The Indigenous Peoples of North America: Part 6 – California


The California mission system was one in which the Spanish used to colonize the Native Americans under their control. Whatever Father Junipero Serra’s intentions, the California mission system ended up to be one of forced labor, exploitation, disease, fatalities, and cultural genocide. However, they weren’t the only agents responsible with the mass genocide pertaining to the California tribes in the 19th century in which 90% of them were wiped out. But what you can’t dispute is that they had pretty nice architecture which became popular with the publication of Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona (which was intended to expose the cultural genocide).

Before the contact of Europeans and Saint Junipero Serra’s Spanish missionary system of forced indigenous labor, assimilation, and cultural genocide, California was home to the largest population of Native Americans and the most distinct tribes of any US state and the highest population density north of Mexico. Over 150 of them are said to have US federal recognition to date. They even had 500 distinct sub-tribes or groups on top of that. And before European contact, native Californians spoke 300 dialects of approximately 100 distinct languages. Of course, when the Spanish came with their missionary system, all the ecological disruption, forced labor exploitation, and introduction of Spanish diseases took care of all that that population was reduced by 90% during the 19th century from 200,000 to 15,000. Still, most of the havoc was unintentional save for the assimilation and forced labor part. But those Spanish missions started a tradition by which we know California today, one in which white people cause a lot of ecological disruption as well as exploit minorities even when they think they’re helping. Also, displacing people who’ve resided in their hometown longer than you have with either guns, germs, or steel or simply raising their property values. Nevertheless, the most common language of the Native Californians was Valley Girl speak as well as took part in rituals like surfing, playing Beach Boys music, and disrupting the private lives of celebrities. Okay, I’m kidding about that. In reality, California’s diversity in climate, topography, and wildlife was part of why these Native American communities thrived in this place. Now even the state’s ecology is under threat due to climate change, drought, wildfires, earthquakes, and what not. Basically if an area in California isn’t made a state or national park, there’s not much protection going for it before it’s turned into some shopping mall. Yet, despite all the bad things that have happened to these California tribes, their descendants still live in the state today. Just don’t mention the canonization of Father Junipero Serra as a good idea. Just don’t.


Pre-contact California had a diverse environment including the coastal beach communities, the tall redwood forests, high mountain ranges, and southern deserts. Yet, most of these people were hunter-gatherers as well as had acorns as their primary food.

Location: Most of the state of California.

First Peoples: Evidence of human occupation in this region dates to 17,000 B.C.E. Early Southern California peoples include the La Jolla and Pauma Complexes each dating 6050 B.C.E. to 1000 B.C.E. The earliest inhabitants hunted with darts powered by throwing sticks at large game and resided in either open air dwellings or caves. Yet, from 9000 B.C.E., people from this region gradually started to depend on seed collection for food as well. Around 3000 B.C.E., the Windmiller culture flourished in the Sacramento Valley where they were known for fine craftsmanship, charmstones, and burying their dead face down facing west.

Environment: Has a wide variety of climates and geographical features, rivaling any other area of comparable dimensions. Mostly a mild temperate climate with coastline, rivers, and lakes. Features range from high mountain ranges, oak and conifer forests, mixed forest grasslands, vast grasslands, coastal plains, to long semiarid deserts in southern region. Precipitation is higher in the north than the south while forests can be susceptible to wild fires. Earthquakes and floods also occur.


Despite that California had a region of great abundance, a lot of the Native Americans in the area mostly lived in a hunter-gatherer existence. Here are some Native Californians who just caught a deer.

Subsistence: Mainly hunter, gatherer, and fisher subsistence since there was a local abundance of food. Yet, some did practice a form of low density “wild” agriculture and “fire stick” farming. And it’s known that these Indians practiced various forms of forest gardening. Hunted animals like deer, elk, rabbits, sheep, squirrels, chipmunks, quail, mountain sheep, and bear as well as seals and sea otters. Fished for trout, salmon, mollusks, and shellfish. Occasionally ate insects as well as gathered mushrooms, roots, nuts, and seaweed. Acorns were said to be a main staple of food there as well as ground into flour to make mush or bread.


California native housing depended on location, season, climate, available resources, and whether it was for temporary or permanent use. This straw wigwam house is known as a kicha.

Housing: Depends on the location, season, available resources, climate, and whether it was for temporary or permanent use. Ocean area tribes tended to build grass mat houses. Those in the northwest forest areas built cedar or redwood plank houses. Central tribes lived in subterranean round pit houses. Southern tribes could build conical homes of tule or croton and whalebone structures on the coast.


Since it was mostly warm and mild, the Native Californians typically wore very little clothing, save in winter in the colder areas. These women and girls are wearing grass and bead skirts with basket hats and lots of jewelry over their bras (the only article not part of the traditional outfit but necessary).

Clothing: People in this region mostly wore very little. Yet, those who lived in colder areas would wear skins and furs during the winter.


The coastal Native California tribes fished from redwood dugout and plank canoes. Southern tribes had double paddled oars called “tomols” which were made by a secretive craftsman guild. These could hold up to a dozen people and hundreds of pounds to trade goods.

Transportation: Northwestern tribes used dugout canoes from redwoods for fishing. Southern tribes had gracefully planked canoes with double paddle oars called “tomols” and made by a secretive craftsmen guild. These could carry hundreds of pounds in trade goods and up to a dozen passengers.


The California cultural region had an extensive trail system though trading was limited to friendly visits and religious ceremonies. Yet, some tribes had relatively rigid class systems perpetuated by custom and marriage as well as based on wealth and private property.

Society: Before European contact, this region had the highest Native American density north of present-day Mexico. It’s estimated that approximately 300,000 Indians might’ve lived there. Yet, these people tended to live a rather isolated existence due to the landscape. Lifestyle tends to vary according to climate and topography but it’s best that the vast majority of these Indians were semi-nomadic at best. Most common form of political organization was the tribelet which was a cluster of satellite villages around one or more permanent villages. It’s said that 500 of these groups existed where they shared a language, culture, and history. Each one could contain from 50-500 people on average and most were related through the male line. Now the tribelet was presided by a chief controlling economic resources and activity, settling conflicts, and organizing events. The chief was generally very wealthy and greatly respected. Some of these tribelets also had specialized occupations like craftspeople as well as minor officials like assistant chief, messenger, and dance manager. Some tribes had a relatively rigid closed class system perpetuated by marriage and custom as well as based on wealth and private property. Sometimes they even kept slaves. More nomadic groups tended to have greater social and gender equality. An extensive and continuous trail system in the region made trading in the region possible usually on friendly visits and ceremonies. Organized warfare was rare. Reasons for conflict ranged from physical offenses such as murder and rape to trespassing, sorcery, or a simple insult. Surprise attacks were preferred in regards to fighting while pitched battles were generally avoided and casualty rates were low. Also armed conflicts were relatively brief and quickly resolved as well as both parties being compensated.


Unlike a lot of the native cultural regions, most California native family structures were mostly patrilineal. Nevertheless, polygyny was said to be practiced among chiefs, shamans, and other wealthy men who could afford more than one wife, which was less unusual.

Family Structure: Mostly patrilineal descent. Marriages usually took place when the couple was at least in their late teens or early 20s. Northern group chiefs, shamans, and other wealthy men could have more than one wife. Men usually hunted and fished while women cooked, gathered, did housework, and looked after children.


Of course, we’re all too familiar with the fact that so many Native American tribes have their own dance rituals and the California region is no exception. Here is a picture of Ohlone Indians from the Mission of San Jose dancing in ceremonial regalia. Perhaps these images tell us that maybe the missionaries weren’t as much bent on cultural genocide as we thought, at least as long as they do such rituals to commemorate saint days or Christian holidays. Then again, the Spanish missions were pretty horrific and did result in cultural genocide in California.

Practices: Controlled burning, sophisticated forest gardening, basketry, animism, shamanism, psychoactive drugs, pottery, bead work, rock art, secret religious societies, tobacco, hoop and pole, hand game, cat’s cradle, music, dance, lacrosse, dice, athletic contests, and storytelling.

Tools and Weapons: Milling stones, bows and arrows, elkhorn wedges, spears, knives, nets, weirs, scrapers, hammers, and fish hooks and line. Normally made of stone, bone, obsidian, wood, grass, shell, and other materials.

Notable Tribes: Shasta, Maidu, Miwok, Mojave, Pomo, Chumash, Serrano, Wappo, Yurok, Karok, Hupa, Wintu, Yana, Kato, Wiyot, Cocopah, Juaneno, Chemehuevi, Yuki, Wailaki, Salinan, Sinkyone, Tolowa, Tataviam, Whilkut, Quechan, Modoc, Nisenan, Nomlaki, Panamint, Patwin, Mattole, Luiseno, Kawaiisu, Kitanemuk, Konkow, Klamath, Chilula, Cahuilla, Ohlone, Cupeno, Diegueno, Esselen, Kashaya, Atsuegewi, Achumawi, Shoshoni, and Nongatl.