With the Mattole, Lassik, Sinkyone, and Nongatl, the Wailaki spoke a Southern Athapaskan language.
Wailaki is a Wintun term meaning “north language.” The tribe had three main subdivisions: Tsennahkenne (Eel River Wailaki); Bahneko (North Fork Wailaki); and Pitch Wailaki (located farther up the North Fork of the Eel River). The Wailaki are culturally related to four other small tribes—the Mattole, Lassik, Sinkyone, and Nongatl—who lived just to their north and west.
Location :In aboriginal times, the Wailaki lived in northwestern California, along the Eel River and the North Fork Eel River. Today, descendants of these people live in and near Mendocino County.
Population: Roughly 2,700 Wailaki lived in their region in the mid-nineteenth century; the population of all five tribes may have exceeded 13,000. In 1990, 577 Indians, including some Wailaki, lived on the Round Valley Reservation. The enrolled tribal membership in 1990 was 1,090.
Although human occupation of the region is at least 4,000 years old, the Southern Athapaskans appear to have come to California around 900 AD. They had little contact with non-natives until the mid-nineteenth century. The Anglo extermination raids of 1861 and 1862 were fairly successful.
Survivors fiercely resisted being placed on reservations. Most stayed in the hills working on Anglo sheep and cattle ranches. Others worked on small parcels of land. At one point around the turn of the century, so many of their young were being kidnapped and indentured that parents tattooed their children so they would always know their ancestry.
Religion: The Wailaki believed that spirits were present in all objects, inanimate as well as animate. The source of shamans’ power was their ability to communicate with Katanagai (Night Traveler), the creator god. The Wailaki recognized various types of shamans, both men and women, who might attend special schools to receive visions and practice on patients. They cured the sick by sucking or with herbs and could find lost souls. Sucking and soul-loss doctors could also foretell the future and find lost people or objects. Singing, dancing, and smoking tobacco accompanied most shamans’ rituals. Other ceremonies were connected with salmon fishing, acorn gathering, and girls’ puberty.
Government: Traditionally, the Wailaki consisted of at least 19 tribelets and 95 villages. Tribelets were presided over by hereditary chiefs, who settled disputes and provided food for ceremonial occasions. Chiefs were entitled to extra wives.
Customs: The nuclear family was the primary social unit. Gift exchange formed the basis of the marriage formalities. Mothers-in-law and sons-in-law did not speak directly to each other out of respect.
Herbal abortion was practiced and probably infanticide, especially in the case of twins, one of whom was generally killed.
Divorce was relatively easy to obtain for the usual reasons: unfaithful, barren, or lazy wife; unfaithful or abusive husband.
Burials: Corpses were buried with their heads facing east; the grave was later piled with stones. Wives and husbands were generally buried together. The house was destroyed, and possessions were buried or otherwise disposed of.
Wealth was important but not as much as with the Klamath River people to the north. Most property except land was individually owned. Childrens’ games included jumping rope, swinging, running races, dolls, tops, and buzzer or hummer toys. Adult games included shinny, archery contests, the hand game, and the women’s dice game.
Dwellings: In winter, people lived in circular houses with conical roofs, made of redwood slabs or bark. A cooking fire was located in the center of a dugout floor. Two or more families occupied a single house. Hide bedding was most common. Brush shelters served as summer houses. Villages also contained circular sweat houses.
Diet: Acorns and game, including deer and elk, were the major food source. The Wailaki also ate fish, particularly salmon and trout. Summer was a time for migration following acorns and other ripening plant food sources.
Key Technology: Women coiled and (mostly) twined hazel shoots and conifer root fibers, decorated in bear grass, into basket containers, bowls, caps, traps, and other items. Musical instruments included drums, rattles, clappers, whistles, and flutes. Elkhorn and wooden wedges with groundstone mauls were used to split wood. Spoons were made of elkhorn or deer skull. Other raw materials included hide, horn, and stone. Fire came from buckeye or willow fire drills with moss for tinder.
Trade: Regular trade partners included the Yuki and Cahto Pomo.
Notable Arts and Crafts: Fine arts included basket making, woodworking, and the manufacture of ceremonial clothing and items.
Transportation: Although the Mattole, Lassik, Sinkyone and Nongatl used dugout canoes, the Wailaki made do with log rafts. Goods and children were towed in baskets by swimmers.
Dress: Clothing, especially in summer, was minimal. When they did wear clothes, men wore deer hide shirts and buckskin breechclouts. Women wore a one-piece bark skirt or a double apron of buckskin. Both sexes wore their hair shoulder length or longer, combed it with soaproot brushes, and cut it with a stone knife.
War and Weapons: Retaliation or revenge for murder, witchcraft, insult, or rape could lead to war among tribelets or families. Most Southern Athapaskans fought little and then usually only among themselves. Battles consisted mainly of surprise attacks. Ceremonial dances preceded and victory dances followed hostilities. All casualties and property loss were compensated for. Weapons included the sinew-backed bow and arrow, knives, clubs, sticks, slings, spears, and rocks. The Wailaki also used elk hide armor and shields.
Government/Reservations: Some Wailaki Indians live on the Round Valley Reservation (1864; 30,538 acres) as well as on the Sugar Bowl Rancheria (Lakeport County). Their constitution and by-laws were approved in 1936. Other California Southern Athapaskans also live among and have become mixed with Athapaskan Hupa or with other Indians. The Rohnerville Rancheria (Humboldt County) is home to some Southern Athapaskans.
Economy: Important economic activities include cattle and sheep ranching, logging, and local small business employment.
Legal Status: 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.
Daily Life: Today’s Wailakis are known for their healers and doctoring schools. Local plants are used in traditional arts, such as basket weaving and woodworking, as well as for curing and subsistence. They are in the process of reacquiring their own land base; part of this project includes the struggle for access to aboriginal locations.