Northern California on the Oregon border (Siskiyou County)
Language: Hokan family
1770 estimate: 2,000
1910 Census: 100
The Shasta were the most northern of the groups in the Hokan language family. Their way of living was a mixture of the central Californian and the northwestern Californian ways.
Shasta territory reached as far north as the Rogue River Valley in what is now Oregon. This was a land of forests and mountains, almost all at 2,500 feet in elevation or higher. Most of the 150 known Shasta settlements were at the mouths of creeks where they flowed into one of the main rivers (the Shasta, Klamath, or Scott rivers).
There were three smaller groups connected with the Shasta. To the southwest lived the Konomihu and the New River Shasta (who were on the East and South Forks of the Salmon River more than on the New River). To the southeast lived the Okwanuchu.
Some Shasta villages had only one family. Larger villages each had a headman whose job was to keep peace among his people and help to settle quarrels. Also, each of several divisions, or groups of villages, had a headman.
The name Shasta may have come from that of a chief called Sasti. It is familiar because of Mt. Shasta and Shasta County.
Shasta houses were rectangular in shape, built around an excavation about three feet deep. Wood planks formed the end walls and the roof, which slanted to a peak in the center. The side walls were dirt piled up to reach the eaves of the roof. Inside, the walls were lined with slabs of bark. A fireplace pit was in the center of the house. Some houses held one family, some held several families. An opening in the end wall was covered with a straw mat for a door.
Some Shasta villages had an assembly house, built like the dwelling houses but larger and dug deeper down into the ground. All the people of the village gathered here for special occasions. Sometimes visitors stayed in the assembly house. It was also used as a sweathouse.
The largest villages had separate sweathouses, built like the assembly house but smaller. They were heated by a fire. Women were not allowed to come in; men and boys over the age of 12 spent time there, and slept there. There were also small family sweathouses, used by both men and women, where steam was made by throwing water on hot rocks.
Deer meat and acorns were the main foods of the Shasta people. They also ate bear, several small animals and birds, salmon, trout, eels, crawfish, turtles, mussels, grasshoppers and crickets. While the men hunted and fished, the women gathered acorns, other nuts, seeds, roots, bulbs, and insects. Women and children collected mussels from the Klamath River by diving to the river bottom.
Acorns from the tan oak tree, which were the favorites of the Shasta people, were gotten in trade from the Karok, to the west. Black-oak acorns were the best liked of those that grew in Shasta territory.
The Shasta used some farming techniques. They scattered wild seeds, thinned out crops of tobacco plants, and watered crops by hand in dry weather.
Food was baked in earth ovens, boiled in baskets with hot rocks, or cooked directly over an open fire. Manzanita berries were used to sweeten foods, and to make a cider drink. Salt was probably gotten from the Karok, who had access to seaweed from the ocean. Extra meat and fish was dried and stored in outside pits or in baskets for later use.
Clothing was usually made from deerskins, the women wearing a two-piece apron that covered from the waist to below the knees. The men wore a shorter deerskin apron, and deerskin leggings and caps. Women's caps were made like baskets. The skins of both deer and bear were used to make robes. People along the Klamath River made blankets from raccoon skins. Moccasins made of deerskin were tied around the ankles.
Shasta women had three wide stripes tattooed on their chins. Both men and women had their ears and noses pierced, and wore ornaments made of beads, shells, and feathers, and necklaces made of bear teeth and bird claws. Special clothing was decorated with beads or porcupine quills. Grease or marrow was mixed with red, white, yellow, or black dyes to make face and body paint.
The Shasta that lived along the Klamath River used canoes. Most of the canoes were purchased from the Karok or Yurok, to the west. The Shasta themselves made some dugout canoes from sugar pine logs. In some areas they made rafts by tying together bundles of tule reeds.
Some baskets were made by Shasta women, but many baskets were purchased from their neighbors to the west. Each person had a basket that served as an eating bowl. Deerskins were also used to make containers for carrying seeds and roots.
Pieces of bone or elk horn were used as scrapers and wedges to shape wood into spoons, paddles to stir acorn mush, and digging sticks. Spoons were also made from the kneecaps of elk. Knives were made from obsidian (volcanic glass).
For fishing the Shasta used nets, basket traps, hook and line, and spears. Bows and arrows were used for hunting and in battles with enemies. Both arrows and bows were painted. Arrows used for war and hunting large animals had tips of obsidian. In battle, Shasta men wore vests made of elkhide or sticks bound together with cord. Cord and nets were made from the fibers of wild hemp.
Both dentalium shells (tube-like mollusk shells) and red woodpecker scalps were used as money. The dentalium shells came by trade from the Karok, western neighbors of the Shasta, and from other groups closer to the coast. These shells were used as money by tribes from Vancouver Island down to northwestern California. Some clamshell disks were also used as money, but these were considered less valuable by the Shasta people.
Most disagreements were settled by the payment of an amount of money. Each person had a fixed value, based on how much was paid for that person's mother when she was married.
Much trade was carried on by the Shasta. From the Karok, Hupa, and Yurok to the west they got acorns, baskets, canoes, dentalium and other shells, and gourds. In exchange they gave pine nuts, obsidian blades, and wolf and deer skins.
The Shasta did not hold many big ceremonies, but they sometimes attended the White Deerskin Dance held by their neighbors, the Karok. They took things to trade with other people at the dance.
The Shasta held important ceremonies for both boys and girls at about age 12. Other ceremonies were held before a war party departed for a raid, and when they returned victorious. Women took part in the war dance, which lasted for several nights. There were also special ceremonies with singing, dancing, and praying before a group of men went out to hunt. Headbands with yellowhammer (a type of woodpecker) feathers or red woodpecker scalps were worn for ceremonies.