California Native Americans
in Olden Times
Native Americans for Kids
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.
Eastern California: The Plateau people: The Plateau refers to a region in the United States that includes parts of many modern US state. Some people of the Plateau lived in what is now part of eastern California.
Northern California: Hokann, 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.
Central California: Wintun,The Big Head Dance: Like the early people in Northern California, the Wintun Native Americans, 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 four 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.
Southern California: Mohavae, 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 early people in Mexico how to grow maize, beans, squash. They soon became farmers, as well as hunters and gatherers.
Coastal California: Miwok: The Miwok, who lived along the ocean coast, had all the advantages of the other early people, plus they added clams, mussels, abalones, crabs, and crayfish to their diet.
Coastal California: Chumash: Another ocean group were the Chumash Native Americans. In olden times, they lived along the Santa Barbara coast. Like everyone else, their food was bountiful. But this group was unique in several ways.
Homes: Like 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.
Planked Canoes: They also made planked canoes, which they took out on the ocean for quick travel and to fish.
Soapstone Carvings: They made grass baskets, like the other groups, but they also made beautiful polished pots and carved animals out of soapstone.
Clothing: 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 added clothing.
Pumo 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. Across the country, all Native American people took pride in their baskets.
Chiefs: In California, many early people had hereditary chiefs, which was different from the way many other groups across the country selected their leaders.
Medicine 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.