The Californian Culture
The phrase California Indians refers to people of many different
tribes within the California Culture Area. This geographical
region roughly corresponds to the state of
California as it exists today, along with the Lower California
Peninsula, which is part of Mexico. In the eastern part
of this geographical region, the Sierra Nevada, a tall and
rugged mountain range, provides a natural barrier. As a
result, some of the tribes that once lived in territory now
mapped as the eastern part of the state of California are categorized in the Great Basin and Southwest Culture Areas.
And to the north, some of the tribes who lived on both
sides of the California-Oregon border are included in the
Northwest Coast and Plateau Culture Areas.
In addition to the Sierra Nevada, the smaller Coast Range runs north-south within the California Culture Area, extending into Mexico. Between the two mountain ranges, in the heart of the culture area, is the Great California Valley, formed by the San Joaquin and Sacramento Rivers and their tributaries.
The amount of rainfall in the culture area varies dramatically from north to south. The northern uplands receive the greatest amount of precipitation, mostly in winter. As a result, there are many tall forests in northern California. The south of the culture area is much drier. Near the California-Arizona border is the Mojave Desert. In Mexico, most of the coastal lowlands, especially along the Gulf of California, are also desert country.
For the most part, the culture area offers bountiful
wild plant foods and game. California Indians prospered and grew to high population levels as hunter-gatherers
without a need for farming. The only cultivated crop
found was tobacco.
The dietary staple of California Indians was the acorn,
the fruit of the oak tree. Native peoples collected them in
the fall. They removed the kernels from the shells, placed
them in the sun to dry out, pounded them into a flour,
then repeatedly poured hot water over the flour to
remove the bitter-tasting tannic acid. Then they boiled
the acorn meal into a soup or mush or baked it into a
bread. Other wild plant foods included berries, nuts,
seeds, greens, roots, bulbs, and tubers. Sun-dried berries,
roots, and seeds also were used to make cakes.
California Indians also ate insects. They picked grubs and caterpillars off plants. They boiled the caterpillars with salt, considering them a delicacy. They drove grasshoppers into pits, then roasted them. And they collected honeydew as another delicacy, rolling it into pellets. (Insects called aphids suck the juices of plants and secrete sweet-tasting honeydew.)
Rabbits were common throughout the culture area. The Indians used snares and other kinds of traps to catch them, as well as bows and arrows and clubs. In pursuit of deer, California Indians journeyed into the hill country, hunting with bows and arrows or herding them into corrals. Waterfowl also provided meat. Ducks, geese, swans, and other birds migrating from the north in the autumn descended on the marshes. The Indians shot at them from blinds with bows and arrows or bagged them from boats with nets.
California Indians had many different methods of fishing, including hooks and lines, spears, nets, and weirs (enclosures). Lakes, rivers, and the sea offered their catch. Along the seashore and in tidal basins, the Indians also gathered clams, oysters, mussels, abalones, and scallops. And they hunted seals and sea otters.
California Indians lived in many different kinds of houses.
The most typical house throughout the culture area was
cone-shaped, about eight feet in diameter at the base. It
was constructed from poles covered with brush, grass,
reeds, or mats of tule (a king of bulrush). Other kinds of
dwellings included domed earth-covered pithouses and
lean-tos of bark slabs. In the northern part of the culture
area, some Indians built wood plank houses more typical of
the NORTHWEST COAST INDIANS. Most of the California
houses served as single-family dwellings, but some were
communal or ceremonial. Others served as sweathouses.
Clothing in much of the region was minimal because of the warm climate. Men often went completely naked or wore simple animal-skin or bark breechcloths. Women always wore at least fringed aprons in the front and back, made from animal skins or shredded willow bark. After the coming of non-Indians, cotton came to replace bark in many instances. Headwear included basket hats, iris fiber hairnets, feather headbands, and feather crowns. Some California Indians went barefoot; others wore ankle-high leather moccasins or sandals made from the yucca plant. In cold weather, robes and blankets of rabbit skin, seaotter fur, or feathers were draped over the shoulders. Shell jewelry was widespread, as was the practice of tattooing.
With regard to transportation, California Indians usually
traveled by foot. But they also had different kinds of
craft for transporting supplies by water. Some peoples,
such as the Yurok, made simple dugouts, carved from
redwood logs. Rafts were more common in the culture
area, made from logs or from tule. The tule rafts are
known as balsas. The tule reeds were tied together into
watertight bundles. The bundles would become waterlogged
after repeated use, but would dry out in the sun.
One tribe, the Chumash, made boats out of pine planks
lashed together with fiber cordage and caulked with
asphalt, the only plank boats made by Native Americans.
Arts and Crafts
California Indians are famous for their basketry. They used
baskets for cooking, placing heated stones in them to boil
water (stone-boiling), as well as for carrying, storing,
winnowing, and other purposes. There were six to eight
different kinds of baskets alone for processing acorns. Basketwork
was also used to make hats, mats, traps, and baby
carriers. The Pomo decorated their baskets with feathers.
Other California household items included wooden
and ceramic bowls, soapstone (steatite) vessels, antler
and shell spoons, tule mats, and wooden headrests. Ceremonial
objects included stone and clay pipes; rattles
made from gourds, rawhide, turtle-shell, deer hooves,
and cocoons; plus various other instruments, including
drums, flutes, whistles, bull-roarers, and stick-clappers.
Strings of disk-shaped dentalium shells were used as a
medium of exchange. Trading was widespread among
Some California tribes had single shamans; others had
secret societies made up of several members, such as the
Kuksu Cult of the Wintun, Maidu, and other tribes of the
central California region. Initiation rites were important to
California peoples, especially rites involving passage from
childhood into adulthood. Death rites were also important.
Many California Indians, especially in the central and
southern region, cremated their dead. As with all Native
Americans, music and dancing played an important part in
ceremonies. Some peoples used a tea made from parts of
the poisonous jimsonweed plant to induce visions.
Concerning social and political organization, the California peoples were not made up of politically cohesive tribes, but rather interrelated villages. The term tribelet is often applied to California Indians in reference to the relationship between the permanent central village and temporary satellite villages. A single chief, a fatherly figure, presided over each tribelet. Most clans, groups of related families within the tribelet, were traced through the father’s line. California Indians did not have war chiefs, as did other Native Americans, nor systems of bestowing war honors. Warfare was usually carried out for the purpose of revenge rather than for acquiring food, slaves, or possessions.
California Indians enjoyed many kinds of games. One favorite was hoop-and-pole, in which a pole was thrown or slid at a rolling hoop. Another game involved catching aring on a stick or throwing the ring at a pin, as in quoits. Ball games were also popular, including a variety of both lacrosse and soccer. Shinny, in which participants used curved sticks to throw blocks of wood, was also widespread. Indoor games included dice and other counting and betting games. Cat’s cradle, in which a string looped on one person’s hands in the shape of a cradle is transferred to another person, was a favorite hand game.
As this book shows time and again, it is difficult to generalize about Indian tribes even in a region where the peoples had as many cultural traits in common as they did in the California Culture Area. In order to grasp the subtleties and distinctions among California Indians and what happened to them after contacts with non-Indians, see the entries for particular tribes and the entry on Mission Indians.