A Catalog of California Indigenous Cultures and their Art










The population of California natives was a group that suffered the most from contact with the European settlers. An estimate of the population in the 1700's is between 100,000 to 300,000. As of the 1960's the population had dropped to 13,000. These figures consist of rural population and do not take into account any of the urban groups living in the major cities. 

Prior to the invasion of the European settlers, these groups lived in relative peace. The need for extensive political organization did not exist. Warfare per se was not practiced.  However, revenge killing for a misdeed did occur.   This lack of political organization was one of the contributing factors to their destruction.  They were unable to withstand the European influence effectively.

The initial subjugation of the Indians came with the Spanish mission of the 1700's.  The Indians were converted then turned into slaves and forced to change their culture.  A second wave of oppression occurred with the gold rush of the 1800's.  During this era of lawlessness, the Indians were massacred and their land stolen.  Disease killed what the white man did not kill.

California was a very diverse area, prior to the European invasion. There were groups that were descendants of the Athabascan, Hokan and Algonkian tribes.  Although these groups lived side by side, many of them spoke different dialects. Perhaps they were a precursor to the cultural variation of northern California today.

The Karuk, Washoe, and Shastan groups have a language that is descendant from the Hokan linguistic group.  This group is thought to be one of the first groups to migrate into California. 

The Ohlones, Modoc and Klamath share a Penutian language that is related to the Mayans and Zoque's of Meso America

The Athapascan language of the Hupa is derivative from west central Canada. One of their major villages was Oplego located on the Trinity River. The Navajos are related to this group, as are other groups found in the Central and Western SubArtic.

The Algonkin language of the Yurok and Wiyot is similar to the language of the northeastern tribes. Other tribes in this group include the Narragansetts of Rhode Island, the Penobscots and Passamaquoddies of Main, and the Pequots and Mohegans in Connecticut.   Other Angonkin speakers are the Blackfeet, Cheyennes and Arapaho.

Southern California showed an influence from the Pueblo cultures and the Shoshone migrations.

For additional linguistic information on Indian Linguistic families you can visit Ethnologue.


Religion - The burial sites of native Californians date back to 1,000 B.C. These burial sites show definite examples of religion.  All groups either participated in cremation or burial of their dead.  The shamans were almost always women. 

Money - There were two forms of money utilized by the original California natives. Their money consisted of the dentalium shell and the clamshell disk.  These shells were then broken, bored, polished, rounded and strung. Depending on the length and quality of the shells; a value was determined and assessed.

Political Structure - Their political structure was not highly organized and usually did not extend beyond the village structure.  Groups were not continually under attack by neighboring groups so there was not a necessity to have extensive political groups. 

Basketry -- The weaving of baskets was a highly developed art.  Most of the groups lived areas along rivers that contained extensive reeds and the materials for making the baskets. Each of the different groups developed their own style of weaving.

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