With over one hundred federally recognized tribes, and many unrecognized tribes,California has the largest Native American population and largest number of distinct tribes of any US state. Californian tribes are characterized by linguistic and cultural diversity. A government relocation program in the 1960s also translocated members of many non-California tribes to the state of California.
The California cultural area does not exactly conform to the state of California’s boundaries, and many tribes on the eastern border with Nevada are classified as Great Basin tribes, some tribes on the Oregon border are classified as Plateau tribes, and tribes in Baja California that do not cross into California are classified as Indigenous peoples of Mexico.
Many of the tribes in California are sub-tribes or bands culturally related to other tribes, while others are independant tribes with their own cultural identity. Refer to other Bands and Clans articles for information specific to each California tribe.
Northwest California Bands
This area would include the Tolowa, Shasta, Karok, Yurok Hupa Whilikut, Chilula, Chimarike and Wiyot tribes. The distinctive northern rainforest environment encouraged these tribes to establish their villages along the many rivers, lagoons and coastal bays that dotted their landscape. While this territory was crisscrossed with thousands of trails, the most efficient form of transportation was the dugout canoe used to travel up and down rivers and cross the wider and deeper ones such as the Klamath. These tribes used the great coast Redwood trees for the manufacture of their boats and houses. Redwoods were cleverly felled by burning at the base and then split with elkhorn wedges. Redwood and sometimes cedar planks were used to construct rectangular gabled homes. Baskets in a variety of designs were manufactured in with the twined technique only. Many of these arts survived into the twentieth century and traditional skills have enjoyed a great renaissance in the past twenty years.
The elaborate ritual life of these tribes featured a World Renewal ceremony held each Fall in the largest villages. Sponsored by the wealthiest men in the communities, the ceremony’s purpose was to prevent future natural catastrophes such as earthquakes, floods or failure of acorn crop or a poor salmon run. Supplication to supernatural spirits. Because such disasters directly threaten the community, great attention to detail and the utmost solemnity accompanied such ceremonies. This and other traditional rituals continue to be practiced, despite the grinding poverty that plagues many of these groups.
These tribes were governed by the most wealthy and powerful lineage leaders. The great emphasis on wealth found in these cultures is reflected in the emphasis on private ownership of food resources such as oak groves and fishing areas.
Northeast California Bands
This region included the Modoc, Achumawi, and Atsugewi tribes. The western portion of this territory was rich in acorn and Salmon. Further to the East, the climate changes from mountainous to a high desert type of topography. Here food resources were grass seeds, tuber berries along with rabbit and deer.
These Indians found tule to be a useful source of both food (the rootbulb is consumed) and a convenient material when laced together to form floor mats and structure covering. Volcanic mountains in the Western portion of their territory supplied the valuable trade commodity obsidian. The Social-political organization of these peoples was independent but connected to their neighbors by marriage ties. Following contact, the Achumawi and Atsuguewi suffered a tremendous population decline due to vigilante violence and respiratory diseases. The Modocs spectacular 1872 resistance to removal to the Oregon territory was the last heroic military defense of native sovereignty in 19th century California Indian History.
Some surviving Northeast tribesmen received public land allotments around the turn of the century. The XL Rancheria was established for some of these Indians in 1938. Tragically the surviving Modocs were exiled to either Oregon or Oklahoma.
Central California Bands
This vast territory includes: Bear River, Mattale, Lassick, Nogatl, Wintun, Yana, Yahi, Maidu, Wintun, Sinkyone, Wailaki, Kato, Yuki, Pomo, Lake Miwok, Wappo, Coast Miwok, Interior Miwok, Wappo, Coast Miwok, Interior Miwok, Monache, Yokuts, Costanoan, Esselen, Salinan and Tubatulabal tribes.
Vast differences exists between the coastal peoples, nearby mountain range territories, from those living in the vast central valleys and on the slopes of the Sierra Nevada. Nevertheless, all of these tribes enjoyed an abundance of acorn and salmon that could be readily obtained in the waterways north of Monterey Bay. Deer, elk, antelope and rabbit were available elsewhere in vast quantities.
In this region basketry reached the height of greatest variety. Perhaps the Pomo basket makers created the most elaborate versions of this art. Both coiled and twine type baskets were produced throughout the region. Fortunately basket making survived the years of suppression of native arts and culture to once again become one of the most important culturally defining element for Indians in this region.
Common in this area was the semi-subterranean roundhouse where elaborate Kuksu dances were held in the past and continue to this day. These rituals assure the renewal of the world’s natural foods both plant and animal. Despite differences, between tribes, these rituals share similar purposes.
Like everywhere else, in California, villages were fiercely independent and governed internally, The abundant food supply allowed for the establishment of villages of up to 1000 individuals, including craft specialists who produced specific objects and goods for a living. In smaller communities, each family produced all that was necessary for survival.
Southern California Bands
Southern California presents a varied and somewhat unique region of the state. Beginning in the north, tribes found in this area are the Chumash, Alliklik, Kitanemuk, Serrano, Gabrielino Luiseno Cahuilla, and the Kumeyaay. The landmass and climate varied considerably from the windswept offshore channel Islands that were principally inhabited by Chumash speaking peoples. Communication with their mainland neighbors was by large and graceful planked canoes powered by double paddle ores. These vessels were called “Tomols” and manufactured by a secretive guild of craftsmen. They could carry hundreds of pounds of trade goods and up to a dozen passengers.
Like their northern neighbors, the Tactic speaking peoples of San Nicholas and Santa Catalina Islands built planked canoes and actively traded rich marine resources with mainland villages and tribes. Shoreline communities enjoyed the rich animal and faunal life of ocean, bays and wetlands environments. Interior tribes like the Serrano, Luiseno, Cahuilla, and Kumeyaay shared an environment rich in Sonoran life zone featuring vast quantities of rabbit, deer and an abundance of acorn, seeds and native grasses. At the higher elevations Desert Bighorn sheep were hunted.
Villages varied in size from poor desert communities with villages of as little as 100 people to the teaming Chumash villages with over a thousand inhabitants. Conical homes of arroweed, tule or croton were common, while whale bone structures could be found on the coast and nearby Channel Islands. Interior groups manufactured clay storage vessels sometimes decorated with paint. Baskets were everywhere manufactured with unique designs. Catalina Island possessed a soapstone or steatite quarry. This unique stone was soft and could easily be carved with cutting tools and shaped into vessels, pipes and cooking slabs.
Each tribe and community had a chieftain, sometimes females, whose duty it was to organize community events and settle conflicts among their followers. This leader was usually assisted by a crier or assistant, Shaman or Indian doctors were known everywhere and greatly respected. The ritual use of the hallucinogen jimsonweed (Datura meteloides) was primarily in male puberty rituals. Like other California Indian communities, society was divided into three classes, the elite, a middle class and finally a less successful lower class. These robust peoples were among the first to encounter the strangers who would change their world forever.