July 27, 2017

California Indian Geographical Cultures


Hundreds of Diverse Cultures

The early Native California Indian communities were astonishingly diverse in culture and way of life, ranging from the seafaring Chumash to the agricultural Yuma to the nomadic Modoc.

Native California groups numbered more than 500 individual tribes or bands, spoke at least 100 different mutually unintelligible languages, ate different foods, and practiced different religions. These communities had no alphabets and left no written records for historians to interpret, so what we know about Native Californians before the arrival of Europeans is based on four sources:

  1. archaeological evidence;
  2. early records of European explorers and colonists;
  3. oral histories given by tribal elders in the early 20th century; and
  4. oral traditions passed down to later generations of Native Californians.

This diversity and lack of written records make reconstructing their world a challenge. There is disagreement about how to best define the boundaries of Native California and the number of Culture Areas.

Six Geographical Culture Areas

Early anthropologists divided California’s native groups into six geographical culture areas. This system remains useful, although the boundaries should not be considered rigid. Scholars today emphasize how each area overlapped and contained plenty of internal variety.

The California cultural area does not exactly conform to the state of California’s boundaries, and many tribes on the eastern border with Nevada are classified as Great Basin tribes and some tribes on the Oregon border are classified as Plateau tribes. Tribes in Baja California that do not cross into California are classified as Indigenous peoples of Mexico.

In general, the California cultural area can be broken down into six sub-culture areas:

  1. The Colorado River area was home to tribes speaking Yuma, Mohave, and Halchidhoma. They practiced subsistence agriculture, cultivating maize, pumpkins, and beans.
  2. The Southern area was home to Chumash, Serrano, Garbielino, Cahuilla, Liseño, and other language speakers. It supported increasingly larger chiefdoms with complex, stratified social structures.
  3. In the Great Basin area, along the eastern edge of California, desert groups such as the Paiute, Washo, and Mono made use of rabbits, pine nuts, acorns, and wild plants.
  4. The enormous Central culture area contained the Bay Area, and the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys. Here Ohlone, Miwok, Patwin, Pomo, Maidu, and other language groups hunted deer, pronghorn, elk, rabbits, fowl, and fish, and often lived in wooden houses covered with soil.
  5. In the Northwest area, home to the Yoruk, Shasta, Hupa, and other groups, abundant coastal resources (including redwoods) encouraged the development of sophisticated woodworking, canoe-building, and house-building skills.
  6. Modoc, Achumawi, and Atsugewi speakers in the Northeast area shared more with the Columbia Plateau area peoples of eastern Oregon and Washington than they did with other California groups.

West Central California Indian Tribes

Esselen Indian Tribe Miwok, Me-wuk, central California

  • Coast Miwok, west-central California
  • Lake Miwok, west-central California
  • Saklan, west-central California
  • Valley and Sierra Miwok, eastern-central California

Ohlone, Costanoan Indian Tribes:

  • Awaswas
  • Chalon
  • Chochenyo
  • Karkin
  • Mutsun
  • Ramaytush
  • Rumsen
  • Tamyen
  • Yelamu

Southeastern California Indian Tribes

  • Coso Indian Tribe
  • Mohave Indian Tribe
  • Timbisha Shoshone Indian Tribe

Southwestern California Indian Tribes

Juaneño, Acjachemem Indian Tribe Kumeyaay, Diegueño, Kumiai, southern California

  • Cuyamaca complex, late Holocene precolumbian culture
  • Ipai, southwestern California

    • Jamul, southwestern California
  • Tipai, southwestern California and northwestern Mexico

Luiseño Indian Tribe

Northwestern California Indian Tribes

Northwest California is an area of rugged topography and heavy forests with no coastal plain. However, given its biotic diversity, it is also one of the most optimal places for a hunting and gathering society. In this small area centering on the Klamath and Trinity Rivers and the Pacific Ocean, seven Indian nations lived – the Tolowa, Yurok, Wiyot, Hupa, Chilula and Whilkut.

These were river and ocean people who subsisted on the abundant yields of salmon, candlefish and sea lamprey. Inland they harvested an ample supply of acorns. The Northwest tribes also hunted and fished in the ocean and used redwood dugout canoes. These people developed a rather complex economic system based on the use of dentalium bead money as a currency.

Other items of wealth included very large obsidian blades (some two feet or more in length), red woodpecker scalps, rare white and light skinned deer pelts. The Northwestern California Indian tribes lived in permanent year round settlements with semi-subterranean houses of redwood planks. There were no true chiefs, but importent men of aristocratic birth settled village affairs with help from the richest males of the settlement. These tribes include:

  • Chilula Indian Tribe
  • Chimariko Indian Tribe (Extinct)
  • Eel River Athapaskan peoples
    • Lassik Indian Tribe
    • Mattole, Bear River Indian Tribes
    • Nongatl Indian Tribe
    • Sinkyone Indian Tribe
    • Wailaki, Wai-lakki Indian Tribe
  • Hupa Indian Tribe
    • Tsnungwe
  • Karok Indian Tribe
  • Kato, or Cahto Indian Tribe
  • Nomlaki Indian Tribe
  • Pomo Indian Tribes (northwestern and central-western California)
  • Shasta Indian Tribes
    • Konomihu Indian Tribe
    • Okwanuchu Indian Tribe
  • Tolowa Indian Tribe
  • Whilkut Indian Tribe
  • Wintu Indian Tribe
  • Wiyot Indian Tribe
  • Yuki, Ukomno’m Indian Tribes
    • Huchnom Indian Tribe
  • Yurok

Shasta Cascade (Plateau) Cultural Area

The Shasta Cascade region of California, also known as the Northwest Plateau, is located in the northeastern and north-central sections of the state bordering Oregon and Nevada, including far northern parts of the Central Valley and the Sierra Nevada mountain range. The area is centered on Mount Shasta in the California Cascade Range, near the Trinity Alps. Counties included in the Shasta Cascade region include Butte, Lassen, Modoc, Plumas, Shasta, Siskiyou, Tehama and Trinity.

The first non-Native Americans entered the Shasta Cascade region by coming south along the Siskiyou Trail from Oregon, or north along the Siskiyou Trail from central California or the San Francisco Bay Area. These earliest explorers were probably British and American fur-trappers and traders in the 1820s and 1830s, although it is also possible that Spanish explorers reached the southern edge of the Shasta Cascade region before 1820.

The discovery of gold in 1851 at Yreka (and throughout Siskiyou and Trinity counties) brought the California Gold Rush-era prospectors up the rivers of the region in search of gold, leading to the first non-Native American settlements in the area. Historically, the Shasta Cascade region was home to California Indians from the Modoc, Maidu, Okwanuchu, Paiute, Shasta, Wintu, and Yana tribes, and sub-groups of those tribes.

California Great Basin Culture Areas

In the California Great Basin culture areas, there rarely were year round settlements. Population density was often very low with less than a fraction of one person per square mile as the rule. Villages might have on average only 50 people or less in them. Homes were brush structures formed of tules or other grasses and were simple domed structures. A general belief was that all of the environment, including features of the landscape that we might consider inanimate were alive with power (puha and buha).

People spoke of events of an earlier time when the land was not yet home to humans and animals talked and acted like people. Daily life was filled with experiences of supernatural meaning, spirits regularly communicated through dreams. Religious beliefs were highly personalized, each individual having a protecting guardian spirit (such as a particular animal) having received visions in youth.

However, for some, this contact was more intimate and direct. A few gifted individuals sought active dialogue with the supernatural and became medicine persons. When groups of people assembled for communal activities including rabbit drives, pinyon harvests, antelope or bighorn sheep drives, a circle dance and feast was held to thank the higher powers for their blessings and to ask for continued grace. These were social as well as religious events.

California Great Basin Tribes


  • Ahwahnechee, Yosemite Valley, California
  • Chemehuevi, southeastern California
  • Coso People, of Coso Rock Art District in the Coso Range, Mojave Desert California
  • Kawaiisu, southern inland California
  • Mono, southeastern California
    • Eastern Mono, southeastern California
    • Western Mono or Owens Valley Paiute, eastern California and Nevada
  • Northern Paiute, eastern California, Nevada, Oregon, southwestern Idaho
    • Kucadikadi, Mono Lake Paiute, Mono Lake, California
  • Shoshone (Shoshoni), California, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming
    • Eastern Shoshone people:
      • Guchundeka’, Kuccuntikka, Buffalo Eaters
      • Tukkutikka, Tukudeka, Mountain Sheep Eaters, joined the Northern Shoshone
      • Boho’inee’, Pohoini, Pohogwe, Sage Grass people, Sagebrush Butte People
  • Timbisha or Panamint or Koso, southeastern California
  • Washo, Nevada and California
    • Palagewan
    • Pahkanapil

Northeastern California Indian Tribes

Northeast California is an area composed mainly of lava flows, cinder cones, juniper flats, pine forests and seasonal lakes. This is an area of contemporary California known as Shasta, Siskyou, Modoc, and Lassen counties. Several thousand Native people lived here. Bands of Natives occupied villages of 20 to 60 people and lived in cone-shaped homes covered in tule-mats. They lived by hunting, fishing and gathering along the Pit River drainage area.

The area supports herds of mule deer, elk and pronghorn. Native people in this area developed a special way to catch deer by digging dead-fall traps into the earth along the game trails and watering places to catch the deer. This practice gave rise to the name “Pit” River. The chief spiritual being in Achomawi religion is Annikadel. Adolescent boys sought guardian spirits called tinihowi and both genders experienced puberty ceremonies. Elder men would fast to increase the run of fish and women and children would eat out of sight of the river to encourage fish populations.

Achomawi medicine persons maintained the health of the community, serving as doctors. Both men and women held the role of shaman. A shaman had kaku, which was a bundle of feathers believed to grow in rural places, rooted in the earth, and was used to locate pains in the body. Quartz crystals were revered within the community and were obtained by diving into a waterfall.

In the pool under the waterfall the diver would find a spirit who would lead the diver to a cave where the crystals grew. A giant moth coccoon which symbolized the “heart of the world” was another power object but was harder to obtain. The native people in this culture area included the:

  • Achomawi or Achumawi (Pit River Indian Tribe)
  • Atsugewi Indian Tribe
  • Maidu Indian Tribe
  • Modoc Tribe
  • Washoe Indian Tribe

Colorado River Cultural Area

The first humans of the Colorado River basin were likely Paleo-Indians of the Clovis and Folsom cultures, who first arrived on the Colorado Plateau about 12,000 years ago. Beginning with small bands of nomadic hunter-gatherers, Native Americans are believed to have inhabited the Colorado River basin for at least 8,000 years.

Desert Archaic Culture

Very little human activity occurred in the watershed until the rise of the Desert Archaic Culture, which from 8,000 to 2,000 years ago constituted most of the region’s human population. These prehistoric inhabitants led a generally nomadic lifestyle, gathering plants and hunting small animals (though some of the earliest peoples hunted larger mammals that became extinct in North America after the end of the Pleistocene epoch).

Fremont Culture

Another notable early group was the Fremont culture, whose peoples inhabited the Colorado Plateau from 2,000 to 700 years ago. The Fremont were likely the first peoples of the Colorado River basin to domesticate crops and construct masonry dwellings; they also left behind a large amount of rock art and petroglyphs, many of which have survived to the present day.

Between 2,000 and 1,000 years ago, the river and its tributaries fostered large, sedentary agricultural civilizations, which may have been some of the most sophisticated indigenous cultures in North America. These societies are believed to have collapsed due to a combination of severe drought and poor land use practices. Most native peoples that inhabit the river basin today are descended from other groups that settled in the region beginning about 1,000 years ago.

Ancient Puebloan Culture

Beginning in the early centuries A.D., Colorado River basin peoples began to form large agriculture-based societies, some of which lasted hundreds of years and grew into well-organized civilizations encompassing tens of thousands of inhabitants. The Ancient Puebloan (also known as Anasazi or Hisatsinom) people of the Four Corners region were descended from the Desert Archaic culture.

The Puebloans dominated the basin of the San Juan River, with the center of their civilization in northern New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon. In Chaco Canyon and the surrounding lands, they built more than 150 multi-story pueblos or “great houses”, the largest of which, Pueblo Bonito, is composed of more than 600 rooms.

Hohokam Culture

The Hohokam culture was present along the middle Gila River beginning around 1 A.D. Between 600 and 700 A.D. they began to employ irrigation on a large scale, and did so more prolifically than any other native group in the Colorado River basin. An extensive system of irrigation canals was constructed on the Gila and Salt rivers, with various estimates of a total length ranging from 180 to 300 miles (290 to 480 km) and capable of irrigating 25,000 to 250,000 acres (10,000 to 101,000 ha).

Both civilizations supported large populations at their height; the Chaco Canyon Puebloans numbered between 6,000 and 15,000 and estimates for the Hohokam range between 30,000 and 200,000. These sedentary peoples heavily exploited their surroundings, practicing logging and harvesting of other resources on a large scale. The construction of irrigation canals may have led to a significant change in the morphology of many waterways in the Colorado River basin.

Prior to human contact, rivers such as the Gila, Salt and Chaco were shallow perennial streams with low, vegetated banks and large floodplains. In time, flash floods caused significant downcutting on irrigation canals, which in turn led to the entrenchment of the original streams into arroyos, making agriculture difficult. A variety of methods were employed to combat these problems, including the construction of large dams, but when a megadrought hit the region in the 14th century A.D. the ancient civilizations of the Colorado River basin abruptly collapsed. Some Puebloans migrated to the Rio Grande Valley of central New Mexico and south-central Colorado, becoming the predecessors of the Hopi, Zuni, Laguna and Acoma people in western New Mexico.

Many of the tribes that inhabited the Colorado River basin at the time of European contact were descended from Puebloan and Hohokam survivors, while others already had a long history of living in the region or migrated in from bordering lands.

The Navajo were an Athabaskan people who migrated from the north into the Colorado River basin around 1025 A.D.

They soon established themselves as the dominant Native American tribe in the Colorado River basin, and their territory stretched over parts of present-day Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado – in the original homelands of the Puebloans. In fact, the Navajo acquired agricultural skills from the Puebloans before the collapse of the Pueblo civilization in the 14th century.

The Mohave have lived in Black Canyon since 1200 A.D.

A profusion of other tribes have made a continued, lasting presence along the Colorado River. The Mohave have lived along the rich bottomlands of the lower Colorado below Black Canyon since 1200 A.D. They were fishermen – navigating the river on rafts made of reeds to catch Gila trout and Colorado pikeminnow – and farmers, relying on the annual floods of the river rather than irrigation to water their crops.

The Northern Colorado River Basin

Ute peoples have inhabited the northern Colorado River basin, mainly in present-day Colorado, Wyoming and Utah, for at least 2,000 years, but did not become well established in the Four Corners area until 1500 A.D. The Apache, Maricopa, Pima, Havasupai and Hualapai are among many other groups that lived along or had territories bordering on the Colorado River and its tributaries.

Europeans first entered the Colorado River watershed in the 1500s

When explorers from Spain began mapping and claiming the area in the 1500s, which later became part of Mexico upon its independence from Spain in 1821, early contact between foreigners and natives was generally limited to the fur trade in the headwaters and sporadic trade interactions along the lower river. The Spanish also introduced sheep and goats to the Navajo, who came to rely heavily on them for meat, milk and wool.

By the mid-1500s, the Utes, having acquired horses from the Spanish, introduced them to the Colorado River basin. The use of horses spread through the basin via trade between the various tribes and greatly facilitated hunting, communications and travel for indigenous peoples. More warlike groups such as the Utes and Navajos often used horses to their advantage in raids against tribes that were slower to adopt them, such as the Goshutes and Southern Paiutes.

Beginning in the 1600s, contact with Europeans brought significant changes to the lifestyles of Native Americans in the Colorado River basin.

Missionaries sought to convert indigenous peoples to Christianity – an effort sometimes successful, such as in Father Eusebio Francisco Kino’s 1694 encounter with the “docile Pimas of the Gila Valley who readily accepted Father Kino and his Christian teachings.” The gradual influx of European and American explorers, fortune seekers and settlers into the region eventually led to conflicts that forced many Native Americans off their traditional lands.

After the acquisition of the Colorado River basin from Mexico in the Mexican–American War in 1846, U.S. military forces commanded by Kit Carson forced more than 8,000 Navajo men, women and children from their homes after a series of unsuccessful attempts to confine their territory, many of which were met with violent resistance.

The Long Walk of the Navajo

In what is now known as the Long Walk of the Navajo, the captives were marched from Arizona to Fort Sumner in New Mexico, and many died along the route. Four years later, the Navajo signed a treaty that moved them onto a reservation in the Four Corners region that is now known as the Navajo Nation. It is the largest Native American reservation in the United States, encompassing 27,000 square miles (70,000 km2) with a population of over 180,000 as of 2000.

Consolidation of the Colorado River Indian Tribes

The Mohave were expelled from their territory after a series of minor skirmishes and raids on wagon trains passing through the area in the late 1850s, culminating in an 1859 battle with American forces that concluded the Mohave War. In 1870, the Mohave were relocated to a reservation at Fort Mojave, which spans the borders of Arizona, California and Nevada.

Some Mohave were also moved to the 432-square-mile (1,120 km2) Colorado River Indian Reservation on the Arizona–California border, originally established for the Mohave and Chemehuevi people in 1865. In the 1940s, some Hopi and Navajo people were also relocated to this reservation. The four tribes now form a geopolitical body known as the Colorado River Indian Tribes.

Exploration of the Colorado River

When the Colorado River basin became part of the U.S. in 1846, the river’s course was still largely unknown, and the whereabouts of its headwaters and mouth were still the subject of myths and speculation. Several expeditions charted the Colorado in the mid-1800s. The first expedition to run the rapids of the Grand Canyon was led by John Wesley Powell in 1869.

American explorers collected valuable information that would later be used to investigate the feasibility of developing the river for navigation and water supply. Large-scale settlement of the lower basin began in the mid-to-late 1800s, with steamboats providing transportation and trade along the Colorado and Gila rivers. Lesser numbers settled in the upper basin, which was also the setting of major gold strikes in the 1860s and 1870s.

Major engineering of the river basin began around the start of the 1900s

Many guidelines for development were established in a series of domestic and international treaties known as the “Law of the River.” The U.S. federal government was the main driving force behind the construction of hydraulic engineering projects in the river system, although many state and local water agencies were also involved. Most of the major dams in the river basin were built between 1910 and 1970, with the system keystone, Hoover Dam, completed in 1935.

Water rights of Native Americans in the Colorado River basin were largely ignored during the extensive water resources development carried out on the river and its tributaries in the 19th and 20th centuries. The construction of dams has often had negative impacts on tribal peoples, such as the Chemehuevi when their riverside lands were flooded after the completion of Parker Dam in 1938.

Ten Native American tribes in the basin now hold or continue to claim water rights to the Colorado River.

The U.S. government has taken some actions to help quantify and develop the water resources of Native American reservations. The first federally funded irrigation project in the U.S. was the construction of an irrigation canal on the Colorado River Indian Reservation in 1867. Other water projects include the Navajo Indian Irrigation Project, authorized in 1962 for the irrigation of lands in part of the Navajo Nation in north-central New Mexico.

The Navajo continue to seek expansion of their water rights because of difficulties with the water supply on their reservation; about 40 percent of its inhabitants must haul water by truck many miles to their homes. In the 21st century, they have filed legal claims against the governments of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah for increased water rights. Some of these claims have been successful for the Navajo, such as a 2004 settlement in which they received a 326,000-acre-foot (402,000 ML) allotment from New Mexico.

Because of these developments, the Colorado River is now considered among the most controlled and litigated in the world, with every drop of its water fully allocated. High rates of water removal for irrigation and industry combined with declines in natural runoff due to climate change could lead to severe shortages by the mid-21st century, endangering power generation and water supply. Along the Colorado River on the border between California and Arizona several distinctive tribes had their homelands including: Chemehuevi, Mojave and Quechan.

These were the only Native peoples to adopt agriculture before contact with Euroamericans. As such their economies, lifeways and religious life was rather distinctive and differed somewhat from the rest of Native California. The name Mojave is composed of two Indian words, “aha” which means water, and macav, meaning alongside. The Mojave were also known as the most war-like of the Native nations of California and there existed broad alliances and violence between groups vying for territory.

The Mohave were known as traders and travelers and they had a special relationship with other California groups. They would delegate runners who would cross the desert and mountains and eventually reach the Chumash on the coast to trade. During these excursions, none of the other tribes were to consider such activities trespassing and they were free to traverse the lands of other Native peoples with immunity. The Franciscan missionary-explorer Francisco Garcés estimated the Mohave population in 1776 as approximately 3,000.

The Colorado Desert, is one of the most extreme environments in North America. Temperatures often climb above 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the hot sun, then drop drastically at night. The Mojave settled along the bottomlands of the lower Colorado River in permeant settlements. Every year, with the melting of snows in the mountains to the northeast, the lower Colorado flooded and provided suitable conditions for farming.

In this strip of silty soil corn, beans, pumpkins, melons were planted. They also fished the Colorado River, hunted small desert game, especially rabbits, and gathered wild plant foods, such as piñon nuts and mesquite beans. The Mohave believed that in dreaming they traveled back to the time of creation and directly witnessed the events of their oral traditions.

Dreams were believed to be the source of knowledge, skills, courage, success in love and war, and shamanistic power. According to Mojave oral tradition, the oldest spirit was Matavilya, whose parents were Earth and Sky. Matavilya had two sons, Mastamho and Kaatar. Mastamho strode up the Colorado River Valley, taking four giant steps. At the top of the valley he plunged a cane into the earth, and the river spewed forth, and an enormous flood occurred. Mastamho then plunged the cane into the ground again, and a boat appeared.

Taking all his people in his arms, Mastamho boarded the boat and headed downstream. Along the way, he created the wide river bottom by turning the boat, reducing the flooding. He then followed the water to the ocean. Once there, he gathered his people and returned them to the Mojave Valley. There he created the spiritual mountain Avikwame. Mastamho gave all the land to his people, and taught them to farm. Then Mastamho transformed into a fish-eagle and flew off. The Mojave and Quechan adorned the landscape with representations of their cosmology in the form of geoglyphs or giant ground pictures.

Southern California Indian Tribes

  • Cahuilla Indian Tribe
  • Cupeño Indian Tribe
  • Kumeyaay, Diegueño, Kumiai Indian Tribes
  • Patayan Indian Tribe
  • Pauma Complex (ca. 6050—1000 BCE)
  • Serrano Indian Tribe
  • Tataviam, Allilik (Fernandeño) Indian Tribe
  • Timbisha Shoshone Indian Tribe
  • Tachi tribe
  • Southern Valley Yokuts Indian Tribes

South Central California Indian Tribes

The enormous Central culture area contains the Bay Area, and the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys. These California tribes hunted deer, pronghorn (antelope), elk, rabbits, birds, and fish, and often lived in wooden houses covered with soil. The Central Valley can be hot and dry, or cool and damp, depending on the time of the year, and can have a dense fog that comes from the Pacific Ocean. Summer days can reach 90 degrees fahrenheit. Tribes in this culture area included:

  • Kawaiisu Indian Tribe
  • Kitanemuk Indian Tribe
  • Tubatulabal Indian Tribe
    • Bankalachi, on west slopes of the Greenhorn Mountains.
    • Palagewan, on the Kern River above its confluence with the South Fork of the Kern River.
    • Tubatulabal, on the lower reaches of South Fork of the Kern River.

  • Tachi tribe
  • Southern Valley Yokuts Indian Tribe

East Central California Indian Tribes

The Central Valley lies between the coast region, and the Sierra Nevada. It has rich soil, big oak trees, and large rivers.

  • Ahwahnechee Indian Tribe
  • Kucadikadi Indian Tribe
  • Nisenan, Southern Maidu Indian Tribe
  • Valley and Sierra Miwok Indian Tribes
  • Mono Indian Tribe

Coastal Southern California Indian Tribes

In this varied area of southern California most of the major Native tribal groups were non-political ethnic nationalities – a people sharing similar culture, history, religious system, language, and territory. From north to south, these non-political ethnic nationalities were the Luiseño, and Ipai-Tipai along the coast, and the Serrano, Cahuilla, and Cupeño immediately eastward. For the Chumash and Gabrielino we recognize that there existed a remarkable, politically stable and sedentary people that existed for thousands of years prior to European contact, due, in part, to an elaborate system of economic exchange that crossed sociopolitical and cultural boundaries, enhanced by a sophisticated marine economy including sea faring technology.

These ethnic nations ranged greatly in size from a few thousand to 10,000 or more in number. The Chumash and Gabrielino inhabited the southern California coast (from just north of present-day San Luis Obispo to south of Los Angeles) and adjacent offshore islands (the northern Channel Islands) and reached a level of sociopolitical complexity unparalleled for hunter gatherers in the world. In many ways, the coastal and island dwelling Chumash, along with the Gabrielino, were among the most exceptional foraging cultures attaining an incipient chiefdom level of society.

The Native peoples possessed a maritime economy in that their life ways focused on ocean fishing and collecting and the hunting of sea mammals. The most important technological innovation was the frameless plank canoe, or tomol. These enabled long distance trade with the Channel Islands and the ability to develop sedentary village life with hamlets of 1,000 or more persons and an economic system based on shell bead currency. The Chumash and Gabrielino hunted deer and smaller game and, like most other California Natives relied on an abundant acorn harvest. However, it was the seafaring economy that perhaps best defined their distinctive lifestyle.

The great coastal kelp beds provided a rich fishery. This coastal area was home to more than 125 species of fish (including swordfish, halibut and tuna) and numerous sea mammals including otters, dolphins, whales, and sea lions. Additionally, tidal shorelines provided mussels, abalone, oysters, scallops, and clams. When the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, they marveled at Chumash and Gabrielino fishermen in their twenty-five-foot long plank canoes, sewn with fiber cordage, and caulked with asphalt. Villages along the Santa Barbara and Los Angeles coast sometimes numbered more than a thousand people.

The most powerful chiefs derived their considerable wealth and authority by brokering exchange between Channel Islands and inland areas. In a special ceremonial area set aside for religious functions, the Chumash and Gabrielino gave thanks to the plants and animals that gave them life. The Chumash danced to honor the swordfish, the barracuda, and the bear. Both the Chumash and Gabrielino were linked into an extensive trading network using Olivella (purple olive) bead money, mostly produced on the Channel Islands.

The Chumash had a set of elite religious functionaries who followed the movements of celestial phenomena – most importantly the sun. The most powerful chiefs derived their considerable wealth and authority by brokering exchange between islands and inland areas. Chumash Indian Tribes:

  • Barbareño
  • Cruzeño, Island Chumash
  • Inezeño, Ineseño
  • Obispeño, Northern Chumash
  • Purisimeño
  • Ventureño

Salinan Indian Tribes:

  • Antoniaño
  • Migueleño

San Clemente Indian Tribes:

  • Fernandeño
  • Gabrieleño
  • Tongva

Central California Indian Tribes

Given the availability of key economic foods, the people practiced a pattern of movement timing their seasonal occupations to take advantage of maximal resource procurement. In some areas, resources were so closely spaced and their availability endured for such a great amount of the year that permanently occupied villages could be established.

The basic form of political organization was the “tribelet.” Sometimes such towns contained 1,000 persons or more.
Each tribelet was composed of a large central village and associated satellite or subsidiary communities.

Political leadership rested with a headperson(s) whose position was heredity and whose social prestige was based on his authoritative office.

A headperson (chief) lived in the tribelet’s central village, was the head of a prominent and wealthy family, and decided on issues of resource allocation; interpersonal and intervillage disputes; and sometimes arranged and sponsored ceremonial or religious activities.

Religious and ritual life varied greatly from tribe to tribe. In the Sacramento Valley and adjacent foothills the Kuksu religion was predominant. In the southern San Joaquin Valley the Toloache and Dream Helper religious systems were practiced.

However, there were also outstanding shared elements: dedication to place; focus on sacred objects and actions; ceremonies for life cycle events; rituals aimed at sustaining the earth and a reverence for the plants and animals that supported them.

Among all groups, medicine people were responsible for a variety of religions activities aimed at affecting a wide range of conditions, including personal health, the economic success of the tribe, weather conditions, and to take revenge against enemies.

    • Miwok
    • Me-Wuk
      • Coast Miwok, west-central California
      • Lake Miwok, west-central California
      • Saklan, west-central California
      • Valley and Sierra Miwok, eastern-central California

    • Monache
    • Western Mono Indian Tribe
    • Patwin Indian Tribe
      • Suisun
      • Southern Patwin Indian Tribe

    • Salinan, coastal central California
      • Antoniaño
      • Migueleño

Coastal Southern California:

  • Tongva
  • Gabrieleño
  • Fernandeño
  • San Clemente tribe
  • Yokuts, central and southern California
    • Chukchansi, Foothill Yokuts, central California
    • Northern Valley Yokuts, central California
    • Tachi tribe, Southern Valley Yokuts, south-central California
California Indian Tribes
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