Central California (Stanislaus, Merced, Fresno, Madera, Kings, Tulare, Kern
Counties, southern San Joaquin County)
Language: Penutian family
1770 estimate: 18,000
1910 Census: 533
The Yokuts occupied a strip about 250 miles long in the central San Joaquin valley and a smaller strip of the eastern foothills that rise along the southern half of the valley. The Yokuts are sometimes divided into the Southern Valley Yokuts, the Northern Valley Yokuts, and the Foothill Yokuts. Their languages were much alike.
About 40 or 50 separate tribes, each with its own name for itself, are included in what is now known as the Yokuts. Each tribe had a certain territory and some differences in language from the other tribes. The average number of people in each tribe was 350, sometimes living in one village and sometimes in a group of villages. Most of the valley villages were on the east side of the valley, on high places along the rivers. The foothill villages were between 2,000 and 4,000 feet in elevation.
The Yokut people divided themselves into either Tohelyuwish (West) or Nutuwish (East), and certain animals were connected with each group. A person inherited his animal connection, or totem, at birth. The family would never kill or eat their animal totem, but always treated it with respect. The main totem of the Tohelyuwish was the eagle; the main totem of the Nutuwish was the coyote. The village headman usually came from the Eagle line. His assistant, the messenger, came from the Dove line.
The name Yokuts comes from a word meaning person or people in the language of one group.
The Yokuts lived in permanent houses most of the year, leaving only in the summer for trips to gather food. Their houses were of several types. Single families made houses that were oval shaped, framed with side poles tied to a central ridge pole and covered with tule mats. The Southern Valley tribes also built larger houses for as many as ten families. These houses had steep roofs, with roof and walls covered with tule mats. Each family had a fireplace and a door in the large house, but no walls separated one family from another. Houses in the foothills and dry valley places were sometimes built with the floor dug down a foot or two into the ground. In marshy areas, the floor was level with the ground.
Each village had a sweathouse, dug down into the ground and covered with brush and earth. Only the men used the sweathouse, both for sweat baths and for sleeping. Southern Valley Yokut villages did not have dance or assembly houses, though these may have been used in Northern Valley villages. Both Valley and Foothills people put up shade roofs like porches outside their houses, so they could work outside in hot weather.
The San Joaquin Valley provided a variety of food for the Yokuts. Fishing was done all through the year, especially by the Northern Valley tribes. Lake trout, perch, chubs, suckers, salmon and steelhead were caught in the lakes and rivers. Waterfowl such as geese, ducks, and mud hens were caught with snares in the tule marshes. Mussels and turtles were enjoyed as food by the Yokuts, but they did not eat frogs or many insects. Antelope, elk, and deer were killed when they came to the lakes to drink. Other animals and birds that were eaten included wild pigeons, quail, rabbits, squirrels and other rodents, and dogs. The Yokuts may have been the only early Californians to raise dogs as food.
Acorns were not plentiful in all parts of Yokut lands. The Southern Valley tribes had to travel each year to find a supply of acorns, or trade with their neighbors for them. Seeds and roots, especially from the tule plants, were a more important part of their food resources. Both roots and seeds were dried and ground into a flour, which was made into mush. Clover and other greens were eaten in the summer. A kind of salt grass provided seasoning for the food.
Yokut women wore a skirt made in two pieces, a narrow fringed part in the front and a larger piece in the back. The skirts were made of tule reeds, marsh grass, or rabbit skins. Men wore a piece of deerskin around their hips, or else they went without clothes. Both rabbit skins and mud hen skins were used to make robes, which the people wore around their shoulders when the weather was cold.
The Yokuts wore moccasins of deer or elk skin on their feet only when walking in rough country. Women wore a basket cap on their head when they were carrying a burden basket, which was held on by a forehead strap. Some women had tattooing on their chins.
Tule reeds were used to make many things that were needed by the people. Tule reeds were made into baskets, cradles, and mats. The Yokuts used both the twining and coiling methods of making baskets. Some baskets were made on a foundation of tule reeds bound together with string. The people made baby cradles, bowl-shaped cooking baskets, cone-shaped carrying baskets, flat basket trays, seed beaters, and baskets for holding water. Some Foothill Yokuts made rough pottery bowls.
Wood and stone were not as plentiful in the San Joaquin Valley as in many parts of California. Obsidian (volcanic glass) for knives and arrowheads had to be gotten in trade from the north and from the mountain areas. When obsidian was not available, other stones like chert, jasper, and quartz were used to make knives and scrapers. Pieces of animal bone were sharpened to make awls, pointed tools used to punch holes and as needles in sewing.
Bows and arrows were used in hunting and in warfare. Though some bows and arrows were made by the Yokuts, others were gotten in trade from other groups. The bows were backed with sinew (animal tendons). The arrows had feathers on them. Other animals were caught with traps and snares made from branches and brush. Fish traps were set up across streams. Spears were also used for fishing. Some birds were caught with nets made from milkweed fibers. An important tool was the one with which the hot stones were taken out of the cooking basket. This was a stick about 30 inches long with a loop at one end, used for stirring the mush and lifting out the stones.
The Valley Yokuts had canoe-shaped rafts made from tule reeds tied together in bundles. These boats were large enough to hold six people. They were pushed with long poles. The Foothill Yokuts made rafts by lashing together two logs.
The Yokuts got seashells from the people who lived on the coast, and made them into money, which they called keha. Pieces of clamshell were shaped into small circles, holes punched in the middle, and the disks strung on strings. Cylinders of clamshell, called humna, were valued even more. Northern Valley Yokuts also traded with the Costanoans for mussels and abalone shells, and with the Miwok for baskets, bows and arrows.
Many Yokut dances and ceremonies were held outside, with brush fences surrounding the dance area. Eagle feathers, especially from baby eagles, were an important part of ceremonial decoration. Eagle down was used to make ceremonial skirts, known as chohun. Tall headdresses, called djuh, used the tail feathers of magpies around a base of crow feathers.