Some Notes on Indigenous California

Posted on December 5, 2012


Indian languages of central and southern California-s

If you look at the Aboriginal people of California through the lens of a language map, you get one notion of cultural organization, but it’s hardly the most important one in respect of understanding California Aboriginal culture.  Because of linguistically determined relationships between language stocks, a map of indigenous languages can give us useful hints about the historical movement of people in California’s deep past, but with few exceptions it can tell us very little about Aboriginal political or cultural boundaries at the moment of European contact.

What were these?

Culture varied by region and economy.  Actual political boundaries within California were based on tribelets, self-governing units with populations ranging from 100 to over 1000 people and with territories ranging between 130 and 15,600 square kilometres.

Complex hunter-gatherers—village dwellers—dominated the coast, which was the first part of California contacted by Europeans, and the part of California that I intend to focus on here.  These peoples had sophisticated economies based on the exploitation of land and sea resources, trade networks and the beginnings of political hierarchy.

miwok roundhouseCoastal tribelets featured permanent central villages—characteristically clustered about semi-underground sweatlodges or roundhouses, which were large structures, partly excavated, made of earth and wood.  Smaller hamlets dotted the landscape around the primary communities.

tule-balsa-on-clear-lake-sHousing consisted either of smaller versions of the roundhouses, or huts constructed of pole and thatch.  Some peoples built conical houses out of redwood planks and bark.  Adjacent to each house were outdoor hearths, and nearby were outdoor work areas where people flaked stone tools, made fishing lines and nets, and prepared acorn gruel for meals.

The central sweatlodges and roundhouses were used for ceremonies.  The areas immediately around these structures were used for feasts, festivals, dances and rituals.

pomo feather basketAlso near the village centres were communal granaries for the storage of nuts, seeds and other foods.  Nearby were cemeteries where the dead were either cremated or buried, and where the dead were venerated.

The Aboriginal people of California, although not agricultural, nevertheless had intervened in the land over 1000s of years through the use of fire management, tilling, pruning, scattering seeds, weeding and conservation.  The manipulation of grasslands and oak forests increased the yields of wild seed and nut crops.

magnesite and clamshell bead necklaceWhether they recognized it or not (and they didn’t), the Europeans who first encountered California encountered a landscape that had been profoundly altered and shaped by human culture.  In fact, the difference between agricultural and hunting-gathering peoples has never been as certain or extreme as most people believe.  The example of California demonstrates a continuity between hunting-gathering and agriculture in respect of the human relationship with the landscape, not a fundamental paradigm shift.

On the central coast territories of the Pomo, Coast Miwok, Bay Miwok, Ohlone (Costanoan), Esselen and Salinan speakers, people pursued a mixed hunter-gatherer lifestyle, exploiting shellfish, fish and sea mammals close to the shore using tule balsas.  From the water they harvested salmon and waterfowl.  From the land they harvested acorns, deer and elk.  Along rivers and streams they gathered sedges and basketmaking materials.  Their craftsmakers manufactured feathered baskets, and magnesite and clamshell disk beads.

tomolOn the southern coast territories of the Chumash, Galibrielino, Luiseño and Diegueño speakers, from Baja to Santa Barbara Channel, people went to sea in large ocean-going canoes, tomols, made of planks sewn and glued together, measuring from 3.7 to 9.1 metres in length (approximately 12 – 30 feet.)  They propelled the tomols using double-bladed oars, and used them for fishing, sea mammal hunting and transport to the off-shore islands.

steatite and serpentine from caliSouthern coast artisans specialized in the production of microblades, shell beads, and ollas, bowls and effigies crafted of steatite–soapstone–items which were widely traded in the off-shore islands, mainland and interior.  The southernmost groups manufactured ceramic vessels in gray, brown and red.

Certain elite families and lineages had privileged access to bead wealth, plank canoes and other important resources.  Early Spanish visitors to the southern California coast tell of encountering important chiefs and a sophisticated ranking system, likely a social product of this differential access to resources and the wealth-producing possibilities of the culture and the landscape.

All along the coast of California, the Spanish explorers and colonists encountered villages with powerful hereditary elites, with chiefly specialists and priestly specialists, with amassed wealth that financed extravagant feasts, elaborate ceremonies and sponsored craft specialists.  What they did not encounter is a culture of war.  The hundreds of self-governing communities of the California coast didn’t feel the need to build walls and stockades against their many potential enemies, something which the Spanish felt compelled to do almost immediately after arriving.

But the Spanish, when they came, brought their own culture of war with them, and their warlike religion too.  Along with disease, ecological disruption and purposive cultural interference, these “gifts” did not bode well for the long-term well-being of the California Aboriginal people, as history makes clear.


See Indians, Missionaries and Merchants by Kent G. Lightfoot, University of California Press, 2005.