The Far West was a land of great diversity. Death
Valley and Mount Whitney are the highest and lowest points in the
United States. They are within sight of each other. Tribes living in
what would become California were as different as their landscape.
Penutian: The early people who wandered into the Northern
California region were in awe of their discovery. The Hokan and the
Penutian people looked around and saw deer, elk, bear, rabbits and
squirrels. There were marshes and lakes teaming with wild birds and
fish and turtles. There were wild vegetables, delicious wild fruits,
acorns and other nuts. The word plentiful hardly describes it. Food
was available in abundance.
Big Head Dance: Like the tribes in Northern
California, the Wintun Indians, who lived in central California, had
abundant food. They were very grateful for their riches. They held
many "Big Head Dances" from October to May. Their
headdresses were 4 feet wide and just about as tall. They danced on
foot drums, accompanied by bird-bone whistles, gourd rattles, and
magic staffs. They believed the wonderful world they had found would
disappear if they did not thank their gods with their big head dances.
Yuma, Kamia, Diegueno: Tribes in Southern
California - the Mohave, Yuma, Kamia, and Diegueno, also had access to
a great deal of wild vegetables, fruits, and nuts. Game was plentiful.
They learned from the tribes in Mexico how to grow maize, beans,
squash. They soon became farmers, as well as hunters and
The Miwok, who lived along the ocean coast, had
all the advantages of the other tribes, plus, they added clams,
mussels, abalones, crabs, and crayfish to their diet.
Another ocean group were the Chumash Indians. In
olden times, they lived along the Santa Barbara coast. Like everyone
else, their food was bountiful. But this tribe was unique in several
other California tribes, they lived in dome shaped houses made of
willow poles, covered with mats. These homes were typically quite
large. They could hold 40 or 50 people. What was unusual was that
Chumash homes were partitioned into rooms. Some rooms had built in
platform beds supported by poles. To reach the bed, you climbed a
ladder, to leave space underneath to walk upright.
Canoes: They also made planked canoes, which they took
out on the ocean for quick travel and to fish.
Carvings: They made grass baskets, like the other
tribes, but they also made beautiful polished pots and carved animals
out of soapstone.
The climate was mild and lovely. The early
people in California did not need to spend a lot of time tanning skins
for clothing. They did not make fabric. They wore very little
clothing. In winter, as needed, they wore buckskin aprons and perhaps
a fur wrapped draped around their shoulders. Some wore buckskin socks,
others wore plant fiber woven sandals, and most went barefooted.
They dressed for the weather. If they needed to be warm, they
Baskets: The peace-loving Pumo created a
colorful basket made out of feathers. Baskets were also used to store
goods and to haul and make food. They made an acorn soup in the fall
by dropping hot stones into tightly woven baskets filled with water.
In California, many tribes had hereditary
chiefs, which was different from the way many other tribes across the
country selected their leaders.
Men: In olden times, the medicine men had more
power than the chief. Some specialized in certain types of medicine.
Some only cured and prevented snake bites. If you had another problem,
you had to see another medicine man. The snake specialists used live
rattlesnakes in their ceremonies. The bear doctor was another
specialist. Hunters went to the bear specialist before a hunt, to
protect themselves from a bear attack. The bear doctor was feared. The
people believed he had the power to turn himself into a grizzly bear
at will. That power gave him the ability to kill people who did not
pay their bill, without fear for his own safety - a grizzly bear
killed a man, not him.