Northeastern California (Plumas County & southern Lassen County)
Language: Penutian family
1770 estimate: 9,000
1910 Census: 1,100 (includes Konkow & Niesan)
The Maidu were one of three groups that spoke similar languages and lived close to each other. The term Maidu is sometimes used to refer to all three groups. The Maidu proper were the Mountain Maidu, the most northeastern of the three. The other two associated groups are the Konkow (or Northwestern Maidu) and the Nisenan (or Southern Maidu).
The area occupied by the Maidu was a series of mountain valleys. The villages in each valley were known to the people by the name of the valley. These valleys were about 4,000 feet above sea level. The Maidu placed their villages along the edges of the valleys rather than in the flat middle, because the valley bottoms were often wet from melting snows.
Communities were made up of three to five villages, with an average of seven to ten houses in each village. The main village had the ceremonial earth-lodge. Though this was not necessarily the largest village, it was usually the one where the headman of the community lived. In fact, the headman often lived in the earth-lodge. His job was to give advice to the people, and to speak for them with other groups. Each community held certain land on which they had hunting and fishing rights. Guards were posted to make sure that people from other communities did not hunt or fish there. People did not usually travel more than 20 miles from home during their lifetime.
The Maidu lived in houses that were partly underground during the winter. Several families shared a house, which they would build in the spring when the ground was soft. Then they could dig down to a depth of about four feet. The houses were round, with diameters of from 20 to 40 feet. The poles that formed the frame for the house were covered with bark, and then with packed earth. The village ceremonial house was of the same design.
Some Maidu built cone-shaped houses from poles covered with bark. These were smaller than the earth-lodges. In the summer, the people made temporary shelters near where they were hunting or gathering food. These shelters were made with poles and a flat roof of oak branches and leaves. There were no walls.
Since the Maidu lived in the mountains, they depended more on animals like deer for their food. They were good hunters. Sometimes a man hunted alone, and sometimes with a group of men. They had hunting dogs to help in the hunt. Deer and elk were followed for days until the animals were tired and could be killed more easily. Squirrel and rabbits were shot with arrows, or caught in nets. Geese, duck, and quail were used as food, but birds of prey such as eagles were never eaten. Several kinds of insects including grasshoppers and crickets were eaten.
Before it was eaten, meat was roasted over an open fire or baked. An oven was made by putting rocks in a hole and lighting a fire in the hole. When the rocks were hot, the burning coals were raked out. The food to be baked was wrapped in large leaves and covered with the hot rocks.
The Maidu used many plants growing in their area for food. They ate roots, stems, leaves, and seeds of plants. Acorns from several kinds of oak trees, including the huckleberry oak and the bush chinquapin that grow in the northeastern mountain region, were gathered. The Maidu also gathered the nuts of the sugar pine and yellow pine, which they ate plain or cooked into a soup.
Fish were sometimes caught in nets, and sometimes speared. The nets were made like bags, held open at the mouth by a piece of willow branch. The mouth of the net could be closed, after the fish swam in, by means of a pole tied to the opposite side of the mouth.
Manzanita berries were crushed and mixed with water to form a stiff dough. When water was poured over the dough, it became flavored with the sweet berry flavor, making a manzanita cider. Another drink was a type of tea made from wild mint.
The Maidu did not need to wear much clothing. If the men wore anything at all in the warm summer weather, it was a simple piece of deerskin around their hips. Women wore a double apron, one section covering the front and the other covering the back. The apron was made of deerskin or of bark.
In the winter, the Maidu wore moccasins on their feet. The moccasins were made of deerskin, with a seam sewn up the front. They were stuffed with grass for extra warmth. Deerhide was wrapped around the lower part of the legs when it was snowy. These leggings were worn with the hair side in. Over their shoulders, the people wore robes made from deer or mountain lion skins.
The Maidu wore their hair long and hanging loose. Some men wore a net cap. For ceremonies, the net cap was decorated with feathers. Maidu women wore a basket cap made of tules. Tattooing was done by the Maidu. The men often had vertical lines on the chin. Women also had tattoos on the chest, arms, and abdomen. The tattoo was made by piercing the skin with a fish bone or pine needle, and rubbing in a dye or charcoal.
Canoes were used by the Maidu. These were dugout canoes made by burning out the middle of logs. They were steered with one paddle or with a pole. The Maidu also made log rafts for crossing rivers by binding together several logs with vines.
Roots of yellow pine and bear grass, plus stems of the maidenhair fern, were used by the Maidu for making baskets. Baskets used for carrying loads and for storing and serving food were made by the method called twining. Designs were made with pieces of redbud, or pine root dyed black with charcoal. Coiled baskets were made when the basket needed to be firmer and water-tight. A bundle of three slender stems was made into a circular shape. The coils of stems were tied together with other fibers.
Nets, bows and arrows, knives, and spears were used in hunting and fishing. Obsidian (volcanic glass) was used to make arrowheads. Knives and spears were made from hard black basalt rock, fastened to a wooden handle.
Clamshell disks served as money for the Maidu. The pieces of clamshell were made into beads. The Maidu got rough shells from the coast people, and finished them into polished beads themselves. Magnesite (a kind of stone) beads were also prized. Both types of beads were strung on strings.
The Maidu traded with their neighbors. From the Achumawi, to the north, they got obsidian and a green dye. From the Konkow they got bows, arrows, deer hides, and several kinds of food.
The Maidu held many dances, both for special ceremonies and for fun. Along with the dancing they used a rattle called a wasóso; the name sounds like the sound the rattle made, like that of swishing pebbles. Several kinds of flutes and whistles were also used to make music for the dancing.