Nicoleño Language


Last Updated: 6 years

The Nicoleño language was spoken by a Uto-Aztecan Native American tribe who lived on San Nicolas Island, California.

Archeological evidence suggests San Nicolas, like the other Channel Islands, has been populated for at least 10,000 years, though perhaps not continuously.

It is thought the Nicoleño were closely related to the peoples of Santa Catalina and San Clemente Islands; these were members of the Takic branch of the Uto-Aztecan peoples and were related to the Tongva of modern-day Los Angeles County.

The name “Nicoleño” has been conventional since its use by Alfred L. Kroeber in Handbook of Indians of California; the Chumash called them the “Niminocotch,” and called San Nicolas “Ghalas-at.” Their name for themselves is unknown.

Nicoleño History

The expedition of Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo spotted San Nicolas Island in 1543, but they did not land or make any notes about the inhabitants.

In 1602 the Spanish explorer Sebastián Vizcaíno visited San Nicolas and gave it its current name. Little is known of the Nicoleño through the historical record between that date and the early 19th century.

By that time the population seems to have declined significantly, likely due in part to Spanish missionary recruitment efforts, known to have relocated people from the other Channel Islands to the mainland.

In 1811 a party of Aleuts from Russian Alaska landed on San Nicolas in search of sea otter and seal. They fought with the Nicoleño men, probably over hunting rights and women, and many died as a result.

The tribe was decimated, and by the 1830s only around twenty remained; some sources put the number at seven, six women and an old man named Black Hawk. Black Hawk suffered a head injury during the massacre.

Hearing of this, the Santa Barbara Mission on the mainland sponsored a rescue mission, and in late 1835 Captain Charles Hubbard sailed out to the Channel Islands aboard the schooner Peor es Nada. Most of the tribe boarded the ship, but one, the woman later known as Juana Maria, did not arrive before a storm rose and the ship had to return to port.

Hubbard was unable to return for Juana Maria at the time as he had received orders to take a shipment of lumber to Monterey, California, and before he could return to Santa Barbara the Peor es Nada hit a heavy board in the mouth of the San Francisco Bay and sank. A lack of other available ships is usually cited as preventing further rescue attempts.

Many of the surviving Nicoleño chose to live at the Mission San Gabriel Arcángel. However, they had no immunity to the diseases they encountered there.

Black Hawk became blind shortly after arriving, and died when he fell off a steep bank into the water and drowned. The others had also apparently died by the time Juana Maria was rescued.

After several other attempts at locating her failed, she was found by Captain George Nidever, who took her to the mainland. None of the local Indians could decipher her language, and she was taken in by Nidever and his wife.

However, she contracted dysentery and died only seven weeks after her arrival.

In 2012, a U.S. Navy archeologist reported finding a site that may have been Juana Maria’s cave.

Juana Maria, the “Karana,” was born before 1811 and was the last surviving Nicoleño when she died in 1853.

Nicoleño Culture

Most information about the Nicoleño comes through Juana Maria. When Nidever located her, she was living in a round brush enclosure, about 6 feet (1.8 m) in diameter and 5 feet (1.5 m) high, with a narrow opening on one side. She cooked her food over a fire inside her home. Several similar enclosures were still standing at the time, and another type of structure, made of brush walls supported by whale ribs, was also found.

Juana Maria hung seal meat from a series of poles four to eight feet in length placed around the structures, or from ropes stretched between the poles.

Like other California natives, the Nicoleño were apparently skilled basket weavers, and Juana Maria is described as making four different shapes in the literature about her.

When found she was wearing a dress made of green cormorant skins, decorated with feathers, and had a number of possessions made of sinew and bone.

The first archaeological visit to San Nicolas was by Paul Schumacher for the Smithsonian Institution in 1875. His team uncovered numerous artifacts from surface sites, assumed to be from a later period of Nicoleño culture, as the island’s climate is not well suited for preservation.

Artifacts collected by these early visitors include grass matting and clothing fragments, bone knives and fishhooks, and soapstone fish and bird effigies.

Nicoleño culture was entirely dependent on the ocean for sustenance, as the island was home to only four types of land animals, none of which were valuable for food.

The island is home to a large abundance of fish and sea mammals, as well as birds, which the Nicoleño were skilled at catching.

Nicoleño Language

The Nicoleño language is now extinct, and there is very little evidence for it. Kroeber assigned it to the Shoshonean stock, and it is generally accepted it was closely related to the Tongva language spoken on nearby Santa Catalina Island and in what is now Los Angeles County.

However, a study by University of California, Los Angeles linguist Pamela Munro focusing on four words and two songs spoken and sung by Juana Maria suggests Nicoleño was most similar to the related languages spoke by the Luiseños of Northern San Diego County and of the Juaneños near San Juan Capistrano.

Others have questioned whether Juana Maria was actually a Nicoleño, suggesting she came to the island later, perhaps with the Aleuts after the massacre.