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Contemporary California Indians

By Several Authors


Today, many California Indians have retained cultural values, traditions and history, while living within the framework of contemporary society.  Descendants of the Bay Area’s first peoples are involved in protecting ancestral village and sacred sites, participating in Big Times, creating traditional objects, and interpreting their cultural history to the public.

Beverly R. Ortiz, First People of the East Bay


The early 1870s were a watershed in the history of American attitudes toward the California Indian.  After 1871 the Indians were no longer perceived by whites as serious threats to the prosperity and development of the state…During the later nineteenth century the majority of California Indians subsisted on the fringes of white settlements, where they continued to work as general farm, laborers, herdsmen, grain harvesters, fruit pickers, and domestic servants…Only a minority of the California natives (perhaps one-fourth) remained on the old federal reserves…

Whatever the prospects for the survival of the California Indians as an “independent genetic entity,”  their cultural survival is ensured.  In the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s Indian people throughout the state demonstrated a growing interest in the revival, preservation, and demonstration of their past native cultures.  This resurgence has produced some remarkable results.

Generally the tribes that have been able to remain on at least a portion of their traditional lands, have been the most successful in retaining elements of their aboriginal wayh of life. (He gives as examples the Cahuillas and Hupas.)

From James J. Rawls, Indians of California, pp.205 ff.



In the 1980s this new interest in California Indian studies became apparent.  A series of California Indian conferences began and a new generation of Indian scholars included Native Americans.  Within the community there was a resurgence of interest in traditional religion, including dance and music, and in basketmaking and other crafts.  The publication of Heyday Books’ quarterly News from Native California now provides articles on ethnography, ethnohistory and current developments on a board range of topics.

From Sylvia Brakke Vane, “California Indians, Historians, and Ethnographers,” pp. 339-340. (In Indians of California, 1992)



California Indian peoples have tended to be rural peoples residing mainly on reservations or rancherias or in the local communities near where they are members.  Most still consider the traditional territories of their ancestors, as well as their reservation or rancherias, as “homeland,” a place to which they and their descendants will always return, as they have in recent years in greater and greater numbers.  It is a sacred and historic space, a physical reminder of one’s philosophical and historic roots, a place where traditional ways are understood and welcome.  It is preferred place to be, the place where kinfolks and old friends live, the place where one’s traditional religious ways are available….

Many native Californians may live away from their lands for the better part of a lifetime and yet come back frequently or finally to a way of life compatible with their cultural ideals and with close involvement with their family and friends.  This pattern has contributed, in part, to cultural persistence, since those who return may return with expectations of what was remembered when they left…

The United States government withdrew most federal responsibility for native Californians in 1955 under Public Law 280/  Each reservation or rancheria now elects a body of officials, known variously as a business-committee or tribal council.  These officials represent the group and act as a liaison between the group and outsiders such as the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs…

For the most part, California Indians have adopted many of the ways of the European world.  …In many other ways, however, traditional native Californian culture, values, art, dance, music, psychology, and the attachment to traditional lands contribute to the rich cultural fabric of the state…

Indian languages, though spoken less and less as first languages, are being maintained and revived among many groups.  Linguists have been working very actively with California Indians to this end….Several organizations, such as the California Indian Education Association, American Indian Historical Society, Hupa Cultural Center, and Malki Museum, have aggressively examined, criticized, and provided to teachers new teaching materials dealing with Indian culture and history.

In contrast to reservation-based groups, many California Indian groups never received federal acknowledgment.  These groups, therefore, have no land-base or special relationship with the federal government.  Now, over thirty previously-unrecognized groups, such as the Ohlone of the San Francisco Bay Area, are actively engaged in requesting such recognition.  These groups have contributed a new dynamic thrust to the visibility of Indian cultures.

In the major population centers of California, from San Francisco and Oakland south to San Diego, different forms of Native American cultural development are under way as California Indians and others throughout the United States establish residence in major urban areas.  Bringing with them diverse tribal and cultural backgrounds, they contribute to a new cultural diversity and to an emerging pan-Indian consciousness and institutional structure.

From Lowell J. Bean, Indians of California, pp. 321-323



East Bay Indians

New research has revealed information about the language and culture of many California tribes, including the East Bay’s Ohlone/Costanoan, Bay Miwok and Northern Valley Yokuts.

Ethnographers, linguists, archaeologist, anthropologists and demographers are studying mission records, analyzing work done by researchers such as J. P. Harrington, recording oral histories from native people and writing about California Indians (past and present) in books and magazines.  Errors in Alfred L. Kroeber’s famous Handbook of California Indians (1925) have created a variety problems for East Bay Indians including misperceptions about their cultural history and problems with federal recognition.

Research on the Bay Miwok has appeared in academics journals, reports from the Los Vaqueros Project and other archaeological reports. Randy Milliken’s book, A Time of Little Choice, is one example of recent scholarship which has brought insights into the traditional lives of East Bay Native Americans.  See the Selected  Bibliography for other sources.

Laws have been passed since the 1960s to help protect Indian rights.  Some of these include the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, the Antiquities Act (1906), the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, National Environmental Protection Act and the California Environmental Protection Act.  Government regulations such as N.A.G.P.R.A. (Native Americans Grave Protections and Repatriation Act of 1990) have put some restrictions on the scientific recovery and invasive study of cultural material and, at the same time, have enabled Native Americans to take ownership of their cultural heritage.

California Indians today live throughout the state both in cities and in rural areas.  Some live in one of over 100 traditional communities ranging in size from a single-family, single-acre rancheria to the 142 square mile Hoopa Valley Reservation in Humbolt County.  The 2000 census listed 105 reservations or rancherias in the state.

Compiled by Beverly Lane, Sources at conclusion




Bean, Lowell J. ed. Indians of California (San Francisco:  California Historical Society), Fall 1992.

-------, The Ohlone Past and Present  Native Americans of the San Francisco Bay Region (Menlo Park: Ballena Press), 1994.

Rosenthal, Jeffrey S., Randall T. Milliken and Stephen Mikesell, Naval Weapons Station, Seal each, Detachment Concord, Integrated Cultural Resources Management Plan for the years 2000-2005 (Davis, CA: Far Western Anthropological Research Group, Inc., Box 413), 2000.

Rawls, James J., Indians of California  A Changing Image (Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press), 1984

From Bay Miwok Readings, 2003.