New Terms in this Chapter:


Communal A local economy where everything is shared.
Culture A group of people with common beliefs, social patterns, and material traits.
Ethnie A catch-all term for any group, which includes a tribe, a community of villages, or even a culture.
Hunter/Gatherer An ethnie that hunts for and gathers natural foods as opposed to farming and raising domestic plants and animals for food.
Leaching Soaking in water to remove unwanted materials.
Macro-culture A group of cultures with similar beliefs, social patterns, and material traits.
Motif General theme and subject matter of a story.
Nomadic Ethnies that regularly change the place they live to find food.
Ramada A free-standing awning with brush on top for shade.
Sedentary Ethnies that tended to live in one place as opposed to nomadic.
Shaman Medicine man or woman, often uses supernatural powers.
      The distinctly California Indians, those of the Pacific slope, were unlike most other Indians of North America. The Pacific slope is that area west of the Sierra Nevada mountains and the Mojave desert.
      There were several ways in which these California Indians were similar to each other yet unlike other cultures of North America:
Property boundaries: Unlike most other Indian cultures of North America, the Indians of California Pacific slope recognized property lines. These boundaries were often the ridges of mountains or were occasionally large rivers. Ethnies would cross property lines to trade or socialize but almost never to hunt or to gather food without the permission of the ethnie that owned the property. To do so would certainly result in conflict.
Acorn diet: The California Indians relied on acorns as a staple of their diet. Acorns were not important as a food source anywhere else in North America except for parts of the northwest.  Acorns grow on oak trees, and they are gathered in the fall. They were prepared by grinding them in a mortar and then leaching them for several hours in running water. The resulting mush was then cooked as is or baked into a cracker-like bread. Acorns do not have much taste when prepared in this manner, but they are an extremely healthy food.
Peaceful nature: War and conflicts were uncommon in California. Surely adequate sources of food and natural property boundaries contributed to this, but the people tended to be peaceful by nature. If a disaster wiped out the food stores of a village, it was more common for another village to give aid to that village than for stealing or conflict to occur. The Mojave and Yuma ethnies of the eastern desert (along the Colorado River) tended to be warlike and were unlike the distinctly California Indians in this regard.
Musical instruments: The most popular musical instruments were clapper sticks, but whistles and flutes were common in some ethnies. Clapper sticks were usually made from elderberry limbs, but river cane or other woods were sometimes used.
Food gathering: Most observers consider California Indians to be sedentary hunter/gatherers, but they were more than that. The California Indians were forest managers. Each ethnie was responsible for its own property. They not only cared for the current year’s food, but food for future years, including food for fish and animals with whom they shared their territory and on whom they depended for food. Such an interdependent relationship between ethnies and their immediate environment was uncommon in the remainder of North America and did not include the ethnies along the Colorado River who farmed corn, squash, and beans. Except in the Northwest, most hunter/gatherers in other parts of North America were not sedentary.
      The California Indians did not wear war bonnets, most did not beat drums, and they did not dance war dances. There were ways, however, in which California Indians were similar to other cultures of North America. All made and used bows and arrows and made arrowheads, knives, and other tools from stone. Many stories were similar across the breadth of the continent. All native peoples of North America had a certain reverence for and recognized the relationship of all things in nature. This was called some variation of circularity, like the sacred hoop or many circles. Nonetheless, even the most inexperienced observer would not mistake any California Indian for a Cherokee or a Cheyenne or a member of almost any other non-California ethnie.
      There were five macro-cultures in California, each separated from its neighbors by mountains or vast deserts. There were a few ethnies that lived in the mountain and desert borderlands, and they were transition cultures and had cultural traits of more than one of their neighbors.
      Here are the five macro-cultures of California. Three of these cultures are distinctly Californian. The three distinctly California Indian cultures are:
1. Southern - The Southern macro-culture stretched from present San Luis Obisbo south along the coastal rim into northern Baja California and into the western Mojave Desert. This macro-culture was comprised of nearly 300 self-governing villages of people living mostly in domed wickiups. As many as10 different languages were spoken among the Southern cultures. Their economy was communal. Their most important ceremonies were their annual mourning of the dead and ceremonies for young people when they became adults. Their shamans had great knowledge of using nature and plants to cure illness. The creation stories among the coastal ethnies had a mother earth, father sky motif. The motif for the inland ethnies centered around quarreling brothers. Their favorite social activities were "Bird Songs," group songs sung by men and danced to by both men and women. They made fine coiled baskets for cooking and as carriers. The Southern ethnies were: Cahuilla, Chumash, Cupeño, Diegueño, Gabrielino, Juaneño, Kamia, Kitanemuk, Luiseño, and Serrano.
2. Central - The Central macro-culture encompassed California’s central valley. It was comprised of at least 9 different languages. They made fine coiled baskets and lived in hundreds of self-governing villages of either dome-shaped wickiups or conical bark houses. Their most important ceremonies were the Kuksu (Kook - soo) dance cycles and ceremonies honoring their two most important types of shamans, rattlesnake and grizzly bear. Their creation stories have a great flood motif in which a creature dives down into the water for soil. The Central ethnies were: Cahto, Coast Yuki, Costanoan, Huchnom, Maidu, Mattole, Miwok, Pomo, Wailaki, Wintu, Yanan Tribes, Yokuts, and Yuki.
3. Northwest California - This macro-culture existed in the salmon rich valleys of the Klamath, Eel, and Trinity Rivers and was comprised of at least 8 different languages. They relied heavily on salmon for food, but acorns were a staple as well. They used dentalium shells for money and wealth determined a person’s status in the culture. Their houses were made of redwood planks with a small entry hole to keep bears out. They had virtually no government. Their shamans were females who often became rich as a result of their services. All of their creation stories were a variation of the man across the water motif. Their favorite ceremonies were the Jump Dance and the White Deer Dance. The Yurok were most certainly the hub of the culture. The Northwest California ethnies were: Chilula, Chimariko, Eel River Tribes, Hupa, Karuk, Lassik, Nongatl, Shasta, Tolowa, Whilkut, Wiyot, and Yurok.
      The two remaining California macro-cultures were not typical of most of California’s Indian population. They were culturally tied, in a large part, to the cultures to the east of California:
1. Colorado River - The Colorado River or Dream macro-culture was along the Colorado River, which includes the eastern Mojave Desert, into Arizona (including the Gila River Valley, and northern Sonora, Mexico). They were comprised of four or more languages. They were farmers, depending on corn, beans, and squash for food. The motif of the Dream macro-culture’s creation stories was the same as the inland Southern California macro-culture, which centered around quarreling brothers. Their shamans were always men. Their most important ceremonies were called "Dream Songs." They lived in pit or earth houses that were partially sunken into the ground. They were the only California ethnies that were warlike in nature. The Colorado River ethnies were: Chemehuevi, Halchidhoma, Kohuana, Mojave, and Yuma.
2. Great Basin - The Great Basin macro-culture stretched from California into eastern Oregon, southern Idaho, Nevada, Utah, and northwestern Arizona. It was mostly comprised of nomadic or semi-sedentary hunter/gatherers who spent their lives foraging for food in the arid basin. The Bear Dance was their most important ceremony, and it was both social and spiritual. They traveled in small family groups, many only coming together for the annual Bear Dance. They spoke many languages and at least four in California. The California ethnies in the Great Basin macro-cultures were: Koso, Northern Paiute, Southern Paiute, Washoe, and Western Shoshoni.
      Transition zones existed in California in the macro-culture borderlands. Ethnies in those zones had small populations and adopted the cultural elements of those neighbors with whom they had the most contact. The ethnies inhabiting the California transitional zones were: Achomawi, Atsugewi, Esselen, Kawaiisu, Salinan, and Tubatulabl.


California Indian Houses


Wickiup - Southern California macro-culture


      Wickiups were thatched from tules or cattails. Their frames were usually made of willows. They were green when they were first built but turned yellowish brown as the materials dried out. Notice the smoke hole in the top of the wickiup. One family would usually live in a wickiup, often including grandparents. A village would include 5 to 15 wickiups, a sweat house, and several ramadas if their were few trees for shade.










Redwood plankhouse - Northwest California macro-culture

The houses of the Northwestern California macro-culture were made of redwood planks. The planks were cut and split with stone axes. Usually one family lived in each house, including grandparents and single adult children. If a woman got married and her new husband could not afford the bride fee, he would live with her family for one year and work for them. Salmon would be smoked inside the house to keep animals from getting at the food.


Why did these houses have a small hole for their entry?





California Indian clothes:

Men, women, boys, and girls dressed alike throughout California. All wore front and rear aprons. In southern California and in the drier regions, cloth for the aprons was made from yucca fibers. Yucca fibers were pounded between rocks, and the soft fibers were woven into aprons. Fur was used in the north and mountain areas.

Capes and blankets were made from furs for the colder winter months.

Most California Indians went bare foot. Sometimes sandals were made from the same yucca for walking on rocks or hot sand.



The most popular team game was stick ball, a game similar to field hockey. Teams would try to hit a leather ball through the other team’s goal. Rules varied from ethnie to ethnie, and usually, the older the players, the rougher the game.

Children loved to shoot their bows and arrows. This was an important skill that they would have to develop for hunting game when they grew older.

Other games included throwing a spear through a hoop and dice games. The dice were made of bones.

Doll-like toys were often made for small girls and were woven out of cattails or tules.

Chapter One Review Questions:

Yes or no, did most California Indians use drums for making music?


How many macro-cultures were there in California? ___________

What was the most important food of the distinctly California Indians?


Which California macro-culture was warlike? ___________________

Which California macro-culture relied greatly on salmon for food?


Yes or no, did the ethnies in the transition zones have large populations?


Which macro-culture raised corn? ___________________________

What was the macro-culture of the ethnie who lived where you now live?


What was the most popular team game for California Indian children?


What is the term for the general theme and subject matter of a story?