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Arts and Traditions in Everyday Life (1900s – 1950s)

Questions to Consider

What Native American cultural traditions are reflected in these images?

What cultural changes do you see reflected in these images?

About the Images

Many of the images of Native Californians in the first half of the 20th century were taken by anthropologists seeking to document native traditions. Some show Native Californians engaged in the burgeoning tourist trade. Others portray family and friends in more relaxed settings.


By 1900, California’s native population — estimated at 300,000 at the time of Spanish colonization in the 1700s — had dropped to just 20,000. Over time, native groups combined, split apart, and recombined in new ways, and individuals were assimilated first into the Spanish culture and later into mainstream American life. After 1900, the number of Native Americans living in California rose steadily as Indians from other states moved to the state.

As Native Californian cultures changed, hundreds of languages and countless traditions were lost. Some traditional practices and arts, however, continued. As the 20th century began, these became valuable bits of knowledge for anthropologists to document, preserve, and study.

Many of the photographs in this topic were taken by anthropologists in the course of their fieldwork. They documented string games like cat’s cradle (part of folk culture in many parts of the world), ceremonial dances, and the names and faces of the people they encountered. They also documented domestic activities such as basket weaving, including the gathering and preparing of fibers, as depicted in several images. One woman is shown cleaning pine nuts in a woven basket; other women use mortars to prepare food. Beginning and end of life were recorded: a woman stands holding a baby in basket, and a group is shown participating in a cremation ceremony in a field.

With the closing of the frontier, Americans grew nostalgic for remnants of the disappearing West — including the “noble savage.” Anthropologists tended to be less interested in the contemporary lives of the people they were studying than in tradition, so these images portray surviving practices drawn from life before European exploration and colonization.

Other photographs in this topic, however, show Native Americans dressed for daily life in the new century. The unidentified men, women, and children photographed standing in a field in Alturas; the group of Northern California Yurok, cleaning surf fish in 1928; the families at Tule Lake and Hat Creek; and the two young women whose picture was taken at a fishing camp in 1928 all contrast with the idealized version of California’s Native Americans that appealed to tourists.

“Getting back to nature” was a popular leisure activity in the early 20th century, and tourists enjoyed visiting rustic camps and the new national parks. There, the sale of handmade Native American mementos, and the showcasing of native traditional arts and ceremonies, helped some native peoples survive hard financial times. Tourists, eager to bring home authentic souvenirs, bought handmade baskets, such as those being sold by the unidentified Tallac woman near Lake Tahoe. For many years tourists in Yosemite National Park enjoyed demonstrations of tradition-based crafts and arts, such as basket-weaving and ceremonial dances (such as the one pictured here presented by Chris Brown, also known as Chief Lemee, behind the Yosemite Museum in 1950).

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.

Grade 8

1.0 Writing Strategies: Research and Technology

2.0 Writing Applications
2.3 Write research reports.

2.0 Speaking Applications
2.3 Deliver research presentations.

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)

4.4 Students explain how California became an agricultural and industrial power, tracing the transformation of the California economy and its political and cultural development since the 1850s. (4.4.3)

Grade 5:

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

Grade 8:

8.12 Students analyze the transformation of the American economy and the changing social and political conditions in the United States in response to the Industrial Revolution. (8.12.2)

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.

Woman making basket 15-2619 Tachi Woman with bundle of tules 1
Mohave cremation 15-8217 1 1
Manual Duro in dance costume 15-4242 11 2
1 The third figure of the Tatahuila dance 15-4240 Cat's cradle: Girl baby (eselu osa), complete 15-7152
Informant splitting spruce roots 15-9016 Tieing dried fish in splints with wild strawberry vine 15-11474 Mary Pohot working at bedrock mortars 15-7875
Woman and basketry materials 15-9020 The-Last-Great-Gathering-Of-The-Red-Men-Alturas-Cal. G-1042 2
Drying surf fish 15-11470 Fishing camp at Freshwater Lagoon, two half-breed Yurok girls 15-11465 12
10 Gathering at Catholic Chapel at Santa Rosa Rancheria near Lemoore 7
Lakeport Pomo in dance regalia 15-18499 35 Chris Brown (Chief Lemee) dancing

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.

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)