Northeastern California (Modoc County, northern Shasta & Lassen Counties,
southeastern Siskiyou County)
Language: Hokan family
1770 estimate: 3,000 (Achumawi & Atsugewi)
1910 Census: 1,000
The language of the Achumawi was much like that of the Atsugewi, to the south of them. The two groups are sometimes linked together as the Palaihnihan branch of the Hokan language family. The Achumawi were friendly with the Atsugewi, but they often fought with the Modoc, to the north.
The Achumawi (also spelled Achomawi) lived along the Pit River and along some of the rivers and streams that flowed into it. Much of their land away from the rivers was high mountain country, some forested with fir and pine but other parts covered with lava from eruptions of Mt. Shasta and Mt. Lassen volcanoes, where nothing grew. There were also large swampy areas.
Small clusters of villages, called tribelets, were connected by their common language and by a single headman chosen by the people. There were nine of these tribelets in Achumawi territory. Within the tribelets, people referred to each other by their relationship (aunt, brother) rather than by personal names. It was considered rude to call someone by their real name.
The name Achumawi, meaning river people, probably came from the people's name for one of the groups of villages, located along the Fall River. They were also known as the Pit River Indians. The river got its name from the people's custom of digging pits several feet deep and covering them with branches, to trap the deer.
Winter houses for the Achumawi were dug out of the ground, usually in a 15-foot square. A center pole with other poles or logs used as cross beams made a frame over the dug out area. Grass, tule reeds, and bark were placed over the frame, and then covered with a layer of earth. The main entrance to the house was through the smoke hole in the roof. A ladder made from two poles with crossbars tied on with plant fibers was used to climb down into the house.
The larger houses had two or three families living in them. The chief's home was also large, as was the village dance house. Single families had simpler houses made from bark that formed a sloping roof over a shallow hole dug in the ground. The cold winters in this area, with deep snow, meant that a fire was important to keep the people warm. Sagebrush, juniper branches, and pine trees that had fallen were used as fuel for the fire.
The basic foods of most early northern Californian people (acorns, deer meat, salmon) were not quite as plentiful in Achumawi territory, so the people here depended on a greater variety of foods. Acorns were eaten by all the people, but in the eastern sections they were gotten mostly through trade, as not many oak trees grew there.
The swampy areas in Achumawi territory were home to many kinds of waterfowl. Ducks, geese, and swans were used as food, as were their eggs. Cranes, mud hens, and pelicans were also eaten, as were sage hens, crows, hawks, magpies, and eagles that lived in the woodlands. Salmon could be found in large numbers only on the lower Pit River. More common were the bass, catfish, lamprey, pike, trout, crawfish and mussels caught in the rivers, streams, and lakes.
Besides deer, some elk were found near Mt. Shasta. Antelope were valued both as food, and for their hides, hoofs (used to make rattles), and antlers. Other animals used as food were jack rabbits, badgers, bears, beaver, coyotes, marmots (who lived near the lava flows), and other small animals.
Grassland areas provided many roots and bulbs including camas bulbs and wild onions. Epos, a carrotlike root, was popular. Sunflower seeds and other seeds from wild grasses were gathered; mustard seed was used for seasoning. They did not have true salt, but used leaves and seeds from the saltbush plant instead. Clover and young thistle plants were eaten. Berries and nuts came from the forests. The food supplies included angleworms; the larva (newly hatched form) of wasps, ants, bees, and hornets; crickets, grasshoppers, and caterpillars.
Achumawi men wore both a short apron-like skirt and a shirt made from a piece of animal skin with a hole cut in the middle and the sides sewn together below the armholes. Sometimes they wore leggings made from deerskin, and moccasins made either of deerskin or woven from tule reeds and stuffed with grass. Elk, antelope, badger, bear, beaver, and coyote skins were also used to make clothing. When skins were not available, cedar bark could be shredded and attached to a belt to make a skirt.
The women wore a shirt much like the men, and a separate skirt made by wrapping a piece of deerskin around them. Sometimes they wore a fringed apron-type skirt. On their heads they wore a cap made like a basket. The clothes were sometimes decorated with porcupine quills.
Tattooing was done on women's faces, with three thin lines on the chins and a few lines on the cheek. Men had their noses pierced so they could wear a shell or bone ornament through the nose.
Dip nets, gill nets, seine nets and basket traps were used by the Achumawi to catch fish. For the string to make the nets, they used fibers from the dogbane or milkweed plant, or from the tule reeds that grew in marshy areas. Tules were also used to make mats that served as sleeping pads or as summer shelters. Simple dugout canoes made from pine or cedar logs were sometimes used on the rivers and lakes. Bundles of tule reeds were tied together to make rafts to cross streams and lakes.
Bows used in hunting were made of yew wood, or of mahogany or juniper, backed with sinew (animal tendons). The arrows had tips formed from obsidian (volcanic glass from Lassen Peak), with rattlesnake venom used to make them poisonous. Spear points and knives were also shaped from obsidian, which was plentiful in Achumawi territory. Bows and arrows were often decorated with colors of black, blue, white, red, and yellow. The paints came from colored minerals found in the area.
The Achumawi made baskets by the method known as twining, as did other northern California groups. Young willow shoots and plant fibers were used to make the baskets, which were decorated with ferns, pieces of roots, and redbud bark. Baskets were used to carry and store food, as cradles for babies, and as hats for the women.
The Achumawi probably used clamshell beads as money. These beads would have been acquired in trade from groups to the south, having been traded up from the central coast. The beads were small pieces of shell shaped into disks with a hole punched in the middle, and strung on cords. Wealth was not as important to the Achumawi as it was to some other groups. Their leaders were not the richest men, but ones who could best carry out the duties of the headman.
Not many Achumawi ceremonies are known. Simple rituals, including having their ears pierced, were held when a girl or a boy became an adult member of the group. A girl had to dance and sing for ten nights. A boy had to go out alone on the mountain for a night.