Traditional Maidu territory is along the eastern tributaries of the Sacramento River, south of Lassen Peak. This country features a great variation in terrain, from river and mountain valleys to high mountain meadows. Today, most Maidus live on two small reservations in Butte County and share one in Lassen County and one in Mendocino County. Roughly 9,000 Maidus lived in the early nineteenth century. Maiduan is a Penutian language. Its three divisions—northeastern or mountain (Maidu), northwestern or foothill (Konkow), and southern or valley (Nisenan)—were probably mutually unintelligible.
The Maidu religion was closely related to their mythology. Konkows and Nisenans, but not the Maidus proper, practiced the Kuksu cult, a ceremonial and dance organization led by a powerful shaman. Only those properly initiated could join. Members followed a dance cycle in which dances represented different spirits.
Shamans trucked with the spirits, cured, interpreted dreams, and conducted ceremonies. Spirits were said to live in natural geographic sites. A shaman had at least one spirit as a guardian and source of power. Female shamans were assumed to be malevolent.
The Nisenans observed an annual fall mourning ceremony and other ritual dances as well. Doctors could be of either sex, although women were considered less likely to hurt a patient (doctors could also poison people). Religious specialists included religious shamans, poison shamans, singing shamans, and weather shamans.
Of the three main Maidu divisions, the valley people, or Nisenans, had the largest population and the most tribelets (permanent villages). Village communities (consisting of several villages, with sizes in inverse proportion to elevation) were autonomous. The central village had the largest dance or ceremonial chamber, which doubled as a home to the head-man. This office, which was inheritable only among the Nisenans, was chosen by a shaman. He or she (women might become chiefs among the Nisenans) was generally wealthy and served primarily as adviser and spokesperson.
The Maidus observed many life cycle taboos and restrictions. Gender roles were fairly rigidly defined. There was no formal marriage ceremony other than mutual gift giving. Couples lived in the woman's home at first and later in a home of their own near the man's family. If a woman gave birth to twins, she and the babies were often killed. The Nisenans practiced cremation; the other two groups buried their dead with food and gifts. All three burned the dead person's house and possessions and held annual mourning ceremonies for several years thereafter.
Most fishing and hunting areas were held in common. Theft from a neighbor was severely punished, although theft from someone of another community was not punished by the home community. Murder and rape were dealt with by blood revenge (of the guilty party or of a near friend or relative) or by payment. Lying was generally avoided. The community policed its boundaries against poachers.
Games include hoop-and-pole (in which an arrow was shot through a rolling hoop), tossing games, dice games, and hand games and often contained wagering, music, and song. Tobacco was their only cultivated plant. It was smoked in elderberry pipes at bedtime and during ceremonies.
Maidus were mainly hunters and gatherers. Their staple was the acorn, from which they made mush, bread, and soup. They also ate pine nuts, manzanita, roots, and insects. Game included deer (hunted in communal drives), elk, antelope, and bear (for hides). Meat was baked, dried, or roasted. Fish included eel, salmon, and trout. Taboo foods among the Maidu proper included coyote, dog, wolf, buzzard, lizard, snake, and frog. Konkows refused to eat bear and mountain lion. The Nisenans ate neither owl, condor, nor vulture. Maidus drank wild mint tea and manzanita cider.
Prior to about 1700, when they abandoned it to the Paiutes, the Maidus also controlled the territory east of Honey Lake into present-day Nevada. Maidus first met Spanish and U.S. expeditions and trappers in the early nineteenth century. Initial contact was peaceful.
The Maidus were relatively successful in avoiding missions, but many were killed in 1833 by a severe epidemic, possibly malaria. The 1849 gold rush led directly to theft of their land, disruption of their ability to acquire food, more disease, violence, and mass murder. Most survivors were forced into ranch and farm work and onto reservations. Although some groups signed a treaty in 1851, it was never ratified; each Maidu received a land claims settlement payment of about $660 in 1971.
The Konkow Reservation was established at Nome Lackee in 1854, but its residents were forced nine years later to abandon it and march to the Round Valley Reservation. The few surviving Nisenans lived near foothill towns and worked in local low-paying industries at that time. Many Maidu children attended assimilationist boarding schools around the turn of the century. Maidu culture underwent a brief revival in the 1870s under the influence of the Ghost Dance. All rancherias were purchased between 1906 and 1937 under legislation providing for "homeless" California Indians. Following the death in 1906 of the last hereditary headman, much of the people's ceremonial regalia were sold to a local museum.