Before the European and Euro-American invasion (known politely as "contact") the Native peoples of California were the most numerous in what would be called the United States, and in all of California, the largest Native populations were in the north.
Today California has more Native people than any other state, but many are no longer living where their cultures developed. In this North Coast region, several of the many more indigenous cultures that thrived here still survive. They each have a land base, a tribal government, and in recent decades have revived at least some of their ceremonies and traditions.
The Karuk, possibly the oldest culture in the area, lived in villages along sixty miles of the Klamath River, in territory now called the Siskiyou and Salmon Mountains, and on land now part of the Six Rivers and Klamath National Forests. The Karuk govern trust land that is separated into settlements on a few traditional village sites. The Karuk are the Upriver people.
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Institute of Native Knowledge
The Yurok, the Downriver people, lived just below and to the southwest of the Karuk. Yurok territory once included some forty miles of the Klamath and some sixty miles of seacoast. Today the Yurok have the largest single tract of reservation land in California.
The Hupa lived in an inland valley along the Trinity River south of the Karuk. Today the Hupa inhabit a self-contained reservation area in their valley.
The ancient hunting grounds of the Tolowa were to the northwest, above the watersheds of Bluff Creek. The Tolowa lived in as many as 18 villages along the Pacific coast and the Smith River.
history and links
Wiyot lands once spanned a radius of forty square miles, centered at Humboldt Bay. They had many villages from the present McKinleyville (and perhaps farther north), south to Scotia and inland to Blue Lake.
Wiyot tribe at Table Bluff
Blue Lake and basketry
Several other tribes and bands lived on the North Coast but were essentially exterminated as cultures since contact. Partly as a result of the historically notorious slaughter of the majority of surviving Wiyot on one night in 1860, the Wiyot were in most imminent danger of dying out as a culture and a people. But today the Wiyot tribe is revitalized. (For much more on the Wiyot in history and today, please see the posts that follow.)
These tribes were always small, and developed separately according to exactly where in the landscape they were. Their languages not only differed one from another, but are classified in different linguistic groups. The Yurok and Wiyot speak an Algonquinian language, the Karuk speak a Hokan, and the Hupa an Athabascan language. "Here, within a circle whose radius is approximately six miles," writes Native scholar Jack Norton, "three of the six major linguistic groups recognized in North America came into contact."
And they did come into contact. They were remote, but not isolated. They traded with each other, and with other Native peoples. They shared ceremonies and stories. They are also related to other indigenous cultures in California, southern Oregon and the Pacific Northwest, and according to current standards of linguistic group classification, their languages link them to indigenous peoples of the northeastern United States, the Great Plains, Canada and the Yucatan.
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