california-flag.jpg (4365 bytes)  California History

6 - The Indigenous People and the Land

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Video: People of the California Intermountain Region.

greendiamond.gif (135 bytes) Use multiple sources to learn about the culture of the native inhabitants of the state; explain how the Native Americans adapted to the environment and the relationship between Native Americans and the land.

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Print out the Lesson 6 Worksheet: CAlesson_6Worksheet.htm and Key (optional) CAlesson_6WorksheetKey.htm

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Spirit run: A Mojave method of communing with the Great Spirit through running.

Shaman: A medicine man or woman who can cure disease.

Private Property: Ownership of a thing or place by an individual to the exclusion of others.

Nomadic: Following a food source from place to place. Not putting down permanent roots.


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We all need to make a living, and we would all like to feel comfortable doing so. We are going to visit the Native Californians as they made their living in a pre-European world. This unspoiled land was home to a great many animals and wild plants. Here, they lived in splendid isolation, developing their own cultures and living off the land.

Watch the Discovery Channel video People of the California Inter-Mountain Region   and notice the differences between the tribes. In particular, see how each Native tribe adapted their diet and lifestyles to their environment, and notice the similarities between the tribes. As you watch, take note of which tribes farmed and which didn't, which tribe weaved baskets and which tribe relied mostly on the salmon run. Take note of the types of dwellings they constructed. And also make note of which tribes relied on the acorn.

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People of the California Inter-Mountain Region (02:29) From:
Native Americans: American Heritage Series. 100% Educational Videos. 2004.
unitedstreaming. 21 April 2008

Questions: Answer with one (or more) of the following Indian tribes: Mojave. Chumash. Miwok & Maidu. Yurok.

Which tribe known for its baskets? [Miwok.]
Which tribe were farmers? (Hint: They needed irrigation.) [Mojave.]
Which tribe hunted deer? [Yurok.]
Which tribes were located in Central California? [Miwok and Maidu.]
Which coastal tribe tarred their canoes and fished and traded far distances? [Chumash.]
Which tribe made houses and canoes out of redwood? [Yurok.]
Which tribes played versions of soccer, lacrosse and football? [Miwok and Maidu.]
Which tribe feasted off the yearly salmon run? [Yurok.]

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California Indian
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Your first text will be an extract from the Encyclopedia American's entry on California Indians from "Indians, American." It will serve as a good overview and generalization of native life in pre-European California.

California "Indians, American." Encyclopedia Americana.

The earliest evidence of human culture in California suggests a blend of Old Cordillera with Desert tradition and dates from about 8000 to 5000 B.C. After this period habitation sites became larger, population greater, and ecological adjustment more localized. Since cultivated plants never reached these Indians, there were no dramatic spurts of culture growth.

On the eve of white contact the California Indians lived on about equal portions of game, fish, and wild plants, the most important wild crop being acorns. They occupied permanent villages over the winter, but in the other seasons they roamed about, camping in one place only as long as the wild food supply held out. They lived in pit houses in the northern part of California, and in dome-shaped houses covered with thatch in the southern part.

The California Indians had extended families of three or more generations, and these were usually united with other such families to form tribelets of about 250 persons each. The better known names for California groups, such as Pomo, Wintun, Maidu, Miwok, and Yokuts, are labels for subfamilies of languages and not tribal names. A few California peoples had clan systems that increased the integration of their societies, but these were not the rule. There were no towns as large as those of the Pueblos in the Southwest and nothing approaching the tribal organization of Indians in the Plains and Eastern Woodland areas. There was, however, an organized system of public ceremonies among about half of the tribelets in the state, less spectacular on the whole than those of the Southwest, Eastern Woodlands, and Plains, but definitely in advance of the Great Basin peoples, who lacked anything of the kind.

FROM: "Indians, American." Encyclopedia Americana. 2008. Grolier Online. 18 Apr. 2008
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Generally speaking, this article describes the Native Californian tribes as informal groups of extended families (several generations) living together. They built no large cities. Their approach to life was informal. The article writer even labels these groups of Indians as "tribelets" and maintains that they organized around language, not laws and culture.

Certainly, the Californian Indians were isolated by geography from the Southwest and Plains tribes to the east and the "outside" European and Asian world of the time. Still they had a rich life of their own. Let's answer some questions about it.


Break up the California Diet into thirds. What were the portions? [One third game, one third fish, one third wild plants.]

What was the great wild crop of the California Indians? [Acorns.]

What was the social structure for most of these tribes? [Informal.]

Any large cities? [No.]

Generally speaking, most tribes went "home" for what season? [Winter.]

What word does the writer use to communicate that the Indians in California were not very numerous? [Tribelets.]

If the tribes were small and loosely organized, what does the writer say the people of the tribes did organize around? (You'll have to read very carefully.)   [Language.]

Is the encylopedia writer right? How organized were these tribes, and did they create their own distinct cultures? The best way to examine this is to study the tribes themselves. You will visit two such tribes, one from the north and one from the south, to see how they organized themselves and adapted to their environment.

We start now with the Indians who lent their name to that vast desert in Southeastern California, the Mojave.

From: "Mojave" America the Beautiful. 2008. Grolier Online. 1 Apr. 2008
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The Mojave (mo-HAH-vee) have always been a tribe of runners. Tall, strong, and adventurous, Mojave warriors could charge across 100 miles (160 kilometers) of desert on foot in a single day. Mojave traders once ran over entire mountain ranges to reach the Pacific Coast. War scouts ran in relay teams to coordinate surprise attacks on enemy tribes. The Mojave also ran to meditate and pray. In recent years, Mojave men, women, and children have returned to this ancient custom. Every year, they organize "spirit runs" to draw attention to the rights of Native Americans and the need to protect their ancient desert homeland.

Nearly a thousand years ago, the Mojave settled along the lower Colorado River, on the eastern edge of the Mojave Desert. In spring, the river overflowed its banks to deliver water and fertile soil to the tribe's farmlands on either side. The floods enabled the Mojave to grow many crops: corn, melons, pumpkins, beans, sunflowers, tobacco, and cotton. [Like the Ancient Egyptians of the Nile Valley.]

The men of the tribe cleared the fields of rocks and other obstacles during the winter. In spring, they prepared the earth for planting by punching holes in the muddy soil with sticks. The women followed behind, dropping seeds and covering them up with dirt. The women also tended the crops and harvested them in summer and fall.

Mojave families owned the fields that they farmed. However, if a family did not clear and plant their field, anyone else could become its new owner. In years when the Colorado River did not flood and provide water for their fields, the Mojave survived on wild plants and game animals from the desert and its surrounding mountains.

The Mojave placed tremendous importance on dreams. Great dreams, they believed, made strong leaders and healers. Only by performing outstanding deeds could a person prove that his or her dreams were real. The Mojave also believed that all knowledge, skill, and talent came from their dreams. Indeed, Mojave parents spent little time teaching their children. They believed that dreams would be their guides. The Mojave took special care to keep pregnant women happy. They thought that this encouraged the unborn children to have valuable, life-guiding dreams.

The Mojave did not have many religious ceremonies or dances except for the singing of songs. Some were long and complicated musical compositions. The songs were a form of oral tradition. They passed on the Mojave's tribal legends, history, moral lessons, and other significant information. The Mojave Bird Song, for example, gives directions for an important trail from the desert to the Pacific Ocean. The song elaborately describes the birds seen along the way. Travelers who timed their journey to the appearance of the migrating birds were assured of finding water and food along the trail.

In 1604, the explorer Juan de Oņate met the Mojave on his travels up the Colorado River from Mexico. The Spanish did not enter the Mojave's harsh desert homeland again until 1776. In that year, an expedition led by the Spanish friar Francisco Garces estimated the Mojave population to be about 3,000. But the Spaniards found the region too parched and remote to build a mission. For the next 50 years, Europeans left the Mojave alone. The only contact came when the Mojave occasionally raided California missions and settlements for horses.

In recent years, members of the Aha Makav Cultural Society on the Fort Mojave Reservation have revived their tribe's native language and traditional song festivals. The Mojave tradition of Spirit Running made national news in the 1990s. Protests arose against government plans to create a radioactive-waste dump on sacred Mojave ground. Joined by environmentalists, tribe members ran from their reservation to the site of the proposed dump, some 30 miles (50 kilometers) to the west.

Today, both Mojave reservations have large-scale farming operations. Tens of thousands of acres are cultivated using modern irrigation systems and water drawn from the Colorado River.

From: "Mojave." America the Beautiful. 2008. Grolier Online. 1 Apr. 2008
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Think: What is it about the Mojave's homeland that might encourage distance running? [It was a vast desert, and there would be great distances between areas holding food and water.]

What kind of crops did the Mojave grow? [Corn, melons, pumpkins, beans, sunflowers, tobacco, and cotton.]

How did the Mojave irrigate their crops? [They  planted their crops along the banks of the Colorado River, which overflowed every spring and fertilized  their crops with rich sediment. They farmed much like the Ancient Egyptians of the Nile Valley.]

Did the Mojave believe in private property? [They believed in private property of farmland, provided the family maintained it.]

How could the Mojave Bird Song be of use to a traveler? [Travelers who timed it right could follow the migrating birds mentioned and be assured of food and water. The song described a trail from the desert to the Pacific.]

How many years passed between the first contact with the Spanish, and their follow up expedition to explore setting up a mission there? [One hundred and seventy two years.] Did the Spanish establish a mission there? [No.]

Did the Mojave interact with the missions? [They occasionally raided the missions for horses.]

Where did the Mojave believe talent, skill and knowledge come from? [Dreams.]

What other-than immediate uses did the Mojave have for spirit running? [To meditate and pray.] How about its use now? [To draw attention to a cause that they felt was spiritual. To renew the community.]

Do the Mojave still farm their land? [Yes.] How has this practice changed? [The Mojave now have large scale farming operations. They still draw their water from the Colorado River but no longer depend on the spring floods - they use modern irrigation methods.]

Here we see a native Californian weaving a basket before the fire. We are about to leave the land of the Mojave and journey to the far north of the state, to the Yurok tribe of the Klamath River valley. The Yurok were expert basket weavers and canoe makers, and their mode of life was vastly different than the Mojave.

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Go here for the article: . Keep in mind how these isolated people were similar in many ways to today's society.

Don't the Yurok sound vastly different than the Mojave? The Mojave seem visionary (relying on dreams and meditation), while the Yurok seem materialistic, gathering wealth in various forms.Yet the Yurok build on their materialism to create a law abiding culture of fines that promoted a self-policing system of government.

Truly a golden age.

Did you notice the description of the Yurok style of house building? Did it sound strange to build large redwood houses and then leave out windows? Why do you suppose the Yurok did that? (Hint: Look at the California flag.) [To keep grizzly bears out.]


Did the Yurok have a sort of currency? [Yes. Tooth shaped sea shells. Obsidian stones and woodpecker scalps.]

What were the two main staples of the Yurok diet? [Salmon and acorns.]

What was their greatest manufactured item? [Redwood canoes.]

Why did the Yurok bury their worn out redwood canoes? [They thought of the canoes, cut from a single redwood tree, as being a living thing.]

Who could cure the sick in Yurok culture? [Shamans, or medicine women.]

Did the Yurok believe in a central government, or chief? [No.]

What did they believe in? [Law and rules of behavior. Agreed upon fines for all kinds of infractions.]

Did having a system of currency allow them to enforce these rules?  [Absolutely.]

Did the Yurok believe in the private ownership of land? [Their houses were privately owned and permanent. Each house had localized fishing rights on the part of the river they overlooked.]

Were the Yurok grass woven bowls of good quality? [Superb. They were waterproof.]

What destroyed the Yurok way of life? [Overrun by Americans and Europeans following the Gold Rush.]

Did the Yurok become "Americanized?" [Mostly. They looked for work in towns and cities.]

Did the tribe revive? [Yes. There are more tribe members now than at the time of the first European contact.]

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Groliers ATB: History: The First Californians 

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Using the knowledge you have gained, and the Exploration map here, insert the following Indian tribes into the blank map you printed out earlier:   Mojave, Chumash, Miwok, Maidu, Yurok.

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Where are the Mojave? (Remember the Mojave Desert in Southern California) And know that the Chumash came out to see Juan Cabrillo's ship (you'll meet him in a later lesson) off the Santa Catalina and Santa Barbara islands. The Miwok on the Exploration map are labeled Coast Miwok, on the north shore of San Francisco Bay. As for the Yurok, remember the Yurok's redwood canoes. Where would that put them? [Northwestern California.]

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You have finally learned from the article on the Yurok, what the substance in acorns is that makes them poisonous: tannic acid. But even harmful substances have their uses. Go to Grolier online, and look up tannic acid, to see what it is used for. It was a very important ingredient for the Spanish who would soon be coming to California. [Tannic acid, the poison leached out of the acorn mash, is the ingredient used to turn animal skins into leather. Also used in the manufacture of ink and dyes.]

To visit a Central California tribe known for its basket work, visit the Miwok: See how their fashions adapted to the mild climate of the region.

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California tribes were small and informal, but well organized. Most tribes roamed from spring to fall and relied on wild berries and nuts. The acorn was the main crop staple. Abundant fish and game supplied most other needs.

The tribes had varying notions of private property. Most tribes did not recognize a central tribal authority.


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