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Mojave Desert Indians - Historic Desert Indian Territories Map:
Indian Culture

Combined Ethnography
(Owens Valley Paiute, Tubatulabal, Western Mono, Yokuts)


The following combined ethnography serves an excellent example how four separate groups of peoples, the Tubatulabal, Western Mono, Owens Valley Piute, and Yokuts come together to tell a story that if were only of the individual tribes would be of a more or less typical Californian but in general rather backward people. If, however, the tribes to the east and west the selected region (Sequoia National Park) are given consideration, we have the opportunity to clarify facts of the utmost importance and interest. By studying these relationships it may help us to understand how adjacent tribal cultures functioned throughout the Mojave Desert to the south as well as the entire desert southwest.


The crest of the Sierra Nevada range forms a sharp division between two native American cultural and geographical provinces.

To the east lies the arid Great Basin, harboring the primitive Shoshonean-speaking tribes, who in their struggle, to live in an extremely inhospitable environment, were equipped with only the most primitive cultural devices, and who, by virtue of their backwardness, are closer than almost any other tribes in America to the first Indians of 20,000 or 25,000 years ago. Specific traits, of course, such as the bow, dog, metate, rabbit skin blanket, and basketry are advanced, but in general their culture is impoverished as compared with any other American Indians.

To the west of the Sierra Nevada lies the California province, affording a greater natural abundance of food and supporting cultures which, though primitive as compared with the agricultural tribes of the Southwest, or salmon fishing peoples of the Northwest Coast, had achieved their own special solutions of the problem of living, and had built up something of a distinctive social and religious culture.

The Owens Valley Paiute largely typify the Great Basin tribes; the Yokuts possess most of the distinctive traits of the California tribes. The Western Mono and Tubatulabal are in large measure intermediate in development, leaning somewhat toward California.


The Sierras also constitute, in large measure, a boundary between the Shoshonean-speaking Great Basin peoples and the varied linguistic groups of the California province. East of the Sierra lie the Shoshonean speaking Northern Paiute (Paviotso), Shoshoni, Southern Paiute, and Chemehuevi, while the Western Mono, Tubatulabal and Kawaiisu, also Shoshonean-speaking, are in the mountains; and it would show that California proper is occupied by several stocks. One of the most important of these is the Penutian-Lutuamian, which includes the centrally located Yokuts, Salinan, Miwok, Maidu and Wintun. Another is the Hokan-Siouan, which includes the Costonoan, Shastan, Chumash and Pomo. (See Kroeber, 1925, pl. 1 for further details.)

The cultural differences between the peoples on the opposite sides of the Sierras should be brought out. The natural basis of life in the two provinces is different. In California wild foods were relatively abundant and sufficed to support a large population, in the absence of agriculture. No one food, however, formed the hub of economic activities as did the bison in the Plains, the salmon on the Northwest Coast, maize in the Southwest. Instead, everything was utilized, all kinds of game being taken in a variety of ways, and all edible seeds being gathered and roots dug. The relatively great reliance upon roots has merited the California Indians generally the popular but entirely meaningless name, "Diggers". If any one thing served as a specialized food and required specialized techniques, it was the acorn, which became the center of a very interesting complex. In contrast to the relative abundance of food in California, the Great Basin afforded so little that life was a continual struggle. As in California, everything possible was utilized, but the pinyon pine nut, growing on the desert ranges, supplanted the acorn as the staple food and required its own series of techniques for gathering, storing, and preparation. These and other differences between the two provinces will be explained below. In a museum exposition of these points, there should be, so far as possible, a comparative series of illustrations or actual objects of the two cultures.

The Yokuts-Western Mono culture belongs with the south central area, which is set off from the Northwest salmon culture (which is allied with the Northwest Coast), and the southern California sub-area which is somewhat distinctive, somewhat allied with the Southwest. As California has extremely varied topography and natural resources, so its native inhabitants had more than ordinarily varied arts and industries, quite different modes of life being found within a relatively small region.

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Combined Ethnography

Introduction & Overview
Tribal Distributions
Weapons, Houses, Clothing
Other Weaving
Musical Instruments & Misc.
Social Organization
Other Social Customs

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