Chimariko Indians

The Chimariko Indians are an indigenous people of California, who originally lived in a narrow, 20-mile section of canyon on the Trinity River in Trinity County in northwestern California.

The name Chimariko comes from a word in their language, chimar, which means people.  Each Chimariko village had a headman who settled disputes and led the village in hunting for food.  The headman served in this position for life, and his son followed him as headman.  

Chimariko History

Originally hunter-gatherers, the Chimariko are possibly the earliest residents of their region. They had good relations with the Wintu people and were enemies of the Hupa, a Southern Athabaskan people.

Non-native fur trappers first entered the Chimariko’s territory in 1820, followed by miners and settlers in the 1850s. The Chimariko were profoundly affected by the destructive environmental practices of gold seekers during the California Gold Rush, starting in 1848.

One of the major issues involved the disruption of the salmon population that was the main food source of the Chimariko.

In the 1860s, conflict between the Chimariko and white miners led to the near extinction of their population. The surviving Chimariko fled to live with the Hupa and Shasta.

Chimariko Language

himariko people spoke the Chimariko language, a Northern Hokan language. The language is currently extinct. The language probably became extinct sometime in the 1930s. It is extensively documented in unpublished fieldnotes which John Peabody Harrington obtained from the last speaker, Sally Noble, in the 1920s.

Chimariko Settlements and Houses

The entire territory of the Chimariko in historic times was a 20-mile stretch of the canyon of the Trinity River.  This country was mountainous and covered with forests. 

There were just a few villages, the largest being called Tsudamdadji. 

It is possible that the Wintun had pushed the Chimariko down the river into the small canyon sometime in their past.  Later, however, the Wintun were friends of the Chimariko, and the Hupa downstream were their enemies.

The houses in the Chimariko villages were poor in comparison to those of their neighbors, although they were made in a similar style.  The houses were made of wood, with low walls and a pitched roof. 

But instead of using cut planks of wood, like the more prosperous people, the Chimariko used pieces of fir or madrone bark for the walls. 

Inside, a shallow pit dug  into the ground gave a place for the cooking fire, and for the women and girls to work and sleep.  Overall, the houses in the Chimariko villages were smaller than those of nearby groups.  Two or more families sometimes shared a house.

Each Chimariko village had a sweathouse where a group of men gathered each day.  This is also where the men and older boys slept.

Chimariko Food and Clothing

Their location along the Trinity River meant that the Chimariko people had a steady supply of fish to eat.  The men used nets and traps to catch the salmon and other fish. 

They also used harpoons, as well as bows and arrows, and clubs.  Sometimes they caught fish with their bare hands.  The river in Chimariko territory was too small and fast-flowing for canoes to be useful.  Fishermen waded into the river.

In addition to fish, the Chimariko hunted deer, elk, and bear in the nearby forests, several kinds of birds such as quail, and small animals like rabbits and rodents.  Men worked together in hunting the larger animals, sometimes driving and trailing them, or smoking them out of their dens. 

Meat and fish were cooked either by boiling, roasting, or smoke-drying them.  Smoke-dried food would last for many months.

Acorns were the mainstay of the Chimariko diet, as they were for most early Californians. 

After a lengthy process of preparing the acorns to be ground into a coarse meal, the meal was mixed with water to make acorn bread.  This bread was baked on hot stones, or in an earth-covered oven heated by hot stones.

Other foods that the Chimariko people gathered were pine nuts, berries, several kinds of wild seeds, and several kinds of roots.  Fishing, hunting, and gathering places were owned in common by the entire community.

Chimariko women wore fringed aprons made from deerskin, and decorated with nuts and seeds.  On their heads, they wore basket caps woven from plant fibers.  The caps could also be used to carry things. 

The men wore trousers made of deerskin.  When the weather was cold, deerskin or rabbit skin blankets were worn across the shoulders. 

Both men and women had long hair, coming down past their shoulders.  Men tied their hair in one roll at the back of their neck. 

Women parted their hair and tied it in several rolls, using ribbons made from deerskin or mink.  They used combs made from fish bones and brushes from the soaproot plant to comb and brush their hair, which they greased with animal fat.  The soaproot plant also provided them with shampoo for washing their hair.

Chimariko girls had tattoos on their chin, cheeks, arms, or hands, and their ears were pierced when they were very young, so that they could wear ear ornaments.

Chimariko Tools and Weapons

Baskets were made by the Chimariko in a variety of styles, by the method known as twining.  Thin branches formed the main supports of the basket, with vines and pieces of root twined or woven in and out of the main supports, to create the basket.  Willow bark was often used as decoration on the finished basket.

The Chimariko used spoons, made simply and without decoration.  The men ate with spoons made of deer or elk horn; the women’s spoons were made from mussel shells. 

Other cooking tools such as paddles to stir acorn mush were carved from wood.  Food was served on wooden platters as well as in baskets. 

Wedges of deer or elk horn were used to chip the wood into the shapes needed.  Some unbaked clay bowls were also made by the Chimariko, and used as water containers.

Bows and arrows were used both for hunting game and in warfare.  The bows were made of yew wood, with bowstrings of deer sinew (animal tendons). 

Arrows to be used in war had stone tips on them, sometimes dipped in a poison that came from rattlesnake venom.

Chimariko Trade and Ceremonies

The Chimariko used dentalium (tube-shaped mollusk) shells for money, as did other northwestern coastal groups.  The shells came from Vancouver Island, and were traded down the coast.  They were strung on strings by size, the larger shells being worth more. 

They got red and black obsidian (volcanic glass) from the Wintun, upstream from them.

The Chimariko were not wealthy people, and had little to trade with their neighbors.  There are no records of the Chimariko having slaves, nor holding or selling fishing places as individual property.

Other things considered valuable by the Chimariko were woodpecker scalps, red obsidian blades, and silver fox-skin blankets.  

Perhaps because they were a poor people, the Chimariko did not have elaborate ceremonies like some of their neighbors. 

An annual summer dance lasted ten days, and both men and women took part in it, but it was not an important ceremony for the group. 

Visitors were welcomed, and the headman and his family provided food for everyone.  The Chimariko did not often visit the lavish ceremonies of their neighbors. 

Though the Chimariko did not engage in the display of wealth at ceremonies, as other northern groups did, they did have special personal decorations for ceremonial times. 

Both men and women wore ear ornaments and necklaces made of dentalium shells and bear claws.  On headbands of deerskin or fur, they placed woodpecker scalps.  Men added the tail feathers of condors and eagles to their headbands for special occasions.