American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
Teaser Image


"Miwok" is a word meaning "People" in Miwokan. The Miwoks were originally composed of three divisions: Eastern (Sierra), Lake, and Coast. The Miwoks lived in over 100 villages along the San Joaquin and Sacramento Rivers, from the area north of San Francisco Bay east into the western slope of the Sierra Nevada. The Lake Miwoks lived near Clear Lake, north of San Francisco Bay.

Today the Eastern Miwoks live in five rancherias, located roughly between Sacramento and Stockton, and in nearby cities. Lake Miwoks have one small settlement at Middletown Rancheria that they share with Pomo Indians. The Miwok population stood at about 22,000 in the eighteenth century, of whom approximately 90 percent (19,500) were Eastern Miwoks. They spoke several dialects and groups of Miwokan, a California Penutian language.

The lowland occupation of California by the Eastern Miwoks probably began as early as 2,000 years ago or more; occupation of the Sierra Nevada is only about 500 years old. The Eastern Miwoks were divided into five cultural groups: Bay Miwoks, Plains Miwoks, Northern Miwoks, Southern Miwoks, and Central Sierra Miwoks. Sir Francis Drake (1579) and Sebastian Cermeño (1595) may have met the Coast Miwoks, but no further record of contact exists until the late eighteenth century and the beginning of the mission period. Russians also colonized the region in the early nineteenth century.

With regard to religion, Eastern and probably also Coast Miwoks believed in the duality (land and water) of all things. Ceremonies, both sacred and secular, abounded, accompanied by dances held in great dance houses. The ceremonial role of each village in the tribelet was determined by geographical and political considerations. Lake Miwoks allowed only men in the dance houses.

Sacred ceremonies revolving around a rich mythology featured elaborate costumes, robes, and feather headdresses. The Miwoks recognized several different kinds of shamans, such as spirit or sucking shamans, herb shamans (who cured and helped ensure a successful hunt), and rattlesnake, weather, and bear shamans. Shamans, whose profession was inherited patrilineally, received their powers via instruction from and personal acquisition of supernatural power gained through dreams, trances, and vision quests.

The main political units were small tribes, an independent and sovereign nation of roughly 100 to 500 people (smaller in the mountains). Each group was composed of a number of lineages, or settlement areas of extended families. Larger groups, those composed of several named settlements, were led by chiefs, who were usually wealthy. Their responsibilities included hosting guests, sponsoring ceremonies, settling disputes, and overseeing the acorn harvest. In turn, chiefs were supplied with food and were expected to conduct themselves with a measure of grandness.

Among the Lake Miwoks, special ceremonial officials presided over dances. Among the Eastern and Lake Miwoks the office of chief was hereditary and male, if possible. Other officials included the announcer (elective) and messenger (hereditary). The Coast Miwoks also included two important female officials who presided over certain festivals and who supervised the construction of the dance house.

All Eastern Miwoks were members of one of two divisions (land or water). Both boys and girls went through puberty ceremonies. Marriage among Lake Miwoks was a matter arranged by the parents through gift giving. Intermarriage between neighboring groups was common. The many life cycle prohibitions and taboos included sex before the hunt or during a woman's period. Fourth and later infants may have been killed. The dead were cremated or buried. Widows cut their hair and rubbed pitch on their heads. Along the coast, property was burned along with the body. The names of the dead were never spoken again. There were no mourning ceremonies.

Men and occasionally women used pipes to smoke a gathered local tobacco. Miwoks possessed a strong feeling for property: Trespass was a serious offense, and virtually every transaction between two people involved payment. The profession of "poisoner" was widely recognized, and many people feared being poisoned more than they feared illness. People often danced, both for fun and ritual. Most songs were considered personal property. Both sexes played hockey, handball, and traditional grass games. Women also played a dice game. Children played with mud or stick dolls and used acorns and pebbles as jacks.

Miwoks built conical houses framed with wooden poles and covered with plants, fronds, bark, or grasses. Hearths were centrally located, next to an earth oven. Pine needles covered the floors; mats and skins were used for bedding. Some winter homes or dance houses, and most houses among the Lake Miwoks, were partially below ground. Larger villages had a sweat lodge that served mostly as a male clubhouse.

The Spanish established missions in Coast Miwok and Lake Miwok territory by the early nineteenth century, to which thousands of Miwoks were forcibly removed and where most later died of disease and hardship. In the 1840s, Mexican rancheros routinely kidnapped Lake Miwok people to work on their ranches and staged massacres to intimidate the survivors. As a result of all this bloodshed, previously independent tribelets banded together and even formed military alliances with other groups such as the Yokuts, raiding and attacking from the 1820s through the 1840s.

Everything changed for the Eastern Miwoks in the late 1840s, when the United States gained political control of California and the great gold rush began. Most Miwoks were killed by disease, white violence, and disruption of their hunting and gathering environment. The Mariposa Indian War (1850), led by Chief Tenaya and others, was a final show of resistance by the Eastern Miwoks and the Yokuts against Anglo incursions and atrocities. By the 1860s, surviving Miwoks were eking out a living by mining, farm and ranch work, and low-paying work on the edges of towns. Most Miwoks remained on local rancherias, several of which were purchased for them by the U.S. government in the early twentieth century.

Coast Miwoks remained for the most part in their traditional homeland in the twentieth century, working at sawmills, as agricultural laborers, and fishing. They were officially terminated in the 1950s, but in 1992 a group called the Federated Coast Miwok created bylaws and petitioned the government for recognition.


©2011 ABC-CLIO. All rights reserved.

  Chronological Essays
  People and Groups
  Southwest Nations
  California Nations
  Northwest Coast Nations
  Great Basin Nations
  Plateau Nations
  Great Plains Nations
  Northeast Woodlands Nations
  Subarctic Nations
  Arctic Nations
ABC-cLIO Footer