Indigenous People: California Foragers
In studying indigenous people, the California Foragers traditionally occupied an area that encompasses most of what are now the U.S. state of California and the Baja Peninsula of Mexico. In the east the Sierra Nevada mountain range forms a natural barrier. The lower Coast Range runs parallel to the Pacific coast in the west.
The area has an extraordinary range of natural features. Along with the coast and mountains, there are redwood forests, grasslands, wetlands, deserts, and valleys.
California Foragers Languages
The variety of environments provided ample natural resources throughout most of California. As a result, California was one of the most densely populated culture areas of native North America. California included peoples of some 20 language families, including:
Well-known tribes included the:
Many spoke their own unique language.
European Contact and Cultural Change of California Foragers
California was colonized beginning in 1769, when the Spanish started building a series of missions along the region’s southern Pacific coast. The missionaries were accompanied by soldiers and soon followed by ranchers and other colonial developers. The Indians were often forced to move to the missions, where they were made to work for the colonizers and to convert to Christianity.
In less than a century the rest of California had been colonized: in 1812 Russian fur traders founded an outpost at Fort Ross (north of present-day San Francisco), and the gold rush that began in 1848 drew some 250,000 white settlers to California over the next five years. Together, these and other events caused the native population to plummet from a precontact high of perhaps 275,000 to about 15,000 in the closing decades of the 1800s.
The U.S. government ended most of its federal obligations to native Californians in 1955. Since then, native rancherías, or reservations, have become relatively independent. Each ranchería has an elected body of officials, usually known as a business committee or tribal council. It acts as a liaison between the tribal community and such outside interests as the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and businesses that want to buy or lease reservation lands. Typically, the council also hears grievances between tribal members and participates in planning economic and social development programs.
By the early 21st century many California Indians were not readily distinguishable from other Californians in terms of clothing, housing, transportation, or education. However, native attitudes, rituals, and other aspects of traditional culture remained vibrant throughout the state. Basket weaving and other art forms continued to be passed from one generation to another, and many native languages, though spoken less and less as first languages, were maintained as part of an overall interest in native heritage. In some school districts classes in native languages and cultures were offered to both children and adults.
In the early 21st century California’s native population was the highest in the United States, and it was growing at a faster rate than the general population. Not all Native Americans living in California were California Indians, however.
People from throughout North America, including Indians, moved to the state in large numbers during World War II to work in the defense industries. A second wave of native migration to California occurred in the 1950s, during a BIA program that relocated many rural Indians to urban areas.
Today the diverse native peoples of California share a sense of unity that crosses tribal boundaries. This has fostered city- and statewide recreational, educational, and political groups.
For instance, in 1964 a group of Native Americans occupied Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay, citing an 1868 treaty allowing them to claim any “unoccupied government land.” Although the protesters occupied Alcatraz for only a few hours, in 1969 Indian activists occupied the island again, this time staying until 1971. The occupations publicized Indian demands for self-determination. In the early 21st century California’s native activists worked to improve educational opportunities for native students and to revise teaching materials and the state curriculum to more accurately depict Native American life and culture.
- 1969 occupation of Alcatraz and the Alcatraz proclamation. (n.d.). Web Hosting from HostPapa. https://www.nativevillage.org/Inspiration-/Occupation%20of%20Alcatraz%20and%20the%20Alcatraz%20Proclamation%20alcatraz_proclamation.htm
- California Indians. (n.d.). Britannica Kids. https://kids.britannica.com/students/article/California-Indians/480465
- Who we are. (n.d.). Indian Affairs. https://www.bia.gov/regional-offices/pacific/who-we-are