Most important, Tolowa ceremonies were connected with diet, such as catching the season's first salmon, smelt, or sea lion. The Naydosh (Feather Dance) was performed as part of a World Renewal ceremony. Salmon, smelt, and sea lion were the staples. Other foods included seaweed, shellfish, shore bird eggs, and acorns. The people may have cultivated tobacco.
Shamans were mostly women or transvestite men. They were paid a high fee for curing disease. Their methods included dancing, trances, and sucking with the assistance of a spiritual power, or pain. Although Tolowa villages did not closely cooperate among themselves, intermarriage and ceremonial interaction between the Tolowas and their neighbors (Yuroks, Karuks, Hupas, Tututnis) was common. Male activities mostly revolved around hunting, boat building, and fishing; women generally collected and transported food, especially acorns, and prepared it for eating and storage. Corpses were removed through a loose plank in the house, wrapped in tule mats, and buried with shell beads and other objects.
The wealthiest man in the village was usually the leader. There was no formal chief or overall political organization. Prestige, in the form of gaining and displaying wealth, or treasure (such as large obsidian knives, necklaces of dentalium shell beads, and red woodpecker scalp headdresses) was of prime concern to the Tolowas. Treasure was not normally used for utilitarian purposes except for bride prices. Besides marrying off daughters, other ways to get wealth were shrewd trading, fines and indemnities (there were many occasions for this, which were watched for carefully), infant betrothal, and gambling. Wealthy men might have several wives.
The Tolowas lived in square redwood-plank houses with two-pitched roofs. The central area was slightly excavated for cooking and sleeping. An interior ground-level ledge was used for storage. Men and boys slept, gambled, and made nets and weapons in semisubterranean sweat houses. The people lived in their permanent villages about nine months a year, leaving in late summer to fish for smelt on sandy beaches and continuing on inland to catch salmon and gather acorns through the fall.
During the late eighteenth century, probably before the Tolowas had yet encountered non-Natives face to face, an epidemic contracted from non-Native explorers in the region destroyed one of their villages. The first direct contact came in June 1828 in the person of Jedediah Smith and his exploring party. However, the Tolowas continued to live relatively unaffected by outside influences until about 1850.
More than half of the Tolowa population died during that decade alone from disease and the effects of Anglo mass murders. In 1860, following the Chetco/Rogue River Indian War (begun in 1852), 600 Tolowas were forced to march onto reservations in Oregon. Some of those people were later removed to the Hoopa Valley Reservation. The 1870 Ghost Dance revival reached them in about 1872 and lasted about ten years.
Around the turn of the century, the Tolowas suffered a further dramatic population reduction as a result of disease, mostly measles and cholera. Their population at this time had been reduced by roughly 95 percent, to some 200 people. Individual Tolowas had received a few allotments in the late nineteenth century. In 1906, the government purchased tracts of land near the mouth of the Smith River that later became the Smith River and Elk Valley Rancherias. By 1913, most Tolowas were living in and around Crescent City and on the Hoopa Valley and Siletz Reservations. Beginning in 1923 and lasting for at least thirty years, owing to the government crack-down and confiscation of regalia, people held their traditional religious observances secretly.
The Indian Shaker Movement, which supported traditional healing and spiritual practices, arrived around 1930 and remained popular for a generation. About the same time, the Del Norte Indian Welfare Association was founded as a community and self-help organization. The two rancherias were terminated in 1960, with devastating cultural results. As a response to termination, Tolowa landowners in 1973 created the Nele-chun-dun Business Council and filed for federal acknowledgment ten years later as the Tolowa Nation. The rancherias were reinstated in 1983.