The Sinkyone Indians: A Lost Coast Culture
The Sinkyone Indians were a group of Native Americans who lived along the rugged and remote coast of northern California, in what is now Mendocino and Humboldt counties. They spoke a dialect of the Wailaki language, which belongs to the Athabaskan family of languages that is widely spoken in Alaska, western Canada, and the southwestern U.S.
The Sinkyone were one of four Eel River Athapaskan groups, along with the Wailaki, the Lassik, and the Nongatl, who shared cultural and social characteristics that distinguished them from their neighbors. The name Sinkyone comes from “Sinkikok,” their word for the Eel River watershed, which was their ancestral homeland.
The Sinkyone Indians lived in permanent villages and seasonal camps along the Lost Coast, the river valleys, and the redwood forests. They utilized a variety of natural resources for food, clothing, shelter, tools, medicine, and art.
The Sinkyone hunted deer, elk, bear, sea lions, and other animals. They fished for salmon, steelhead, sturgeon, and eels. They gathered acorns, berries, nuts, roots, seaweed, and shellfish.
They wove baskets from willow, hazel, ferns, and grasses; they carved canoes from redwood logs; they made clothing from deer and elk skins; they decorated their bodies with tattoos, beads, shells, feathers, and paint; and practiced a system of spiritual beliefs and ceremonies that honored their ancestors, the land, the water, and the animals.
The Sinkyone Indians left behind a rich archaeological record that reveals their history and culture. Archaeologists have found evidence of their villages and campsites, their stone tools and weapons, their basketry and pottery, their shell middens and fish weirs, their rock art and burial sites.
Some of these sites date back thousands of years, showing that the Sinkyone have a long and continuous presence in their territory. Some of these sites are still sacred to the Sinkyone’s descendants today, who visit them to pay respect to their ancestors and to reconnect with their heritage.
The Sinkyone Indians also have a fascinating history of migration and interaction with other groups. According to oral traditions and genetic studies, the Sinkyone and other Eel River Athapaskans are related to the Athapaskans of Alaska and Canada, who migrated southward along the Pacific coast over several centuries.
Along the way, they encountered and intermarried with other native groups, such as the Salishan speakers of Washington and Oregon, the Penutian speakers of northern California (such as the Wintun), and the Hokan speakers of central California (such as the Pomo). The Sinkyone also traded with neighboring tribes (such as the Hupa) as well as with European explorers (such as Sir Francis Drake) who visited their coast.
The Sinkyone Indians faced many challenges and changes in their history. They endured natural disasters such as earthquakes (which caused tsunamis), fires (which destroyed forests), floods (which altered rivers), and droughts (which affected crops).
They also suffered from diseases such as smallpox (which decimated populations), syphilis (which impaired fertility), tuberculosis (which caused lung problems), and malaria (which caused fever). They also resisted invasions from hostile tribes (such as the Modoc) as well as from white settlers (who coveted their land).
The Sinkyone Indians first encountered Europeans in the late 18th century, when Spanish explorers sailed along their coast. The Spanish called them “Los Costanos” or “the coast people”. The Spanish did not establish any permanent settlements or missions in their territory but they did introduce new diseases such as smallpox and syphilis that decimated their population.
The Sinkyone also traded with Russian fur traders who established Fort Ross in 1812 on the Sonoma coast. The Russians traded metal tools, cloth, beads, and alcohol for sea otter pelts and other furs. The Russians also hired some Sinkyone as laborers at Fort Ross until they abandoned it in 1841.
The Sinkyone Indians faced more challenges and changes in the 19th century when American settlers arrived in their land. The Americans coveted their land for its timber resources and agricultural potential. They also sought to exterminate or assimilate them as part of the Manifest Destiny ideology.
Some of the most significant wars or battles that involved the Sinkyone Indians were:
The Bald Hills War (1858–1864): This was a war fought by the forces of the California Militia, California Volunteers and soldiers of the U.S. Army against the Chilula, Lassik, Hupa, Mattole, Nongatl, Sinkyone, Tsnungwe, Wailaki, Whilkut and Wiyot Native American peoples.
The war was fought within the boundaries of the counties of Mendocino, Trinity, Humboldt, Klamath, and Del Norte in Northern California. The war was sparked by conflicts over land rights and resources between the settlers and the natives. The war resulted in many casualties on both sides and ended with a series of treaties that forced most of the natives to relocate to reservations.
The Mendocino War (1859–1860): This was a war fought by a group of volunteer soldiers led by Walter Jarboe against several bands of Pomo people. The war was fought mainly in Mendocino County but also affected neighboring counties such as Lake and Sonoma.
The war was triggered by a massacre at Clear Lake where a group of settlers killed about 200 Pomo people who had sought refuge on an island, referred to the Bloody Island Massacre or the Clear Lake Massacre The war involved several raids and skirmishes that resulted in many deaths on both sides. The war ended with a peace treaty that established a reservation for some Pomo bands near Ukiah.
The Round Valley War (1862–1864): This was a war fought by a group of volunteer soldiers led by Jerome B. Ford against several bands of Yuki people . The war was fought mainly in Round Valley but also affected neighboring areas such as Eel River and Potter Valley. The war was caused by the encroachment of settlers and ranchers on the lands of the Yuki people who resisted their invasion.
The war involved several massacres and battles that resulted in the near extermination of the Yuki people. The war ended with the establishment of a reservation for the surviving Yuki and other native groups in Round Valley.
Sinkyone Bands and Clans, and Kinship Ties
The Sinkyone Indians were divided into several bands and clans that had their own territories, leaders, customs, and alliances. According to some sources, there were at least 12 bands of Sinkyone Indians:
The Bear River Band: They lived along Bear River near its mouth on the Eel River.
The Chemeketan Band: They lived along Chemise Creek near its mouth on the Eel River.
The Chwailaki Band: They lived along Needle Rock Creek near its mouth on the Eel River.
The Kekawaka Band: They lived along Kekawaka Creek near its mouth on the Eel River.
The Kekawaka-South Fork Band: They lived along South Fork Eel River near its junction with Kekawaka Creek.
The Mattole-Sinkyone Band: They lived along Mattole River near its mouth on the Pacific Ocean.
The Nekanni Band: They lived along Nekanni Creek near its mouth on the Eel River.
The Shelter Cove Band: They lived along Shelter Cove near its mouth on the Pacific Ocean.
The Shwailaki Band: They lived along Shwailaki Creek near its mouth on the Eel River.
The Sinkine-South Fork Band: They lived along South Fork Eel River near its junction with Sinkine Creek.
The Usal Band: They lived along Usal Creek near its mouth on the Pacific Ocean.
The Wages Creek Band: They lived along Wages Creek near its mouth on the Pacific Ocean.
Each band had several clans that were based on kinship ties and totemic symbols. Clans were named after animals or plants that were considered sacred or emblematic of their group.
Some examples of clan names are: Bear Clan, Deer Clan, Eagle Clan, Elk Clan, Fox Clan, Hawk Clan, Otter Clan, Salmon Clan, Seal Clan, Whale Clan, Willow Clan, and Yew Clan.
Clans had their own chiefs or headmen who were chosen by consensus or inheritance. Chiefs were responsible for maintaining peace and order within their clan and representing their clan in intertribal affairs.
Clans also had their own shamans or medicine men who were skilled in healing and communicating with spirits. Shamans were respected and feared for their supernatural powers and knowledge.
The Sinkyone Indians had a family organization that was based on bilateral descent and exogamy. This means that they traced their ancestry through both their father’s and mother’s lines and married outside their clan or band.
Families consisted of nuclear or extended households that lived together in rectangular plank houses made of redwood slabs. Families shared common tasks such as hunting, fishing, gathering, cooking, weaving, carving, etc. Families also participated in communal activities such as ceremonies, dances, games, feasts, trade fairs, etc.
Sinkyone Ceremonial Life
The Sinkyone Indians had a rich ceremonial life that expressed their spiritual connection to their land and their ancestors. They celebrated various rites of passage such as birth (which involved naming ceremonies), puberty (which involved initiation rites), marriage (which involved exchange of gifts and vows), and death (which involved burial and mourning rituals).
They also observed seasonal festivals such as the first salmon ceremony (which honored the return of the salmon to the rivers), the acorn festival (which celebrated the harvest of acorns), the deer festival (which commemorated the hunting of deer), and the winter solstice festival (which marked the longest night of the year).
Common Sinkyone Dances
The Sinkyone Indians had a variety of dances that were performed for different purposes and occasions. Some dances were sacred and secret, only performed by shamans or initiates in secluded places. Some dances were public and festive, performed by dancers in elaborate costumes and masks in front of spectators. Some dances were social and recreational, performed by men and women in pairs or groups for fun and entertainment. Some examples of dances are:
The Bear Dance: This was a sacred dance performed by shamans or initiates who had a special relationship with the bear spirit. The dancers wore bear skins and masks and imitated the movements and sounds of bears. The dance was believed to give the dancers strength, courage, and healing power.
The Deer Dance: This was a public dance performed by men who wore deer antlers and skins and carried bows and arrows. The dancers mimicked the behavior of deer, such as running, jumping, grazing, etc. The dance was believed to ensure success in hunting deer.
The Eagle Dance: This was a public dance performed by men who wore eagle feathers and masks and carried rattles. The dancers moved their arms like wings and made eagle calls. The dance was believed to honor the eagle as a messenger of the sky and a protector of the people.
The Feather Dance: This was a public dance performed by women who wore feather skirts and headdresses and carried feather fans. The dancers swayed their bodies gracefully and waved their fans rhythmically. The dance was believed to express beauty, grace, and femininity.
The Round Dance: This was a social dance performed by men and women who formed a circle and held hands. The dancers moved clockwise around a fire or a drum, singing and chanting. The dance was believed to promote harmony, friendship, and joy.
The Sinkyone Indians are a remarkable example of a Lost Coast culture that has preserved their tribal diversity and their ceremonial traditions. They have a rich and diverse heritage that spans thousands of years and hundreds of miles. They have a strong and resilient spirit that has kept them alive and united. They have a profound and sacred relationship with their land that has inspired them to care for it and to share it with others. They are the Sinkyone Indians, the people of the Eel River, the people of the Lost Coast.
Today, the Sinkyone Indians are represented by several federally recognized tribes that are part of the InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council , a non-profit organization that works to reclaim, protect, restore, and manage their ancestral lands.
The council consists of ten tribes: Cahto Tribe of Laytonville Rancheria; Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians; Hopland Band of Pomo Indians; Pinoleville Pomo Nation; Potter Valley Tribe; Redwood Valley Little River Band of Pomo Indians; Robinson Rancheria of Pomo Indians; Round Valley Indian Tribes; Scotts Valley Band of Pomo Indians; and Sherwood Valley Rancheria of Pomo Indians.
These tribes share a common vision: to revitalize their cultural connection to their land; to preserve and restore their natural resources; to educate others about their history and culture; to collaborate with other groups and agencies; to honor their ancestors and their original instructions.