People have lived in what is now California for thousands of years. There are signs that the first people came here more than 10,000 years ago. They may have come from the continent of Asia, crossing the Bering Strait into what is now Alaska and then moving south down the North American continent.
When the first European explorers sailed along the California coast in the 1500's and 1600's, there were probably more than 300,000 people living in California. Though far fewer in number, the descendants of these first Californians still live here. Many of them continue the life skills that served their ancestors so well. They keep alive the traditions that make them a unique people.
What should we call the first Californians?
The people living in North America in 1492 were called Indians because Christopher Columbus, the Italian explorer who landed in the islands off the east coast of Central America, mistakenly thought he had reached India. The name American Indians has been used for 500 years, though we know it is based on a mistake. As a result, the first people in California are often called California Indians. Sometimes the name Native Californians is used. However, California Indians is the name now preferred by many.
The first Californians did not have one name by which they called themselves. They did not consider themselves to belong to one group or tribe. They spoke many different languages, perhaps as many as 90 languages with more than 300 dialects. The people lived in small groups. They seldom traveled far from their home area, and could only understand the languages of nearby groups.
Many groups in early California referred to their own group by the word in their language that meant people. To other groups, their neighbors, they gave names that often referred to the place where the neighbor lived. Many times this resulted in several different names being given to a single group, as various neighbors called them by different names.
The names we use today for the various groups of California Indians have been chosen from terms used by neighboring groups, or by the Spanish settlers who came in the late 1700's. Even among these names, there are various ways of spelling them. Also, within each major group, smaller groups were given different names by their neighbors or by the Spanish.
It is difficult to determine exactly how many "groups" of early Californians there were. Researchers use the language spoken by the people as one key to show which small communities or villages were part of a larger group, or band. Languages that seemed to have the same basis are called language families. In some areas, it is uncertain as to whether a small group was actually part of a larger group, or was a totally separate group.
The lines dividing the territory where one group lived from that of another are not exactly known. Sometimes a certain river or the crest of a mountain range is thought to be the boundary between two groups. In other cases there is no distinct geographical feature. Therefore, the map showing the territory for each group can only be approximate.
The geographical division of groups and the names for these groups as used in the California Indians Fact Cards are, for the most part, those given in the Handbook of North American Indians, published by the Smithsonian Institution in 1978.
The state boundary lines that were drawn for California in the mid-1800's cut through tribal areas. This meant that some of the Indian groups of the Great Basin area in Nevada, and of the southwestern desert of Arizona, had portions of their lands placed within the new California borders. From a cultural view, these groups (the Paiute, Shoshone, Mohave, Quechan) were quite different from the California Indians. They are included in California Indians Fact Cards because their traditional lands lie partly within the present state boundaries.
How do we know the early history of the California Indians?
Before 1770, the people in California were seldom disturbed by outsiders. It is difficult to know exactly how they lived then, because they did not create written records or descriptions of their life. There are just a few accounts by early explorers (Cabrillo, Drake, Portolá) of their meetings with the people of California.
The 1770 population figures quoted in the California Indians Fact Cards for various groups are from estimates made by a researcher, A. L. Kroeber, in 1925. They may be lower than the actual numbers. Nobody knows for sure just how many people lived in California then. Even the 1910 U.S. Census figures are not considered to be an accurate count of the California Indians, as many had been moved from their traditional homes and were probably miscounted.
There are two methods used by researchers to learn about early Californians. The first is through talking with the descendants of the early people. The California Indians passed on their history to their children and grandchildren by telling them stories about the past. Then the children told the stories to their children. In the early 1900's, several researchers talked with people who told them the stories they had been told, and the researchers wrote down the information.
A second method of learning about California life before 1770 is through archeological study of village sites. By looking at the bits and pieces left behind and buried through the years by dirt, leaves, and rubble, an archeologist can get clues to what life was like for the people in that village.
After 1770, the life of the early Californians began to change dramatically, and the manner of living described in the California Indians Fact Cards began to disappear. In 1769, the first Spanish mission was established in San Diego. Over the next 50 years, 21 missions were built from San Diego to Sonoma, north of San Francisco Bay. Indians who lived near any of the missions were affected first. Their way of life was disrupted. They were not allowed to continue eating the kind of food which they had eaten for hundreds of years. Many died of diseases brought by the padres and soldiers.
More European settlers followed the missions, taking land that had provided food and shelter for the Indians. Then came people looking for gold. By 1900, many of the California Indians had lost their land to the newcomers. The number of California Indians had been reduced to about 15,000. Some groups were gone, without any survivors. Others were isolated on reservations.
Miraculously, the Indian cultures survived, and after decades of suppression, some California Indian groups can again celebrate their heritage. Across the state Indians are teaching their children the skills and traditions of their past.
There are some things shared by most of the early Californians. For instance, they were "hunters and gatherers," getting their food from wild animals and plants, rather than from farming or cattle raising. They hunted deer; they gathered acorns. They made baskets, which they used in a great many ways.
There are also differences (depending on exactly where the people lived) in the type of clothes they wore, how they built their homes, and what tools they used. And there are unique things about each of the early California groups.
California Indians Fact Cards gives quick facts about the traditional way of life in about 1770 of more
than 50 early California groups. It is a snapshot of what we believe life
was like at that time, and not a history of any of the tribes either before
or after 1770.
Source: Most of the information in the California Indians Fact Cards is taken from the Handbook of North American Indians, volumes 8, 10, and 11, published by the Smithsonian Institution in 1978. Other sources include The Indians of California, Time-Life Books, 1994; and Kroeber, A.L., Handbook of the Indians of California, originally published in 1925 as Bulletin 78 of the Bureau of American Ethnology of the Smithsonian Institution.