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"The Miwok," "Tribal Summary," The North American Indian
by Edward S. Curtis (1924)

ContentsPrevious: The Miwok




Language—The Miwok were formerly held to constitute a family named Moquelumnan by Powell, but now are included in the new Penutian family.

Population—The Census of 1910 enumerated 699 Miwok.

Dress—Men ordinarily wore only a deerskin loin-cloth, and women either a knee-length double apron of fringed deerskin or a simple loin-cloth like that of the men. Both sexes used, when necessary, deerskin moccasins with short leggings attached, and robes of deer-fur or woven rabbit-skins. An occasional winter garment was a poncho of three deerskins sewn together. Both men and women wore the hair hanging loose without parting, or tied in a bunch at the back of the head, and had the chin tattooed, usually with three vertical lines. Some, especially women, had the chest and the shoulders tattooed, a favorite design including a long line from the lower lip to the abdomen. Some men and more women wore slender, perforated cylinders of clam-shell in the lobes of the ears and the septum of the nose, and a more common ear-plug was a wooden cylinder with quail crest-feathers radiating from the outer end.

Dwellings—The Miwok winter house was a conical frame of poles covered with grass or with bark. The enclosed space was excavated. The door, always facing eastward, was protected by a pent-roof. The sudatory was of the type commonly found in northern and central California, semi-subterranean, with an approximately conical roof of grass and earth. An earth-covered assembly house capable of holding as many as a hundred people was found in each considerable village.

Primitive Foods—Acorns and other nuts, pinole, and various roots and fruits were of importance to the Miwok. Like their neighbors they rejected scarcely any form of animal life, and though their country abounded in deer, elk, and antelope, the largest part of their meat diet was furnished by jack-rabbits. Fish were taken by gorge-hook and spear, in wicker traps, and by narcotization.

Arts and Industries—The Miwok are quite inferior in their manufactures. The only stone implement made by them was the arrow-smoother, and of bone there were the awl and the gorge-hook for fishing. Other artifacts of stone, bone, shell, and horn were purchased. Cedar bows were reinforced with sinew, and arrows were made of reeds with serviceberry foreshafts. The tobacco pipe was a section of elder with the mouth-end partially closed by a bit of wood. Flutes also were made of elder. There was no water-craft. Cordage for dip-nets was made of milkweed fibre. The most notable product was basketry, both twined and coiled. Of the latter type were vessels of various sizes and shapes for boiling by means of heated stones and for serving moist food.

Games—The favorite play was the very common guessing contest called hand game. It was usually played between members of different villages or even of different tribes. Women, rarely men, gambled with six dice, which were simply the halves of acorns. Both sexes participated in several forms of lacrosse, in which the missile was a pair of wooden blocks united by a thong, or a small hoop, or a ball of hair covered with deerskin. There was also a football contest for men.

Political and Social Organization—The Miwok were simply an aggregation of villages, the members of which spoke a common language, contracted intermarriages, and occasionally joined with their nearer neighbors in the celebration of ceremonies, but in other respects had practically no relations with one another. Each settlement of importance had its chief, whose duties were largely concerned with the direction of communal undertakings. The office was hereditary. Socially the Miwok consist of two exogamic, patrilineal divisions without clans. Personal names always refer, usually by implication only, to an animate or inanimate object, and those names which connote wetness belong to members of one moiety, those which connote dryness to those of the other moiety. The "wet" moiety is nicknamed Frog or Coyote, the "dry," Bluejay or Bear. There is nothing of totemism in this system. Polygyny was not a very common occurrence. The levirate was recognized, but not commonly practised. On the other hand a widower was expected to take the unmarried sister of his deceased wife. For a man who desired more than one woman, his wife’s younger sister, her brother’s daughter, and her father’s sister were potential wives. Blood relatives could not marry, except a man and his mother’s brother’s daughter; and the latter was one of the women to whom his father had a claim, that is, the father’s wife’s brother’s daughter. The customary taboo of conversation between a man and his mother-in-law applied also to the relations between a man and his potential mothers-in-law and his potential daughters-in-law.

Marriage—A girl was sometimes pledged in marriage while a mere child. In such a case her parents negotiated with the parents of a suitable youth, and an exchange of gifts bound the bargain. After the girl’s puberty feast the young man took up his residence in her home, and again presents were exchanged. After the birth of the first child the young couple joined the husband’s people. The husband of an adulteress might kill her paramour, castigate the woman, or abandon her. Murder for adultery did not regularly cause a family feud, for public opinion upheld the aggrieved husband. The medicine-man, rather than the assassin, was the commoner medium for the exaction of revenge, because his spells were worked in secret. Blood-money was a custom foreign to the Miwok.

Mortuary Customs—The dead were cremated. Members of the opposite social division prepared the body, placed it on the pyre with a basket beneath the head and another over the face, and applied the fire. The populace stood about wailing, while relatives and friends cast into the flames various possessions and all the personal property of the deceased individual. The ashes and fragments of bone were collected in a basket and buried. The men in charge purified themselves and the people by formally washing with a mixture of water and the crushed leaves and twigs of wormwood, the social moieties acting reciprocally. Relatives of both sexes singed the hair, and old women smeared the face with charred laurel-berries. For a period varying from a few months to several years a widow remained in seclusion. Names of the dead were taboo for several years. In the summer or fall a mourning ceremony was held in memory of those who had died during the preceding year or two. On three or four successive nights the people assembled in a large booth and wailed until about midnight; and at the end of the last night a very large pyre was ignited and property was burned.

Religion and Ceremonies—Miwok religious practice was very simple. There was an annual ceremony, said to have been borrowed from the north, expressing the wish for abundance of acorns. Their mythology included the usual preternatural monsters, such as an enormous bird which carried two or three men in its talons, and an expert, one-legged bowman who went hopping about the country visiting the people. All animals were credited with preternatural powers. As to beings strictly spiritual, their only conception seems to have been that of ghosts of the dead. Shamanistic power was acquired by training under one possessed of the power, and by observing many nightly vigils in lonely places. The novice was usually the son or the daughter, grandson or granddaughter, of a shaman. Treatment of the sick was by sucking, and, in very difficult cases, by singing and the use of a cocoon rattle. Besides the pseudo-religious rites of cremation, the mourning ceremony, the puberty feast for adolescent girls, the acorn feast, and the war-dance, there were dances intended for amusement. Chief among these was Ukna, which was observed everywhere except among the most southerly bands of Madera county. It continued through four nights. The dancers, called ukna, performed singly, and took their places to right or to left of the fire according as they belonged to the land or the water moiety. A clown performed the function of watchman to see that certain rules, notably the rule forbidding the presence of menstruating women, were observed.

Warfare—The warlike activities of the Miwok had to do principally with the assassination of shamans believed to be guilty of sorcery. Expeditions for this purpose were sometimes made to distant villages within Miwok boundaries. Rarely did the doomed man’s relatives offer resistance, for medicine-men were usually so thoroughly feared that they had no real friends. It was customary for the assassins to assist in cremating their victim’s body.

Names for Indian Tribes1

Southern Miwok   Central Miwok
Eastern TribesChumtyaHstk, "Upward"
Northern Tribes   HihtyaTmmalĕk, "Downward"
Southern TribeslwyaCh'mmĕtk, "Southward"
Western TribesTaml'yal'witk, "Westward"

1 In explanation of the discrepancy in these directional names of the southern and the central Miwok, see page 130.

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