California Southern Athabaskan Cultures

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The Southern Athabaskan speakers of California lived in Northwestern California, on the coast and inland, midway between San Francisco Bay and the Oregon border (Humboldt & northern Mendocino Counties). They included the Lassik , Mattole, Nongatl, Sinkyone, and Wailaki tribes.

The five tribes that make up the Southern Athabaskan  language dialects were similar to each other, but differed from the northern California tribes whose languages were also part of the Athapaskan language family.  The way of life of the five Southern Athapaskan tribes was also very similar to each other.

The Southern Athabaskan peoples were more like the people to the north of them than like those to the east or south.  These five Southern Athapaskan groups mark the southern boundary of the northwestern California way of life. 

Records of these groups are scanty; there may have been as many as 13,000 people in the 1700’s, or as few as 3,500.

Also known collectively as Eel River Athabaskan, this is a group of closely related dialects that were traditionally spoken in present-day Mendocino, Trinity, and Humboldt counties along the Eel and Van Duzen rivers. 

Eel River Athabaskan is a member of the Athabaskan language family, spoken across North America with concentrations in western Canada (Dëne Suliné, Sarsi, Slave), Alaska (Ahtna, Gwich’in, Koyukon), the southwest United States (Apache, Navajo), and coastal Oregon and northern California. The other Athabaskan languages of California are Hupa, Kato, Mattole, and Tolowa.

Southern Athabaskan Speakers in California

Mattole, sometimes called the Bear River Indians, is the name given to the group that lived along the Bear River and the coast near its mouth  and the Mattole River from the ocean to the Upper North Fork River.  There were at least seven Bear River villages and at least 60 Mattole River villages.  Mattole is the Wiyot name for the river.

The Sinkyone, with about 70 villages, had the land along the Eel River and its south fork, and a portion of coastline from Spanish Flat south. A northern dialect of Sinkyone was spoken along the lower Eel River near Scotia to a few miles above the mouth of the Eel River’s South Fork, and along the South Fork down to present-day Miranda. A southern Sinkyone dialect was spoken on the South Fork of the Eel between Phillipsville and Leggett, and west to Shelter Cove on the coast.They are extinct today, from the settler and Army massacres of the 1850’s.

Nongatl villages were located along the Van Duzen River and the Upper Mad River, and the creeks that drained into the rivers.  There were at least 35 villages.  Nongatl was spoken in the territory around the Van Duzen River, from its outlet on the Eel River to its headwaters near Dinsmore, and along Yager and Larabee creeks.The name Nongatl is a Hupa word meaning Athapaskan to the south. The Nongatl are now part of the Round Valley Indian Tribes.

The Lassik had about 20 villages, occupying the land along the upper Eel River and the headwaters of the North Fork Eel and Mad rivers.   Lassik was spoken on the lower reaches of Dobbyn Creek and south along the Eel River to Kekawaka Creek, with a large settlement at present-day Alderpoint, as well as at the headwaters of the North Fork Eel and Mad rivers.

The Lassik are thought to be named for their last chief. They lived in their villages only in winter. The majority of them perished during the first few years of the occupancy of their country by white people, a bounty being placed on their heads and the traffic in children for slaves being profitable and unrestrained. A few families are still living in the neighborhood of their former homes.

The Wailaki are divided into three groups:  the Eel River Wailaki, the North Fork Wailaki, and the Pitch Indians (who also lived on the North Fork Eel River).  There were almost 100 Wailaki villages.  Wailaki means north language in the Wintu dialect.

Wailaki was spoken in the territory around the Eel River south of Kekawaka Creek and along the North Fork of the Eel River. The Covelo Indian Community of Round Valley Reservation (Wailaki, Yuki, Pit River, Achumawi, Pomo, Konkow, Nomlaki, Wintun) is a federally recognized tribal entity. The Wailaki are federally recognized as part of the Covelo Indian Community and have applied for separate recognition as well. There are also som Wailaki people included in the Sugar Bowl Rancheria (Lakeport County).

Other California Southern Athapaskans also live among and have become mixed with Athapaskan Hupa or with other Indians. The Rohnerville Rancheria (Humboldt County) and Grindstone Rancheria are also home to some Southern Athapaskans.

Traditional Territory

Much of the land where the Southern Athapaskan groups lived was mountainous, with peaks up to 6,000 feet high in the North Coast Range.  Redwoods, pine, and fir grew in the forests. 

The Southern Athapaskan groups were divided into tribelets, with each tribelet having a headman or chief.  The headman was responsible for providing a large amount of food at feasts, and for settling arguments. 

Houses

The houses of the Southern Athapaskan groups were cone-shaped.  They started with a circle of poles.  Pieces of bark were leaned against the poles, which slanted and met at the top.  This type of house was more typical of the early central Californians.  Of the Southern Athapaskans, only the Mattole made some of their houses more substantial with straight vertical walls and pitched roofs, like the other northern people.  The Mattole, Sinkyone, and Wailaki dug down about two feet inside the house, so the floor was below ground level.  All the groups had a place for a fire in the middle of the house.  Two or more families often shared a single house. 

Each village had a sweathouse which was built on a circular plan, like the family houses.  The Lassik and Wailaki added a layer of earth to the lower outside wall of the sweathouse.

During the summer, the Southern Athapaskan groups left their villages to camp in the hills, where they hunted and gathered food.

Clothing

The Southern Athapaskans used the hides of deer to make clothes for themselves.  In warm weather, they did not wear much clothing.  Men wrapped a piece of deerskin around their hips.  Women wore apron-like skirts (one piece in front, one in back) that covered them from the waist to the knees. 

Rabbit skins were used by the Southern Athapaskan people to make robes or blankets.  It took many skins (as many as a hundred) to make a single blanket.  These groups (except the Wailaki) wore deerskin moccasins in the summer to protect their feet from rattlesnake bites. 

Girls’ faces were tattooed when they were teenagers.  The Sinkyone women had horizontal lines tattooed on their cheeks, like the Yuki, as well as broad stripes on their chins, like the Hupa and other northern groups.

Ceremonies

Ceremonies of the Southern Athapaskans were more simple than those of their northern neighbors.  Some took place in the round sweathouses that served also as dance houses.  There were dances to celebrate the salmon, dogs, coyotes, acorns, camas bulbs, and clover, but the most important ceremonies were for girls growing up.  Dancers wore headbands made with yellowhammer (a type of woodpecker) quills.  Some of the people used hide drums and flutes to make music.

Subsistance

The acorn was an important food for all five of the Southern Athapaskan groups.  There were many oak trees in the territories of all except the Mattole.  These groups also collected pine nuts, several kinds of berries, and many other plants to use as food.

For the Mattole and Sinkyone, fish were even more important than acorns.  They caught salmon and steelhead trout as the fish swam upriver to spawn.  Since they lived along the ocean, the Mattole and Sinkyone also gathered mollusks, did some ocean fishing, and ate the meat of sea lions.  The river, however, was more important than the ocean as a source of food for them.

Another major food for the Southern Athapaskans was deer and elk meat.  There were many black-tailed deer and elk in the mountain ranges.  Reports tell of Lassik and Wailaki men running down deer by chasing them until the deer were so tired they dropped.

Baskets made in this region were done in the northern California style called twining.  The Southern Athapaskans were the most southerly people to use this basketmaking method.  Their baskets were not as finely done as those of the Yurok, to the north, and they had less decoration on them. 

Large dugout canoes were used by the Sinkyone for travel on the Eel River.  Other groups used smaller, less well-made canoes with a single paddle.  Log rafts were also used for transportation, pushed with poles in shallow water or pulled by swimmers. 

Fibers from the iris plant were used to make cord or string, which was then made into nets.  Nets were attached to poles and used to catch fish.  Pieces of elkhorn were used as tools to shape wood into bows and arrows.  Bone awls (pointed tools for making holes) and bone needles were used for sewing.

Dentalium shells strung on strings were used as money, but the shells that the Southern Athapaskans had were smaller, broken shells rather than the long ones used by tribes further north.  The tube-shaped dentalium shells came from far up the Pacific Coast, and the Southern Athapaskans were at the end of the line to receive them.