First of all, we are not indigenous to this land. In writing this history, we do not assume any authority. We welcome any and all input about regional natural and cultural history from descendants of any indigenous people of this region. Much of the historical information gathered about the Nomlaki and other California native peoples, while much was from first-hand accounts with them, comes from privileged white men with a very different world view than that of the people they were “studying” or observing.
Secondly, we want to honor the generations of Nomlaki who succeeded in building a truly sustainable human culture here over thousands of years and are grateful for the wisdom revealed in the documented remnants of their traditional knowledge. We also feel outrage and sorrow over the genocide of their culture and all other other indigenous cultures. That said, we don’t have a need to raise the indigenous people of North America to some sort of nobility. For us, the land is primary, and this land was a paradise prior to European occupation. This alone speaks to the wisdom of the cultures that tended to it over millennia. Being in the Nomlaki homeland means that if we want to understand how to care for this land, we will learn a lot by studying the practices—and most importantly the underlying principles—of the pre-civilized Nomlaki and their neighbors. Knowing some of their history, especially in regards to human population, is helpful in understanding the potential carrying capacity for humans in this region.
History books and movies tell us that most places—the Sacramento Valley included—were sparsely populated prior to the arrival of Western civilization. While true for vast areas of North America, evidence suggest most of lowland California had population densities that matched many areas of the world that were civilized. For example, in the Northern Sacramento Valley the estimated Wintun population prior to 1833 was 48,000.[i] In the Grindstone area near Stony Creek, where today exists the only Nomlaki Rancheria, one village had 42 pit houses.[ii] According to a reminiscence by John Bidwell about a trip he made along Stony Creek in 1844, he passed many large villages, the largest being permanent.[iii] The population density was even greater among those tribes in the southern part of the Sacramento Valley. Some of the earliest recorded information of European contact in this region comes from the journal of a trapper who traveled north along the Sacramento River in 1830. He wrote of his interactions with the people he met: “The Indian population…is very great. It is impossible for me to give even an idea of their number. Several villages that our route led us to each contained at least 1500 men and every creek and lake where water could be found Indians were stationed in great numbers, as well in the low country as in the high land.”[iv] We give more weight to these descriptions of large numbers of native people since the trappers had no incentive to exaggerate, and if anything, may have had reason to downplay the indigenous populations. Another traveler to the region in 1832-33 noted, “The banks of the Sacramento and San Joaquin, and the numerous tributaries of these rivers, and the Tule Lake, were at this time studded with Indian villages of from one to twelve hundred inhabitants each. The population of this extensive valley was so great that it caused surprise, and required a close investigation into the nature of a country that without cultivation, could afford the means of subsistence to so great a community.”[v]
Maybe the California History books do better than most. Maybe they include information like this. But if they don’t, and most modern Californians are unaware of just how populated and fecund this region was only two hundred years ago, we attempt below to succinctly rephrase what we’ve discovered for the benefit of those who’ve never heard the real history.
For starters, as stated above, there were lots of people. If you take away the bigger cities of this region, today’s human population would be similar to—and maybe smaller than—the indigenous population before Europeans arrived. Think of that. Just as many people living rurally, but living with bears and wolves and elk and pronghorn, and within vast stretches of riparian forests and valley oak and blue oak savannas, all without fences.
One of the most extraordinary things about the cultures of California’s first peoples is that they were very distinct and separate. In many cases, the villages of one tribe were only 10-15 miles from their neighbors, but they spoke completely different languages. This means they pretty much stayed put, aside from trade and marriages. Which means they were rooted in place with a connection that we civilized may never comprehend.
Such appears to be the case for the Nomlaki. But before we try to describe what is known about their world, we want to bring up an important point. The group of people that became known as Nomlaki didn’t necessarily refer to themselves by that name until after their world was shattered by the arrival of Europeans and their diseases. Prior to the settling by Europeans of what became Tehama County, the texts we’ve found say that the indigenous people here simply identified by village (olkapna) name, which often was a family name. They interacted with people from other villages for social events and salmon harvesting and pine nut gathering, and they all spoke the same language, but whether they had a common name for the language or for all who spoke it seems unknown. What we do know is that Nomlaki means “west speakers” and that the dialectical area called nomlaka (“west language”) went from Elder Creek to just south of Thomes Creek.[vi]
The Nomlaki are one of the Wintun-speaking tribes, those north of Cottonwood Creek called Wintu, and those south of Willows being called Patwin. Their ancestors, according to modern science, came from Asia, across the Bering Straight about ten to twelve thousand years ago. But more importantly, like all peoples that actually become native to a place, who they really are—their culture, language and beliefs—are born of their homeland. While some native cultures may have imported some beliefs from elsewhere, it seems that most had worldviews that evolved out of observation and relationship with the land and its other inhabitants. There are numerous sources telling of some of the cultural and linguistic differences between Wintu, Nomlaki and Patwin, as well as maps showing approximate boundaries and even some village and place names. We don’t feel a need to try to recount those specifics here. What we want to emphasize is what we perceive to be primary about the relationship these people had (and perhaps in some cases still have) to their landbase. This isn’t meant to minimize the importance of language, as it is an amazing insight into world view, into relationship with the living world. We wish there were still lots of fluent speakers of the Nomlaki language.
Now, to continue with the 1830’s. While much of what the Spaniards named “California” had already been occupied by this time, the Sacramento Valley native people had not yet had many encounters with the Europeans. But 1833 marked the beginning of the end of their ways of life, as a disease (most likely smallpox) was brought to the region, possibly by trappers, and decimated the indigenous population. A colonel of a trapping expedition that year wrote:
The banks of the Sacramento river, in its whole course through the valley, were studded with Indian villages, the houses of which in the spring, during the day time were red with the salmon the aborigines were curing…On our return, late in the summer of 1833, we found the valleys depopulated. From the head of the Sacramento to the great bend and Slough of the San Joaquin, we did not see more than six or eight live Indians, while large numbers of their skulls and dead bodies were to be seen under almost every shade tree, near the water, where the uninhabited and deserted villages had been converted to graveyards…[vii]
How far from the Sacramento River the disease spread is unknown, but given the regular trade and social exchanges between the villages from river to mountains, it seems likely that the Nomlaki were also decimated by this epidemic.
One thing we know is that the soils of Tehama County were very fertile when the Europeans arrived, and this alone is a testament to the wisdom of a culture that tended to them for thousands of years. Even though no gold was found here, the Gold Rush brought white settlers to the area. In 1848 only about ten Europeans lived in the area now called Tehama County. One year later, Tehama was a boomtown. The principal economic asset was land, which was quickly overgrazed and overfarmed.[viii] By 1854, the near-constant violence by settlers toward the Nomlaki had reduced their tribe to less than three hundred persons, and according to the creators of the Nome Lackee Reservation, they were happy to be given a home and to grow European crops for themselves and the government. But the settlers kept encroaching on the reservation, letting their grazing animals destroy the crops, and threatening or killing any native person who tried to drive the stock herds away.[ix] The reservation was abandoned before 1861, and most of the remaining Nomlaki were driven to Round Valley near Covelo three years later, many elderly and children dying on the forced march over the mountains.
Some of the old people began to give out when they got to the hills. They shot the old people who couldn’t make the trip. They would shoot the children who were getting tired. Finally, they got the Indians to Covelo. They killed all who tried to get away and wouldn’t return to Covelo.[x]
One of the early white settlers to this area, F. B. Washington, wrote about living near and among the remaining Nomlaki and their reservation as a child in the 1850s and –60s. As there is little information with such detail from that era, we quote him at length:
The Nomlaki lived in a beautiful country with rolling hills and valleys, well watered and wooded. There were many springs, and it was near these that they generally lived. While the country mostly inhabited was between the Sacramento River and the Coast Range, trips were made to the river for the salmon-runs, and in the fall to gather wild grapes, while pine-nuts were gathered in the mountains. The mountains proper were not ordinarily inhabited…There was not very much intercourse across the Sacramento River. The principal villages were more or less permanently inhabited. They were always situated where wood and water were abundant, and consisted usually of about five or six houses…averaging perhaps a dozen feet in diameter. Conditions of life were unusually favorable. The country was covered with wild oats, which had only to be beaten into baskets when ripe. The hills were studded with oaks, from which acorns were obtained. From these both bread and soup were made. The bread was of two kinds, one white, the other black. The latter was rather sweet, and appears to have been made with the admixture of a certain kind of clay…Buckeyes were eaten after the poison had been extracted by leaching or filtration.There was some provision for the future in the matter of vegetable food. Inclosures of wattles for preserving oats and seeds were made near the house, and sometimes in the house. Acorns were also stored. Besides other methods, the following was employed in years when there was a large crop. The acorns were put into boggy holes near a spring, where the water flowed over them continuously. In this way they would keep for years.
Their fishing was very simple. Salmon in many cases could literally be scooped out, especially when they ran up small streams. Fish-traps of branches were also quickly and readily made. These had wing-dams leading to them; and the fish, on arriving at the end of the trap, rolled out of the water. The Sacramento River at certain seasons was full of salmon, so that from this source alone the Indians were absolutely relieved from serious trouble about their food.
Game was equally abundant, the quantity of deer and elk being enormous. Rabbits and squirrels were of course proportionately plentiful…Grasshoppers, larvae of bees and wasps, and worms, were eaten.
There was no system of punishment for crime or offence. I never knew of a case of murder within the tribe. The Indians did not seem to have violent passions, but were a jolly, light-hearted people.
When a person saw a desirable piece of fallen wood, he stood it up against a tree, thereby establishing his ownership of it. This ownership was respected. In general, the Indians were not at all thievish.
These descriptions of a peaceful people living among abundant food and water came from the last decade the Nomlaki were the primary human residents of one small portion of their homeland. They were already a decimated people, seeing their world being destroyed day by day. They worked on the reservation farm, and were threatened with their lives if they ventured too far. Yet, they still practiced traditional ways and maintained a level of dignity rare among the civilized. The 1880 census showed only 157 Indians in Tehama County, not all of them Nomlaki.[xi] Given that the population pre-1833 was approximately 24,000 (about half of the northern Wintun estimate), the post-epidemic population was likely near 6000. Six thousand to less than 150 in 46 years: genocide seems an accurate term for what was done to them.
We find this quote from Walter Goldschmidt’s Nomlaki Ethnography to be very telling
The Wintun gave names or descriptive designations to virtually every geographic feature of their small territory.[xii]
This implies intimacy with place. Having a language rooted in the land, and having names and cultural stories for everything you see around you, makes for a kind of relationship to the non-human world we civilized can only imagine. What it implies to us is a world view that expands the notion of family to all life and land. In fact, Dennis Martinez, world renowned ecocultural restorationist, articulates clearly that uncivilized indigenous people are nature. Are these assumptions applicable to the Nomlaki? When we consider the idea of living in place for thousands of years, with the result being mature, healthy, diverse and resilient biotic communities, including humans, we find it hard to imagine the Nomlaki (or any others) did that without such a kinship with all other life. For further evidence, most Wintu and Nomlaki creation stories include conversations or significant relationships between humans and other animals.
A human culture with a population similar to today’s rural population lived here for thousands of years in a sustainable fashion, without irrigation-dependent cultivation agriculture of annual crops. They survived megadroughts that we can’t even imagine. The perspective needed to make that a reality again is much closer to the indigenous idea of relationship to land, which includes subsistence living, than to the civilized idea of control over nature. Civilization is based on extraction and production, which results in never-ending degradation because life itself gets exported. Subsistence living is about reciprocal relationship, and it can not only maintain balance, it can increase biological integrity and biodiversity. While we have found little information about the specific land-care practices of the Nomlaki, we point to Kat Anderson’s Tending the Wild as an authoritative source on the subject, and infer that many of the common practices of most indigenous “Californians,” such as burning under oaks, burning browse plants for deer, and replanting wildflower corms and bulbs, were also used by the Nomlaki to develop and maintain plant communities with well-balanced age structures (healthy numbers of young, middle-aged and old plants). Again, these specific practices may or may not be the best choice for the land in its current state, but the principles underlying these practices are primary.
We believe that learning from uncivilized indigenous ways of living would benefit the land, and therefore benefit all of us. Furthermore, we encourage all who read this to join us in supporting the neighboring Winnemem Wintu and the Konkow Valley Band of Maidu in their struggles to gain tribal recognition and undisturbed access to their homelands for cultural purposes.
i A.L. Kroeber’s post-epidemic estimate of Wintun population was 12,000. It is estimated that disease (possibly smallpox) killed at least 3/4 of the river Wintun. Since populations were greater along the river, our estimate is based on these assumptions: 2/3 of the population were Sacramento River dwellers and 3/4 of them died during the 1833 epidemic, so to have 12,000 remaining would mean 48,000 is a reasonable pre-epidemic population. (48,000 x 2/3 = 32,000 on river; 32,000 x 25% = 8,000; 8,000 is 2/3 of 12,000.) This assumes no epidemic deaths of those living away from the Sacramento River, which is highly unlikely. So this is a conservative number. If the epidemic death rate by the river was closer to 90% (as first-hand descriptions suggest) and more like 50% over the rest of the territory, the population would have been closer to 54,000 (54,000 x 2/3 = 36,000 on river, 18,000 elsewhere, so 36,000 x 10% = 3600 and 18,000 x 50% = 9,000; 3600 + 9000 = 12,600). The approximate modern day non-city population of the Wintun homelands is very similar. Rural Shasta County has about 52,000 and rural Tehama has about 35,000. But only about half of each county is Wintun homeland, and if today’s population is fairly evenly spread, then the current rural population of the northern Wintun territory is about 40,000 to 50,000.
iii Archaeology of the Black Butte Reservoir Region, Glenn and Tehama Counties, California, 1969, p. 64. If you know Stony Creek today, imagine there being many large villages lining it from Stonyford to the Black Butte Reservoir. This is clearly one region where the Indigenous population was greater than that of any era since occupation. We believe that would be the case along every single year-round creek in this region.