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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Anne Stapp

The First Californians

Many centuries before European explorers found California—for at least 10,000 and possibly as many as 20,000 years—an indigenous people occupied the land. Authorities differ as to their numbers, but generally agree that there were at least 340,000 individuals living here prior to 1769, when a congregation of Franciscan priests landed at San Diego Bay to begin colonizing the holdings of Imperial Spain.

Almost certainly, more California Indians lived in the northern regions where water and food resources were more abundant. But except for the high reaches of the Sierra Nevada, they resided throughout the future state from the seashore and its redwood forests to the inland hills and valleys, in villages the Spanish called Rancherias. Given that California contains more than 163,000 square miles, a population just upwards of 300,000 individuals is still a small one, even considering that significant portions of the terrain were covered with stretches of wetlands or desolate deserts. Yet, at one time there were more than 100 clans (family groups, as differentiated from tribal organization) speaking as many as 80 distinct languages.

The names we use for them today are derived from amalgamations of known terms used by the various family groups, or by the Spanish settlers, discovered by researchers who interviewed descendants in the early 1900s. Each clan, in their own language, had names for themselves and other groups in the same vicinity; and within each major group, smaller groups were often given different names by their neighbors or by the Spaniards. Further, the territorial boundaries between one group and another aren’t known for certain: modern maps showing the territory for each group are only approximates. Following are some examples of California Indian groups, their diversity and traditions.

The Maidu, who lived east of the Sacramento River, wove colorful, water proof baskets from a variety of reeds and rushes, and fashioned tall acorn granaries from willow and wild grapevine. Their valley neighbors included the Miwok, the Wintun, the Yana, and the Yokuts. The Coastanoans occupied a part of the San Francisco Bay area that encompassed Mt. Diablo. Indians living on the northern coast included the Wailaki, the Yuki, the Pomo and the Coast Miwok, while the Chumash people occupied the central and southern coastal regions in portions of what is now San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Ventura and Los Angeles. Their territory extended from Morrow Bay to Malibu, encompassing three of the Channel Islands. The Chumash are best known for their rock art, pictographs that are brightly colored images of humans, animals, and abstract shapes painted on rocks, thought to be parts of religious rituals.

Upon arrival at San Diego--the first site settled by Europeans--the missionary priests met the Kumeyaay people, whose homeland extended from the latitude of present-day Escondido east across the Salton Sea into the desert regions, and south into Baja. The Kumeyaay who lived in the Imperial Valley practiced a limited form of agriculture (though they relied on gathering their food); and others of the same band who occupied land along the Pacific Ocean engaged in shell fishing. Their woven baskets were highly prized by the Spaniards, who named the Kumeyaay people "the Diegueños."

Before Europeans came, the California Indians were a highly diverse population of many different languages and cultures, who survived and prospered for millennia as hunter-gatherers. Women were responsible for harvesting, processing, and preparing food while men hunted game. All made hunting and fishing tools appropriate to their specific environment, but none made pottery. Today, California has the second-largest Native American population in the United States.

Pictured: a Pomo dancer

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