North central California, in the Sacramento River valley (Tehama & Glenn
Language: Penutian family
1770 estimate: 2,000
1910 Census: not known
The Nomlaki were the middle group of the Wintuns, sandwiched between the Wintu to the north and the Patwin to the south, with whom they shared a similar language. They are sometimes known as Central Wintun or Proper Wintun. Their neighbors on the west were the Yuki, who were often their enemies but with whom they traded. On the east were the Yana and Konkow.
The Nomlaki were divided into the Hill and River groups. The Hill Nomlaki lived in the foothills to the west of the Sacramento River valley, extending to the summit of the Coast Range mountains. The River Nomlaki lived in the Sacramento River valley.
The term Nomlaki is from a word meaning west language, and was used first to mean a certain group of the Hill Nomlaki whose own name for themselves was nomkewel, or west people.
The 25 to 200 people who lived in each Nomlaki village were related to each other. A headman was chosen by the men of the village to lead the people in food gathering and ceremonies, and to settle arguments between members of the village. A son often followed his father as headman, but only if he were considered worthy of the position.
Family houses were made of bent saplings (young trees which were flexible). The saplings were tied together at the top with vines, and then covered with a thatch made of bundles of grasses. The largest house in the village belonged to the headman. His house had a center post to support the longer poles that formed the frame. This house was used as a gathering place for men, and for village meetings.
In the summer, many people left the village and moved to a mountain area so that they could gather food that grew there. Each village had their own mountain place for their summer homes. Here they lived in temporary shelters made of poles with thatched roofs and no sides.
Many kinds of oak trees grew in Nomlaki territory,. The people used at least eight varieties of acorns. Some oak trees were considered to be owned by individuals. Gathering of acorns and other plant foods was done mostly by the women and children. In addition to acorns, they gathered pine nuts and many kinds of seeds and tubers. Some nuts and seeds were dried and stored for eating throughout the year. Clover was eaten fresh, like a salad. Several kinds of fruits, berries and mushrooms were found in the forests. Salt was gotten from the banks of certain streams in the spring.
Hunting was the job of the men. Boys were taught to hunt when they were young, first with a small bow and arrows, and later with a better bow. Some hunters were better than others, and got special recognition for their skill. They used several types of weapons in the hunt, including bow and arrows, and clubs. The men sometimes joined together to hunt the larger animals. Deer and elk were driven into large nets about six feet high, that were stretched across an area as wide as 100 feet. Nets to catch rabbits were shorter, about four feet high, but as much as 300 feet long. Bears were especially hard to kill, but were valued for their fur. Some hunters were especially skilled in bear hunting.
Smaller game was caught in traps and snares. Slings were used to bring down birds. Grasshoppers were taken in large numbers by setting fire to the grass in an area.
Salmon were taken from the Sacramento River by the use of harpoons and weirs (brush dams built across a section of river). Other fish were caught with nets and traps, and sometimes by hand.
Deerskin was the material most often used for clothing by the Nomlaki. The men wore a piece of deerskin covering their hips. Women wore skirts made of deerskin, decorated with seeds and shells. When deerskin wasn't available, clothing was made from the inner bark of trees, which was soft and pliable.
Though the Nomlaki did not wear moccasins, they did make sandals from strips of elkhide. Babies were carried on cradleboards that supported the baby's back but left the legs free. For warmth, rabbit skins were cut in strips and then woven together to make blankets. Bear furs, too, were valued as robes. A bearskin to use as a burial robe was often a person's most valued possession.
The best wood for making bows was yew wood, but this was not readily available in Nomlaki territory. It was sometimes gotten through trade. When yew wood wasn't available, juniper wood was used to make the bow, which was backed with sinew (animal tendons). Flint (quartz rock) or obsidian (volcanic glass) was used to make tips for arrows and for spears.
Both stone and bone were sharpened for use as knives. A knobbed throwing stick was made of California mahogany, and was used in hunting animals. The nets used in deer hunting were made from sinew, which made a strong net. Nets for catching smaller animals and fish were made from fibers.
Baskets made by the Nomlaki were sometimes done by the twining method, but more often by the coiling method. They used a three-rod coiled form for their baskets. Baskets were used for carrying, storing, and cooking food. To cook in a basket, stones were heated in a fire and then dropped into the acorn mush or other food that was in the basket. The hot stones cooked the food.
Clamshell beads were used as money. Pieces of clamshells were shaped into disks, a hole was punched and the disks were strung on strings. The clamshells came from Bodega Bay on the Pacific Coast, and were traded among the central California groups. Other items considered valuable by the Nomlaki were magnesite beads, made from a stone that turned reddish when heated; furs, especially the fur of the black bear; and eagle and yellowhammer feathers.
Trade was common between families and between villages, as well as with neighboring tribes. Some Nomlaki families had special skills, and they traded their goods with other families for things that they could not easily produce themselves. The Hill Nomlaki got fish from the River Nomlaki in return for seeds and animals. Some Nomlaki's considered trading to be their special skill.
The Nomlaki celebrated the coming of spring with a spring dance. They invited their neighbors to a feast, which the entire village worked together to prepare. The dancing was done in a special dance house. Both men and women took part in the dance, which was accompanied by two drummers, two singers, and one person to call out the dancers.
Another special ceremony was held when a girl became an adult member of the village. After undergoing certain tasks and rituals, the girl was honored at a festival which lasted for several days. There was feasting, dancing, and singing. The girl was dressed in beautifully decorated clothing, and was the center of attention.