As of December 31, 2014, I retired from full-time teaching in Humboldt State University's Department of History. While this website will remain online, it is no longer maintained.

History 383 – Dr. Gayle Olson-Raymer

The Original Inhabitants

Map of California Indian NationsIntroduction: Today we move beyond geographical and geological understandings of California's origins and move into a discussion of those who originally inhabited the area. To the native inhabitants priior to European contact, California was a world in which:

The goals for today’s discussion focus on this last bullet point - the native inhabitants, the California Indians:

  1. To examine the origns of the first Californians.
  2. To study the economic, religious, political, and social lives of the many Indian nations that flourished in California prior to white contact.
  3. To learn how California Indian people had adapted their lifestyles to their unique environment at the time of Spanish colonization.
  4. To understand the racial stereotypes that developed when white Americans first encountered California natives – and how and why they have lasted for so long.
  5. To discuss the "Introduction" and "Epilogue" to our required book, Wherever There's a Fight: How ruanaway slaves, suffragists, immigrants, strikers, and poets shaped civil liberties in California.

Goal #1: To examine the origins of the first Californians

One of the most controversial of all subjects relating to the native inhabitants of California is their origin. In essence, the argument is between California Indian nations and their creation beliefs and the scientific communities and their migration theories.

California Indian Nations. Each of California's native nations have a unique story about their creation and how they came to be on their ancestral land. These form the basis of their religious beliefs. For example:Photo and quote from California Indian Storyteller

Discussion: Turn to the person sitting next to you and spend 3-5 minutes discussing the following two questions. Be prepared to share your thoughts with the entire class.

Scientific Communities. Many scientists look upon the religious beliefs of Indian people as stories, or creation myths, without any basis in scientific evidence.

Scientists instead use a wide array of scientific evidence to support a variety of theories to explain how Indian people originally populated North America. While there are several theories that have emerged, we are only going to discuss two such theories that are widely accepted by many scientists.


Goal #2: To study the economic, religious, political, and social lives of the many Indian nations that flourished in California prior to white contact

To gain a better understanding of the historical lives of California's many Indian people, let's take a look at the contemporary lives - and how they are predicated upon historical traditions - of two local nations: the Hoopa and the Yurok.

Discussion:Map of Northern California Indian Nations

Economic lives of California Indian nations. California Indians were prosperous when compared with other North American hunter and gatherer societies - largely because there were plentiful and varied plant and animal life for food and many opportunities for trade and industry.

Indian people had a vast knowledge and understanding of natural resources in the regions in which they lived. This knowledge was key to Indians' survival and was passed down, changed, and then passed down again through the generations.

Each regional economy depended on the use of hundreds of individual species of plants and animals in their area. The Indians thus followed annual rounds of hunting and gathering based upon the seasonal availability of such resources and in so doing, practiced a subsistence economy.

Map of California Indian Trade RoutesReligious lives of California Indian nations. For native Californians, their close interaction with nature was the central theme of their cultural and religious lives. Indians did not see themselves as above nature or as conquerors of nature, but rather as a integral part of nature. Respect for and an intimate relationship with nature permeated their religious lives.

Religious beliefs and rites differed greatly from tribe to tribe. Some tribes were monotheistic - believing in a single great deity that presided over all. Others were animists - believing in many equal gods or spirits that were embodied in animals and nature and that controlled the resources upon which human society depended. To survive in this universe, people had to please the gods or spirits who were easily angered by misuse of plants, animals, and other natural resources.

Religious rites, then, consisted of carefully observed rituals that tied into the ecological nature of society and accompanied all important occasions - birth, puberty, marriage, sexual maturity, childbearing, hunting, gathering, sickness, and death. Dance was one of most important rituals. Here, you can observe one of the earliest filmed public performance of 30 different California Indian nations at the 1935 California Pacific International Exposition in San Diego.

California Indian religions and their creation beliefs not only irritate scientists trying to discover how Indian people came to North America, but their beliefs have also prompted many legal battles. One of the most interesting happened here in Humboldt County - The G-O Road U.S. Supreme Court Case. The following explanation of this case comes from HSU Professor Emeritus JeDon Emenhiser:

"This case involves the enduring civic problem. How can persons with different social values live together? Further, it raises the perennial political question: Should a majority have power to coerce minorities to act against their conscience? During the 1970s and 80s a dispute arose between a majority, the people of the United States represented by the Forest Service, and a minority, members from the Karuk, Tolowa, and Yurok Indian tribes in a Map of No. California Reservationsremote and rugged area of northern California. Specifically, the controversy posed the following questions:

The Forest Service claimed the road was significant for the development of timber harvesting, recreation, maintenance, and fire control and that it did not physically prevent religious conduct in the area ... the Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association, which originally had been organized to protect burial sites, secured the assistance of California Indian Legal Services and filed suit for an injunction. They claimed that constructing a six-mile, two-lane, paved segment of a 55-mile road between the towns of Gasquet and Orleans (the G-O Road) and implementing a timber management plan in the sacred high country would interfere with religious practices that native people had conducted for centuries ...

While the Supreme Court confirmed the power of the Forest Service to implement its management plan on government-owned land, the story did not end there. First, Congress passed the California Wilderness Act making logging and road-building, generally, in the area illegal, although providing an exemption for the proposed G-O Road corridor. Then, Congress established the Smith River Recreation Area, which preserved the natural diversity of the entire area, including the unfinished portion of the proposed G-O Road.

The majority confirmed its power to build a road and cut trees on public land whenever it chose to do so. But, in effect, by passing the Wilderness Act and establishing the Recreation Area the majority said we do not choose to do so at this time. Further, the Forest Service declined to press the matter further, especially when it realized the potential threat of international embarrassment. The minority maintained the sacredness of the high country, not by right but through majority benevolence or pragmatic politics."

Political lives of California Indian nations. California political tribal identity and structure differed from other tribal entities in North America. Many non-Californian large tribes had centralized governmental structures with a quasi-national identity and consciousness - a political type of organization that did not exist in most of California.

Social lives of California Indian nations. Kinship -Cedar Plank Home one's connection by blood, marriage, or adoption - was the most powerful organizing factor for the California Indian. Kinship determined economic obligations, place of residence, loyalties and support network. Kinship patterns varied throughout California. Most California Indians were patrilineal, tracing descent through their father, but a few were matrilineal.

The Hupa people who live along the Trinity River in Northern California developed 13 villages along seven miles in the heart of Hoopa Valley. This was home to about 1000 Hupa who lived in cedar plank houses. These homes were built for comfort and not defense - they remained cool in the summer and warm in the winter, and were the site of much of the daily Hupa activities.

They were also used by the women and children as sleeping quarters, while the men slept next door in the sweathouse. During the day, the men and boys over the age of ten would go hunting and fishing (deer, elk, salmon, trout and sturgeon), while the women gathered berries, bark and roots and made baskets for their daily use.

The Indians of California spoke many different languages. According to linguist Leanne Hinton, "Before white contact, California had more linguistic variety than all of Europe. Today California Indian languages are indeed in the ultimate crisis in a life-and-death struggle. Map of 6 California Indian Language groupsWe may see ninety percent of these languages, or perhaps all of them, disappear in our lifetimes" (Flutes of Fire: Essays on California Indian Languages. Berkeley, CA: Heyday Books, 1994.).

Goal #3: To learn how California Indian people had adapted their lifestyles to their unique environment at the time of Spanish colonization

In the centuries before white contact, the economic productivity of California Indian tribes dramatically increased, as did their trade alliances with other groups with different languages and cultures.

Historical images California IndiansIn short, California Indian civilization was thriving at the time of contact. They were productive, healthy, peaceful, and lived in harmony with nature - both exploiting and manipulating their resources without threatening environment balance.

But despite the health and success of the many different tribes, most were ill-equipped to deal with the newly-arriving Spanish, Russians, Mexicans, and Americans who found them "uncivilized" as they had not learned to use metals, invented simple machines, domesticated animals, or developed written languages. Nor did they have immunities to the Old World diseases brought by early explorers and later settlers.

Ironically, the thriving self-reliance and their local, autonomous political and social organizations were a further problem upon contact. Most Indian nations were unable to make a united, cooperative response to aggressive, more militaristically organized outsiders with sophisticated weapons. As Europeans invaded their homelands, they not only physically assaulted the Indian people, they upset their delicate balance with nature and among each other.

So, as we near the end our discussion for today, it is important to remember both that balance with nature that characterized the economic, political, spiritual and social lives of California Indians, and to contrast this with the racial stereotypes that Europeans brought with them prior to contact and perpetuated during settlement.

Goal #4: To understand the racial stereotypes that developed when white Americans first encountered California natives – and how and why they have lasted for so long

Despite the fact that California Indians understood, lived in harmony with, and adapted to their environment, these qualities were not valued by the white Europeans who began to migrate to California - the Spanish, Russians, Mexicans, and Americans. While the primary documentation is scarce in terms of European thoughts about California Indians, we do have a few that provide some important clues about European beliefs upon contact.

1579 - Sir Francis Drake upon meeting the Coastal Miwok near San Francisco Bay. "... Notwithstanding nothing could persuade them ... but that we should be Gods. In recompense of those things which they had received of us ... they bestowed upon our General, and diverse of our company, diverse things ... Having thus had their fill of this time’s visiting and beholding of us, they departed with joy to their houses ... As soon as they were returned to their houses, they began among themselves a kind of most lamentable weeping and crying out; which they continued also a great while together, in such sort that in the place where they left us ... did hear the same, the women especially extending their voices in a most miserable and doleful manner of shrieking. Notwithstanding this humble manner of presenting themselves, and awful demeanor used towards us, we thought it no wisdom too far to trust them (our experience of former Infidels dealing with us before, made us careful to provide against an alteration of their affections or breach of peace if it should happen) ... that so being fortified within ourselves, we might be able to keep off the enemy (if they should so prove) from coming among us without our good wills ... Against the end of three days more were assembled the greatest number of people ... Among the rest the king himself, a man of goodly stature and comely personage, attended with his guard of about 100 tall and warlike men, ... they made signs to our General to have him sit down; unto whom both the king and divers others made several orations, or rather, indeed, if we had understood them, supplications, that he would take the Province and kingdom into his hand, and become their king and patron: making signs that they would resign unto him their right and title in the whole land, and become his vassals in themselves and their posterity: which that they might make us indeed believe that it was their true meaning and intent, the king himself, with all the rest, with one consent and with great reverence, joyfully singing a song, set the crown upon his head, enriched his neck with all their chains, and offering to him many other things ... Adding thereunto (as it might seem) a song and dance of triumph; because they were not only visited of the gods (for so they still judged us to be), but the great and chief God was now become their God, their king and patron, and themselves were become the only happy and blessed people in the world."

1786 - Journal of French explorer, La Perouse visiting Monterey Mission. "... [Everything] brought to our recollection a plantation at Santo Domingo or any other West Indian Island ... We observed with concern that the resemblance is so perfect that we have seen both men and women in irons, and others in the stocks. Lastly, the noise of the whip might have struck our ears, this punishment also being administered, though with little severity. ... The day consists in general of seven hours labor and two hours prayer ... Corporal punishment is inflicted on the Indians of both sexes who neglect the exercises of piety, and many sins, which in Europe are left to Divine justice, are here punished by irons and the stocks ... The missionaries, persuaded from their prejudices and perhaps from their experience that the reason of these men is scarcely ever developed, consider this a just motive for treating them like children, and admit only a very small number to the communion ... The plan pursued by these missionaries is little calculated to remove this state of ignorance, in which everything is directed to the recompense of another life ... This government is a true theocracy for the Indians, who believe that their superiors have immediate and continual communication with God ... by virtue of this opinion, the holy fathers live in the midst of the villages with the greatest security. Their doors are not shut, even in the night."

1816 - Diary of Russian explorer, Kotezebue who observed life at the Mission San Francisco. "In winter, bands of Indians come from the mountains to be admitted to the mission, but the greater part of them leave in the spring. They do not like the life at the mission. They find it irksome to work continually and to have everything supplied to them in abundance. In their mountains, they live a free and independent, albeit a miserable existence. Rats, insects, and snakes, all these serve them for food; roots also, although there are few that are edible, so that at every step they are almost certain to find something to appease their hunger. They are too unskillful and lazy to hunt. They have no fixed dwellings; a rock or a bush affords sufficient protection for them from every vicissitude of the weather. After several months spent in the missions, they usually begin to grow fretful and thin, and they contantly gaze with sadness at the mountains which they can see in the distance. Once or twice a year the missionaries permit those Indians upon whose return they believe they can rely to visit their own country, but it often happens that few of these return ... The missionaries have characterized the people as lazy, stupid, jealous – gluttons, cowards. I have never seen one laugh. I have never seen one look one in the face. They look as though they were interested in nothing ..."

1851 - California Governor Peter Burnett's Annual Message to the State of California. " ... Our American experience has demonstrated the fact, that the two races cannot live in the same vicinity in peace. The love of fame, as well as the love of property, is common to all men; and war and theft are established customs among the Indian races generally, as they are among all poor and savage tribes of men ... When brought into contact with a civilized race of men, they readily learn the use of their implements and manufactures, but they do not so readily learn the art of making them ... they are, from habit and prejudice, exceedingly averse to manual labor. While the white man attaches but little value to small articles, and consequently exposes them the more carelessly, he throws in the way of the Indian that which is esteemed by him as a great temptation and a great prize; and as he cannot make the article, and thinks he must have it, he finds theft the most ready and certain mode to obtain it ... The white man, to whom time is money, and who labors hard all day to create the comforts of life, cannot sit up all night to watch his property; and after being robbed a few times, he becomes desperate, and resolves upon a war of extermination. ... That a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the races, until the Indian race becomes extinct, must be expected. 1860 Photograph of California Indian girlsWhile we cannot anticipate this result but with painful regret, the inevitable destiny of the race is beyond the power or wisdom of man to avert."

1860, "Group of Indian Digger Squaws" Photograph. What does the title of this photograph tell you about Anglo-American attitudes?

1878 - William Halley wrote in the Centennial Yearbook of Alameda County. The California Indian was "one of the most degraded of God's creatures. He was without knowledge, religion or morals, even in their most elementary forms. He lived without labor, and enjoyed all the ease and pleasure he could. Physically, he was not prepossessing, although having considerable endurance and strength. His skin was nearly as dark as that of the negro, and his hair as coarse as that of a horse, while his features were repulsive. To gratify his appetite and satiate his lust were his only ambition. He was too cowardly to be warlike, and did not possess that spirit of independence which is commonly supposed to be the principal attribute of his race. In so genial a climate as ours, nature easily provided for all his wants. The best part of his time was spent dancing and sleeping."


As the class continues, we will continue to examine the strain of racism that runs so rampant throughout California's history - not just the racism directly against California Indians of the past, but also the racism that continues to color the relations between native and non-native peoples in the state in the 21st Century.

Goal #4: To discuss the "Introduction" and "Epilogue" to our required book, Wherever There's a Fight: How ruanaway slaves, suffragists, immigrants, strikers, and poets shaped civil liberties in California.

Cold Call: 1st Cold Call on required reading.

Conclusions - The Original Californians

We do not know when Indian peoples settled in California.  The origin controversy is fueled by two different perspectives: the creation stories of the many California Indian people and the migration theories of the scientific communities.

  1. Before Anglo-American contact, California Indians had a well-developed work ethnic that consisted of constant and carefully planned labor; lived on a balanced and dependable diet that was high in protein and vitamins (and nutritionally superior to the diet of most Europeans at the time); and were physically active and healthy and had greater strength and endurance than most Europeans.
  2. The close interaction of native Californians with nature was the central theme of their cultural and religious lives.  Indians did not see themselves as above nature or as conquerors of nature, but rather as an integral part of nature.  Respect for and an intimate relationship with nature permeated their religious lives.
  3. Because of the geographical and ecological conditions in California, the Indians organized themselves into small political units.  The reasons for such organization were directly tied to the geography and resources of the Pacific Northwest: geographical barriers isolated tribes and local food resources were generally insufficient to support large populations; and mountains, oceans and deserts also insulated native Californians from outside invaders – thus there was no need to unite into larger groups for their own defense.
  4. Land ownership, sovereignty, and united action were carried out by small, independent tribe of between 100 to several thousand people who inhabited anywhere from several to a dozen villages – each village of which had populations ranging from 100 to several thousand people.
  5. California was home to six major language groups.  These groups were subdivided into major language families, by which most California tribes are identified. Over one hundred languages were spoken in California, most of which were identified by their geographic locations.
  6. In the centuries before white contact, the economic productivity of California Indian tribes dramatically increased, as did their trade alliances with other groups with different languages and cultures. Despite the health and success of the many different tribes, the newly-arriving Europeans found them “uncivilized” as they had not learned to use metals, invented the wheel or other simple machines, domesticated animals, or developed written languages.
  7. Native reliance upon local, autonomous political and social organization made a concerted, cooperative response to aggressive, more militaristically organized outsiders with sophisticated weapons.
  8. Racial stereotypes about California Indians began with early European exploration and contact and continue through today.
  9. Course Theme: The real history of California is complex and filled with stories of both success and failure, power and oppression, interaction and conflict, extraordinary and ordinary individuals, environmental conservation and destruction.
  10. Course Theme: California's society is most accurately characterized by persistent inequality, attempts by certain groups to subordinate others, and inter-group tensions between those in power and those courageous Californians who have resisted social, economic, and political oppression.