Native People of California


People have lived in what’s now California and Baja California (a part of Mexico) for almost 20,000 years. Because the landscape has so many different habitats—the rainy redwood forests; the snow-capped Sierra Nevada Mountains; the Central Valley farmlands; the Mojave Desert; and the Pacific Ocean coastline—the ancient people who settled here split into hundreds of smaller groups, each developing their own culture and lifestyle.


The more than 500 tribes that lived in this region developed very different cultures from one another. The Pomo (POH-moh) lived along the northern coast and built homes using slabs of redwood tree bark. The mountain-dwelling Miwok (MEE-wuk) made cone-shaped bark houses, and the Maidu (MY-doo), who lived in valleys, created round lodges from earth. In the south, the Chumash (CHOO-mash) built circular frames using wooden poles, covering the structures with grass and marsh plants. In the summer, many tribes camped in temporary brush huts while they moved around to hunt and gather fruits and vegetables.

Tribal crafts differed depending on what natural resources were available. Tribes in the north, like the Tolowa (toh-LAW-wah), built canoes from giant redwood trees; in the south, the Cahuilla (kaw-WEE-ah) made clothing, nets, and sandals out of desert agave plants. In fact, these tribes produced so many different items that they created a huge trading network in which people traveled by foot or river to swap their goods. Some tribes, like the Chumash and Cahuilla, broke off pieces of giant clam shells to use as money.

People of the forest-based Cahto (KAH-toh) and Wintun (win-TOON) tribes ate caterpillars, bees, and grasshoppers. They also gathered acorns that could be ground into flour or made into soup. The desert-dwelling Cahuilla and Chemehuevi (cheh-meh-WAY-vee) snacked on snakes and lizards. Along the coasts, tribes like the Chumash fished and hunted sea lions and whales.


When gold was discovered in 1848 in Coloma, California, thousands of settlers rushed onto tribal lands, pushing out native people. By the late 1800s, the U.S. government had forced the Native Americans to live only on small pieces of land called reservations. Many tribal members still live on reservations today, where they express their heritage while living a modern life.

Elders teach children traditional tribal dances and ceremonies such as the World Renewal Ceremony, in which dancers move and sing to ensure plentiful food and prevent disasters like earthquakes, and the Jumping Dance, meant to remove evil from the world and replace it with good. The Cahto still walk to the coast once a year, following the path their ancestors took to fish and gather seaweed.

The White Rose Singers from Sherman Indian High School in Riverside, California, perform a song that celebrates the agave plant.
The White Rose Singers from Sherman Indian High School in Riverside, California, perform a song that celebrates the agave plant.
Photograph by DAVID MCNEW, AFP, Getty Images

Text and photos adapted from the Nat Geo Kids Encyclopedia of American Indian History and Culture.