No coverage of culture can adequately portray the rich existence of an entire nation over thousands of years. What follows are highlights and points of interest in a vast cultural fabric and landscape.
|Villages and Housing|
|Government, Law, Wealth and Work|
|Ceremony and Beliefs|
The ancestry of the Blue Lake Rancheria Tribal Membership includes lineages from Wiyot, Yurok, Tolowa and Cherokee peoples. Native groups across the country were displaced and dispersed, at times over a large area (e.g. the Cherokee). Because of the extent of the Native population disruption in Northern California, much information was irrevocably lost. The Tribe can not know for certain if other peoples are also a part it’s extended historical family. Ultimately because much is unknown except for the shared upheaval, the Blue Lake Rancheria considers all Native Americans kindred peoples.
The Blue Lake Rancheria is located within the traditional territory of the Wiyot people. In today’s terms, the territory extended from Little River, north of McKinleyville, California, south along the coast to Bear River Ridge and inland 25 miles from every point on that coastal line. There were estimated to be 32 main villages, and several hundred semi-permanent sites, situated along the banks of the Eel and Mad Rivers. There were at least 400 people in the Fortuna area on the Eel River, 350 on Humboldt Bay, and another 250 on the Mad River. For information on the land base of the Blue Lake Rancheria Tribe today, please click here.
Of the three principal groups of Wiyot, those on the Mad River were known as batawat. The Humboldt Bay populations were known as the wiki. And the Eel River people as the wiyat. Wiyat is the native name for the Eel River Delta. Only later was the name applied to all who spoke the common, regional language. Today, Wiyot is used as the accepted name for the people from this general area.
Pre-Euro-American settlement, the ancestors of the Blue Lake Rancheria Tribe were primarily Wiyot and theirs was the Wiyot way of life, indelibly shaped by their surroundings.
The Wiyot lived in a true forest environment – comprised primarily of California Redwood Sequoia sempervirens, and to a lesser degree Spruce, Hemlock, Oak, Madrona, Red Cedar, Chestnut, Laurel and Yellow Pine – a truly great forest in size and density, rich and varied in terms of flora and fauna, a forest “not to be excelled outside of the tropics” (L.L. Loud).
Within the forests, small prairies were scattered, and trails were maintained between them. These prairies provided critical vegetation and game for the Native populations. In some areas these prairies were burned annually to maintain the habitat for game, and to produce seeds and other sources of nutrition.
The Mad and Eel Rivers were primary transportation routes, as the great surrounding forests were almost impenetrable, and the traditional canoes were crafted for rivers rather than open ocean navigation.
Villages were located on rivers to take advantage of good fishing and transportation routes, and on the bay for the accessible shellfish.
Six to twelve houses constituted a village with about ten people per house. Dwellings were rectangular and made from split Redwood planks with a pitched roof with a smoke hole at the top. The structure would be built over an in-ground pit lined with wood and stone which provided the floor and the lower half of the surrounding walls. Two or more families usually occupied such houses. Houses were constructed of Redwood because of the Redwood’s unique properties. For example, because of its lack of resin, the wood is almost perfectly impervious to insects, and incredibly durable in even the harshest of weather conditions.
On average there was only one sweathouse in a Wiyot village. It was not unlike the dwelling in form except that it was usually smaller and had the roof planks extending to the ground on two sides. Inside, the sweathouse contained a stone lined fire pit and a wooden foot drum. When taking a sweat bath the perspiration was scraped from the body with a stick or bone. The structure was used for sleeping, gambling and ceremony. The sweathouse was not of spiritual importance.
The Blue Lake Rancheria Tribe is currently exploring the development of a full-scale reproduction of a traditional village site, including homes, a sweatlodge and a dance arena.
As one might expect, food was obtained from the rivers, forests, ocean and tidal flats. When consuming food or materials, Native Americans automatically practiced sustainable harvesting- taking no more than was needed. This is one of the reasons Northern California Native populations were relatively small and stable – they gathered food and other resources for themselves in direct relation to what the environment could provide.
There were fish, elk, deer, bear, acorns, berries, duck and many different types of shellfish in abundance. Methods of hunting included rope snares, traps utilizing dead falls (trees that have fallen down and rotted out) and redwood canoes and harpoons on the ocean. Fishing was the primary source of meat, due to the extravagant (compared to today) fish populations in the area rivers. Fishing implements were mostly made from bone. Gill nets were stretched across channels to catch salmon.
Berries (huckleberries and strawberries), nuts, seeds and other plant-based foods were gathered seasonally. Gardening was primarily practiced to produce tobacco. Tobacco was smoked in a tubular stone or wooden pipe. And the grass on the prairie patches to the east of the redwood belt was burned annually for the purpose of providing a supply of seeds for food and to control the growth of both timber and chaparral.
Blue Lake Rancheria ancestors did not have a rigid social / political hierarchy or system. Governmental structure was based on wealth and skill, with one leader within each village. Wealth was the most easily quantifiable qualification, and therefore the primary basis for leadership. Wealth was traditionally exhibited in the forms of: strings of dentalium shells, obsidian knives, woodpecker scalps and white deer hides (which were exceedingly rare) and other types of tangible value.
Laws were based on social issues, intrinsically understood, and enforced by all. Conflicts were arbitrated by the village leader. An interesting description of Yurok law is found in A.L. Kroeber’s Handbook of Indians of California:
“It may be asked how the Yurok executed their law without political authority being in existence. The question is legitimate; but a profounder one is why we insist on thinking of law only as a function of the state when the example of the Yurok, and of many other nations, proves that there is no inherent connection between legal and political institutions. The Yurok procedure is simplicity itself. Each side to an issue presses and resists vigorously, exacts all it can, yields when it has to, continues the controversy when continuance promises to be profitable or settlement is clearly suicidal, and usually ends compromising more or less. Power, resolution and wealth give great advantages; justice is not always done; but what people can say otherwise of its practices? The Yurok, like all of us, accept the conditions of their world, physical and social; the individual lives along as best he may; and the institutions go on.”
Each Tribal Member was expected to (and felt a duty to) work to support the immediate family, and to a lesser extent the village and Tribe in general.
Ancestors of the Blue Lake Rancheria combined ceremony and spirituality indelibly with skills and knowledge – a practical and value-infused world-view that continues today.
Functional survival-related skills such as hunting, fishing, navigation, tanning, curing, fire-building, etc.; and social / intellectual pursuits such as birth, marriage, healing, burial, specific work responsibilities, social position, annual calendar construction, etc., were honed for their useful results, but also overlaid with specific parameters which provided the best (i.e. most spiritual) way to accomplish the particular task at hand.
Seasonal and annual ceremonies were undertaken at rotating sites. The rivers were central to these ceremonies both as transportation routes to the events as well as the entrance point for principal participants, who would arrive via the waterway. These events provided the majority of the inter-village and inter-Tribal communication, and included dances and other group-participation activities. Villages hosting the events gave generous gifts to attendees, so in order to ensure fairness, and the ability of a village to support these events properly, events were hosted by the wealthy and rotated according to a sensitive understanding of the host’s ability to sponsor the event properly.
The art and artistic endeavors of the Blue Lake Rancheria’s ancestors focused on the ornamentation of functional objects. Knives, bowls, baskets, clothing, dentalium currency – these were decorated with detailed designs.
Ornamentation incorporated bone, shells, horn, animal skins and fur, beads (constructed from pine nuts and acorns), feathers, and a wide spectrum of colors through the use of vegetable dyes.
The construction of baskets and other traditional artwork continues today through a few select Members of the Blue Lake Rancheria Tribe.
The Blue Lake Rancheria’s Tribal language belongs to the Algonquian language family, which is related to languages spoken throughout large areas of eastern North America. The dialects that remain also include Athab(p)ascan and Cherokee roots.
Today, few Blue Lake Rancheria Tribal Members use their traditional language in daily use. For more information on what is being done to preserve the Tribe’s languages, please contact Cultural Affairs. For a quick example of some Wiyot words, click here.
Various California universities are also conducting outstanding work in Native American linguistics:
The Cultural Affairs staff of the Blue Lake Rancheria Tribe recommends the following documents for further information on the history of Northern California Native Americans.
- Ethnogeography and Archeology of the Wiyot Territory by Llewellyn L. Loud, University of California Press, 1918
- Handbook of the Indians of California by A.L. Kroeber, Dover Publications, Inc., 1976 (original manuscript published in 1925)