San Joaquin Valley The Central Region (comprising the Central Valley, adjacent foothills of the southern Cascades and Sierra Nevada, the coast) is a land of contrast and great diversity: inland lakes and ponds nestled among foothills, spectacular mountains with cascading rivers and streams, broad lush valleys, coasts rich in shellfish, and in the southern San Joaquin Valley, vast freshwater marshes 100 miles north to south and 25-50 miles east to west. Abundant oaks supplied acorns and hardwood, vast grasslands and chaparral yielded hard seeds, deer, antelope, rabbits and birds, while prodigious amounts of fish were taken from the streams, rivers, and lakes. And on the coast, the riches of the sea, especially shellfish, were a stable and nearly year-round food resource.

This region was home to a remarkably dense and diverse population of Native Californians. Perhaps as many as one-third of the more than 330,000 Native Californians lived here; four of the six linguistic stocks found in California are represented here; cultural and social patterns were highly variable, as were the adaptive strategies: coastal tidelands collectors; riverine fishers; lakeshore fishers-hunters-gatherers; valley and plains gatherers; foothill gatherers-hunters. There also was great variety in material culture, from house forms to boats, from clothing to basketry.

Throughout this area the basic food resources were acorns, seeds, and animal foods (deer, elk, antelope, rabbits, waterfowl), with anadromous fish (especially salmon) forming a considerable part of the subsistence base for people living along the major river systems, while marine resources, especially clams, mussels, and small fish were important to coastal tideland collectors. To take advantage of the wealth of food resources, many groups practiced a form of seasonal transhumance, moving from winter encampments located in one ecotone to temporary resource procurement campsites in several different ecotones from late spring through early fall. In other areas, the environmental richness was so great there was little need to move and large, permanently occupied towns arose, with populations reaching 1,000 persons or more.

The basic form of political organization was the "tribelet." Each tribelet was composed of a large central vallage and associated satellite or subsidiary communities. In addition, each tribelet landscape also included modified natural communities and a network of trails reflecting local relationships between land and life. Through plant care, burning, careful management of animal and bird populations, and the establishment of boundaries, settlements, and pathways, the native people reorganized the Central Region's landscapes to satisfy their subsistence needs and cultural desires.

Political leadership differed markedly from that characteristic of the Northwest Region. In the Central Region there were no "Big Men" whose prestige and position depended upon possession and display of accumulated wealth objects. Instead, political leadership rested with a headperson(s) whose position was acquired by heredity and whose social prestige was based on his authoritative office, and only secondarily on the wealth that accrued to him because of that position. A headperson lived in the tribelet's central village, was the head of a prominent and wealthy family, and whose decisions affected matters of resource allocation; interpersonal and intervillage disputes; and sometimes ceremonial or religious activities.

Of the many technologies and tools developed by the Central Region's people, two stand out: acorn processing and basketry. It was the harvesting, storing, and processing of acorns that were responsible for both the near sedentary quality and relative density and well-being of the native peoples of this region. Basketry reached a highpoint in technical artistry and sophistication in the Central Region. From plants such as sedge, willow, bracken fern and others the people created basketry of an astonishing variety in both form and design.

Religious &ceremonial life was highly variable. In the Sacramento Valley and adjacent foothills the Kuksu religion was predominant while in the southern San Joaquin Valley the Toloache and Dream Helper religious systems were prominant. But there were also outstanding shared themes: dedication to place; the focus on sacred objects and actions; ceremonies for passing through the life cycle; and ceremonies geared to sustaining an economy indebted to plants and animals. And among all groups, spiritual practitioners (shamans) engaged in ritual activities to alter a wide range of conditions, including personal health, economic success, weather conditions, and the like, or to take revenge against the group's enemies.

Defining Features

For additional information on the Central Region,
please select a topic most applicable to your interests

Languages | Subsistence | Settlement Patterns | Sociopolitical Organization | Religion

Northwest Coast | Northeast | Central Coast and Central Valley
East of the Sierra Divide | Interior Desert | Southern Coastal

Native Peoples of California - Topics

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Page last updated: 23 August 1999