Northern California (Trinity County & western part of Shasta County)
Language: Penutian family
1770 estimate: 12,000 (Wintu, Nomlaki, Patwin)
1910 Census: 1,000
The Wintu have been grouped with the Nomlaki and the Patwin, living south of them, because their languages were similar. The three groups together have been called the Wintun. The Shasta were the northern neighbors of the Wintu, with the Yana and the Achumawi to the east.
Wintu settlements were located along the upper Trinity River, along a portion of the Sacramento and McCloud rivers, and on numerous creeks. There were at least nine groups of Wintu, referred to by the area where they lived, such as "in-the-west-ground" for those in the upper Sacramento valley, or "north people" in the upper McCloud River valley. Each village had from four to 30 houses where 20 to 150 people lived; there were a number of villages in each of the geographic areas.
The people considered that they belonged to the village, but not to any larger group. Village leaders were expected to be good singers and dancers, in addition to knowing how to guide the daily life of the people. The eldest son inherited the position from his father, if he was considered to be capable enough. The headman did not need to hunt and fish; a share of all the food gathered was given to him.
The name Wintu comes from wintuh, meaning person, which the people called themselves.
Family houses were made of slabs of bark and pieces of evergreen branches, fastened to poles which were tied together at the top to make a cone shape.
Larger villages had an earth lodge which was used as a sweathouse, as a gathering place for the men, and as a sleeping place for men who did not have a family. The earth lodge was circular in shape, and the floor was dug down several feet below ground level. It had a center pole, with other poles framing the sides. These were covered with bark, branches, and then earth. The main door to the earth lodge was the smokehole in the roof. A ladder, made either by notching a log or by tieing sticks across a post with grapevines, allowed the men to climb in and out of the earth lodge.
Men hunted deer, either individually or as a group. In a group hunt, which lasted about three days, traps were set up and the deer was driven into the snare. Brown bears were hunted in the fall, when they were fat and sleepy. Dogs were used to help chase deer or bear. Grizzly bears were not eaten, but their hides were used. Other meat eaten by the Wintu included rabbits, gophers, squirrels, wood rats, quail, and other birds. Grasshoppers were boiled in baskets and then dried in the sun.
In the spring and in the fall, the chinook salmon ran in the McCloud and Sacramento rivers. Steelhead trout were caught in the upper Trinity River, and suckers in all the streams and creeks. The men worked together to catch large numbers of fish with nets. The fish were baked in a pit lined with heated stones and covered with more hot rocks. If there was more fish than could be eaten, it was dried and then ground up into a salmon flour, which was stored for use in the winter. Salmon flour was a valuable item in trading.
Acorns were the main plant food of the Wintu, as they were for most early Californians. The acorns were ground into acorn meal which was used to make mush and bread. Buckeye nuts were popular in northern Wintu territory. Manzanita berries were used for soup and for cider. Other plants used for food were soaproot, clover, miner's lettuce, skunkbush berries, hazel nuts, pine nuts, wild grapes, and sunflower and cotton flower seeds.
Wintu women wore an apron or skirt that hung from the waist to the knees, and was made from shredded maple bark. For special occasions, women had fringed front and back aprons of deerskin. If men wore anything at all, it was pieces of deerskin around their hips. Blankets and robes were made from whole deerskins, or from strips of rabbit skins woven together.
Women wore basket hats; men wore net caps with soft feathers in them. Feather skirts and headdresses were used for ceremonies. Women had one to three vertical lines tattooed on their chins. They wore necklaces and earrings of abalone shell, clamshell disks, and pine nuts.
Members of a Wintu village might become especially skilled in making a certain type of tool. In some villages, there were several men who made nets, traps, and spears for fishing. Others made bows and arrows. Arrowheads were chipped from large pieces of obsidian (volcanic glass) using a piece of deer antler. The tips were fastened to the arrow shafts with a pitch made from salmon skin. The bows were made of yew wood, backed with shredded deer sinew (tendon) and decorated with designs.
The Wintu did not have boats, but crossed streams on rafts made from several logs bound together with cord. The cord was made from fibers of the iris plant. Women gathered and shredded the plants, but men made the cord. The raft was guided by using a long pole. Small children and supplies were often floated across a stream in a large basket.
The twining method of making baskets was used by the Wintu. Hazel, skunkbush, and poison oak were used for the foundation of the basket, with pine roots and various grasses and ferns completing the design. Baskets were used for carrying, serving, storing, and cooking food, and for sifting acorn meal and seeds.
Pieces of bone or deer horn were sharpened and used as awls (pointed tools) for sewing and making baskets. Mussel shells were used as thumb guards, or thimbles, when making rope. Mush paddles, about 30 inches long, were used to stir the acorn soup and to take the hot stones out of the cooking baskets. They were made from oak
The Wintu used both the northern dentalium shells and the central clamshell disks as money. Both kinds of shells were strung on strings that were about the length of an outstretched arm. Both men and women owned dentalium and clamshell beads; women also used baskets as an item of trade.
The Wintu got dentalium shells from the Shasta to the north, in exchange for deer hides and woodpecker scalps. They traveled 60 miles northeast into Modoc territory to get obsidian (volcanic glass). From the Achumawi they got salt in exchange for salmon flour. Various groups of Wintu also traded with each other, as their resources differed depending on where they lived.
Things considered valuable by the Wintu included bows and arrows; elkskin armor; bear, deer, elk, and otter skins; woodpecker scalps; obsidian knives and spears with obsidian tips.
Groups of Wintu liked to get together for dances, called conos. A village with extra food would invite its neighbors to come for feasting, dancing, and games. Dances were held to celebrate the pine nut and clover harvests, the salmon runs, and successful hunts for deer and bear. A dance called the suneh, or begging dance, was done when property was being transferred from one person to another.