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California Cultures

Pre-Columbian —18th Century

Questions to Consider

How do the maps showing the distribution of California’s native tribes differ from maps of California today?

Which of today’s California place names are of Indian origin, according to the maps?

How did European depictions of native Californians differ from what we know of the real lives of these people?

Where They Lived

More than 200 different native tribes — about 300,000 people — once made up the population of the land that is today the state of California. Diverse in culture and way of life, they lived in hundreds of small, politically autonomous communities up and down the state, connected by trade and kinship networks. Two maps show the general range of these tribes throughout the entire area. The map of Pomo linguistic stock shows many dialect variations and village sites, demonstrating the complexity of language variations in just one tribal group.

How They Lived

Most California native communities consisted of between 200 and 500 people. Boundaries were general. Nomadic groups tended to have greater social and gender equality, while more sedentary groups had hierarchical social classes with a wide gulf between rich and poor.

Although artwork by European artists depicts some aspects of California Indian life, we have no images from pre-Columbian California. The lithographs shown here, by Russian artist Ludwig Choris, were based on sketches he created during a visit to California in 1816 — long after their traditional way of life had been disrupted.

It is possible to get glimpses of their lives, but it is impossible to know how these tribes really looked and lived, as opposed to how they were viewed through European eyes. For example, because native groups usually altered the landscape in a way that mimicked nature, Europeans mistakenly assumed natives lived in an untouched "wilderness." But whether they lived in mountains, valleys, deserts, forests, or beaches, native peoples continually managed their environment, tending and cultivating the land through controlled burnings, weeding, pruning, tilling, irrigation, and selective replanting.


We do know that elaborate basketry was an integral component of Native Californian culture and subsistence. Baskets were both beautiful and functional. They varied greatly by shape and size based on their function, be it for gathering food, sifting acorn meal, storing tobacco, gambling, cooking, and even transporting water. Native Californians could weave so tightly that their baskets held boiling water — heated by hot rocks — without leaking.

Although the images shown here do not include baskets from pre-Columbian times, these traditional baskets suggest the wide range of shapes, patterns, and types of baskets made by native women. Two photographs taken in Yosemite National Park during the 1930s and 1940s show Lucy Telles, a famous basketmaker also known as Pa-ma-has (1885-1955). Telles was of Yosemite Miwok and Mono Lake Paiute descent. She often worked in the park, demonstrating native basket-making techniques for tourists. One photograph shows her working on her largest basket; the other shows her seated amidst 10 other baskets, possibly all made by her.

California Content Standards

English-Language Arts

Grade 4:

1.0 Writing Strategies: Research and Technology

2.0 Writing Applications
2.3 Write information reports.

2.0 Speaking Applications
2.2 Make informational presentations.

Grade 5:

2.0 Writing Applications
2.3 Write research reports about important ideas, issues, or events.

2.0 Speaking Applications
2.2 Deliver informative presentations about an important idea, issue, or event.

History-Social Science

Grade 4:

4.2 Students describe the social, political, cultural, and economic life and interactions among people of California from the pre-Columbian societies to the Spanish mission and Mexican rancho periods. (4.2.1, 4.2.5)

Grade 5:

5.1 Students describe the major pre-Columbian settlements, including the cliff dwellers and pueblo people of the desert Southwest, the American Indians of the Pacific Northwest, the nomadic nations of the Great Plains, and the woodland peoples east of the Mississippi River.

5.3 Students describe the cooperation and conflict that existed among the American Indians and between the Indian nations and the new settlers.

Visual Arts

3.0 Historical and Cultural Context Understanding the Historical Contributions and Cultural Dimensions of the Visual Arts. Students analyze the role and development of the visual arts in past and present cultures throughout the world, noting human diversity as it relates to the visual arts and artists.

Native races of the Pacific States, Californian Group Indians of California by stocks and tribes : and California place names of Indian origon Map of the territory of the Pomo linguistic stock and of the adjacent territories of other linguistic stocks, showing dialectic subdivisions and village sites. 1908
[Portrait heads of Indians of California] [War dance costumes of the inhabitants of California] Bateau du port de San Francisco [ca. 1815].
Northern Valley Yukut Indians hunting on bay of San Francisco, California, 1822 Arms and utensils of California Indians, 1822 Old Klamath River woman.
Lucy Telles with baskets Boysen Studio Date:[1940s] Woman in dress, sweater, and hat sitting with hands folded over basket in lap (possibly Native American). Number on negative is 1332. Lucy Telles and her largest basket Date: September 16, 1933
Women; Tallac, near Lake Tahoe; 15 October 1900; 5 July 1903 no photograph no photograph

Note about picture captions

The original captions on some of the historical photographs may include racial terms that were commonplace at the time, but considered to be derogatory today.

Few native artifacts from pre-Columbian California have persisted into the 21st century. No original images in this topic were created before the early 19th century.

Calisphere: Related Materials

Diversity in the Changing State

Historical Essays

Before 1768: Pre-Columbian California

Analysis Tools

6C's of Primary Source Analysis (PDF) (Source: UCI History Project)
Photographs (PDF) (Source: Library of Congress)
Posters/Visuals (PDF) (Source: Bringing History Home)
Written Documents (PDF) (Source: NARA)
Primary Source Activity (PDF) (Source: Library of Congress)