Native Americans

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Author: Nancy "Hodges" Wahl Native Americans


Time does not relinquish its rights, either over human beings or over monuments.


TO DISCOVER, UNDERSTAND, and encounter the cultures and intricate natures of the California Indian peoples, it is necessary to search the past. The fast-paced modern world, in a blur of greed and speed, comes perilously close to losing sight of its historical scaffolding, and to losing the vast amount of ancient wisdom which should be preserved and treasured. And learned from. As a non-Indian, but someone who seeks truth and understanding, I have carefully and humbly searched for authentic information about the first people to dwell, hunt, and gather here in California: those first residents, who had a harmonious relationship with Earth.  

Most of the known history romanticizes the early mission times. Both Anglo-Saxons and Spanish exploited the New World resources; the Ibero-Americans utilizing the natives and incorporating them in their social and economic structure, and the Anglo-Americans excluding them from their own social order. The Indian was eliminated either by outright extermination or the slower method of segregation in ghetto-like reservations. (Heizer and Whipple 1971)

The usual historical accounts describe those pretty, touristy missions, but omit the fact that they were founded during the high-spirited time of the Spanish Inquisition with its policy of "heathen conversion." The padres may have meant well, having the best interests of "those naked savages" at heart, but actually the padres were patronizing and dictatorial and used the Indians by employing them and keeping them as an economic asset. What followed, of course, was the destruction of the their individual life. "Suddenly these natives, who were accustomed to their own independent society, found themselves herded together, fed strange food, deprived of their religion, restrained from their own specific sexual customs, and then treated roughly by padre or soldier when they deviated from the Church's prescribed norm." (Eargle 1986). They were forced to conform to the conqueror's scheme of existence and became systematically stripped of their own knowledge and truths. It is easy to understand how, now, the Native Americans regard their stories as sacred, and are careful not to have them commercialized or diluted or..."New Age" interpreted.

The Anglo-American system, on the other hand, had no place for the Indian. To them the native's life was worthless. He had no civil or legal rights whatever. There are not many accounts describing the California Indians' retreat. Nor details about how they drifted off into quiet obscurity, dispersed, hiding and in seclusion. "They left behind them no imperial cities, no great stone temples, not even apartmental pueblos. They left no monuments whatever to slavery, class oppression, or defensive necessity. They were self-governing and free." (Eargle 1986)

Indian-white relations changed dramatically in 1846 when the United States conquered California during the Mexican War. The Hispanic era had been a demographic disaster for California Indians, but the years of the gold rush under the aegis of the United States turned out to cause even worse problems for the Indians. Thousands of miners appropriated whatever they wanted of the Indian lands. Whites attacked native communities, killing or driving away those who offered resistance. An unknown number of Indians were killed and the survivors were forced to live in marginal areas where subsistence was difficult to obtain, and those suffered malnutrition, starvation , and disease. (Hurtado 1988) "Nothing in California history is more painful, offensive, or unforgivable than the invasion of California Indian lands and the slaughter of its inhabitants by the Anglos and other gold-greedy raiders. The invasion and deluge of white barbarians that arrived with the lust for gold were to the Indian as the Huns were to the Roman Empire." (Eargle 1986)

Alfred L. Kroeber's Handbook of the Indians of California was written in 1918 and published by the Bureau of American Ethnology in 1925, and was subsequently reprinted in 1953, running a 1000 pages, describing each tribe separately and in detail. The Indian population of California, according to Kroeber, was estimated at about 133,000 Indians at the time of the Spanish settlement in 1769. More recently, the Berkeley demographer, Sherburne F. Cook has estimated the widely accepted number to be 300,000. By 1900 the Indian population had fallen to about 20,000. The extensive work of Kroeber and Edward Winslow Gifford (1887-1959) resulted in the accumulation of hundreds of stories that bring to light Indian culture and history.

A TRIBE OR BAND, sometimes called a Colony, was made up of a group of people residing in a particular reservation, rancheria, or community. They were called a "tribelet" which was a village community comprising several smaller villages. The older term "tribe" was used to speak of the people east of California such as the Sioux or Navajo. The people of a region usually have a similarity of their traditional idiomality--their linguistic relationship--and then, there are the more diverse cultural customs such as religion, burial, kinship, and, finally, biological ancestry.

Along the western edges of the Modoc Plateau, lies the Central Valley with its dry climate and rugged foothills. This was a suitable environment for the Maidu, the Yana, the Nisenan, the Yahi (Ishi's tribe), and the Konkow because of the creeks and streams flowing down to the Sacramento River and because of the superabundance of white oaks that provided the acorns, one of their main dietary staples. The huge fall harvest was an important event. Gathering was women's work. The acorns had to be dried, hulled, and pounded into flour, then placed in a sandy pit and leached by pouring hot water over a bundle of bullrush twigs to remove the tannic acid that makes them bitter. The flour could then be made into mush or baked into an unleavened bread. Seeds, berries, roots, bulbs, and tubers were dug and gathered. Fish, deer, rabbits, and gamebirds provided meat. For the most part, though, the many different communities of Indians ate the same kinds of foods, gathered and prepared in much the same kinds of way. And their homes and dress were much the same. They kept the same kinds of social organization, and their religious beliefs and spiritual practices were similar.

CALIFORNIA'S NATURAL ABUNDANCE made food gathering sure and easy, perhaps making life a little easier and therefore giving the Indians time to develop a more complex society. All of the people enjoyed the fine art of basketry. Some of their greatest art and creativity is seen in their California basketry, with its wide variety of shapes and decoration. The Pomos, ranging from the coast to the Sierra Nevada foothills, were noted for their basketry, which was among the finest ever created by any aboriginal people in the world.

The California Indians had a rich and intricate culture in medicine, music, dance, games, and art.

There is a family heirloom of a Coast Miwok singing doctor, Thomas Smith, that gives clear evidence to the seriousness of tribal medicine. It is a doctoring bag called the "bundle" with contents of clapper sticks with quartz crystals, buckskin pouches with Maru designs, charmstones, herbs and beads, pigments; mortars and pestles for grinding various pigments and herbs; obsidian blades, large and small; bamboo whistles; pegs from a "ghost house"; golden eagle and flicker feathers; a beaded flicker wing to brush away soreness of joints; a cocoon rattle with ant hill gravel and buzzard quill handle. (Eargle 1986)

Indian houses range from typical 3-pitched roofs and patios (Yurok), to a round mound of earth with grass growing over it, and there is no chimney. There is only the smoke-hole in the roof which is also the main door, and the only way you get in and out of the house is through the smoke-hole in the roof. This would be a large house, a kind of communal hall, holding from twenty to fifty, and even sixty people, sometimes. (Jaime de Angulo)

The California Indians loved games, and more than any of the other North American Indians, they most especially loved the gambling games. In some areas, dicelike counting games were played--exclusively by women. The counters would be walnut shells or acorn cups. Maidu men preferred a guessing game, involving objects hidden in the hands. Or a contest of wits that could go on for days while fortunes in shells, bows, and baskets were wagered. There were hoop-and-pole games. Participants bet heavily on the outcome. A hoop was rolled and a player slid a pole along the ground, hoping that the hoop would fall on top of it when it stopped rolling. The Pomos played a variation of lacrosse. The Miwoks and Yokuts engaged in a sport that required a stick ending in a loop instead of a net. The game of shinny was a sport that involved batting a small block of wood with a curved stick. One version was throwing two blocks of wood--tied together with sinew-- with the shinny stick. The blocks could not be thrown too far and the game could only be played in a small clearing. A kind of soccer was popular, in which players could use only their feet to propel the ball down a large field.

NEARLY ALL PEOPLES had tales of the animal spirits, such as Coyote, Eagle, Bear, Antelope, Mouse, etc., and many family clans took on their symbols.

Before the arrival of the Europeans more than two centuries ago, the Indian oral traditions created an unwritten literature that rivals any literature anywhere in the world. Their tales were filled with an almost innate psychology. According to Joseph Campbell, the world's foremost authority on mythology, mythical tales are elementary ideas--the Jungian archetypes of the unconscious "All over the world and at different times of human history, these archetypes, or elementary ideas, have appeared in different costumes." (Campbell 1988)

The animal characters, common in California, served a literary function: the narrator could use a particular animal's characteristic to describe certain aspects of the personality in the hero, or the villain. No lengthy, drawn-out superfluous word-pictures were needed.

The stories may differ, but there is always an underlying similarity--an archetypal dynamic that Joseph Campbell identifies as the "monomyth." Stories about the character Coyote were legion. He was the trickster, and trickster's function is to uncover and disrupt. Anthropologist, Paul Radin says of the Native American trickster, "He is at one and the same time creator and destroyer, giver and negator, he who dupes others and who is always duped himself...He knows neither good nor evil yet he is responsible for both. He possesses no values, moral or social...yet through his actions all values come into being." Coyote teaches. He softens tensions with humor. Among the Maidu there are tales of Coyote and his mother-in-law. Some Californian tribes had a taboo against speech between son-in-law and mother-in-law. These kinds of stories could bring comical relief--and a kind of "primal" dialogue.

Some of the tales were about the spirit life, and how the spirit speaks. All things are alive and the spirit is within all things. All things are sacred and, therefore: their impressive unprecedented reverence for the earth. In the Sacramento valley the Maidu believed that when a person died his soul left the body through the mouth, and was like the wind.

Edward W. Gifford and Gwendoline Harris Block, from their book, Californian Indian Nights

"The souls of good people traveled to the other world by a well-lighted trail, plainly marked; whereas those who had been wicked journeyed in darkness, over a trail so indistinct that they had to crawl on hands and knees painfully feeling for the road. All, whether good or bad, eventually reach the same place, which was called Heaven valley, a beautiful region where lived the Creator and where there was an abundance of food, all of which was easy to secure. The Creator had a tiny basket full of delicious food, from which all who wished might eat; and although a hundred might eat from it, yet it ever remained full. The ghosts of bad people, although they went also to Heaven valley, proceeded to a less desirable portion, where all was not so charming and comfortable."

Edward W. Gifford and Gwendoline Harris Block, from their book, Californian Indian Nights

The Legend of the Sagebrush

In the begining, when the Earth was young and but lately emerged from the water, the Great Spirit, while walking to and fro in his work of beautifying the world, chanced to overhear the lowly sagebrush murmuring to the night wind and complaining, "O, why was I ever born? I am not tall and stately like the pine. I provide no beautiful nor fragrant flowers. I bear no fruit -- gnarled, stubby and doomed to wear the same dingy dress even through the harvest Moon when all others appear in gorgeous colors. It were better had I never been born."

"Hush, little foolish one." said the Great Spirit. "You I have honored above many, for to your care I entrust a rare perfume. You shall be the keeper of the Fragrance of the Open Spaces. Your neutral dress is purposely so that it may reflect the greater beauty -- the blue of the summer skies, the purple of the evening shadows, and silver of the moonlight. Among the tribes of men, you be the Symbol of the West."

So spoke the Great Spirit and it was so.

Author Unknown

Only a small potion of the history and the stories of the Native Californians has been touched upon in these few pages--and only briefly. There is so much more. But a small amount may be just enough to inspire the desire to learn more. "A mosquito is a pest and a messenger." (Steven Foster 1989)

The reader is invited to pursue more detailed and specific information from the bibliography cited below.


Heizer, R. F.
Whipple, M. A.
1971 - The California Indians (University of California Press)

Eargle, Dolan H., Jr.
1986 - The Earth Is Our Mother (A Guide to the Indians of California,
Their Locales and Historic Sites) (Trees Company Press--49 Van Buren Way, S. F. CA)

Hurtado, Albert L.
1988. - Indian Survival on the California Frontier (New Haven: Yale University Press)

de Angulo, Jamie
1989 - Indian Tales (The Noonday Press--New York) (16th printing)

Foster, Steven
Little, Meredith
1989 - The Roaring of the Sacred River (Prentice Hall Press, New York)
(The School of Lost Borders--Inyo Co., CA)

Radin, Paul
1972 - The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology.
(N. Y. Schocken Books)

Gifford, Edward W.
Block, Gwendoline Harris
1990 - California Indian Nights (With Introduction to the Bison Book
Edition by Albert L. Hurtado) (University of Nebraska Press1958)
(First Bison Book Printing 1990)

Reader's Digest
1978 - America's Fascinating Indian Heritage (The Reader's Digest Assoc., Inc.)
(pages 263-287: Indians of California)

Campbell, Joseph
1988 - The Power of Myth (Anchor Books, Doubleday)


Two more books are recommended reading: 1. Indians In Overalls, by Jaime de Angulo, who traveled and worked for many years with the Pit River people. (City Lights Books Hillside Press). 2. Ishi in Two Worlds, by Theodora Kroeber. ( The University of California Press) It is about a 54-year-old Yahi Indian, the last of his extremely primitive and isolated tribe. In August 1911, he made a sudden appearance and caused a sensation, and became the study of Alfred L. Kroeber, University of California.


State Indian Museum - 2618 K Street, Sacramento


It is one of the goals of to present an accurate historical picture of the Native Americans who lived and prospered along the Highway 49 corridor. We are keenly aware of the delicate nature of this topic and do not wish to create a forum for speculations or political opinions, rather we want to create a place to record a factual historical archive of the lives of Native Americans during and after the California Gold Rush.

We are accepting old and new photos, historical facts, and stories passed down from generation to generation. If you can contribute, please email us!

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