets, poles, and traps. Iris, hemp, grapevine, and milkweed were used for cordage. Other tools were made from bone, horn, and stone. Baskets served a number of functions. Fire drills were made of buckeye. Grass, boughs, or deer hides served as mattresses.

Trade Trade was more frequent between villages or tribelets than with other peoples. Wintus obtained salmon flour, body paints, yew wood for bows, and obsidian for deer hides, woodpecker scalps, and salt. The Nomlaki traded for highly prized black bear pelts. They also traded in items made from Oregon to San Francisco Bay. Patwins traded freely and intermarried with some Pomo groups. Bows were a common item of exchange. In general, strings of clamshell disks, dentalia, and magnesite cylinders served as money. Men bartered mostly in clamshells and dentalia, women in baskets.

Notable Arts Basket making constituted the main Wintun fine art.

Transportation People used rafts to cross streams and floated children or supplies in large baskets. River Patwin used tule balsa boats that exceeded 20 feet in length.

Dress Dress was minimal. Adult women wore shredded maple bark aprons. Capes and blankets for warmth were of deer, fox, and rabbit skin.

Decorations included earrings, headdresses, and tattooing (mainly women). The Nomlaki wore elk hide sandals.

War and Weapons In addition to fighting neighboring villages and tribelets, Wintun enemies generally included the Shasta, Klamath, Modoc, and Yana. The Nomlakis’ main enemy was the Yuki. Wintus took no prisoners. Typical provocations for feuds or war included murder, theft of women, poaching, and trespass. Among the Nomlaki not all men fought; those who did underwent special practical and magical training. Seers determined the proper course of action, and poisoners used magic as a weapon. Wars were usually limited, and casualties were minimal. Weapons included the bow and arrow, clubs, spears, daggers, slings, and wooden rod armor. Hand-to-hand fighting was avoided if possible. When the fighting stopped, an assembly of important men decided on just compensation.

Contemporary Information

Government/Reservations Wintuns currently live at Grindstone Creek Rancheria (Glenn County; 1906; 80 acres), Cortina Rancheria (Colusa County; 1907; 640 acres [Miwok]), Colusa Rancheria (Colusa County; 1907; 273 acres), Redding Rancheria (Shasta County), Rumsey Rancheria ("Yocha-De-He"; Yolo County; 1907; 185 acres), and the Round Valley Reservation/Covelo Indian Community (Mendocino County; 1864; 30,538 acres [Wailaki, Yuki, Nomlaki, Pomo, Concow, Pit River, and Little Lake peoples]). The Rumsey Rancheria elects a tribal council based on a constitution and by-laws approved in 1976. Other communities are governed by tribal councils as well.

Economy The Rumsey Rancheria’s diversified businesses include agricultural enterprises and a grocery store, service station, and bingo casino. They are financially self-sufficient.

Legal Status The Colusa Rancheria (Cachil DeHe Band of the Colosa Indian Community); Cortina Indian Rancheria; Grindstone Indian Rancheria (Wintun-Wailaki); and the Rumsey Indian Rancheria are federally recognized tribal entities. The Covelo Indian Community of the Round Valley Reservation is a federally recognized tribal entity. The Hayfork Band of Nor-El-Muk Wintu Indians, the Wintoon Indians, and the Wintu Indians of Central Valley had not received federal recognition as of 1997.

Daily Life In the 1970s, the residents of Grindstone Rancheria, in combination with local non-Indians, successfully fought the Story-Elk Creek Dam. Today’s Wintus work to protect ancient burial sites as well as the sacred Mt. Shasta. The Nomlaki have been forced to deal with the issue of toxic waste dumping. Although much traditional culture has been lost, their heritage, transmitted in large measure by dedicated elders, remains very important to Wintu people.

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