Brandon Smith's Indian Tribe Report

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There have been many heating and cooling cycles in the history of our planet and most reputable scientists now agree that changes in the temperature on Earth inevitably mirrors the recurring heating and cooling cycles of our Sun. During the most recent major ice age, about 20,000 years ago, glaciers covered the northern parts of our continent causing the levels of the oceans to be much lower than they are today because so much water was locked up in the glacial ice. This caused more land to be exposed around the perimeter of our continent. The area that we now call the Bering straits was probably a huge exposed land mass known as the Bering land bridge. It connected the northeastern portion of Asia with the northwestern portion of the North American continent in an area west of present day Alaska.

Many anthropologists think that man originated in and first inhabited the continent of Africa. They slowly spread out over the next 3,465,000 years and after all that time they still hadn’t discovered the Americas! Approximately 17,000 years ago some groups from Asia may have migrated across the Bering land bridge to North America while hunting animals and gathering food and they continued to gradually migrate throughout this entire continent. They flourished--there may have been as many as 300,000 Native Americans living in California before the Christian missionaries arrived in 1769. By 1910 only 17,000 California Native Americans remained. They were nearly eliminated in the short span of 140 years. In this report we will discuss some of these Native Californians with emphasis on the coast Miwok tribe.

Native American people contributed a lot to our society. More than 60% of our foods come from the ancient Native American's diet. About one-third of the Native American diet was fish. They may have actually had a better diet than the average American does today.

Fur traders made huge profits by selling furs to Asians and Europeans that they bought from Native Americans. Some of them used this money to start businesses that became the base of our modern American economy.

More importantly, the Native Americans, like many other "primitive" societies around the world, worshiped mother Earth as the source of all life and sustenance and had developed a healthy symbiotic relationship with the Earth that had worked for many thousands of years. We could learn a lot from their cultures about how to live in harmony with our environment.

Also, the failure of the California mission system demonstrates what often happens when governments attempt to dictate how people will conduct their everyday lives. In our study of the Native Californian experience, we can also see the consequences of facing an enemy who has more powerful weapons.


California "Indians" were isolated not only from others but from each other too. Originally the first California Natives spoke one of approximately six different languages that were spoken by these new inhabitants. After the various groups would decide on a place to settle they would usually have very little contact with the neighboring tribes and would develop their own dialect of the original language. In at least one tribe, the men and women each spoke a different dialect. This may have reduced the number of marital disputes. Some estimate that 60 separate languages and 100 different dialects eventually were used by the Native Americans; others estimate that by the time Europeans made contact that the six original language families had grown to 90 languages, which in turn had fragmented into as many as 300 dialects. This made it difficult to communicate with neighboring tribes. There were more diverse languages among California Native Americans than in any other part of the country.

Social Structure

The Native Californians did not need to form alliances with neighboring tribes for protection or compete for new territory because they were protected by natural barriers like mountains and deserts and because they already had plenty of sources of food and materials to survive. They did not form large tribes like the rest of the Native North Americans. Instead they formed small groups sometimes having 250 individuals. Between 20-100 people would live in one village. Between five to ten people of an extended family would often live in one house.

Some historians assume that California Native Americans spoke seven dialects of Penutian, a parent language of these dialects. It was spoken from the Pacific coastal areas from California into Canada. The groups near or on the coast--the Coast, Lake, and Bay Miwok--gathered acorns, fished, and hunted deer and other game with bow and arrow. They lived in semisubterranean pole and earth-covered lodges and produced watertight basketry ornamented with beads or feathers. The interior Miwok--those of the Sierra and Plains--remained in the foothills or lowlands and moved into the high Sierras only in summer or for hunting. Their main abodes were semisubterranean earth-covered houses, but summer mountain shelters were mere lean-tos of bark. Their chief food staple was acorns, which were stored in basket-like granaries. Various baskets were made but apparently no pottery. Society was organized into lineages and contrasting halves, or moieties, governing such matters as descent and marriage; and it was seemingly ranked. There were chiefs and subchiefs, and women could acquire such titles through the male line. The interior Miwok followed the so-called Kuksu cult, which included various rituals, costumed dances using animal skins, and impersonations of spirits.

Within each tribelet there might be only one principal village in which all the people lived and from which some of them ranged for short periods of time to collect food, hunt, or visit other tribelets for ritual or economic purposes. In some tribelets there was a principal village surrounded by settlements of people who came to the principal village for ritual, social, economic, and political occasions. In other tribelets there were two or more villages, each having various satellite settlements and one serving as a "capital" or central village. Here a principal chief would usually reside, and major rituals and political and economic affairs would be held. Community organization of tribelet villages was varied, but basic patterns are discernible. Among the Miwok and the peoples south of them, village ownership was usually based on clan arrangements.

Where did the tribe live?

The Coast Miwok lived in 44 different villages. Many of them favored Bodega Bay, which had 7 villages. The estimated total population was about 2,000 which averaged only 45 people per village. The family was the basic social unit. Six to ten persons of an extended family slept in their tule-covered hut. They slept with their feet toward the fire on mats spread on the ground with grass pillows under their heads.

The Miwok in Marin County were the first "Indians" in California to live for a while with white men. Francis Drake, the Englishman who sailed his ship, the Golden Hinde, into what we now call Drake’s Bay in June 1579, was the first European the "Indians" had ever seen. For five weeks they brought food and firewood to him.

The Marin County natives had little reason to go to war. They had plenty of food and a moderate climate. They gathered seeds, acorns, snared waterfowl with slings and collected clams, crab and kelp along the shoreline. The deer were victims to the bow and arrow many times, but rarely bear and elk were hunted. They caught fish in several ways: by using dip nets made from the lupine root, by making a weir, a temporary fence used to block fish as they are swimming upstream to spawn and in a sock-like wicker trap.

The Miwok tribe was attracted to freshwater streams, a good source for drinking water and food. The Miwok Tribes lived in seven different areas: the Coast Miwok just north of San Francisco; the Lake Miwok in the Clear Lake area; the Bay Miwok along the delta of the San Jaoquin and Sacramento rivers; the Plains Miwok, living farther up the lower Sacramento and San Jaoquin rivers; and, just eastward, three groups of Sierra Miwok—Northern, Central, and Southern—in the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada. There were more than 100 Miwok villages at European contact. The interior Miwok--those of the Sierra and Plains--remained in the foothills or lowlands and moved into the high Sierras only in summer or for hunting.


Most California Native Americans stayed close to their homes. With the exception of village leaders and designated traders, many Native Americans lived and died within sight of their birthplace, never having encountered more than a few hundred people. Each considered their home to be the center of the world and regarded outsiders with suspicion. Relations between communities were limited to a few well-defined activities. People from nearby villages sometimes came together to harvest acorns or other shared assets and to praise the powers that brought them such bounty. Some of these get-togethers provided an opportunity for young people from different places to meet one another and led to marriages that reinforced bonds between related villages. Also, trade in salt, fish, acorns, and other essentials was common both within tribal groups and between them, allowing those whose territory was rich in one particular resource to compensate for deficiencies. Villagers in the volcanic areas of northern California, for example, had ready access to obsidian, which made fine arrow points, and they traded that prized stone for goods they lacked. Coastal groups offered their inland neighbors shell beads that circulated widely in California as currency some beads made their way as far east as the Great Plains, where they were put to decorative use.

They felt very intensely about ownership. The Village would claim enough land for everyone to have enough food from the land. They would mark the boundaries with manmade and natural boundaries. Some villages killed trespassers. Property did not always mean land often it meant food-bearing trees, or hunting and fishing rights. Individuals could own bows and arrows, musical instruments and other personal possessions.


The Miwoks had hundreds of plants available to them including acorns, hazelnuts, bracken ferns, winter purslane, mustard, wild onions, raspberries, grapes and more. Native Americans ate about 1500 to 2000 pounds of acorn flour a year. One reason California Native Americans did not have to plant seeds and raise crops was because there were so many acorns for them to harvest each year. Those acorns from the black oak and tanbark oak seem to have been the favorite kinds. Acorns were so important that their calendars were based on the acorn harvest date. Their calendar was based on how far away or how much time has passed from the acorn harvest season.

Acorns can be stored for at least one year if they are kept dry and protected from animals and insects. Tannin helps acorns last longer but also makes the acorns bitter-tasting. The women leached and ground the acorns from the black oak trees. They struck the acorn with a stone to open the shell. They were then rubbed together to remove the skin. Cleaned acorns were dropped into a mortar and ground into flour. They then pour water over the flour for about an hour to remove bitter-tasting tannin. Some Miwoks added crushed berries, mushrooms, cedar bark, herbs, dried fish, meat or greens for extra flavoring. They also used berries off the pepperwood tree which were made into a drink and has a chocolate taste.

The groups near or on the coast--the Coast, Lake, and Bay Miwoks--fished and hunted deer and other game with bow and arrow. Expert Bowman often disguised themselves as buck in hides and antlers, stalks the plentiful antelope, elk and deer. Fisherman netted salmon and eels and hunters equipped with basket traps and snares woven of human hair snagged rabbits, squirrel and quail. Deer, rabbits, rats, gophers, squirrels, geese, mud hens and seafood. The coast Miwoks had a large supply of shellfish, gathering oysters, clams, mussels, crabs, gooseneck barnacles and abalone by the ton. The villagers threw shells into piles making shell mounds as high as 30 feet and as far as one quarter-mile across.


They used various natural resources to create tools: wood, obsidian, bird and animal tendons, feathers, green chalcedony stone, lupine, soft grasses and moss. They made knives, bows and arrows, mortars and pestles, spears, nets, net chest slings, paddles, circular dip nets and small weirs with long basket traps fixed to their openings.


Various tribes used string money made out of clamshells as currency. The coast Miwok tribe owned the clam beds that were needed to make string money. And they received deer meat, obsidian, yellow body paints and soapstone in return. They traded with the Pomo Tribe (deer meat and obsidian) and with the Wappo Tribe (yellow body paint and obsidian).


They traveled by canoes built from bundles of tule bound together. These canoes would eventually get saturated with water and would either be dried out or abandoned.

Description of homes

They often lived in semisubterranean pole- tule and earth-covered lodges. The Miwoks gathered tule, a bulrush resembling cattail from the marshes. The seeds and green shoots of tule were edible, but the plant was prized as a building material. They also built large group houses in which they held various types of ceremonies.


Everyday clothing: Willow bark, string and tule or grasses were used to make skirts. A deerskin loincloth was often worn on account of the warm weather. Sometimes a cape woven from tule fiber or deerskin was worn. For cold days they wore blankets wrapped around themselves like capes made of strips of small animal skins like rabbit. Sometimes some hunters will dress as a bear asking for good hunting and fishing. Woman wore a double apron made of singed deerskin or of tule fibers split by hand. Neither men nor woman wore any shoes.

Dance and ritual costumes: Feathers, pelican wings, canes, deer bones and bundles of grasses were used for making dance and ritual costume.

Men would spend their days hunting, fishing, sharpening arrows and carving bows and teaching kids how to throw spears and shoot arrows and building houses and canoes. Women would spend their days preparing meals, gathering food and making clothes. They also produced watertight basketry ornamented with beads or feathers.


Elders taught children that self-discipline is a large part of tribal life. Men instructed their sons to hunt, fish and build houses just as their fathers told them; girls learned how to cook, make baskets and tend house exactly as their mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers had done through the generations. It was foolish to go against the tradition of the tribe because the tradition worked and ensured that the tribe had enough food, water, clothing, shelter, hunting interments to survive. Certain behavior patterns are absolutely necessary if the group is going to survive and prosper. It was a benefit if the tribe also lived in harmony. The elders obviously knew how to survive and the prosperous ones also knew how to prosper. It was logical for the elders to teach the children how to survive; the fortunate children also learned how to prosper. Their environment was not changing very much from generation to generation so a chief's son should do things the way he did it. Tales and legends helped reinforce good behavior in the tribe.

Triblet Organization

When living with others, you have to live in harmony otherwise somebody would start a fight and the fight would keep on growing until it gets to the point where people start killing each other and soon there won’t be a tribe to live with. The Chiefs and Shamans helped keep harmony by deciding what was a fair solution to the disputes that would naturally occur between the various members of the tribe. This sustained the community while preserving peace. The shamans advised the chief who then told the people where to find acorns, game and other important matters.

Just as animals need plants, plants need animals. It is the same thing with basket makers and deer grass. When you weed, a plant survives longer. Also clipping off insect infested branches makes it live longer. If the basket weaver fails to do this plant will not multiply and soon there won’t be any of the plant left. Then the basket maker will not be able to make any more baskets. In this way she helped the plant fulfill its destiny.

Religious Beliefs

The religions of the Native Californians focused on the relationship between man and nature. Most California Native Americans believed in a supreme being who had created the earth or who was in charge of it. This creator had various names: He who walks alone, Above Person, Great Traveler, Immortal One, Thunder God and Earth Maker. For some he was a coyote, hawk, condor, owl, fox, roadrunner, deer, hummingbird or raven. Native Americans believed that everything in this world has a spiritual power—plants, animals, rocks, trees, mountains, etc. As one member of a tribe stated "Everything talks except we can not understand them - just like the whites cannot understand us." They believed that the other animals were sent to help man and to teach man. Their ceremonies acknowledged the endless cycle of life that involves killing, digesting and regenerating. They perceived that killing animals that they needed for food was a cooperative act between the hunter and the hunted; the animals needed to cooperate by allowing the hunter to kill them. If they didn't, the cycle of life could not continue.

The Native Americans of northwestern California called their ancestral homeland natinix, "where the trails and journeys lead back here." They considered the valley to be eternal, a home for humans and spirits. They believed their land was passed on to them by the Immortals, who also passed down detailed instructions for how they should live. If those instructions were not faithfully followed the spirits could produce earthquakes, floods and epidemics as a form of punishment.

The California Native Americans devoted themselves to familiar ceremonies like the worldly tasks of hunting and harvesting, fishing and foraging and also to sacred obligations like praying and performing special dances to preserve order and continuity in an unpredictable world. In addition to creating strong bonds between the members of the tribe, the purpose of their ceremonies was to ward off evil and encourage blessings from the spirits. Their religious dances were meant to thank the spirits for gifts in the form of salmon, game and other nourishment. These dances took many days and often ended at the new moon.

Demise of the Native Californians

The Europeans admired the land of California but did not respect Native Californians. They had no imperial cities or temples. The Europeans considered these people inferior to America’s other Native Americans—to the wealthy Aztec or the assertive Iroquois, to the industrious Pueblos or the charismatic Plains horsemen. The Europeans called the Native Californians "Diggers" because of how they pried roots and bulbs from the soil with sticks. The Europeans considered the Native Americans as property or as pests to be exterminated. California claimed to be the land of promise but it became the setting for some of the saddest episodes of human abuse in the history of white-"Indian" relations.

By 1769 the Spaniards had already colonized the areas south of California but they were worried that the Russians or the English would succeed in gaining control of California. The Spanish gave father Junipero Serra the mission to colonize the land they called Alta California. He was escorted by many Spanish soldiers and was instructed to build a string of missions extending from San Diego to the area north of San Francisco. The religious purpose of the missions was to convert the Native Californians to Christianity: the political purpose was to create a Spanish presence in California and colonize the Native Americans before the Russians gained control.

However, the Native Californians already had their own religious beliefs and didn’t feel a need to be converted to the Christianity, the religion of the invaders. The Spanish soldiers would often have to use force to "convert" the "Indians" to Christianity and make them stay and work at the missions. They were often treated like prisoners.

For many thousands of years, the "Indians" had been accustomed to working hard when the salmon were running, when the acorns ripened, when a dwelling had to be built, and clothing or weapons made but they had relaxed and celebrated when the tasks of survival had been taken care of. Now they were forced to work long hours to cultivate grains and vegetables, work in vineyards and tend horses, cattle, pigs, sheep and goats as well as renounce many of their traditional religious beliefs and customs.

They were often treated like slaves and even killed if they repeatedly tried to escape from the missions. The missionaries demanded steady labor doing jobs that were foreign to the Native Americans. Between 1769 and 1823 twenty-one missions were built along the California coast and were responsible for much of the destruction of the way of life of the Native Californians.

The Mexican soldiers killed approximately 100,000 Native Americans. However, their actions were minor compared to how many died of small pox, measles and venereal diseases brought to them by the Mexicans and Americans. It is estimated that the epidemics of 1838 alone killed between 60,000 and 75,000 Native Americans in one area north of San Francisco which was under the jurisdiction of General Vallejo.

Another cause for the decline of population was stress; it filled most days of a majority of the mission "Indians". Also, the misguided mission priests could not accept the practice of the unmarried men and women freely mingling day and night propagating as they had for centuries. At night, the priest locked up all the single women in one dormitory and all the single men in another. No sex – no kids.

Joahann August Sutter, a German-born Swiss immigrant came to California in 1839. He became a Mexican citizen and received a grant of 50,000 acres near Sacramento. He used Native American labor to cultivate wheat and take care of his herds, distillery, tannery, hat factory, blanket making shop and his personal fort. On Monday, January 24, 1848 one of Sutter’s workmen discovered a prize, just nine days before California became a state, that would bring Native Californians incalculable misfortune—gold.


The Native Americans could accept death because of the belief that life would continue for their children as it had for their ancestors. Thus the cycle of life would continue. An old man expressed this belief in a prayer that he offered near the end of his life: "I am falling back into my cradle. This is what my ancestors told me yesterday, they who have gone, long ago. May my children fare likewise!" The European newcomers destroyed that dream forever.

These people whom our ancestors mistakenly called "Indians" were really the first Californians. They may have lived and prospered in this area for as long as 10,000 to 15, 000 years before the Europeans began to trespass on their land. The Native Americans felt that they belonged to the Earth and that the Earth belonged to them. They claimed a deep relationship with their environment that completely eluded the understanding of the European trespassers.

The European’s first priority was to claim more territory and seize its wealth. These newcomers remained strangers to the land and considered the Native Americans merely as objects to be used to help plunder the wealth that was discovered here. Under California law Native Americans were actually forbidden to testify against whites. The Native Californians were abused, enslaved, raped, murdered and deprived of their lands by the Europeans. It is a shame that our ancestors showed so little regard for the basic human rights of the original Native Californians; however, from the perspective of the Native Californians, this is a good example of what can happen to a society when they don't protect their borders.

The time has come for all of us to realize that on our planet the divisions that previously separated various human communities are rapidly dissolving. All life here sprung from our planet, Mother Earth, like a flower and all of us have a common heritage. Like it or not, the people of  earth are rapidly becoming more interdependent and mankind cannot much longer afford to foster feelings of ethnocentric superiority over those who do not share a particular concept of God. 

It is time to cease exaggerating our mythological differences and focus on our similarities and common goals, dreams, and aspiration if we are to minimize future human conflict. However, in the process, there will always be evil people in the world and we if we don't maintain a sufficiently stong military force and also protect our borders from interlopers, we will likely suffer the same fate as the Native American people!

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Boule’, Mary Null, California Native American Tribes, Coast Miwok Tribe, Vashon, Washington: Merryant Publishing, 1992

Campbell, Joseph, Historical Atlas of World Mythology Vol I: The Way of the Animal Powers Part 1: Mythologies of the Primitive Hunters and Gatherers, New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1988

Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1999

Emanuels, Roger California Indians, Walnut Creek, California: Diablo Books, 1990

The Indians Of California, Alexandria, Virginia: Time-Life Inc. 1994

Keyworth, C. L. The First Americans California Indians, New York, NY: International Book Marketing Ltd. 1991

Scholastic Encyclopedia Of the North American Indians, Scholastic Inc., 1996

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