The Native Californians and the Center of the World

This is a historial post from Hiking the California Trail, a 1998/2002 book set by Bob Lorentz and Richard Nichols. Where possible an update has been provided.

Before contact with white civilization, the abundant natural resources of California supported one of the highest population densities in North America. Most estimates place the California native population around 250,000, some argue two or three times that, about 10% of the native U.S. population. Like today’s pattern, the highest concentration of people lived on or near the coast.

California in 1800 supported about 110 major tribes or language groups, with twenty-eight of those spread along the coast. Many other tribes made regular sojourns to the coast to harvest the ocean’s bounty and to trade and visit with the residents. Of the twenty-eight coastal nations, Volume One traverses the territories of sixteen, while Volume Two visits a dozen.

We don’t have space to discuss all these diverse cultures, so we recommend that you seek out the rich and varied literature on California’s Native Americans. But let’s take a quick overview.

Forget your stereotypes of Native Americans. No California natives lived in tipis. Rather they inhabited a diverse array of dwellings. None rode horses before white contact. California natives were among the most peace-loving people on earth, though ritual war did occur. Elders of most tribes spoke several neighboring languages in response to the diverse tribal landscape.

Tribes near and far conducted trade along well-established trails usually open to all. Intertribal gatherings were important social events in which the whole village interacted with visitors, feasting, dancing, storytelling and game-playing, often over several days.

The Tolowa people of Del Norte County provide a worthy example of one tribe and the tragedy they suffered upon white contact. The Tolowa nation inhabited eight or ten large villages of 100 to 300 people each, most of them on or near the coast between Smith River and Nickel Creek. Each village was its own tribe, sharing much language and culture with other Tolowa tribes.

The Tolowa and their neighbors considered the Tolowa village of Yontakit to be the center of the world. Every year Yurok from the south and Chetco and Tututnu from the north journeyed, as did other Tolowa villages, to Yontakit for a ten-day world renewal ceremony, believed essential for continuing the cycle of life.

At such a ceremony in 1853, white vigilantes from newly settled gold and timber towns nearby launched a sneak attack during the height of the ceremony. They set Yontakit village on fire and killed hundreds of residents. It was among the earliest and most violent incidents of unprovoked genocide marring the history of California.

Originally Published in Hiking the California Coastal Trail: Guide to Walking the Golden State's Beaches and Bluff from Border to Border - Volume One: Oregon to Monterey (2nd Edition) by Bob Lorentzen and Richard Nichols
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