The Yokuts traditionally lived along the San Joaquin Valley and the Sierra Nevada foothills. Specifically, the Southern Yokuts inhabited a lake-slough-marsh environment in the southern San Joaquin Valley; the Northern Yokuts' territory was wetlands and grassy plains in the northern San Joaquin Valley; and the Foothill Yokuts lived approximately on the western slopes between the Fresno and Kern Rivers. Today, Yokuts live on two rancherias in Tulare and Kings Counties and in nearby communities.
The Yokuts population was between 18,000 and 50,000 in the early eighteenth century. They had one of the highest regional population densities in aboriginal North America. Yokuts people spoke various dialects of Yokuts, a California Penutian language.
The San Joaquin Valley has been inhabited for some 11,000 years. Yokuts culture is probably between 600 and 2,000 years old, with direct cultural antecedents dating back perhaps 7,000 years.
The Yokuts' most important festival was their annual six-day ritual in honor of the dead. They also celebrated the arrival of the first fruit of the season. Group ceremonies were always conducted in the open and included shamanic displays of magic powers. Many men and older women also had spiritual helpers that conferred good fortune or specific abilities. The Northern Yokuts may have practiced the Kuksu cult. Men and women of this group also drank jimsonweed (datura) annually as part of a spring cleansing and curing ritual. Among the central Foothills group, datura was drunk once in a lifetime, by adolescents.
The Yokuts were organized into about fifty named tribelets, each with its own semipermanent villages, territory, and dialect. Each tribelet also had several hereditary chiefs (often at least one per village, usually from among the Eagle lineage). The chief, usually a wealthy man, sponsored ceremonies, hosted guests, aided the poor, mediated disputes, and authorized hunts as well as the murder of evil people such as sorcerers. Other offices included the chief's messenger. Shamans derived power from spirit animals via dreams or vision quests. They cured and presided over ceremonies. Large fees were charged for cures. Chronically unsuccessful shamans might be accused of sorcery and killed.
Among the foothill Yokuts, everyone swam at least daily, with adolescents also swimming several times at night during the winter for toughening. The divisions competed against each other in games, with men and women often gambling on the results. Both sexes played the traditional hand game. Women also threw dice or split sticks. Leisure activities also included dancing and storytelling. Men smoked tobacco, usually at bedtime. Rattles accompanied most singing, which usually occurred during rituals. Other instruments included bone and wood whistles, flutes, and a musical bow.
The Southern Yokuts built both single-family oval-shaped and ten-family dwellings, in which each family had its own door and fireplace. Both featured tule mats covering pole frames. Mats also covered the floor and raised beds. Men sweated and sometimes slept in sweat houses.
The Northern Yokuts built similar single-family and possibly ceremonial earth lodges. Conical huts thatched with grass or bark slabs characterized dwellings of the Foothills Yokuts. Beds were of pine needles. Other structures included sweat houses, gaming courts, and mat-covered granaries and ramadas. Among Foothills Yokuts, women might use the sweat houses when no men were present.
The wetland home of the Southern Valley Yokuts contained an enormous variety and quantity of wildlife. They hunted fowl, rabbits, squirrels and other rodents, turtles, and occasionally big game. They gathered tule roots, manzanita berries, pine nuts, and seeds. Seafood included lake trout, salmon, perch, and mussels. Fresh fish was broiled on hot coals or sun-dried for storage. They also raised dogs for eating but did not eat frogs. Their salt came from salt grass.
In addition to many of these foods, Northern Valley Yokuts depended on fish, mussels, turtles, elk, antelope, and smaller mammals. Salmon and especially acorns were staples. The Foothills Yokuts ate a lot of deer, quail, acorns, and fish. They also ate pine nuts, wild oats, manzanita berries, duck, trout, wasp grubs, squirrels, and rabbits. Iris bulb and tule root were important sources of flour. Men stalked deer by using deer disguises, or they ambushed them and shot them with bow and arrow. Quail were trapped. Salmon and other fish were caught with spears, weirs, and basket traps. The Yokuts also planted tobacco and may have engaged in basic horticulture or plant management.
The Spanish came into the region of the Southern Yokuts in the 1770s and were warmly received. In the early nineteenth century, serious cultural destruction began as the northern valleys were drawn into the exploitative mission system. Yokuts' resistance and retaliation brought further Spanish repression and even military expeditions. Foothills Yokuts communities were protected by their relative isolation, and they sheltered escapees and began raiding for horses to ride and eat, activities that they continued into the Mexican period. Yokuts became excellent cattle breeders and horse breakers during this period.
In the early 1830s, malaria and cholera epidemics killed roughly three-quarters of all Indians in the region. Mexicans established land grants in the San Joaquin Valley. By then, traditional flora, fauna, and subsistence patterns had all been severely disrupted. After the United States annexed California in 1848, its citizens began a large-scale campaign of slaughter and land theft against the Yokuts. The latter, along with their Miwok allies, resisted Anglo violence and land theft by force (such as the Mariposa Indian War of 1850–1851). In 1851, the tribes signed a treaty to relinquish their land for a reservation and payment, but pressure from the state of California kept the U.S. government from ratifying the agreement.
Dispossessed, some Yokuts worked on local ranches, where they were poorly paid and kept practically in peonage. The 1870 Ghost Dance revival provided a straw of hope to a beaten people. It lasted two years; its failure probably prevented the 1890 Ghost Dance from gaining popularity. The Tule River Reservation was established 1873. The Santa Rosa Rancheria was established in 1921.
Yokuts found minimal employment as loggers, as ranch hands, and as farm laborers into the twentieth century. Their children were forcibly sent to culture-killing boarding schools in the early part of the century. By the 1950s, most Indian children were in (segregated) public schools. A cultural revival took place beginning in the 1960s.