July 11, 2012

Pit River Tribe


Who are the Pit River Tribe?

 The Pit River Tribe is a federally recognized tribe of eleven bands of indigenous peoples of California.

Official Tribal Name: Pit River Tribe

Address:  36970 Park Ave, Burney, CA 96013
Phone:  (530) 335-5421
Fax:  (530) 335-3140

Official Website: www.pitrivertribe.org 

Recognition Status:  Federally Recognized

Traditional Name / Traditional Meaning:

Achumawi, meaning “river”

Atsugewi comes from atsuke, the Native name for a place along the Hat Creek.

Common Name / Meaning of Common Name:

Pit River Indians – The Pit River is so named because of the local Indians’ practice of digging pits near the river for the purpose of catching game, particularly deer.

Alternate names / Alternate spellings / Alternate misspellings:

XL Ranch, Big Bend Rancheria, Likely Rancheria, Lookout Rancheria, Montgomery Creek Rancheria, Roaring Creek Rancheria, Hat Creek Indians, Pitt River Indians.

Name in other languages:

Region: California

State(s) Today: California

Traditional Territory:

The Achumawi lived along the Pit River in northern California, in an area bounded by Mount Shasta to the northwest, Lassen Peak to the southwest, and the Warner range to the east. There were two Atsugewi groups: the Pine Tree People, who lived in the densely wooded area north of Mount Lassen; and the Juniper Tree People, who lived in the drier plains in and around Dixie Valley, northeast of Mount Lassen. Their homeland was located along the Pit River in northeastern California, from Big Bend to Goose Lake, extending to the present boundary between California and Oregon.

Confederacy: Pit River Tribes


The Pit River people never signed a treaty with the United States or the State of California. Their land was simply illegally taken.

Reservations: Pit River Trust Land plus Rancherias below.

The tribe owns trust lands in Lake County, California, Lassen, Mendocino, Modoc, and Shasta Counties. The Pit River Tribe also controls six reservations called rancherias. They are:

  • Big Bend Rancheria, Shasta County, 40 acres, population: 10
  • Likely Rancheria, Modoc County, 1.32 acres, tribal cemetery
  • Lookout Rancheria, Modoc County, 40 acres, population: 10
  • Montgomery Creek Rancheria, Shasta County, 72 acres, population: 15
  • Roaring Creek Rancheria, Shasta County, 80 acres, population: 14
  • XL Ranch, Modoc County, 9,254.86 acres, population: 40.

Population at Contact:

In the early 1800s there were about three thousand Achumawi and nine hundred Atsugewi. The Achumawi and Atsugewi were neighboring tribes who often intermarried.

Registered Population Today:

In 1990, when the two groups had combined as the Pit River Indians, 1,753 people identified themselves as Pit River Indians. The 2000 census showed 1,765 Pit River Indians.

Tribal Enrollment Requirements:

Genealogy Resources:


Name of Governing Body:  
Number of Council members:  
Dates of Constitutional amendments: On August, 1964, a Constitution was formally adopted by the Pit River Tribe. They were officially recognized as a tribe in 1976 and ratified their constitution in 1987. Each of the eleven bands is represented in the tribal council.
Number of Executive Officers:

Tribal Headquarters: Burney, CA  


Language Classification: Hokan=> Achumawi and Atsugewi (Atsuge and Apwaruke). 

Language Dialects:

The eleven bands of the Pit River Tribe speak two related languages. Nine speak Achumawi and two speak Atsugewi (Atsuge and Apwaruke). They are classified in the northern group of the postulated Hokan ‘superstock’ of languages, and a subgroup called Palaihnihan has been proposed for just these two languages.

Number of fluent Speakers:



Bands, Gens, and Clans

The Pit River Indians are divided into eleven bands:

  • Achomawi (Achumawi, Ajumawi)
  • Aporidge
  • Astariwawi (Astarawi)
  • Atsuge (Atsugewi)
  • Atwamsini
  • Hanhawi (Hammawi)
  • Hewisedawi
  • Ilmawi
  • Itsatawi
  • Kosalextawi (Kosalektawi)
  • Madesi

Related Tribes:

There are also Pit River Indians included in:

Traditional Allies:

The Pit River Indians were a fairly peaceful people. They did not like to fight and usually did so only when provoked. When challenged they sometimes sent a peacemaker to try to resolve issues with hostile tribes. The Achumawi and the Atsugewi were on good terms and frequently renewed friendship ties through marriage.

Traditional Enemies:

The Modoc, Paiute, and Klamath made frequent hostile invasions into their territory to capture their women and children for slaves. Some historians think Pit River Indian slaves may have been handed over to the Spanish in the Southwest in the early or mid-1700s, making that their actual first encounters with white people.

Ceremonies / Dances:

Modern Day Events & Tourism:

Legends / Oral Stories:

Art & Crafts:





The Pit River Indians were hunter – gathers.  Their main food sources were fish, acorns, grasshoppers, plants, and small animals.

Social Organization:

The Achumawi lived in a collection of villages that were organized individually, but maintained ties with one another. The Atsugewi tribe was made up of two distinct groups: the Pine Tree People and the Juniper Tree People who shared a language.


They made canoes out of hollowed out pine trees.

Economy Today:

Religion Today: Traditional religion

Traditional Religion & Spiritual Beliefs:

Burial Customs:

Wedding Customs


Famous Pit River People

Catastrophic Events:

1833: Malaria epidemic kills many Pit River Indians.

1848: Gold is discovered in California; Pit River lands are overrun by gold miners.

1859: An entire Atsugewi tribe is killed by whites over a misunderstanding.

Tribe History:

American fur trappers entered the Pit River region in 1827, and soon the Native population was overcome by a malaria epidemic. More of their territory was taken after Mexico gave California to the United States in 1848. Hundreds of settlers passed through on their way to the coast, followed by gold seekers. Relations were hostile, and conflicts erupted throughout the 1850s.

In Shasta County, the two main groups of Pit River Indians were the Achumawi (now known as the Alturas Indian Rancheria), who lived in and around the Fall River Valley, and the Atsuegewi, who lived primarily in the Hat Creek area (now known as the Pit River Tribe).

Before Europeans came to colonize the area, the tribes often were victims of slaving raids from the fierce Klamath and Modoc tribes from the north. Like many Indians, they were devastated by diseases early Spanish and American explorers inadvertently carried with them.

By the time of the Gold Rush in the mid-1800s, when thousands of gold-hungry settlers moved east to California, diseases had already decimated the tribe. That didn’t stop some from fighting back, often with devastating consequences.

 In 1855, a group of settlers moved to the valley. The following year, they attempted to build a ferry crossing on the Pit River. The tribe’s warriors attacked, killing two men, dismembering and mutilating their bodies. The whites responded by gathering dozens for an armed militia and put a bounty of $5.00 each on Pit River Indians.

The massacre started as soon as they arrived in the valley. Every village they found was attacked. At one village, over 100 Indian people were killed. In later raids, whites bragged about taking scalps and cutting off tribe members’ ears as trophies. Later, whites used strychnine to poison flour left out for starving Indians to eat.

Whites also stole Indian children and gave them to white families. Languages and traditions were outlawed or beaten out of children.

Most of the tribe members who were left were forced onto reservations.

The lingering animosity between the tribe and the whites boiled over in the late 1960s and early 1970s, during a national movement in which Indians across the country tried to reclaim their ancestral lands.

The most famous of the national protests began on Nov. 20, 1969, when a group of Indians occupied Alcatraz Island in San Francisco for nearly two years.

In an effort to reclaim 3.4 million acres of ancestral land, the Pit River tribe members followed suit and began holding occupations of their own, including on Pacific Gas and Electric property near Big Bend and on U.S. Forest Service land near Burney.

In 1970, about 100 Indians, including men, women and children, occupied a piece of forest land near the four-corners intersection of highways 299 and 89, five miles east of Burney.

Although the Indians claimed the land was theirs, the U.S. Forest Service held legal ownership of the site.

The Indians built a Quonset hut on the site and told authorities, they’d have to be killed if authorities went to tear it down, according to news reports from the time.

On Oct. 27, 1970, 52 armed officers, including federal agents, state troopers and sheriff’s deputies, converged on the site with more than 50 Forest Service personnel, many of whom carried crowbars.

The authorities claimed they were there to arrest people on warrants charging them with illegal timber cutting and to demand the Indians tear down the hut, but he Indians said later in trial testimony the force was sent with one mission: to break the back of the tribe’s effort to reclaim their lands.

News reports of the time describe an all-out melee when authorities began tearing down the hut and wrestling with the Indians who tried to stop them.

Indians, both men and women, fought with bare fists, tree limbs and planks of lumber. Officers and sheriff’s deputies swung billy clubs and sprayed mace.

In the end, more than two dozen Indians were arrested, but only one, who pleaded guilty to a lesser assault charge, actually served any sort of a sentence for the alleged assaults on officers.

The rest had their charges dismissed or were acquitted after a nearly two-month federal trial.

There were other, less-violent occupations, confrontations and arrests in the few years that followed.

The tribe’s lawyers also fought in court in failed bids to sue to reclaim their ancestral lands.

The tribe lingered largely in poverty over the following decades.

Then, in the mid-1990s, the tribe followed the lead of dozens of other California Indian groups and built a small casino outside Burney.

In the News:

Further Reading:


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