Yokuts (Native Americans of California)

Yokuts, a linguistic term meaning "person" or "People." The three divisions were the Northern Valley Yokuts, the Southern Valley Yokuts, and the Foothill Yokuts. Contemporary Yokuts tribes include the Choinumni, the Chukchansi, the Tachi (or Tache) and the Wukchumni.

Location The Yokuts traditionally lived along the San Joaquin Valley and the Sierra Nevada foothills. Specifically, the Southern Yokuts inhabited a lake-slough-marsh environment in the southern San Joaquin Valley; the Northern Yokuts’ territory was wetlands and grassy plains in the northern San Joaquin Valley; and the Foothill Yokuts lived approximately on the western slopes between the Fresno and Kern Rivers. Today, Yokuts live on two rancherias in Tulare and Kings Counties and in nearby communities.

Population The Yokuts population stood between 18,000 and 50,000 in the early eighteenth century. They had one of the highest regional population densities in aboriginal North America. In 1990, about 1,150 Indians lived on two Yokuts rancherias. At least several hundred more live on other rancherias and are scattered nearby and around California.

Language Yokuts people spoke various dialects of Yokuts, a California Penutian language.

Historical Information

History The San Joaquin Valley has been inhabited for some 11,000 years. Yokuts culture is probably about between 600 and 2,000 years old, with direct cultural antecedents dating back perhaps 7,000 years. Aboriginal population density was extremely high, relatively speaking. The Spanish came into the region of the Southern Yokuts in the 1770s and were warmly received.


In the early nineteenth century, serious cultural destruction began as the northern valleys were drawn into the exploitative mission system. Yokuts resistance and retaliation brought further Spanish repression and even military expeditions. Foothills Yokuts communities were protected by their relative isolation, but they sheltered escapees and began raiding for horses to ride and eat, activities that they continued into the Mexican period. Yokuts became excellent cattle breeders and horse breakers during this period.

In the early 1830s, malaria and cholera epidemics killed roughly three-quarters of all Indians in the region. Mexicans established land grants in the San Joaquin Valley. By then, traditional flora, fauna, and subsistence patterns had all been severely disrupted. After the United States annexed California in 1848, its citizens began a large-scale campaign of slaughter and land theft against the Yokuts. The latter, along with their Miwok allies, resisted Anglo violence and land theft by force (such as the Mariposa Indian War of 1850-1851). In 1851, the tribes signed a treaty to relinquish their land for a reservation and payment, but pressure from the state of California kept the U.S. government from ratifying the agreement.

Dispossessed, some Yokuts worked on local ranches, where they were poorly paid and kept practically in peonage. The 1870 Ghost Dance revival provided a straw of hope to a beaten people. It lasted two years; its failure probably prevented the 1890 Ghost Dance from gaining popularity. The Tule River Reservation was established 1873. The Santa Rosa Rancheria was established in 1921.

Yokuts found minimal employment in the logging industry, as ranch hands, and as farm laborers into the twentieth century. Their children were forcibly sent to culture-killing boarding schools in the early part of the century. By the 1950s, most Indian children were in (segregated) public schools. A cultural revival took place beginning in the 1960s.

Religion The Yokuts’ most important festival was their annual six-day ritual in honor of the dead. They also celebrated the arrival of the first fruit of the season. Group ceremonies were always conducted in the open and included shamanic displays of magic powers. Many men and older women also had spiritual helpers that conferred good fortune or specific abilities. The Northern Yokuts may have practiced the Kuksu cult. Men and women of this group also drank datura annually as part of a spring cleansing and curing ritual. Among the central Foothills group, datura was drunk once in a lifetime, by adolescents.


Government The Yokuts were organized into about 50 named tribelets, each with its own semipermanent villages, territory, and dialect. Each tribelet also had several hereditary chiefs (often at least one per village, usually from among the Eagle lineage). The chief, usually a wealthy man, sponsored ceremonies, hosted guests, aided the poor, mediated disputes, and authorized hunts as well as the murder of evil people such as sorcerers. Other offices included chief’s messenger.

Customs Corpses, often along with their material possessions, were traditionally cremated. Most undertakers were berdaches. Public and private mourning ceremonies were observed. The afterworld, to the west or northwest, was a mirror image of this world, only better.

Shamans derived power from spirit animals via dreams or vision quests. They cured and presided over ceremonies. Large fees were charged for cures. Chronically unsuccessful shamans might be accused of sorcery and killed.

Various patrilineal lines existed among the Yokuts. Each had a totem symbol, such as a bird or an animal, which had certain ceremonial functions. Also, many tribelets had a dual division (Eagle and Coyote).

A Yokuts shaman displays his baskets and some of his medicine equipment in 1920. Shamans derived power from spirit animals via dreams or vision quests. Chronically unsuccessful shamans might be accused of sorcery and killed.

A Yokuts shaman displays his baskets and some of his medicine equipment in 1920. Shamans derived power from spirit animals via dreams or vision quests. Chronically unsuccessful shamans might be accused of sorcery and killed.

Among both men and women, various restrictions and taboos were associated with pregnancy and childbirth. The girls’ puberty ceremony also involved certain restrictions and taboos. Families arranged the marriages with the couple’s consent. Most men had only one wife. After living for a year with the woman’s parents, a couple lived in or near the husband’s parents’ home. The Yokuts observed parent-in-law taboos. Divorce was relatively easy to obtain. After their infant cradle of soft tule, babies were confined to a forked-stick frame for almost a year.

Among the Foothill Yokuts, everyone swam at least daily, with adolescents also swimming several times at night during the winter for toughening. The divisions competed against each other in games, with men and women often gambling on the results. Both sexes played the hand game. Women also threw dice or split sticks. Leisure activities also included dancing and storytelling. Men smoked tobacco, usually at bedtime. Rattles accompanied most singing, which usually occurred during rituals. Other instruments included bone and wood whistles, flutes, and a musical bow.

Dwellings The Southern Yokuts built both single-family oval-shaped and ten-family dwellings, in which each family had its own door and fireplace. Both featured tule mats covering pole frames. Mats also covered the floor and raised beds. Men sweated and sometimes slept in sweat houses.

The Northern Yokuts built similar single-family and possibly ceremonial earth lodges. Conical huts thatched with grass or bark slabs characterized dwellings of the Foothills Yokuts. Beds were of pine needles. Other structures included sweat houses, gaming courts, and mat-covered granaries and ramadas. Among Foothills Yokuts, women might use the sweat houses when no men were present.

Diet The wetland home of the Southern Valley Yokuts contained an enormous variety and quantity of wildlife. They hunted fowl, rabbits, squirrels and other rodents, turtles, and occasionally big game. They gathered tule roots, manzanita berries, pine nuts, and seeds. Seafood included lake trout, salmon,perch, and mussels. Fresh fish was broiled on hot coals or sun-dried for storage. They also raised dogs for eating but did not eat frogs. Their salt came from salt grass.

In addition to many of the above foods, Northern Valley Yokuts depended on fish, mussels, turtles, elk, antelope, and smaller mammals. Salmon and especially acorns were staples. The Foothills Yokuts ate a lot of deer, quail, acorns, and fish. They also ate pine nuts, wild oats, manzanita berries, duck, trout, wasp grubs, squirrels, and rabbits. Iris bulb and tule root were important sources of flour. Men stalked deer by using deer disguises, or they ambushed them and shot them with bow and arrow. Quail were trapped. Salmon and other fish were caught with spears, weirs, and basket traps. The Yokuts also planted tobacco and may have engaged in basic horticulture or plant management.

Key Technology Baskets alone included water bottles, seed beaters, burden baskets, cooking vessels, winnowing trays, cradles, and caps. People fished with traps, nets, baskets, and spears from scaffolds built over river banks. Other types of snares and nets were used to capture fowl, as were spring poles with underwater triggers, stuffed decoys, and special water-skimming arrows.

Cords and ropes were fashioned from milkweed fiber. Ovens were made of earth. Northern Valley Yokuts’ tools were made more often of stone and bone. Foothills Yokuts used stone, obsidian, granite, and quartz, and they had basic pottery. Southern Valley Yokuts made most of their crafts of tule, although there were a few wood, stone, and bone tools. The Yokuts burned wild seed plant areas to improve the following year’s crop.

Trade Yokuts Indians traded widely with peoples of different habitats. Southern Valley people imported obsidian for arrowheads and sharp tools, stone mortars and pestles, wooden mortars, and marine shells for money and decoration. Northern Valley people traded dog pups for Miwok baskets and bows and arrows. They also traded with other tribes for mussels and abalone shells. Hunting, gathering, or fishing rights were occasionally exchanged as well.

Notable Arts Basketry was considered a fine art as well as a craft. Representational petroglyphs, mostly circles and dots, were made perhaps as early as 1000 B.C.E. The Yokuts also drew pictographs, similar to those of the Chumash, into the historic period.

Transportation Valley Yokuts used wide, flat rafts made from lashed tule rushes. They floated belongings across rivers on log rafts. Some Foothills groups also used small basket boats. Women carried burdens in baskets anchored by tumplines.

Dress Dress was minimal. Men wore skin breechclouts at most. Women’s clothing consisted of skin, grass, or tule aprons. Blankets and bedding were often made from the skins of rabbits or mud hens. Women tattooed their chins and used ornaments in pierced ears and noses.

War and Weapons Yokuts tribelets would occasionally fight one another or neighboring groups, but they were generally peaceful. Motives for fighting included trespass, theft of food, or the adventurous raiding by young men. They generally did not take captives. The peace conference included presents that were not considered reparations.

Contemporary Information

Government/Reservations Many Yokuts live on the Santa Rosa Rancheria (1921; 170 acres; about 400 people in 1990 [Tachi tribe]) and the Tule River Reservation (1873; 55,356 acres; 750 people in 1990 [Tule River tribe]). Both are governed by tribal councils. Some Foothills Yokuts live in hamlets or scattered dwellings on or near their former territories.

The Choinumni tribe is governed by a tribal council and affiliated with the Choinumni Cultural Association. Their 1990 population was about 250.

The Wukchumni tribe, population about 300 (1990), is governed by a tribal council.

The Picayune Rancheria (Chukchansi tribe) was founded in 1912 and "unterminated" in 1984. There is no land base for the population of about 800.

Table Mountain Rancheria (Chukchansi and Monache; 1916; 100 acres) had a 1990 population of about 100 people.

Economy Primary economic activities include lumbering; ranching, including the leasing of lands; and farming. Many people, especially off-reservation Yokuts, receive government assistance. The Tule River Economic Development Corporation is a local planning agency. There are bingo parlors on the Table Mountain and Santa Rosa Rancherias.

Legal Status The Santa Rosa Indian Community (Tachi Tribe) is a federally recognized tribal entity. The Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians is a federally recognized tribal entity. The Table Mountain Rancheria is a federally recognized tribal entity. The Tule River Indian Tribe of the Tule River Indian Reservation is a federally recognized tribal entity. The Choinumni Tribe and the Wukchumni Tribe had not received federal recognition as of 1997.

Daily Life Some Yokuts dialects are still spoken. Much of Yokuts traditional culture, other than on a scattered individual level, has disappeared. Some spiritual leaders belong to the Native American Cultural Association. Educational levels among the Yokuts is generally low, and the people suffer from recurring social and health problems. Important contemporary concerns include health care, education, land rights, the protection of sacred sites, and federal recognition.

The Tule River Reservation has its own health center. It also sponsors an elders’ gathering in August and San Juan’s Day in June. The Choinumni Tribe celebrates a traditional harvest gathering. The Wukchumni Tribe holds a spring dance. Chukchansi Indians are working to establish a land base. The Santa Rosa Rancheria celebrates a festival for spiritual renewal on March 1. Yokuts also attend many intertribal gatherings.

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