At the quiet center stood a man. He never said his real name — to say it aloud to strangers would be unthinkable for a California Native American from the Yahi tribe — so he became known as Ishi, his people’s word for man. He spent almost 40 years living in isolation in the Mount Lassen foothills, one of the last dozen Yahi who hid themselves to avoid the white men who nearly wiped out their tribe.
Yana / Yahi
The Yana are a group of Native Americans indigenous to Northern California in the central Sierra Nevada, on the western side of the range. Their lands bordered the Yuba and Feather rivers. The Yana-speaking people comprised four groups: the Northern Yana, the Central Yana, the Southern Yana, and the Yahi. The noun stem Ya- means “person”; the noun suffix is -na in the northern Yana dialects and -hi [xi] in the southern dialects. The Yana continue to be in California as members of the Redding Rancheria.
The Yana were divided into four groups. The southernmost group was the Yahi. Much of the information about the Yana came from Ishi, the last surviving Yahi man, who came out of the foothills in 1911. Ishi lived at the University of California in Berkeley until his death in 1916. He became well known through Ishi: Last of His Tribe, the story of his life written by Theodora Kroeber.
The Yana lived east of the Sacramento River in the valley and foothills that bordered the territory of the Wintu, who occupied the land right along the river. Mt. Lassen, a large volcano, was the greatest landmark of the Yana’s territory, which ranged in elevation from 300 to over 10,000 feet.
In early times, the northern, central, and southern Yana were each called by different names by their neighbors. The name Yana simply means people. The Yana were often not friendly with their neighbors. The Yahi Yana fought with the Maidu to the east. The Wintun and Achumawi neighbors to the north disliked the northern Yana. Relations with neighbors were seldom good for very long at a time.
The Yana were not often on good terms with their neighbors, and did not like outsiders to come to their area. Also, they had to spend so much time gathering their food that they didn’t have much time left to make or gather things to sell, which may account for the small amount of trade they had with other groups. They did get obsidian from the Achumawi and Shasta; dentalium shells from the Wintu; clamshell and magnesite beads from the Maidu. In return, they supplied deer hides and salt.
Many tribelets, or groups of villages, existed within Yana territory.
The headman’s house and the assembly house were in the largest village of the group. The position of headman was inherited. The headman was usually a rich person, and was the only person in the tribelet who was allowed to keep a vulture as a pet! Headmen did not have the power to control the people; instead they made suggestions as to how the community should act.
Northern and central Yana built large earth-covered houses in which several families lived.
They were made with a post in the center, and the entrance was through the smoke hole in the roof. Bark and reeds covered a frame of poles, which was then covered with earth. Assembly houses were made in the same manner.
The southern and Yahi Yana made smaller houses where one family lived. These were cone-shaped, with long slabs of cedar or pine bark covering the frame of poles. Dirt was banked against the lower part of the outside walls, to keep out water.
Acorns, gathered in the fall from the black oak tree, was the most important food for the Yana.
If the acorn crop was good, they could store enough to last them until the next fall. Roots, tubers, and bulbs were also gathered and roasted or steamed before being eaten. Sunflower and other seeds, buckeye nuts, hazel nuts, pine nuts, berries and fruit added to the meals of the Yana.
Yana hunters wore a deer-head mask to sneak close enough to a deer to bring it down with their bow and arrows. Deer was the most important game animal, but rabbits and quail were also caught with snares and traps. Salmon, trout, and suckers were taken from the streams; river mussels were available to the northern Yana. Earthworms, grasshoppers, and small rodents were also eaten.
In central Yana territory there was a salty swamp. When the mud was dried, it could be used as salt. Yana from north and south came here to gather salt.
In the fall, there was a lot of food available near the Yana villages in the foothills. In the heat of summer, food was scarce and the people moved to the higher mountain areas in search of deer, berries, and seeds. Here they lived in temporary shelters made from poles and branches, or in caves.
Yana clothing and adornment
Yana women wore aprons made of shredded bark or tule reeds, fastened to a belt of buckskin. Some aprons had only one piece, worn in the front. Others had a second piece, made of deerskin, to cover the back. The aprons of wealthy women were decorated with deerskin tassels and pine-nut beads.
In cold weather, wealthy men wore deerskin leggings that covered them from the hips to the ankles. Men with less wealth wore an apron-like loin cloth. Some men also had hats made of elkskin and moccasins of deerskin. The skins of deer, rabbits, wild cats, coyotes and bears were used to make robes and blankets.
Necklaces and ear ornaments were made from juniper berries, magnesite (a type of rock) beads, shells, bear claws, and clamshell disks. Feather headbands, belts hung with red woodpecker scalps, and face and body paint were used for special occasions. Tattooing of the face was not common.
Yana crafts and tools
The most common method of basketmaking among the Yana was the twining method, also used by other northern California people. Tender branches from young hazel or willow trees were used for the warp (upright) pieces that formed the shape of the basket. Between these branches, split pine roots and sedge grass were woven. Designs were made from white, black, and red strands of plant fiber. Yana baskets were not as evenly woven as the Pomo baskets, and the edges were not as carefully finished.
Cord and rope were made from milkweed and Indian hemp plants. Heavier cord was made by peeling the bark from trees or shrubs, then pounding it, shredding it, and twisting it into ropes. This heavier cord was used for nets, caps, and skirts, as well as for tying things together. Strong nets were needed for catching fish and trapping rabbits. Some fish nets were as long as 200 feet.
The Yana made bows from yew wood when they could get it, or from mahogany, juniper, or hazel wood. Arrows used for birds and small game had blunt tips. Obsidian (volcanic glass) and basalt points were used as tips on arrows used for hunting larger game. Hunters carried their arrows in a quiver made from an otter skin with the fur side out.
During the winter, when there wasn’t as much food gathering to do, the Yana made tools. From antlers and bones they made wedges, flakers, awls (sharp tools to punch holes), and harpoon tips. Spoons and scrapers were made from mussel shells. Brushes were made from soaproot fiber.
Both dentalium (tube-shaped mollusk shells) and clamshell beads were used as money by the Yana. Pieces of clamshell were shaped into small disks, a hole punched in the middle, and strung on strings. The clamshells came to the Yana from the coastal areas to the south. The dentalium came from the northwestern California groups. The Yana were at the crossroads of the two types of money, and likely used both kinds.
Little is known of Yana ceremonies or dances.
Rituals to bring good luck to the hunters were held. Ceremonies were held when boys and girls reached puberty.