Northwestern California, midway between San Francisco Bay and the Oregon
border (Mendocino County)
Language: Athapaskan family
1770 estimate: 500
1910 Census: 51
Although their territory extended further south than that of the five groups known as the Southern Athapaskans, the Cahto (also spelled Kato) are not grouped with the other five. Their Athapaskan dialect was quite different from the other Southern Athapaskans, and their way of life was more like the Yuki and Pomo, to the east and south of them. Some Cahto people also spoke the Pomo language.
Cahto settlements were located in three small valleys along the upper part of the South Fork Eel River. These valleys were surrounded by redwood forests. There may have been as many as 50 Cahto villages. There was no tribal organization. Each village had one or two headmen, who gave advise to the others. Decisions, however, were generally made by the elders of the village. The position of village headman was usually passed on from father to son.
The name Cahto is a Pomo word meaning lake. The territory of the Cahto was bordered on three sides by that of Yukian-speaking people (the Yuki and Huchnom), and they had many things in common with the Yuki. However, they also shared much with the Pomo, so that for a time it was thought that the Cahto were part of the Pomo tribe.
To build their houses, the Cahto first dug a circular pit about two feet deep. Then they laid out a square around the pit by setting four forked posts into the ground. These posts supported the wall and roof rafters, which were covered with pieces of pine or spruce wood, and then with bark or earth. The doorway was a narrow opening from the ground to the roof, which sloped towards the back of the house. The fireplace was centered in the pit area inside.
The Cahto houses were often large enough to have two or three families living in one house. A house was used for two winters, and then the families built new houses.
Some Cahto villages had a dance house, made in a style similar to the family houses, but with the circle being about 20 feet in diameter. The dance house was used for ceremonies; sometimes it was used as a sweathouse, but not like the northwestern tribes where the men slept in the sweathouse.
The forests and streams supplied food for the Cahto people. Deer meat was eaten often. The men also caught bears (both black bears and cinnamon bears) in the woods, as well as smaller animals like squirrels, gophers, raccoons, moles, and skunks. They had dogs that they used to help in hunting game. Some birds were used as food, and some insects such as caterpillars, grasshoppers, bees, and hornets were eaten.
From the Eel River and the streams that ran down the valleys, the Cahto caught salmon and other fish. They preserved salmon to eat all year long by drying the extra fish when the salmon were plentiful.
The women added to the food supply by gathering acorns and other nuts, seeds, berries, and roots from the forest. The acorns were made into a thick soup called acorn mush, and sometimes into a bread. The acorn mush was cooked in baskets, to which hot stones were added. Constant stirring of the mush and stones kept the basket from burning.
Deerhide clothes were worn by both men and women. In the summer, they used tanned hides that had the hair removed from them. For winter clothes, they used hides with the hair still on, so the clothes would be warmer. Both men and women wore an apron-type garment around their waist. Those worn by the women were longer, coming down to their knees.
Cahto men and women kept their hair long. They covered it with hairnets made of iris fibers. This is one custom that shows the Cahto lived more like the central California tribes than like the northwestern tribes. The Cahto women did not wear basket hats, as those in the northwestern tribes did. In addition to wearing shell or seed ornaments in their ears and nose, the Cahto wore bracelets made of strips of deerhide. Both men and women wore tattooed lines on their forehead, cheeks, chin, chest, wrist, or legs, though not everyone chose to have the tattoos.
In basketmaking, the Cahto used both the northern California method of twining and the southern California method of coiling. Their baskets were made much like those of the Yuki, their neighbors on the west, south, and east.
Pieces of bone and deer or elk antler were used by the Cahto to scrape and cut other materials like wood, roots, and hides. They could split large logs by hitting a wedge of elk antler with a stone maul (hammer). They made bows and arrows and spears from hazel wood. Pieces of bone were chipped off to make spear points for catching fish. Arrow points and knives were shaped from stone.
The men used bows and arrows for hunting and as weapons in battles with other tribes. They also used spears and deerhide slingshots. Traps and snares for catching small animals, as well as nets for catching fish and birds, were made from the fibers of the iris plant or from slender willow branches.
The streams along which the Cahto lived were too shallow for canoes. Instead, the Cahto made rafts by lashing together five or six logs. They used a long pole to push the raft in the direction they wanted to go.
Some of the food eaten by the Cahto came from the sea coast, and was gotten through trade with the Yuki, who lived along the ocean. The Yuki supplied them with salt, mussels, seaweed, abalone, and ocean fish.
As money, the Cahto used clamshells, flint, and magnesite. Clamshell beads were the most common form of money in early California, used by groups from the Mendocino coast southward. Although the Cahto lived on the edge of the northwestern California area, they did not use dentalium shells for money, as the northwestern groups did. Instead, pieces of clamshell were ground on stones until they were smooth and round. A little hole was drilled in each disk, and the disks were strung on strings. Older, more polished disks were considered of more value.
Magnesite is a stone found in northern California, in Pomo Indian territory. It was ground into small beads. When heated in a fire and polished, the beads turned pinkish or reddish in color. Magnesite beads were considered more valuable than shell money, and were traded as single pieces, or combined with shells on a string.
Ceremonies were held each winter and summer, with guests from nearby villages often invited. Dances might last for a week, with both men and women participating in the dancing. The Acorn Dance was held in the winter, in the hopes of having a good crop of acorns the next year.
Dances that were done just for fun included the Feather Dance, performed by six men, women, and children. The Necum Dance was done by six women on one side of a fire and six men on the other side. More serious were the War Dances done before each battle.