The following is a brief overview of the pre-contact lifestyle of the California Indians. Given the diverse environments of California, any generalizations must be made with the caveat that the natives of California were by no means uniform. The ecological diversity of the state reflected upon the people who found different ways of adapting to their various environments. For example, Indians living in a belt running from the Sacramento Valley to the Coastal Range enjoyed significantly more rainfall coupled with a milder climate, and the ensuing plenty allowed them to develop finer basketry and more sophisticated religious rituals than the other natives of the state. The Mojave and Yuma Indians of the Colorado Desert adapted to their harsh surroundings by developing agriculture and even employing crude irrigation techniques.
California was home to
six major language groups: Athapaskan, Algonquian, Hokan, Penutian, Uto-Aztecan, and Yukian. These groups were subdivided into major language families, by which most California “tribes” are identified. Thus Maidu, Miwok, Yurok and Pomo were all language families, with the languages in a given family related in the same fashion that Spanish and French are related as romance languages. Over one hundred languages were spoken in California, often identified by their geographic locations. For example, languages in the Miwok family included Northern Sierra Miwok, East Central Sierra Miwok, West Central Sierra Miwok, Southern Sierra Miwok, Bay Miwok, Plains Miwok, Coastal Miwok and Lake Miwok. Languages in the Maidu family include Northern Maidu (Konkow), Southern Maidu (Nisenan), and Northeastern Maidu. Each language also had several dialects, making pre-contact California one of the richest linguistic regions of the planet.
The bulk of the Californian Indians were hunter-gathers. The non-agricultural California Indians actually had a population density greater than any agricultural culture in North America, testifying to the bounty of their environment.
The primary food source of the vast majority of the California Indians was the acorn, which was an excellent supply of fat and carbohydrates, although it lacked in protein. California Indians had long known how to leach the bitter tannic acid out of the acorns by pouring water over mashed acorn grit. Or, the acorns could be buried in mud for a month to neutralize their acidity. Some Indians on the coast mixed ferriferous clay in with acorn flour to neutralize the acid while they baked it into bread.
Oak trees yielded generous amounts of acorns every two years or so, with an average Blue Oak dropping some 500 pounds. Shaking or knocking the branches harvested the acorns, and then gathered and stored in elevated granaries made from grape vines and meshed grass. Women would prepare a meal by shelling the acorns, mashing them with a stone pestle, leaching out the tannic acid, and then boiling the acorn mush in a basket with heated stones.
In addition to acorns, buckeye, pinion nuts, and native grasses provided carbohydrates to the Indian diet. Protein came from game such as deer, elk, and rabbits, which were usually shot with arrows. Deer hunting was a serious business, steeped in ritual. Men would purify themselves before and after the hunt in the house, with poor hunters engaging in lengthier preparation. Hunter's donned costumes made fsweatrom deerskin, and mimicked the motions and behavior of their prey in order to get close enough to the fleet-footed animals to take an effective shot. Hunting of small game such a rabbits and squirrels was more casual.
For those Indians who live along rivers, salmon was an important staple. Salmon were usually trapped in nets, but were also skewered with pikes or poisoned en masse. The tribes living along the Colorado River, who grew squash, corn, and beans, practiced limited agriculture. The Paiute Shoshone people in the Owens Valley diverted rivers over hillsides to ensure lush growths of native grasses, but did not engage in agriculture proper.
Few California Indians were nomadic, most living in permanent or semi-permanent settlements, called rancherías (Spanish for little ranch). The standard political unit was the tribe let, a group of 100 to 500, consisting of several rancherías clustered around a “capital” ranchería. At the head of the triblet was a hereditary chief or headman. His authority was not absolute, but he possessed great moral power due to his standing in the community coupled with his great wealth. While most California Indians were monogamous, the chief was often polygamous, allowing him to enhance his power by establishing multiple marriage alliances with other families while his multiple wives further enriched him with their collective labors. The chief's primary responsibilities included settling disputes and seeing that resources were equitably shared. His power to sanction was limited, although he frequently allied himself with a powerful shaman, and thus might threaten disease and pain upon those who failed to comply with his wishes.
Kinship was the most powerful organizing factor for the California Indian. Kinship determined economic obligations, place of residence, loyalties and support network. Kinship patterns varied throughout California. Most California Indians were patrilineal, tracing descent through their father, but a few were matrilineal. Some tribes had exogamous moieties, a system by which the society was divided into two halves, and a member of one half had to marry a member of the other. The moieties for the Miwok were the Water Moiety and the Land or Dry Moiety. Residence was patrilocal, so the woman always came to live in the village of her husband. In addition, every Miwok belonged to a lineage, or clan, which were likewise exogamous. Often, a village would exclusively consist of men of the same lineage, with their wives. The exchange of women among villages, clans and moieties helped maintain peace, establish alliances and facilitate economic exchange among various Miwok groups.
For most men, social life centered on the temescal, or sweathouse, often the only permanent structure in a village. It consisted of a circular pit dug six to eight feed deep, covered with a bark roof. Men gathered in the tescemal every evening to sweat for several hours, bringing with them a pile of sticks to feed the fire. The sweathouse often had a ritual purpose, such as before hunts or ceremonies, but frequently it was simply a place for men of the village to mix casually, leading some ethnographers to refer to it as a “Men's Club.”
Social stratification existed among the Indians of the northwest coast such as the Yurok, who separated classes with a system of symbols and heraldry similar to that of the Pacific Coast Indians who lived 1,000 miles north. The northwestern tribes were also the only tribes to actively practice slavery, based on debt. They also utilized a form of money, based on dentalian shells. Most of the other regions of California retained simple bartering economies without formal currency.
The general material poverty of most California Indians prevented the rise of any significant social stratification (although chiefs were significantly richer than anyone else), yet many tribes had customs that ensured a generally equitable distribution of wealth. For example, the Maidu held annual burnings in honor of the dead, with the wealthy expected to burn more of their possessions. Along the Colorado River, contempt of material possessions was considered a virtue.
The permanence of the oak tree and salmon runs resulted in a sedentary lifestyle for most natives. However, many in the Central Valley went into the Sierra during the oppressive summer heat, carrying enough acorns to last them during their stay. Such brief migrations provided opportunities for trade, as the valley tribes came into contact with groups in the mountains. The mountain tribes, lacking a ready supply of acorns, often traded obsidian, horn, skins, shells and other items in exchange for foodstuffs. The mountainous Monache Indians actually became middlemen in a more sophisticated trade network, allowing a flow of goods between the Yokuts on the western side of the Sierra and the Paiute-Shoshone in the Owens Valley.
Most California Indians had no notion of personal land ownership, although they did have private property in the form of tools, weapons, clothing, etc. A particular family or clan usually owned oak trees. Tribes, however, were highly territorial, and strongly defended their collective land against trespassers. Indeed, trespassing was a leading cause of war in California. A typical war might start with the slaughter of a trespassing hunting party. In retaliation, the friends and family of the dead might try to ambush and kill several people from the opposing group, initiating a cycle of violence that would end when one side either lost interest or moved away. In this sense, most California wars resembled blood feuds. Casualties were invariably low, and battles little more that ambushes and skirmishes. War had the functional effect of keeping groups apart, thus preventing high population densities, which might deplete the area's resources.
Along the Colorado River, the agricultural Mojave and Yuma were fierce warriors who engaged in more intensive warfare. Among the Mohave there was a distinct warrior class, the members of which claimed they had dreamed of battle and killing since birth. Mojave warriors went on frequent raids, and fought pitched battles with bands of opposing warriors. The average war party consisted of about fifty men, armed with arrows and clubs that were used to smash in enemy faces. Of the fifty men engaged on either side in a battle, it seems that roughly six were killed. Thus while the combat of the Colorado River tribes was brutal, casualties remained low and limited to a self-selected warrior class.
Many white observers scoffed at the relatively simple material culture of the California Indians. Extensive technology was not required to exploit the ample environment of California, and thus the crafts of the California Indians in general suffered poorly in comparison to other primitive peoples. The notable exception was in basketry. The exquisite waterproof baskets of the Pomo and Miwok represent the climax of Californian material culture, and refute any accusation that the absence of other crafts was due to a lack of skill, intelligence, or industry.
In addition, the California Indians built an array of effective tools to allow them to exploit their environment. They produced bows and arrows for hunting and warfare, and proved skilled manipulators of flint and obsidian to produce lethal points. In additions, they produced a wide array of woven nets, snares, and traps for hunting and fishing. They manufactured disposable boats out of tule rushes, while some northwestern tribes hollowed out dugout canoes from redwood trees. While the California Indians frequently went naked, they also produced clothing from leather and bark. To facilitate their tobacco consumption, they carved eloquent pipes from soapstone.
Shamanism was universal in California. The exclusive function of shamans was to cure sickness and they usually did not play a role in trying to influence war, hunting, crops, love, etc. Shamans cured by taking the pains of an ill or injured person inside of them in ceremonies that involved sucking and blowing. They did not make these pains disappear, rather they claimed the ability to contain them within their body. In the south, it was believed that shamans could use their powers for good or ill. A common cause for warfare was the suspected malevolence of opposing shamans. A shaman might be killed by his own if several of his patients died in succession. In the north, shamans were often women, and were less apt to be murdered. In addition, some shamans specialized as snake doctors, specialized in treating rattlesnake bites. More feared were the Bear Doctors, who dressed themselves in bearskins, and claimed to literally transform themselves into the much feared and admired grizzly. It appears these bear doctors were shaman-warriors, who sniped at opposing groups by picking off hapless members, who were often disemboweled, dismembered, and scattered as a warning against trespassing.
Religious life in California reached it apogee with the development of various cults, the most prominent being the Kuksu cult that was practiced in central northern California by the Pomo, Wintun, Maidu and Nisenan. During Kuksu ceremonies, member of the Kuksu society impersonated various spirits and deities, wearing elaborate headdresses and painting their entire bodies. Most ceremonies revolved around initiation, as almost every male was allowed to take part in the cult society. Thus the Kuksu cult was a vehicle for enculturation and initiation of young men. In the south, the Jimson weed cult was based around the psychedelic effects of smoking Jimson weed, although it was significantly less organized than the northern Kuksu, and did not involve elaborate ritual or impersonation.
The rapid decline of the California Indians in the 19th century prevented anthropologists from gaining a more comprehensive understanding of their culture. Very little is known about the Indians who were missionized by the Spanish, as their culture was virtually destroyed by the mission system. Between 1900 and 1940, anthropologists, led by Alfred Kroeber, made a heroic effort to interview as many native Californians as possible who were born before the Gold Rush, trying to piece together what their culture was like before it was so grossly disrupted by European and American contact.