In aboriginal times, the Wailakis lived in northwestern California, along the Eel River and the North Fork Eel River. Today, descendents of these people live in and near Mendocino County. Roughly 2,700 Wailakis lived in their region in the midnineteenth century; the population of all five tribes may have exceeded 13,000. With the Mattoles, Lassiks, Sinkyones, and Nongatls, the Wailakis spoke a Southern Athapaskan language.
The Wailakis believed that spirits were present in all objects, inanimate as well as animate. The source of shamans' power was their ability to communicate with Katanagai (Night Traveler), the creator god. The Wailakis recognized various types of shamans, both men and women, who might attend special schools to receive visions and practice on patients. They cured the sick by sucking or with herbs, and they could find lost souls. Sucking and soul-loss doctors could also foretell the future and find lost people or objects. Singing, dancing, and smoking tobacco accompanied most shamans' rituals. Other ceremonies were connected with salmon fishing, acorn gathering, and girls' puberty.
The nuclear family was the primary social unit. Gift exchange formed the basis of the marriage formalities. Mothers-in-law and sons-in-law did not speak directly to each other out of respect. Herbal abortion was practiced and probably infanticide, especially in the case of twins, one of whom was generally killed. Divorce was relatively easy to obtain for the usual reasons: unfaithfulness, barrenness, or laziness of the wife; unfaithfulness or abuse on the husband's part. Corpses were buried with their heads facing east; the grave was later piled with stones. Wives and husbands were generally buried together. The house was destroyed, and possessions were buried or otherwise disposed of.
Retaliation or revenge for murder, witchcraft, insult, or rape could lead to war among families. Most Southern Athapaskans fought little and then usually only among themselves. Battles consisted mainly of surprise attacks. Ceremonial dances preceded and victory dances followed hostilities. All casualties and property loss were compensated for. Weapons included the sinew-backed bow and arrow, knives, clubs, sticks, slings, spears, and rocks. The Wailakis also used elk hide armor and shields.
Although human occupation of the Wailaki homeland is at least 4,000 years old, the Southern Athapaskans appear to have arrived in California around 900. They had little contact with non-Natives until the midnineteenth century, especially during the Anglo extermination raids of 1861 and 1862.
Survivors fiercely resisted being placed on reservations. Most stayed in the hills working on Anglo sheep and cattle ranches. Others worked on small parcels of land. At one point around the turn of the century, so many of their young were being kidnapped and indentured that parents tattooed their children so that they would always know their ancestry.