Californian tribes

The Indigenous peoples of California are the indigenous inhabitants who have lived or currently live in the geographic area within the current boundaries of California before and after the arrival of Europeans. With over one hundred federally recognized tribes,[1] California has the largest Native American population and largest number of distinct tribes of any US state. Californian tribes are characterized by linguistic and cultural diversity.

The California cultural area does not exactly conform to the state of California's boundaries, and many tribes on the eastern border with Nevada are classified as Great Basin tribes, some tribes on the Oregon border are classified as Plateau tribes, and tribes in Baja California that do not cross into California are classified as Indigenous peoples of Mexico.[2]


Before contact, California Indians spoke over 300 dialects of approximately one hundred distinct languages. Most indigenous languages of California belong to three language families: Hokan, Penutian, and Uto-Aztecan, the first two being somewhat controversial classifications. Historically preceding these families are two ancient lineages, the Chumashan and Yukian families.[3] Algonquian and Athapaskan languages are also found, the latter being relatively recent immigrants. The large number of languages may be related to the ecological diversity of California, according to research released in 2013.[4][5]



Evidence of human occupation of California dates from at the very least 17,000 BCE.[1] Prior to European contact, California Indians had 500 distinct sub-tribes or groups that consisted of 50 to 500 individual members.[2] The size of California tribes today are small compared to tribes in other regions of the United States. Prior to contact with Europeans, the California region contained the highest native American population density north of what is now Mexico.[2] Because of the temperate climate and easy access to food sources, approximately one-third of all Native Americans in the United States were living in California.[6]

Early Native Californians were hunter-gatherers, with seed collection becoming widespread around 9,000 BCE.[2] Due to the local abundance of food, tribes never had to till the soil. Two early southern California cultural traditions include the La Jolla Complex and the Pauma Complex, both dating from ca. 6050—1000 BCE. From 3000 to 2000 BCE, regional diversity developed with fine-tuned adaptations to the local environments. Traits recognizable to historic tribes were established by approximately 500 BCE.[7]

The indigenous people practiced various forms of forest gardening in the forests, grasslands, mixed woodlands, and wetlands to ensure availability of food and medicine plants. They controlled fire on a regional scale to create a low-intensity fire ecology that prevented larger, catastrophic fires and sustained a low-density "wild" agriculture in loose rotation.[8][9][10][11] By burning underbrush and grass, the natives revitalized patches of land and provided fresh shoots to attract food animals. A form of fire-stick farming was used to clear areas of old growth to encourage new in a repeated cycle; a primitive permaculture.[10]

Contact with Europeans

Different tribes encountered non-Natives at widely different times. The southern and central coastal tribes encountered Spanish and British explorers in the mid-16th century. In remote interior regions, some tribes did not meet non-Natives until the mid-19th century.[12]

Some other tribes like the Quechan or Yuman Indians in southeast California and southwest Arizona were the first to meet Spanish explorers in the 1760s and 1770s. But others on the coasts of northwest California like the Miwok, Yurok and Yokut came across Russian explorers and seafarers coming from Alaska in the late 18th century and Russians established a short-lived fortified colony Fort Ross 60 miles north of San Francisco in the early 1800s.

Mission era

Further information: Mission Indians and Reducciones de Indios

The Spanish began their long-term occupation in California in 1769 with the founding of Mission San Diego de Alcalá in San Diego, California. The Spanish built 20 additional missions in California.[13] The introduction of European invasive plant species and non-native diseases wreaked havoc on Native populations.

19th century

The Population of Native California was reduced by 90% during the 19th century—from over 200,000 in the late 19th century to approximate 15,000 at the end of the century.[7] Epidemics swept through California Indian Country, such as the 1833 malaria epidemic.[12]

In 1834 the Spanish missions shifted to Mexican control and were secularized, but lands under their control were not reverted to tribes. Many landless Indians found wage labor on ranches. The United States took control of California in 1848 with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, that did not honor aboriginal land title.[12]

California Gold Rush (1848–1855)

Further information: California Gold Rush



Acorns are a primarily tradition food throughout much of California.[1] Other widely consumed aboriginal food sources included fish, shellfish, deer, elk, and antelope, and plants such as buckeye, sage seed, and yampah (Perideridia gairdneri).[2]

List of indigenous peoples of California

See also

Indigenous peoples of North America portal



  • Golla, Victor (2011). California Indian Languages. Berkeley: University of California Press, . ISBN 978-0-520-26667-4.
  • Heizer, Robert F., volume editor (1978). Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 8: California. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution. ISBN 978-0-16-004574-5.
  • Hinton, Leanne (1994). Flutes of Fire: Essays on California Indian Languages. Berkeley: Heyday Books. ISBN 0-930588-62-2.
  • Lightfoot, Kent G. and Otis Parrish (2009). California Indians and Their Environment: An Introduction. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-24471-9.
  • Pritzker, Barry M. (2000). A Native American Encyclopedia: History, Culture, and Peoples. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-513877-1.

External links

  • Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival
  • California Indian Museum and Cultural Center, Santa Rosa
  • "California Indian History," California Native American Heritage Association
  • "California Indians," SDSU Library and Information Access
  • Bibliographies of Northern and Central California Indians
  • "A Glossary of Proper Names in California Prehistory", Society for California Archaeology
  • 27th Annual California Indian Conference, California State University San Marcos, Oct. 5-6, 2012
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