American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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"Yana" means "people." In the early nineteenth century, the Yanas lived in the upper Sacramento River Valley and the adjacent eastern foothills. The elevation of their territory ranged between 300 and 10,000 feet. The aboriginal population of Yanas probably numbered fewer than 2,000. Yana was a Hokan language. Its four divisions were Northern, Central, Southern, and Yahi.

Yana settlements consisted of a main village with several smaller satellite villages. Each village probably had a hereditary chief or headman, who lived in the main village. Chiefs were wealthy and often had two wives. They led the dances, orated from the roof of the assembly house on proper behavior, and were the only ones permitted to keep vultures as pets. The villagers provided food for chiefs and their families. Shamans, mostly male, received their power by fasting in remote places or swimming in certain pools. Trained by older shamans, they cured by singing, dancing, or sucking. Unsuccessful shamans might be accused of sorcery and killed. Various roots and teas were also used as medicines.

Land was privately owned. Men played double-ball shinny (usually a woman's game, a variation of hockey). Other games included ring and pin, cat's cradle, stick throwing at a stake, and the traditional grass or hand game.

The Northern and Central groups lived in earth-covered multifamily houses. The Southern and Yahi groups preferred smaller, conical, bark-covered houses. An assembly house was located in a tribelet's main village. All groups lived in temporary brush shelters or caves while hunting.

Acorns, fish, and venison were the Yanas' staples. Men climbed trees to shake acorns down while women gathered, shelled, and dried them. After leaching the acorn flour, it was used for mush, bread, and a soup with meat, berries, and other foods. Women also gathered roots, tubers, bulbs, berries, pine nuts, and grasshoppers. Men stalked deer using a deer head decoy and bow and arrow. Salmon was broiled on heated rocks, roasted over an open fire, or dried and stored. Rabbits were hunted in community drives. The Yanas also took other game.

Members of a Mexican expedition may have been the first non-Natives to encounter the Yanas during 1821. Hudson's Bay Company trappers almost certainly interacted with the Yanas from about 1828, and some Mexicans received land grants in Yana territory during that time. The first permanent Anglo settlement in the area came in 1845.

By the late 1840s, Anglo trails crossed Yana territory. With Anglo encroachment came increased conflict: Attacks by U.S. soldiers (John C. Frémont in 1846, for example) led to retaliations, and as food became scarcer the Yanas began raiding cabins. In the 1860s, Anglos set out to exterminate the Yanas. Through massacres, disease, and starvation, their population was reduced by 95 percent in about twenty years.

In 1911, a Yana man named Ishi walked out of the foothills of Mount Lassen to a nearby town, where two anthropologists were able to communicate with him. Ishi eventually communicated his story, which began at the time when Anglo invaders and murderers began to destroy the Yahi (a subset of Yana people). Only about a dozen or so Yahis remained alive after a massacre in 1868, six years after Ishi's birth. These people remained in the wilderness until 1908, when only four were left. Three died shortly thereafter, leaving Ishi as the only remaining Yahi in 1911. After leaving the woods, he lived and worked at the University of California Museum of Anthropology (San Francisco), demonstrating traditional crafts, providing a wealth of information about his culture, and learning some English. Ishi died of tuberculosis in 1916.


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