The First Californians,

By Richard Duree (Col. Richard Dodge, SASS 1750 Life)


Ruth Levin Duree and Richard Duree

They were some 150,000 people living in over five hundred villages, speaking over 150 different languages, spread across California's vast and varied landscape. For over 10,000 years they created their own unique cultures in a gentle give and take relationship with the land, nurturing it, enjoying and sharing its bounty, and barely leaving a mark upon it. They were the First Californians and we should know their story.

Given the extreme variety of California's topography, a correspondingly varied Native Indian culture existed from the almost rain forest of the north coast, down the fertile and bountiful coast, through the dry interior valleys and high, rugged interior mountains to the scorching and inhospitable southern deserts. The various tribes ingeniously adapted to the demands and offerings of their homeland. Their skills, their arts, their beliefs and behavior were shaped by the necessities imposed by nature's demands and the resources and opportunities afforded to them. They were mostly "hunters and gatherers," rarely practicing even a primitive agriculture.

Though far too numerous to recount here, the tribes can be generally classified into four major geographical groups: Northern, Central, Eastern, and Southern. Interestingly, a common characteristic among them all is the lack of warfare for either personal gain or tribal expansion; indeed, migration was literally unknown among them. Rather, there existed contentment with their world, taking comfort in the steadfastness of their traditions and beliefs, which evolved with glacial slowness. The artistic genius of many regions reveals a deep understanding and comprehension of mathematical theory and aesthetics; their artistic basket creations incite admiration and awe even today – exquisite creations from the most humble of materials.

The largest geographical distribution was in the Central region, which began at the coast and crossed inland to the western slopes of the Sierras. The "heartland" gave home to the most gentle, friendly and hospitable of the California Indians. Varied as the land was — and is, there was considerable trade between the coastal (Pomo, Costanoan, Salinas) and inland tribes (Maidu, Winton, Miwok, Yokut). Physically, these "heartland" tribes were characterized by a roundness of face and body, a contented and peaceful expression and a tendency to slow, almost reluctant, change of mood. These peaceful people were the very ones to be most effected by the ruthless incursion of the seekers of gold and land, the least prepared and able to resist as their rich lands and verdant forests were cruelly taken from them.

The Coastal tribes were, as we know, the ones who came under the "yoke" of the Missions and are, curiously, the ones about which we know the least, their culture essentially erased as the effects of Mission life and its demands replaced ancient ways. These are the California Indians most integrated into today's modern world, especially those of the southern missions. Thankfully, there are those who have grasped, however little, what was available in the memories of those descended from the time before the missions and the ranchos, important and rare living treasures.

There exists in these Mission Indians evidence of trade and intercourse with the interior tribes of the Colorado River area, the Mojave and Yuma. While there are accounts by Anglo travelers of conflicts with the Mojave, they were not the warlike tribe frequently described. Probably the tallest of North American Indians, with long, oval faces, they occupied the narrow confines along the mighty Colorado River. Highly integrated into a "dream world" tradition, the Mojave were perhaps the most mobile of the California Indians, often traveling great distances, even into the Central Valley out of pure, honest curiosity or to trade with the coastal tribes, with no interest or intention to seize or destroy anything.

The Paitues, Shoshone, and Washoe of the eastern Sierra inhabited a land both gentle and harsh and were in places, the most impoverished of all tribes. Those in the rich Owens Valley and the long valleys on the eastern slope of the Sierras migrated up and down the dramatic slopes as seasons dictated and maintained an active trade over the imposing Sierra Nevada mountains with the tribes of California's interior valley. The mutual meeting sites in today's Tuolumne Meadows bear evidence of large gatherings in what must have been a lively market place.

The most technologically advanced tribes were those of the far north, who bore traces more of influence from their northern, rather than southern, neighbors. Here, the tribal homelands (Yurok, Hupa, Karok) are much smaller than in the more arid south with settlements nestled in small valleys and canyons, which they occupy to this day, fed and watered by rushing rivers filled with fish. The ease with which food was obtained allowed a more materialistic view of life and the universal pursuit of wealth in a well-defined value system that was unique in California. Though not war-like, as with their more northern neighbors, conflict was more noted here than in the rest of California's Indian cultures, mostly over trespass on family fishing or hunting rights.

An interesting commonality among the California tribes was the practice of compensation for damages inflicted. The headmen of the tribes never participated in interpersonal or intertribal conflict, for they were the ones to make an objective judgment of who owed how much to whom following a killing or other wrong. The settlements were based on the ability of the involved parties to pay; often the victor paid to the vanquished if the economic and social status of each party demanded it. The goal was to return the social situation back to its calm, undisturbed state.

So, the gentle, contented and vulnerable Indians of California were a complex culture living a simple and remarkably undisturbed life. It was that very gentleness and simplicity that drew the scorn of those who took their world with such ease and contempt. The California Indians suffered first at the hands of the Spanish padres, to whom they were little more than simple children to be converted to Christianity and used literally as slaves to accomplish their mission of occupation. They suffered terribly at the hands of the invading gold seekers, whose aggression and cruelty they were unequipped to resist and whose sole objective was to rid the land of their presence to the point of genocide. Today, the California Indians are still with us, living among us and finding a new pride in their heritage. There is in their cultural make up a lesson that should be learned to the benefit of us all.