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Chapter Five


The Indians of this region, in common with most, if not all, of the North American aborigines, were of a highly religious temperament, most devout in their beliefs and observances, and easily wrought upon by the priests or medicine men of their tribes. Elaborate ceremonies were carried out, in which all of the details were highly symbolical, and some of their curious and picturesque superstitions were responsible for acts of cruelty and vengeance, which in many cases were foreign to their natural disposition.


Dancing was an important part of all religious observances, and was practiced purely as a ceremonial, and never for pleasure or recreation. Both men and women took part, the men executing a peculiar shuffling step which involved a great deal of stamping upon the ground with their bare feet, and the women performing a curious, sideways, swaying motion. Some of the dancers carried wands or arrows, and indulged in wild gesticulations. They usually circled slowly around a fire, and danced to the point of exhaustion, when others would immediately take their places. The ceremony was accompanied by the beating of rude drums, and by a monotonous chant, which was joined in by all the dancers.

The great occasions for dancing were before going to war, and when cremating the bodies of their dead. The war dance was probably the most elaborate in costume and other details, and of recent years the Indians have sometimes given public exhibitions of what purported to be war dances, but these performances, like everything else which they do from purely mercenary motives, are very poor imitations of the originals, and it is doubtful if they have ever allowed a genuine war dance to be witnessed by white men.


The various tribes in the vicinity of Yosemite Valley are accustomed to hold a great meeting or festival once a year, each tribe taking its turn as hosts, and the others sometimes coming from considerable distances. At these meetings there are dances and other ceremonials, and also a grand feast, for which extensive preparations are made. Another feature of the occasion is the presentation of gifts to the visiting tribes, consisting of money, blankets, clothing, baskets, bead-work, or other valuable articles. These presents, or their equivalent, no matter how small they may be, are always returned to the givers at the next annual festival, together with additional gifts, which, in turn, must be given back the following year, and so on.

At these gatherings an Indian is appointed to secure and keep on hand a good supply of wood for the camp fires, and every day he spreads a blanket on the ground and sits on it, and the other Indians throw Money, clothing, or other contributions, into the blanket, to pay him and his assistants for their services. At other times this man acts as a messenger or news carrier—first spreading his blanket to collect his fees, and then starting off on his mission.


Many of the Indians in Mariposa and adjoining counties were polygamists, having two or three, and sometimes more, wives. Some of the chiefs and head men would have wives from several of the adjacent tribes, which had a tendency to establish permanent friendly relations among them.

Every man who took a young woman for his wife had to buy her. Young women were considered by their parents as personal chattels, subject to sale to the highest suitable bidder, and the payment of the price constituted the main part of the marriage ceremony. The wife was then the personal property of the husband, which he might sell or gamble away if he wished; but such instances were said to be very rare. In case negotiations for a marriage fell through, the preliminary payments were scrupulously returned to the rejected suitor by the parents.

Even a widow, independent of control in the matter of marriage, if she consented to


A YOUNG YOSEMITE.  The babies are tied to their baskets to make them straight, and keep them out of mischief.
The babies are tied to their baskets to make them straight, and keep them out of mischief.

Photograph by Dove.
[Editor’s note: this is Sadie McGowan, a Paiute and daughter of Suzie McGowan, taken in 1900—dea]

become a man’s wife, received some compensation herself from her intended husband.

It is said that in their marital relations they were as a rule strictly faithful to each other. If the woman was found to be guilty of unfaithfulness to her husband, the penalty was death. Such a thing as a man whipping or beating his wife was never known. Whipping under any circumstances was considered a more humiliating and disgraceful punishment than death.

Even in the management of children, whipping was never resorted to as punishment for disobedience. In fact, children were always treated in such a kind, patient, loving manner, that disobedience was a fault rarely known. The pre-natal maternal influence, and subsequent treatment after birth, were such that they were naturally patient and readily submissive to kind parental control.

In recent years, under the influence and examples often seen in what is called civilized life, Indian husbands have been known to beat their wives, and mothers to whip their children.


LENA AND VIRGIL.  The canopy of the baby basket is called Cho-ko´-ni, and the Royal Arches, from their resemblance to it, have also received this name from the Indians.
The canopy of the baby basket is called Cho-ko´-ni, and the Royal Arches, from their resemblance to it, have also received this name from the Indians.

Photograph by Boysen.
[Editor’s note: Lena Brown (second wife of Johnny Brown) and son Virgil Brown—dea.]



At the time of the settlement of California by the whites, every Indian tribe had its professional doctors or medicine men, who also acted as religious leaders. They were the confidential counselors of the chiefs and head-men of the tribes, and had great influence and control over the people. They claimed to be spiritual mediums, and to have communication with the departed spirits of some of their old and most revered chieftains and dear friends, now in a much more happy condition than when here in earthly life. They were thought to be endowed with supernatural powers, not only in curing all diseases (except those due to old age), but also in making a well person sick at their pleasure, even at a distance; but when their sorcery failed to work on their white enemies and exterminate them, they lost the confidence of their followers to a large extent.

With the invasion of the white settlers came forced changes in their old customs and manner of living, and a new variety of epidemic and other diseases. When a doctor failed to cure these diseases, and several deaths occurred in quick succession in a camp, they believed the doctor was under the control of some evil spirit, and killed him.

After the Indians were given their freedom from the reservations in 1855, the old ones, subdued and broken-hearted, sickened and died very fast, and most of the men doctors were killed off in a few years. There are none known who now attempt to act in that capacity.

There are still some women doctors who continue to practice the magic art, but as there are now but very few Indians, there is not so much sickness, and very few deaths in a year, so that the doctors very rarely forfeit their lives by many of their patients dying in quick succession.

Their most common mode of treatment in cases of sickness was to scarify the painful locality with the sharp edge of a piece of obsidian, and suck out the blood with the mouth. In cases of headache, the forehead was operated on; in a case of colic the abdomen was treated in the same way, as were also all painful swellings on any part of the body.

The grand object of the doctor was to make the patient and family firmly believe that his course of treatment was removing the cause of the sickness. To aid in strengthening this belief, after diagnosing the case, and before commencing operations, he would quietly retire for a short time, ostensibly to get under the influence of the divine healing spirit, but in reality to fill his mouth with several small articles, such as bits of wood or stone; he was then ready to commence treatment. After sucking and spitting pure blood a few times, he began to spit out with the blood, one after another, the things he had in his mouth, at the sight of which all the attendants would join in a chorus of grunts of astonishment, and the doctor would pretend to be very much nauseated.. In most ordinary cases two or three treatments effected a cure.

The doctors also made use of certain rare medicinal plants in treating some diseases. The Indian women have great faith in charms made of the pungent roots of some rare plants from the high mountain ranges, which they wear on strings around their necks, or on a string of beads, to protect them from sickness.

In cases of malignant sores or ulcers on any part of the body, the doctors treated them by applying dirt or earth, and in warm weather would excavate a place in the ground and put the patient in it, either in a sitting or recumbent position, as the nature of the case required, and cover the affected part with earth for several hours daily. Sometimes, by this mode of treatment, wonderful cures were made.

In all cases, if a doctor failed to cure a disease, and the patient died, he was obliged to refund to the relatives any fee which he had received for his services.


In the early days of the settlement of California, it seemed to be the universal custom of the Indians along the foothills of the Sierra Nevada range of mountains to burn the bodies of their dead.

A suitable pile of readily combustible wood was prepared. The body was taken charge of by persons chosen to perform the last sacred rites, and firmly bound in skins or blankets, and then placed upon the funeral pyre, with all the personal effects of the deceased, together with numerous votive offerings from friends and relatives. The chief mourners of the occasion seemed to take but little active part in the ceremonies. When all was ready, one of the assistants would light the fire, and the terrible, wailing, mournful cry would commence, and the professional chanters, with peculiar sidling movements and frantic gestures, would circle round and round about the burning pile. Occasionally, on arriving at the northwest corner of the pile, they would stop, and, pointing to the West, would end a crying refrain by exclaiming “Him-i-la´-ya!” When these became exhausted, others would step in and take their places, and thus keep up the mournful ceremony until the whole pile was consumed.

After the pile had cooled, the charred bones and ashes were gathered up, a few pieces of bone selected, and the remainder buried. Of the pieces retained, some would be sent to distant relatives, and the others pounded to a fine powder, then mixed with pine pitch and plastered on the faces of the nearest female relatives as a badge of mourning, to be kept there until it naturally wore off . Every Indian camp used to have some of these hideous looking old women in it in the “early days.”

One principal reason for burning the bodies of the dead was the belief that there is an evil spirit, waiting and watching for the animating spirit or soul to leave the body, that he may get it to take to his own world of darkness and misery. By burning the perishable body they thought that the immortal soul would be more quickly released and set free to speed to the happy spirit world in the El-o´-win, or far distant West, while with their loud, wailing cries the evil spirit was kept away.

The young women take great care of their long, shining, black hair, of which they all feel very proud, as adding much to their personal beauty, and they seldom have it cut before marriage. But upon the death of a husband the wife has her hair all cut off and burned with his body, so that he may still have it in his future spirit home, to love and caress as a memento of his living earth-wife.


OLD KALAPINE.  One of the oldest Indians in the Valley. The short hair is a badge of widowhood.
One of the oldest Indians in the Valley. The short hair is a badge of widowhood.

Photograph by Boysen.

These Indians believe that everything on earth, both natural and artificial, is endowed with an immortal spirit, which is indestructible, and that whatever personal property or precious gifts are burned, either with the body or in later years for the departed friend’s benefit, will be received and made use of in the spirit world. In recent years the Yosemites and other remnants of tribes closely associated with them, have adopted the custom of the white people, and bury their dead. The fine, expensive blankets, and most beautifully worked baskets, which have been kept sacredly in hiding for many years, to be buried with the owner, are now cut into small fragments before being deposited in the ground, for fear some white person will desecrate the grave by digging them up and carrying them away.

There are no people in the world who show more reverence for their dead, or hold their memory more sacred, than these so-called “Digger” Indians. After being released from the reservations they kept themselves in abject poverty for many years, by sacrificing their best blankets, baskets and clothing in the devouring flames of a fire kindled for that purpose, when holding their annual mourning festivals in memory of their dead friends.


The old Indians are all very reticent regarding their religious beliefs. They hold them too sacred to be exposed to possible ridicule, and it is therefore very difficult to get information from them by direct questions.

They seem, however, to have a vague, indistinct belief or tradition that their original ancestors, in the long forgotten past, dwelt in a better and much more desirable country than this, in the El-o´-win, or distant West, and that by some misfortune or great calamity they were separated from that happy land, and became wanderers in this part of the world. They also believe that the spirits of all good Indians will be permitted, after death, to go back to that happy country of their ancestors’ origin; but that the spirits of bad Indians have to serve another earth life in the form of a grizzly bear, as a punishment for their former crimes. Hence, no Indians ever eat bear meat if they know it.

All the old Indian are spiritualists, and very superstitious in their religious beliefs. One special tenet is that if one of their relatives or friends has been murdered, he will not receive them on terms of friendship in the spirit world unless they revenge his death, by either killing the murderer or some one of the same blood. This belief sometimes results in an entirely innocent person being put to death.

They all have a great fear of evil spirits, which they believe have the power to do them much harm and defeat their undertakings. They also have a fairly distinct idea of a Deity or Great Spirit, who never does them any harm, and whose home is in the happy land of their ancestors in the West.

[ Next: Chapter 6: Native Industries | Contents | Previous: Chapter 4: Sources of Food Supply ]

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