The Atsugewi Indians are one of the eleven bands of California Indians that make up the Pit River Tribe. They were originally located in Northeastern California, south of the Pit River in what is now Lassen County and eastern Shasta County. Atsugewi is also one of the two Palaihnihan branches of the Hokan language.
LANGUAGE FAMILY : Hokan -> Palaihnihan -> Atsugewi
The Atsugewi Indians are connected by language with the Achumawi, to the north. Together their languages are known as the Palaihnihan branch of the Hokan language family. The Atsugewi were usually on friendly terms with all of their neighbors (the Achumawi, Yana, and Maidu). Danger came from the Modoc and Paiute tribes who came from further north and east on raiding parties, taking Atsugewi people as slaves.
Villages were located in the valleys along the creeks that flowed northward into the Pit River, especially Hat Creek, Horse Creek, and Burney Creek. They are sometimes referred to today as the Hat Creek Indians.
Villages had from three to 25 houses. Village headmen led their people in hunting and gathering food, and settled arguments in the village.
The Atsugewi were divided into two groups: the Atsuge or pine-tree people whose territory north of Mt. Lassen had a lot of lava from the volcano; and the Apwaruge or juniper tree people, who lived on the plains to the east of the Atsuge. The name Atsugewi comes from Atsuke, the name given by the people to a place on Hat Creek.
The winters were cold in Atsugewi territory, so winter homes were built to keep in the warmth of the fire. The houses were oval in shape, with a center pole. Other poles sloped down from the center to the sides, forming a frame for the house. The frame was covered with pieces of bark, and then with earth. There was an entrance at one end, and a smoke hole in the center of the roof. Several families often lived in one house, which might be 20 or 30 feet in length.
In the summer, when the people traveled over their territory to gather food, they made temporary houses at camping places. For these houses, four poles were leaned together and tied at the top, forming a ground circle of 12 to 15 feet. The poles were covered with cedar bark slabs.
The headman usually had a larger house, which was also used as a village sweathouse by the men. Smaller sweathouses were made in summer camps.
Perhaps because they put so much value on work, the Atsugewi had few ceremonies. About once a week, however, the headman would call for a day of rest when everyone stayed home rather than hunting or gathering food.
Although they sometimes visited the big dances and ceremonies of the neighboring Maidu and Wintun tribes, the Atsugewi didn’t hold these dances themselves. They held small dances when boys or girls became adults, war dances before and after a battle, and singing sessions before a big hunt.
Both deerskin and tule reeds were used to make clothing. Deerskin shirts and leggings were used for winter clothes, especially by wealthier people. At other times women wore skirts made of reeds bundled together and then sewn or woven into a mat. Men tied a tule mat around their hips.
Leggings and moccasins were also made from tule reeds, though in the winter the men sometimes had moccasins of deerskin, with the hair left on the inside to make them warmer. Pieces of rabbit fur were wound around the hand and wrist, to make a glove. Of all the early Californians, the Atsugewi lived in one of the coldest places, and so had to pay more attention to having warm clothes.
Because of their friendly relations with their neighbors, the Atsugewi could gather food outside their own territory. Salmon were caught in the Pit River, which was in Achumawi territory. In the smaller streams where the Atsugewi lived, they caught trout and other smaller fish.
Fish were more plentiful and easier to get than deer, but deer meat was prized as the food of a well-to-do family. Atsugewi men spent a lot of time hunting deer, sometimes in groups of hunters and sometimes alone. Any deer or antelope that was caught was divided by the chief among the people of the village.
Bows and arrows with poison on the tips were used to kill grizzly bears. Rabbits, ducks, mud hens, and other birds were caught with nets or shot with arrows. Some small animals and birds that were eaten by other early California groups were not considered good as food by the Atsugewi. They did not eat gray fox, coyote, eagle, buzzard, magpie, or crow.
At the end of the long winter, the first plant available was tree moss. Later the epos and camas roots were gathered, along with sunflower seeds. Oak trees (acorns) grew mainly in the western part of Atsugewi territory. The people who lived in the eastern part had to make long trips to get acorns from other Atsugewi areas or from the Yana or Achumawi.
The Atsugewi worked hard during the summer to gather enough food to store for the long, snowy winter. Fish and deer meat was smoked and dried by hanging on poles. It was then stored in pits dug in the ground, or in baskets hung in the trees. Acorns and other nuts, seeds, and roots were also dried for storage.
Baskets were important for carrying and storing food. They were made by the method called twining, in which upright pieces of willow or other shoots were interwoven with plant fibers. The baskets were decorated with pieces of fern. Large cone-shaped baskets, about five feet long, were used to catch fish. The Atsugewi also made fishing nets. Cord to make the nets came from twisting pieces of tule reeds. Some wealthy men had canoes.
For hunting, the men used wooden bows and arrows, spears, and traps. They dug pits along the deer paths (which led to the name of the Pit River), and caught deer and other animals with rope snares. The rope was made from the tule reeds.
Wealth was important to the Atsugewi, because it came as a result of hard work. A person who worked hard was admired, and a lazy person was shunned. Children were taught the value of work when they were young. A person born to a poor family could improve his or her position in the village by working hard.
A man chosen to be headman of a village was one who worked hard and had become rich. However, the headman then had to provide feasts and give gifts to visitors, which sometimes resulted in the headman no longer being the richest man in the village.
Clamshell beads were the form of money used in trade. The pieces of clamshell, shaped into disks and strung on cords, came from tribes to the south along the Pacific Coast. Furs and deerskins were also considered a sign of wealth, and were displayed in a rich man’s lodge.
Things like canoes, baskets, and tools were a sign of wealth as well. The rich men who owned more of these things would loan them to less fortunate people, and receive in return a small gift of food. Rich men also had trading partners in other groups, with whom they exchanged goods and gifts.