Tolowa Indians


Last Updated: 7 years

The Tolowa Indians constituted one of the divisions into which the California peoples of the Athapascan linguistic stock are divided, but they were closely connected with the Athapascan tribes of Oregon immediately to the north.

Tolowa is an Algonquian name given to these people by their southern neighbors, the Yurok. 
Also called: Aqusta, by Dorsey (MS.), meaning “southern language,” Naltunnetunne name; Lagoons, by Heintzleman (in Ind. Aff. Rep., 1857, p. 392; 1858); and Lopas, by Heintzleman (op. cit.). Cultural and linguistic relatives in Oregon are known as Chetco and Tututni. Tolowas are presently associated with the Tututni. Their name for themselves is Xus, or “person.”

Location: Traditionally, the Tolowa lived in approximately eight permanent villages in northwestern California, from Wilson Creek north to the Oregon border. The area included coastline, rivers (especially the Smith River), Crescent Bay, Lake Earl, and interior marshes, hills, and mountains. Today many Tolowa live in and around Humboldt and Del Norte Counties, California.On

Villages. (According to Drucker, 1937)

Etcūlet, at end of point in Lake Earl. Ha’tsahothwut, long abandoned site. Kehoslī’hwut, on east bank, lower course of Smith River. Mestlte’tltun, on Crescent Bay. Mi’litcuntun, on middle course of Smith River. Mu’nsontun, on east bank, on lower course of Smith River. Munshrī’na taso’, long abandoned site. Muslye’, on North Fork of Smith River. Na’kutat, a suburb of Tatitun, Numore’tun, long abandoned site. Sitragī’tum, on the west bank of Smith River below Mill Creek. Ta’gestlsatun, on coast at mouth of Wilson Creek, mixed with Yurok. Ta’tatun, on Crescent Bay. Tati’tun, on shore of Crescent Bay near north end. Tcestu’mtun, on South Fork of Smith River. Tcunsu’tltun, on east bank of Smith River at mouth of Mill Creek. Te’nitcuntun, between North and South Forks of Smith River at junction. Tltru’ome, on Crescent Bay toward south end. Tro’let, a small suburb of Yotokut near mouth of Smith River. Tunme’tun, on a small branch of the North Fork of Smith River. Tushroshku’shtun, on peninsula between two arms of Lake Earl. Yoto’kut, on coast south of mouth of Smith River.

Population: Kroeber estimates “well under” 1,000 Tolowa in 1770 and indicates a possible modification to 450; the census of 1910 returned 121. In 1930 the “Oregon Athapascans,” including the Totowa, were reported to number 504. From perhaps 2,400 in the early nineteenth century (out of roughly 4,000 Tolowa/Chetco/Tututnis), by 1990 only 59 Indians lived on the Trinidad Rancheria and 32 Indians lived on the Elk Valley Rancheria (mostly Tolowa). Roughly 400 people identified themselves as Tolowa in 1990.

Language: The people spoke several dialects of Tolowa, an Athapaskan language.

History: During the late eighteenth century, probably before the Tolowa had yet encountered non-natives face to face, an epidemic contracted from non-native explorers in the region destroyed one of their villages. The first direct contact came in June 1828 in the person of Jedediah Smith and his exploring party. However, the Tolowa continued to live relatively unaffected by outside influences until about 1850. More than half of the Tolowa population died during that decade alone from disease and the effects of Anglo mass murders. In 1860, following the Chetco/Rogue River Indian War (begun in 1852), 600 Tolowas were forced to march into reservations in Oregon. Some of those people were later removed to the Hoopa Valley Reservation. The 1870 Ghost Dance revival reached them in about 1872 and lasted about ten years. Around the turn of the century, the Tolowa suffered further dramatic population reduction as a result of disease, mostly measles and cholera. Their population at this time had been reduced by roughly 95 percent, to some 200 people. Individual Tolowas had received a few allotments in the late nineteenth century. In 1906, the government purchased tracts of land near the mouth of the Smith River that later became the Smith River and Elk Valley Rancherias. By 1913, most Tolowas were living in and around Crescent City and on the Hoopa Valley and Siletz Reservations.   About the same time, the Del Norte Indian Welfare Association was founded as a community and self-help organization. The two rancherias were terminated in 1960, with devastating cultural results. As a response to termination, Tolowa landowners in 1973 created the Nele-chun-dun Business Council and filed for federal acknowledgment ten years later as the Tolowa Nation. The rancherias were reinstated in 1983.

Religion: Beginning in 1923 and lasting for at least 30 years, owing to the government crackdown and confiscation of regalia, people held their traditional religious observances secretly.

The Indian Shaker Movement, which supported traditional healing and spiritual practices, arrived around 1930 and remained popular for a generation.

Most important Tolowa ceremonies were connected with diet, such as catching the season’s first salmon, smelt, or sea lion. The Naydosh (Feather Dance) was performed as part of a World Renewal ceremony.

Government: The wealthiest man in the village was usually the leader. There was no formal chief or overall political organization.

Customs: Prestige, in the form of gaining and displaying wealth, or treasure (such as large obsidian knives, necklaces of dentalium shell beads, and red woodpecker scalp headdresses) was of prime concern to the Tolowa. One headdress might contain 40 or more woodpecker scalps.

Treasure was not normally used for utilitarian purposes except for bride prices. Besides marrying off daughters, other ways to get wealth were shrewd trading, fines and indemnities (there were many occasions for this, which were watched for carefully), infant betrothal, and gambling. Wealthy men might have several wives.

Shamans were mostly women or transvestite men. They were paid a high fee for curing disease. Their methods included dancing, trances, and sucking with the assistance of a spiritual power, or “pain.”

Although Tolowa villages did not closely cooperate among themselves, intermarriage and ceremonial interaction between the Tolowa and their neighbors (Yurok, Karuk, Hupa, Tututni) was common. Male activities mostly revolved around hunting, boat building, and fishing; women generally collected and transported food, especially acorns, and prepared it for eating and storage.

Dwellings: Tolowas lived in square redwood-plank houses with two-pitched roofs. The central area was slightly excavated for cooking and sleeping. An interior ground-level ledge was used for storage. Men and boys slept, gambled, and made nets and weapons in semisubterranean sweat houses.

Burial: Corpses were removed through a loose plank in the house, wrapped in tule mats, and buried with shell beads and other objects.

Subsistence:  The people lived in their permanent villages about nine months a year, leaving in late summer to fish for smelt on sandy beaches and continuing on inland to catch salmon and gather acorns through the fall. Salmon, smelt, and sea lion were the staples. Other foods included seaweed, shellfish, shore bird eggs, and acorns. The people may have cultivated tobacco.

Key Technology: Technological innovations included wild iris fishnets; tule mats; baskets of various fibers; stone, fiber, bone, and wooden tools such as bow and arrow, harpoons, fishing nets, woodworking wedges (antler), stone pounders, and pestles; and bone needles for weaving tule items. Deer hooves were used as musical instruments. Tolowas counted by fives.

Trade Local trading networks extended into interior California and Oregon and along the coast at least as far north as Puget Sound.

Notable Arts: Highly abstract petroglyphs date from roughly 1600. Locally, complex twined basket design depended on techniques such as overlay. The design was characterized by a large variety of geometric elements and the use of three colors.

Transportation: The people built and used 40-foot redwood canoes from which to fish and hunt sea lions.

Clothing: Men wore buckskin breechclouts or nothing at all. Women wore a two-piece buckskin skirt. They also had three vertical stripes tattooed on their chins. Basketry caps protected their heads against burden-basket tumplines. Hide robes were used for warmth. People on long journeys wore buckskin moccasins and leggings. Both sexes wore long hair and ornaments in pierced ears.

War and Weapons: Each village defended its land, occasionally against other Tolowa villages. There were few pitched battles; most fights consisted of individual attacks or village raids. Young women were sometimes taken captive but usually returned at settlement time. Every injured party received a settlement, with the winners paying more than the losers.

Government/Reservations Today: Tolowas live at the following locations:

  • Cher-ae Heights community of the Trinidad Rancheria (47 acres; about 60 Yurok, Wiyot, and Tolowa Indians in the mid-1990s) in Humboldt County
  • Big Lagoon Rancheria (20 acres; 19 Yurok and Tolowa in 1996) in Humboldt County
  • Smith River Rancheria (1906; 30 acres; 72 Indians) in Del Norte County, re-recognized in the 1980s and governed by the constitution of the Howonquet Indian Council
  • Elk Valley Rancheria (1906; Del Norte County; roughly 30 Tolowa, Yurok, and Hupa, governed by a nine-member tribal council).
  • Tolowas also live on the Siletz Reservation.

Economy Today: Unemployment at Elk Valley in 1995 stood at about 40 percent. Economic activities there include casino gambling and a casket company. Access to jobs is relatively difficult.

Legal Status: The Cher-ae Heights Indian Community of the Trinidad Rancheria, the Smith River Rancheria, and the Big Lagoon Rancheria are federally recognized tribal entities. The Elk Valley Rancheria of Smith River Tolowa Indians is a federally recognized tribal entity.

The Tolowa Nation, derived from the nineteenth-century Jane Hostatlas allotment and the 1973 Nele-chun-dun Business Council, had not received federal recognition as of 1997. The Tolowa-Tututni Tribe of Indians is also federally unrecognized.

Daily Life: Although few know and practice the old traditions, the Tolowa do perform ceremonies such as the Naydosh (Feather Dance). Indian Shaker religious practices are also popular. At Elk Valley, extended families live together or nearby. Children attend public school, although the people are working toward setting up tribal schools.

Health care facilities are considered inadequate, despite the presence of a clinic at Smith River. Diabetes, heart disease, and substance abuse are chronic problems.

Tolowas have written dictionaries and conduct classes in their native language. Like most rural people, they garden, fish, and hunt for subsistence.