California Dialects

California native language groups

In 2000, according to the U.S. Census, there were 220,657 American Indians living in California, for those designating only one race, and excluding Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians in California.

California had the second-largest Native American population of any state, second only to Oklahoma.

Most of the American Indians in California are native California Indians, while many other Indians have come from other states either through relocation by the United States government or for employment purposes.

There are over 100 federally-recognized Indian tribes in California, and almost 100 Federal Indian reservations in the state, with about 40 Indian groups seeking to gain federal recognition.

Prior to the arrival of the Europeans, the native peoples of California lived in all areas of the state.

There was no “empty” land, as long as that land could support human life. Nowhere else in the United States is there such a variety of cultures and languages spoken.

California Indians have dozens of languages and dialects from six major language families: Hokan, Penutian, Algonkian, Athabascan, Uto-Aztecan (Shoshonean), and Yukian.

Athabascan FamilyOregon Group

1a. Rogue River

1b. Dakubetede Tolowa Group

1b. Tolowa.Hupa Group

1c. Hupa

1d. Whilkut

1e. Chilula Matole Group

1e. MatoleWailaki Group

1f. Nongatl

1g. LassikSinkyone

1h. Shelter Cove Sinkyone

1i. Lolangkok Sinkyone

1j. Eel River Wailaki

1k. Pitch Wailaki

1l. North Fork Wailaki

1m.KatoBear River Group

1n. Bear River

Algonkin FamilyYurok

2a. Yurok

2b. Coast Yurok

3. Wiyot

Yuki–Wappo languages (Yukian Family)

4a. Yuki

4b. Huchnom

4c. Coast Yuki

4d. Wappo

Hokan Family


6a. Shasta

6b. New River Shasta



6e. Achomawi (Pit River)

6f. Atsugewi (Hat Creek)


7a. Northern Yana

7b. Central Yana

7c. Southern Yana

7d. Yahi

8. Karok

9. ChimarikoPomo

10a. Northern

10b. Central

10c. Eastern

10d. Southeastern

10e. Northeastern

10f. Southern

10g. Southwestern

11. Washo

12. EsselenSalinan

13a. Antoniano

13b. Migueleño

13c. Playano (doubtful)


14a. Obispeño

14b. Purisimeño

14c. Ynezeño

14d. Barbareño

14e. Ventureño

14f. Emigdiano

14g. Cuyama

14h. IslandYuman Diegueño

15a. Northern (Western) Diegueño

15b. Mountain Diegueño

15c. Southern (Eastern or Desert) Diegueño

15d. Kamia (Kumeyaay)

15e. Yuma

15f. Halchidhoma & Kohuana (now Chemehuevi)

15g. Mohave

Penutian Family

Wintun Dialect Groups

16a. Northern (Wintu)

16b. Central (Nomlaki) Patwin

16c. Hill (Patwin)

16d. River (Patwin)Maidu Dialect Groups

17a. Northeastern

17b. Northwestern

17c. Southern (Nisenan)Miwok

18a. Coast

18b. Lake

18c. Bay (Saclan)

18d. Plains 1

8e. Northern Sierra

18f. Central Sierra

18g. Southern SierraCostanoan

19a. San Pablo (Karkin)

19b. San Francisco

19c. Santa Clara

19d. Santa Cruz

19e. San Juan Bautista (Mutsun)

19f. Rumsen (Monterey)

19g. Soledad

Yokuts Dialect Groups

20a. Northern Valley (Chulamni, Chauchila, etc.)

20b. Southern Valley (Tachi, Yauelmani, etc.)

20c. Northern Hill (Chukchansi, etc.)

20d. Kings River (Chionimni, etc.)

20e. Tule-Kaweah (Yaudanchi, etc.)

20f. Poso Creek (Paleuyamni)

20g. Buena Vista (Tulamni, etc.)Modoc

20h. Modoc

Uto-Aztecan (Shoshonean) Family

Plateau Branch Mono-Bannock Group

21a. Northern Paiute (Paviotso)

21b. Owens Valley Paiute

21c. Mono Lake Paiute

21d. Monache (Western Mono) Shoshoni-Comanche Group

21e. Panamint Shoshone (Koso) Ute-Chemehuevi Group

21f, Chemehuevi (Southern Paiute)

21g. Kawaiisu (Tecachapi)Kern River Branch

21h. Tübatulabal (& Bankalachi)Southern California BranchSerrano Group

21i. Kitanemuk (Tajon)

21j. Alliklik

21k. Möhineyam (Vanyume)

21l. Serrano Gabrielino Group

21m. Fernandeño

21n. Gabrielino

21o. Nicholeño Luiseño-Cahuilla Group

21p. Juaneño

21q. Luiseño

21r. Cupeño

21s. Pass Cahuilla

21t. Mountain Cahuilla

21u. Desert Cahuilla


Heizer, R.F. 1966. Languages, Territories, and Names of California Indian Tribes. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Kroeber, A.L. 1925. Handbook of the Indians of California. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 78.


Article Index:

Atsugewi Indians

The Atsugewi Indians are one of the eleven bands of California Indians that make up the Pit River Tribe. They were originally located in Northeastern California, south of the Pit River in what is now Lassen County and eastern Shasta County. Atsugewi is also one of the two Palaihnihan branches of the Hokan language.


LANGUAGE FAMILY : Hokan -> Palaihnihan -> Atsugewi

The Atsugewi Indians are connected by language with the Achumawi, to the north. Together their languages are known as the Palaihnihan branch of the Hokan language family.  The Atsugewi were usually on friendly terms with all of their neighbors (the Achumawi, Yana, and Maidu).  Danger came from the Modoc and Paiute tribes who came from further north and east on raiding parties, taking Atsugewi people as slaves. 

Villages were located in the valleys along the creeks that flowed northward into the Pit River, especially Hat Creek, Horse Creek, and Burney Creek.  They are sometimes referred to today as the Hat Creek Indians.

Villages had from three to 25 houses.  Village headmen led their people in hunting and gathering food, and settled arguments in the village.

The Atsugewi were divided into two groups:  the Atsuge or pine-tree people whose territory north of Mt. Lassen had a lot of lava from the volcano; and the Apwaruge or juniper tree people, who lived on the plains to the east of the Atsuge.  The name Atsugewi comes from Atsuke, the name given by the people to a place on Hat Creek.  


The winters were cold in Atsugewi territory, so winter homes were built to keep in the warmth of the fire.  The houses were oval in shape, with a center pole.  Other poles sloped down from the center to the sides, forming a  frame for the house.  The frame was covered with pieces of bark, and then with earth.  There was an entrance at one end, and a smoke hole in the center of the roof.  Several families often lived in one house, which might be 20 or 30 feet in length. 

In the summer, when the people traveled over their territory to gather food, they made temporary houses at camping places.  For these houses, four poles were leaned together and tied at the top, forming a ground circle of 12 to 15 feet.  The poles were covered with cedar bark slabs.

The headman usually had a larger house, which was also used as a village sweathouse by the men.  Smaller sweathouses were made in summer camps. 


Perhaps because they put so much value on work, the Atsugewi had few ceremonies.  About once a week, however, the headman would call for a day of rest when everyone stayed home rather than hunting or gathering food. 

Although they sometimes visited the big dances and ceremonies of the neighboring Maidu and Wintun tribes, the Atsugewi didn’t hold these dances themselves.  They held small dances when boys or girls became adults, war dances before and after a battle, and singing sessions before a big hunt. 


Both deerskin and tule reeds were used to make clothing.  Deerskin shirts and leggings were used for winter clothes, especially by wealthier people.  At other times women wore skirts made of reeds bundled together and then sewn or woven into a mat.  Men tied a tule mat around their hips. 

Leggings and moccasins were also made from tule reeds, though in the winter the men sometimes had moccasins of deerskin, with the hair left on the inside to make them warmer.   Pieces of rabbit fur were wound around the hand and wrist, to make a glove.  Of all the early Californians, the Atsugewi lived in one of the coldest places, and so had to pay more attention to having warm clothes.


Because of their friendly relations with their neighbors, the Atsugewi could gather food outside their own territory.  Salmon were caught in the Pit River, which was in Achumawi territory.  In the smaller streams where the Atsugewi lived, they caught trout and other smaller fish.

Fish were more plentiful and easier to get than deer, but deer meat was prized as the food of a well-to-do family.  Atsugewi men spent a lot of time hunting deer, sometimes in groups of hunters and sometimes alone.  Any deer or antelope that was caught was divided by the chief among the people of the village.       

Bows and arrows with poison on the tips were used to kill grizzly bears.  Rabbits, ducks, mud hens, and other birds were caught with nets or shot with arrows.  Some small animals and birds that were eaten by other early California groups were not considered good as food by the Atsugewi.  They did not eat gray fox, coyote, eagle, buzzard, magpie, or crow.

At the end of the long winter, the first plant available was tree moss.  Later the epos and camas roots were gathered, along with sunflower seeds.  Oak trees (acorns) grew mainly in the western part of Atsugewi territory.  The people who lived in the eastern part had to make long trips to get acorns from other Atsugewi areas or from the Yana or Achumawi. 

The Atsugewi worked hard during the summer to gather enough food to store for the long, snowy winter.  Fish and deer meat was smoked and dried by hanging on poles.  It was then stored in pits dug in the ground, or in baskets hung in the trees.  Acorns and other nuts, seeds, and roots were also dried for storage. 

Baskets were important for carrying and storing food.  They were made by the method called twining, in which upright pieces of willow or other shoots were interwoven with plant fibers.  The baskets were decorated with pieces of fern.  Large cone-shaped baskets, about five feet long, were used to catch fish.  The Atsugewi also made fishing nets.  Cord to make the nets came from twisting pieces of tule reeds.  Some wealthy men had canoes.

For hunting, the men used wooden bows and arrows, spears, and traps.  They dug pits along the deer paths (which led to the name of the Pit River), and caught deer and other animals with rope snares.  The rope was made from the tule reeds. 

Wealth was important to the Atsugewi, because it came as a result of hard work.  A person who worked hard was admired, and a lazy person was shunned.  Children were taught the value of work when they were young.  A person born to a poor family could improve his or her position in the village by working hard. 

A man chosen to be headman of a village was one who worked hard and had become rich.  However, the headman then had to provide feasts and give gifts to visitors, which sometimes resulted in the headman no longer being the richest man in the village.

Clamshell beads were the form of money used in trade.  The pieces of clamshell, shaped into disks and strung on cords, came from tribes to the south along the Pacific Coast.  Furs and deerskins were also considered a sign of wealth, and were displayed in a rich man’s lodge. 

Things like canoes, baskets, and tools were a sign of wealth as well.  The rich men who owned more of these things would loan them to less fortunate people, and receive in return a small gift of food.  Rich men also had trading partners in other groups, with whom they exchanged goods and gifts. 





California Southern Athabaskan Cultures

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. 


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.


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 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.


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. 





Consensus Classification of California Indian Languages

Here is a chart of the 88 languages indigenous to the state of California. Hypothesized MACRO-UNITS are in bold caps and italicized, FAMILIESin bold caps only, SUBGROUPS are in in small caps, individual languages in boldface, and dialects in italics:


HOKAN STOCK (Proposed)






SHASTAN (4 languages)



New River Shasta


PALAIHNIHAN (2 languages)



POMOAN (7 languages)

Southeastern Pomo

Eastern Pomo

Northeastern Pomo


Northern Pomo


Central Pomo

Southern Pomo

Kashaya Pomo

YANA (2 languages)

Northern Yana (incl. Central Yana)

Yahi (Southern Yana)

YUMAN-COCHIMÍ (14 languages)



Paipai (“Akwa’ala”)


Ipai (Northern Diegueño)


Tipai (Southern Diegueño)



Quechan (Yuma)

Halchidhoma (Maricopa)


COCHIMÍ BRANCH (Peninsular Yuman)









MAIDUAN (3 languages)







MIWOK (7 languages)



Northern Sierra Miwok

Central Sierra Miwok

Southern Sierra Miwok

Plains Miwok

Saclan (Bay Miwok)


Coast Miwok

Lake Miwok

COSTANOAN (“Ohlone,” 5 languages)


Northern Costanoan

Chalon (“Soledad”)


Mutsun (“San Juan Bautista”)


WINTUAN (4 languages)




Southern Patwi

YOKUTSAN (3 languages)

Nim Yokuts (includes Northern, Tulare

Lake, and Foothill tribal dialects)


Poso Creek


(“Na-Dene,” 4 languages)


Hupa (includes Whilkut & Chilula dialects)


Eel River (Sinkyone, Nongatl, Lassik,

Wailaki, & Cahto dialects)

ALGIC FAMILY (“Algonkian,” 2 languages)



CHUMASHAN FAMILY (6 languages)










UTO-AZTECAN FAMILY (14 languages)



Gabrielino (“Tongva,” includes Fernandeño)

Tataviam (“Alliklik”)



Serrano (includes Vanyumé)










Owen’s Valley Paiute

Northern Paiute


Panamint (“Koso,” “California Shoshone”)



Chemehuevi (dialect of Ute)

YUKIAN FAMILY (Considered by some linguists to be part of the “Gulf” Macro-unit)