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Who are the Alturas Indians?
The Alturas Indian Rancheria is a federally recognized tribe of Achumawi Indians in California. The Achumawi are also known as Pit River Indians.
Pit River Valley
Photo By Robert F. Ettner, Natural Resources Staff Officer, Siskiyou National Forest, US Forest Service via Wikimedia
Official Tribal Name: Alturas Indian Rancheria
Address: PO Box 340, Alturas, CA 96101
Traditional Name / Traditional Meaning:
The term Achumawi is an anglicization of the name of the Fall River band, ajúmmááwí, from ajúmmá meaning “river.”
Common Name / Meaning of Common Name:
Pit River Indians – The Achumawi were also known as the Pit River Indians. The river got its name from the people’s custom of digging pits several feet deep and covering them with branches, to trap the deer.
Alternate names / Alternate spellings / Misspellings:
Achomawi, Pit River Indians
Name in other languages:
Upper Pit River and countryside, near Alturas, in Modoc County, Northeastern California.
By PGHolbrook, Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
The Achumawi lived along the Pit River and along some of the rivers and streams that flowed into it. Much of their land away from the rivers was high mountain country, some forested with fir and pine but other parts covered with lava from eruptions of Mt. Shasta and Mt. Lassen volcanoes, where nothing grew. There were also large swampy areas.
Small clusters of villages, called tribelets, were connected by their common language and by a single headman chosen by the people. There were nine of these tribelets in Achumawi territory.
Confederacy: Pit River Indians
Reservation: Alturas Indian Rancheria
The tribe controls a 20-acre (81,000 m2) reservation near Alturas, California, in Modoc County.
Land Area: 20-acre (81,000 m2)
Tribal Headquarters: Alturas, California
Time Zone: Pacific
B.I.A. Office: Northern California Agency
Population at Contact:
1770 estimate: 3,000 (Achumawi & Atsugewi)
1910 Census: 1,000
Registered Population Today:
Tribal enrollment is estimated at 15, as of 2010.
Tribal Enrollment Requirements:
People referred to each other by their relationship (aunt, brother) rather than by personal names. It was considered rude to call someone by their real name.
Name of Governing Body:
Number of Council members:
Dates of Constitutional amendments:
Number of Executive Officers:
Language Classification: Hokan -> Northern -> Shasta-Palaihnihan -> Palaihnihan -> Achumawi
The language of the Achumawi was much like that of the Atsugewi, to the south of them. The two groups are linked together as the Palaihnihan branch of the Hokan language family. Achumawi has a distinctive tone on every syllable.
The Achumawi language (also known as Achomawi or Pit River language) is the native language spoken by the Pit River people of present-day California. Originally there were nine bands, with dialect differences among them but primarily between upriver and downriver dialects, demarcated by the Big Valley mountains east of the Fall River valley.
Number of fluent Speakers:
Today, the Achumawi language is severely endangered. Out of an estimated 1500 Achumawi people remaining in northeastern California, perhaps ten spoke the language as of 1991, with only 8 as of 2000. However, out of these 8, 4 had a limited English proficiency.
Bands, Gens, and Clans
There are also Pit River Indians included in:
- Big Valley Band of Pomo Indians of the Big Valley Rancheria Pomo and Pit River Indians
- Redding Rancheria – Wintun, Achomawi (Pit River), and Yana Indians
- Round Valley Indian Tribes – Yuki, Concow, Little Lake and other Pomo, Nomlaki, Cahto, Wailaki, and Pit River people.
- Susanville Indian Rancheria – Washoe, Achomawi (Pit River), Mountain Maidu, Northern Paiute, and Atsugewi (Pit River) tribes.
- Lytton Rancheria of California (F) Achomawi (Pit River), Nomlaki and Pomo Indians.
- Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians of California (F) Chukchansi, Pomo, and approximately 60 other tribes.
- Round Valley Indian Tribes of the Round Valley Reservation (F) Yuki, Concow, Little Lake and other Pomo, Nomlaki, Cahto, Wailaki, and Pit River peoples.
The Achumawi were friendly with the Atsugewi.
The Achumawi often fought with the Modoc, to the north.
Ceremonies / Dances:
Not many Achumawi ceremonies are known. Simple rituals, including having their ears pierced, were held when a girl or a boy became an adult member of the group. A girl had to dance and sing for ten nights. A boy had to go out alone on the mountain for a night.
Modern Day Events & Tourism:
Legends / Oral Stories:
Art & Crafts:
Achumawi men wore both a short apron-like skirt and a shirt made from a piece of animal skin with a hole cut in the middle and the sides sewn together below the armholes. Sometimes they wore leggings made from deerskin, and moccasins made either of deerskin or woven from tule reeds and stuffed with grass. Elk, antelope, badger, bear, beaver, and coyote skins were also used to make clothing. When skins were not available, cedar bark could be shredded and attached to a belt to make a skirt.
The women wore a shirt much like the men, and a separate skirt made by wrapping a piece of deerskin around them. Sometimes they wore a fringed apron-type skirt. On their heads they wore a cap made like a basket. The clothes were sometimes decorated with porcupine quills.
Tattooing was done on women’s faces, with three thin lines on the chins and a few lines on the cheek. Men had their noses pierced so they could wear a shell or bone ornament through the nose.
Winter houses for the Achumawi were dug out of the ground, usually in a 15-foot square. A center pole with other poles or logs used as cross beams made a frame over the dug out area. Grass, tule reeds, and bark were placed over the frame, and then covered with a layer of earth. The main entrance to the house was through the smoke hole in the roof. A ladder made from two poles with crossbars tied on with plant fibers was used to climb down into the house.
The larger houses had two or three families living in them. The chief’s home was also large, as was the village dance house. Single families had simpler houses made from bark that formed a sloping roof over a shallow hole dug in the ground. The cold winters in this area, with deep snow, meant that a fire was important to keep the people warm. Sagebrush, juniper branches, and pine trees that had fallen were used as fuel for the fire.
The basic foods of most early northern Californian people (acorns, deer meat, salmon) were not quite as plentiful in Achumawi territory, so the people here depended on a greater variety of foods, including grasshoppers. Acorns were eaten by all the people, but in the eastern sections they were gotten mostly through trade, as not many oak trees grew there.
The swampy areas in Achumawi territory were home to many kinds of waterfowl. Ducks, geese, and swans were used as food, as were their eggs. Cranes, mud hens, and pelicans were also eaten, as were sage hens, crows, hawks, magpies, and eagles that lived in the woodlands. Salmon could be found in large numbers only on the lower Pit River. More common were the bass, catfish, lamprey, pike, trout, crawfish and mussels caught in the rivers, streams, and lakes.
Besides deer, some elk were found near Mt. Shasta. Antelope were valued both as food, and for their hides, hoofs (used to make rattles), and antlers. Other animals used as food were jack rabbits, badgers, bears, beaver, coyotes, marmots (who lived near the lava flows), and other small animals.
Grassland areas provided many roots and bulbs including camas bulbs and wild onions. Epos, a carrotlike root, was popular. Sunflower seeds and other seeds from wild grasses were gathered; mustard seed was used for seasoning. They did not have true salt, but used leaves and seeds from the saltbush plant instead. Clover and young thistle plants were eaten. Berries and nuts came from the forests. The food supplies included angleworms; the larva (newly hatched form) of wasps, ants, bees, and hornets; crickets, grasshoppers, and caterpillars.
Dip nets, gill nets, seine nets and basket traps were used by the Achumawi to catch fish. For the string to make the nets, they used fibers from the dogbane or milkweed plant, or from the tule reeds that grew in marshy areas. Tules were also used to make mats that served as sleeping pads or as summer shelters. Simple dugout canoes made from pine or cedar logs were sometimes used on the rivers and lakes. Bundles of tule reeds were tied together to make rafts to cross streams and lakes.
Bows used in hunting were made of yew wood, or of mahogany or juniper, backed with sinew (animal tendons). The arrows had tips formed from obsidian (volcanic glass from Lassen Peak), with rattlesnake venom used to make them poisonous. Spear points and knives were also shaped from obsidian, which was plentiful in Achumawi territory. Bows and arrows were often decorated with colors of black, blue, white, red, and yellow. The paints came from colored minerals found in the area.
The Achumawi made baskets by the method known as twining, as did other northern California groups. Young willow shoots and plant fibers were used to make the baskets, which were decorated with ferns, pieces of roots, and redbud bark. Baskets were used to carry and store food, as cradles for babies, and as hats for the women.
The Achumawi probably used clamshell beads as money. These beads would have been acquired in trade from groups to the south, having been traded up from the central coast. The beads were small pieces of shell shaped into disks with a hole punched in the middle, and strung on cords. Wealth was not as important to the Achumawi as it was to some other groups. Their leaders were not the richest men, but the ones who could best carry out the duties of the headman.
The tribe operates the Desert Rose Casino and the Rose Cafe in Alturas.
Traditional Religion & Spiritual Beliefs:
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:
Handbook of the Indians of California, with 419 Illustrations and 40 Maps
The Rancheria, Ute, and Southern Paiute Peoples
Discover Your Family History Online: A Step-by-Step Guide to Starting Your Genealogy Search