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Miwok Material Culture: Indian Life of the Yosemite Region (1933) by S. A. Barrett and E. W. Gifford


The Miwok, one of the five Penutian stocks of California, are divided into six dialectic groups. Two of these groups are not considered in this paper, namely, the Coast Miwok of Marin county and the Lake Miwok of Lake county. The four groups discussed comprise the Plains Miwok of the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta region, and the Northern, Central, and Southern Miwok of the foothills and mountains of the Sierra Nevada, between El Dorado county in the north and Madera county in the south. These latter three are collectively designated as Sierra Miwok in this paper. What little is known of Coast and Lake Miwok cultures indicates that they resembled Pomo culture rather than the culture of the Plains and Sierra Miwok.

With the establishment of the Spanish missions in the latter part of the eighteenth century, and especially with the settlement of southern and central California shortly thereafter, the Miwok were brought more or less into contact with the whites. This contact was not so serious as the more intimate one to which the coast tribes were subjected. However, owing to the peonage system more or less in vogue among the settlers, the Miwok, like other groups even in northern California, were frequently disturbed by raids.

In June, 1848, six months before the great gold rush to California began, the penetration of the Sierra Nevada Miwok territory began. A man named Woods discovered gold in Woods’ creek near Jamestown, Tuolumne county, in the territory of the Central Miwok. From the gold rush, during 1849 and the following years, the Miwok were perhaps the greatest sufferers, because the principal gold-bearing regions lay in their territory. The native culture was thus disrupted relatively early, so that many customs and utensils have become matters of memory among even the older people.

The territory occupied by the Plains and Sierra Miwok may be divided into three regions: the delta and plains of the Great valley proper, the foothills, and the mountains. The only Miwok in the valley were those in the plains and delta between Sacramento and Stockton.2 This group spoke the Plains dialect. Here were rush bordered sloughs and lagoons, thickly populated with waterfowl and deep water fishes, such as sturgeon. Certain peculiar cultural features existed here: the tule-thatched house, tule balsa, and special fishing appliances. This highly desirable agricultural region earliest felt the full impact of Caucasian culture, so that the native culture vanished before that in the hills and mountains.

The three remaining dialects, Northern, Central, and Southern, were confined to the grassy or bushy, but comparatively open, foothills, and to the wooded mountains of the Sierra Nevada. Roth these environments also developed appropriate cultural features, such as the grass thatched and the bark-slab house, respectively. These differentiations occurred from west to east and were therefore largely correlated with altitude and life zone. Within any given range of altitude, or floral belt, little cultural difference was to be found from north to south through the whole Miwok region. Minor peculiarities among the Northern and Southern Miwok seem explainable as due to Maidu and Yokuts influences. The western frontier of Central and Southern Miwok territory seems to have been the junction of the lower foothills with the valley. Linguistic and topographic boundaries thus corresponded.

Above 4000 feet the Sierra winter is so snowy that the Miwok seasonally moved to lower altitudes. Included in the higher Miwok territory was Yosemite valley. It was the resort, in summer, of the adjacent Miwok, and of parties of Washo and Mono who came from the east to trade. A few Miwok seem to have resided there the year round.

Of greater importance culturally than the dialectic differences among the Miwok are the life zones of the Miwok habitat. These run north and south and cut across the dialectic boundaries, as do also the climatic boundaries. See maps 2 and 3.3 The easterly Plains Miwok lived along the rivers in the Lower Sonoran zone, the westerly in the Upper Sonoran of the Delta, chiefly regions of hot summer Mediterranean climate. The three Sierra divisions occupied the Lower Sonoran, Upper Sonoran, and Transition zones, regions respectively of hot steppe, hot summer Mediterranean, and intermediate Mediterranean climates. The first zone embraces the Sierra Nevada foothills up to about 1000 feet elevation. The second zone embraces the mountains from about 1000 to 3000 feet elevation, and 4000 feet on south-facing slopes. Residence sites within the Transition zone were probably not numerous.

Map 2. Life zones superimposed on Miwok areas (18c, d, e, f)
Map 3. Climates superimposed on Miwok areas (18c, d, e, f)
[Editor’s note: 18c, 18d (written 18a), 18e, and 18f on maps 2 and 3 indicate approximate Plains (P), Northern (N), Central (C), and Southern (S) Miwok areas, respectively—dea.]

Peculiar plants of the river bottoms in the Lower Sonoran of the east side of the San Joaquin valley are Fremont cottonwoods and valley oaks. At a representative point, such as Snelling (elevation 250 feet), in Southern Miwok territory, the following animals are peculiar to this zone in the breeding season: Mockingbird, Texas Nighthawk, Blue Grosbeak, Dwarf Cowbird, Fresno Pocket Gopher, Merced Kangaroo Rat, Golden Beaver, and other exclusively warm-belt types of animals.4

The Upper Sonoran may be recognized by the presence of digger pines, buckeyes, blue oaks, interior live oaks, and by a host of bushy plants which constitute the “California chaparral.” Along the Merced river in Southern Miwok territory this zone extends from Merced Falls (elevation ca. 500 feet), some fifty miles up the river to El Portal (elevation 2000 feet). Some of its distinctive species of animals are California Jay, Northern Brown Towhee, Pallid Wren-tit, Plain Titmouse, California Thrasher, California Bush-tit, San Joaquin Wren, Hutton Vireo, Anna Hummingbird, Western Gnat-catcher, Bell Sparrow, Rufous-crowned Sparrow, Dusky Poor-will, Nuttall Woodpecker, Mariposa Brush Rabbit, Gilbert White-footed Mouse, Parasitic White-footed Mouse, Mariposa Meadow Mouse, Digger Pine Pocket Gopher, Heermann Kangaroo Rat, San Diego Alligator Lizard, and California Striped Racer.

In the Transition zone the blue-green of the digger pine yields to the deeper green of the western yellow pine. The change from one tree to the other is a marked one, apparent to the most casual observer. Other characteristic Transition zone trees are the Douglas spruce, golden oak, black oak, and incense cedar. On the walls of Yosemite valley this zone rises to about the 6000-foot level. A few upper Sonoran birds and mammals reach up into the Transition, but for the most part an entirely new set predominates. But few of these are absolutely restricted to this zone; the greater number range farther upward. The more distinctively Transition vertebrates are: Band-tailed Pigeon, California Purple Finch, Black-throated Gray Warbler, Calaveras Warbler, Western Flycatcher, Black Swift, Pigmy Owl, Northern Spotted Owl, Northwestern Long-legged Bat, Boyle White-footed Mouse, Yosemite Pocket Gopher, and Coral King Snake. Some well-known species which range down into the Transition from zones above are: Blue-fronted Jay, Western Robin, Sierra Junco, Sierra Creeper, Short-tailed Mountain Chicadee, American Dipper, Sierra Hermit Thrush, Mountain Weasel, Yosemite Meadow Mouse, and Sierra Nevada Flying Squirrel.

At about the 6000-foot contour a rather impressive change is again to be noted; the golden oak is replaced by the dwarf huckleberry oak, the California laurel and maple and black oak disappear, the Jeffrey pine replaces the yellow pine, and red firs and aspens appear. These mark the Canadian Zone, the lowest of the three zones constituting the Boreal of our map 2. Birds encountered here are: Yosemite Fox Sparrow, Williamson Sapsucker, Sierra Grouse, Townsend Solitaire, Western Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Cassin Purple Finch, California Evening Grosbeak, Lincoln Sparrow, Hammond Flycatcher, and Western Goshawk. Among the mammals are: Navigator Shrew, Pacific Fisher, Allen Jumping Mouse, Yellow-haired Porcupine, Sierra Mountain Beaver, Sierra Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel, Tahoe Chipmunk, Allen Chipmunk, and Sierra Chickaree. Here also are the Tenaya Blue-bellied Lizard, Mountain Lizard, and Sierra Alligator Lizard.

The Hudsonian Zone is the belt of forest just below timberline. It contains the lodgepole pine, which occurs commonly in the Canadian Zone, and has also trees of its own, namely alpine hemlock, silver pine, and white-hark pine. Birds become scarcer in this zone, though mammals remain plentiful; some of the species extend up from the zone below. The California Pine Grosbeak, Mountain Bluebird, White-crowned Sparrow, Alpine Chipmunk, Belding Ground Squirrel, Sierra Marmot, Mountain Lemming Mouse, Gray Bushy-tailed Wood Rat, Yosemite Cony, Sierra White-tailed Jack-rabbit, Pine Marten, Wolverine, and Sierra Least Weasel are rather closely restricted to it.

The Arctic-Alpine is the highest of all the zones and covers the treeless area from about the 10,500-foot contour to the summits of the loftiest peaks. Only one species of bird is confined to it, the Sierra Nevada Rosy Finch. Some of the Hudsonian mammals enter it locally; for example, Gray Bushy-tailed Wood Rat, Yosemite Cony, and Alpine Chipmunk.

It must be kept in mind that many of the vertebrate animals are not so closely restricted as the ones named in the preceding paragraphs. Certain species range regularly through two zones, for example, the Blue-fronted Jay: a few through three zones, as with the Sierra Junco. In exceptional cases as many as five out of the six zones named are covered, as is done by the Red-shafted Flicker, Sparrow Hawk, and Western Chipping Sparrow.

The restriction of animals by “zones” applies particularly to the breeding season. Migratory species of both birds and mammals range more or less widely at other times of the year according to food requirements. Close adaptation of a species to a kind of food supply which disappears at the close of the summer season makes necessary search elsewhere for it in the winter.

Inasmuch as the material culture is dependent upon the raw materials which nature offers, it follows that the most striking cultural differences are correlated with the life and climatic zones. Thus the material culture areas of the Sierra Miwok groups may be thought of as comprising three long parallel hands, stretching from north to south right across the three dialectic areas.

The Plains Miwok of the Upper and Lower Sonoran zones constitute a fourth culture division, that of the Delta and Plains of the Lower Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers. The plains lie to the eastward of the swampy delta. The plains lie in the lower Sonoran, the swamps in the upper Sonoran.

Our picture of the material culture of the Plains Miwok is the least complete, because of the early replacement of the Indian population by the Caucasians. However, the fragmentary nature of our ethnological data is offset in considerable measure by the excellent account of the archaeology of the region by Schenck and Dawson.5 They describe the ancient culture of the Plains Miwok and northernmost Yokuts areas.

Although residence in this or that life zone largely colored the material culture of the Miwok of a given elevation, whether they were Northern, Central, or Southern in dialect, it did not prevent them from availing themselves to some extent of the products of the adjacent life zones above and below them. Thus the Upper Sonoran zone people obtained Lower Sonoran valley products by trade or by making excursions into the valley to hunt antelope and other characteristic valley animals. Similarly, the Transition zone mountain people might visit in summer the Canadian zone for sugar pine nuts and other characteristic products. They now and then penetrated the Hudsonian zone, but presumably never the Arctic-Alpine.

Permanent residence did not extend above the Transition zone. In the Canadian and Hudsonian zones only summer camps were made.

In the steep, deep canyons, such as those of the Tuolumne and Stanislaus rivers, it was possible for Miwok with permanent villages at the edge of the Transition zone, as at Tuolumne, to climb down the canyon walls and reach the Upper Sonoran fauna and flora at the canyon bottom in an hour. The villages in the mountains were habitually on the ridges, not in the canyons. A spring or small stream, and not the river, was the source of water supply for such a village.

In the Lower Sonoran foothill country, villages were often near the river, as the canyons of the great rivers were there much shallower.

Map 3 shows the climates of the Miwok habitat. The climatic areas coincide rather closely with the life zones, as might be expected.

Associations of topographic and botanic features in the several zones are as follows:

Open-water (two types, River and Slough)Rose-thicket
Riparian (Willow-cottonwood)Valley-oak
MarshHog-wallow prairie
MeadowRock outcrop

Riparian (Willow)Blue-oak
MeadowDry grassland
Chaparral (two types, Adenostoma and Ceanothus cuneatus)

Riparian (two types, Willow-cottonwood and Alder)Golden-oak
Dry GrasslandSilver-fir
Chaparral (two types, Sticky-manzanita and Buckthorn)Boulder-talus

Riparian (two types, Willow and Cornus pubescens)Lodgepole-pine
MeadowGranite outcrop
Chaparral (three types, Red-cherry, Arctostaphylos patula, and Huckleberry-oak)Cliff

Riparian (Willow)Talus (or Rock-slide)

Swift-streamDry grassland
Willow-thicketTalus (Rock-slide)

Places within Miwok territory lie in the different life zones (L, Lower Sonoran; U, Upper Sonoran; T, Transition), as follows: Plains Miwok: Lodi (U), Lockford (L). Northern Miwok: Ione (L), Jackson (U), Campo Seco (U), Mokelumne Hill (T), West Point (T). Central Miwok: Knights Ferry (L), La Grange (L), Angels Camp (U), Jamestown (U), Sonora (U), Tuolumne (T), Murphys (T). Southern Miwok: Merced Falls (L), Coulterville (U), Baxter (U), Hornitos (U), Bear Valley (U), Hite Cove (U), El Portal (U), Yosemite (T), Mariposa (T), Oakhurst (T).

The following tabulation attempts to correlate in a general way the cultural features of the Northern, Central, and Southern Miwok with life zones in the Sierra Nevada region, listing the features predominating in each zone.

House coveringTuleDigger pine bark{ Yellow pine bark
{ Big-tree bark
Pine nutsDigger pineSugar pine
Principal food mammalsAntelope
Jack rabbit
Jack rabbit
Gray squirrel
SaltFrom pondsFrom springsFrom Mono
Principal food birdsDucks
Valley quailMountain quail
Principal food fishSalmonTrout
Women’s skirtsTuleGrassGrass
Insect foodsGrasshoppersChrysalids
BeverageManzanita cider
AcornsValley oakBlue oak
Interior live oak
Black oak
Other vegetable foodsSeeds predominate (?)BuckeyeBulbs predominate (?)
Fish netSeine, castingSet netDip net
BlanketFeather, rabbitskinFur

2For discussion of distribution see Merriam, 1907; Kroeber, 1908.
3Cf. Merriam, 1914.
4Lists of species are derived from Grinnell and Storer, 1921, 126-131, and 1924, 11, 12.
5Schenck and Dawson, 1929.
6Grinnell and Storer, 1924, 11.

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