The lectures for this class are organized around three basic topics: an Historical Sketch; Culture Areas; and Medical Practices. The Historical Sketch traces the social and cultural evolution of the native peoples, beginning with their first appearance and ending with the contemporary scene. The Culture Area section takes a look at the manifold economic and social adaptations made by the native peoples just prior to and shortly after the coming of the Europeans. The last topic, and it's a broad one, is Medical Practices of the Native Californians. In this section we will examine the roles of health care providers, concentrating on how plants were used in maintaining and restoring health to both the individual and the community.

Historical Sketch

After examining the various topics listed below, please visit both Ralph Berger's California History and Dr. Tad Beckman's two truly outstanding sites: Historical Sketch and The View From Native California.

Please Select a Topic Most Applicable to Your Interests

Before Contact Contact - Exploration Spanish and Missionization Mexican Period American Period Contemporary Scene

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Culture Areas

California - A Land of Superlatives
California is a land of almost inexpressable biological and geological complexity - nowhere else in North America is so much environmental and biological diversity found in an area of equal size. Within the state one finds one of the highest mountains in North America (Mt. Whitney), the lowest Depression (Death Valley), the largest fault system (San Andreas), the deepest canyon (Kings), to which is added an overwhelming diversity of animal and plant species, including the oldest and largest trees on earth. Landforms and hydrographic features of every kind can be found, from deserts to breath-taking mountain ranges, from deep and narrow river canyons to broad river valleys, from rugged fog-shrouded coastlines to broad sandy beaches, from marshlands to both freshwater and saline lakes. The almost endless combinations of these things produce microenvironments of immense vareity and resource potential.

This diversity and richness of terrain and soils, available water, plants and animals, and climate had direct effects on the human population. On the eve of the European arrival in California (C.E. 1769) more than 300,000 people (some say almost a million) called California home - a greater number than in any comparable area north of the urban civilizations of central Mexico. So varied were the native lifeways that more than 100 unique ethnic groups and several hundred politically autonomous nations could be recognized.

Subsistence practices varied widely. Some groups made their living by hunting sea mammals while their neighbors concentrated on harvesting acorns. Other groups took prodigious quantities of salmon from the many rivers and streams while others spent a large part of their time harvesting wild seeds, nuts, roots and hunting small game animals. In the Sacramento Valley many people lived in large earth-covered lodges while along the shores of San Francisco Bay people erected willow-framed, tule covered houses resembling somewhat a basket turned upside down. Some ninety separte languages (and hundreds of dialects) were spoken, some as dissimilar as English and Chinese, others as close as French and Italian. And while physically the Native Californians resemble in some ways other Native Americans, they varied in stature and included nations that were among the tallest (the Mohave) and the shortest (the Yuki) on the continent. Such diversity in languages, cultural and biological adaptations are direct outcomes of the more than eleven thousand years of cultural evolution in California.

Scholars have used a number of concepts for organizing and analyzing all this diversity. Prime among such heuristic devices is the concept of the Culture Area, a region where the inhabitants share such things as ecological, economic, social, and ideological systems. Such an organizing principle is an abstraction, a classificatory device convenient for grouping societies that are similar in terms of many aspects of their culture, but primarily subsistence.

Organizing by culture area has some drawbacks. First, the group being described is frozen in time, usually just prior to or just after European / American conquest; and the concept often stresses material culture - the things people have such as watercraft, housing styles, ect. - at the expense of other aspects of culture.

Second, there is disagreement over how to define the boundaries of Indian California and what societies should or shouldn't be called "Californian." The Spaniards and later European colonists saw the lower Colorado River as an obvious dividing line, and the river became the southeastern border of the state. Yet both banks were home to tribes who cultivated crops and had more in common with the town-dwelling puebloan peoples to their east than with the people to their west. A more significant boundary was not the Colorado River but the desert that separated the river dwellers from the hunter-foragers of interior southern California.

In a similar fashion, when Americans created the states of California and Nevada they drew a line between the two that included in California portions of the Great Basin geomorphological region - home to such nations as the Paiute and Shosone whose nomadic lifestyle and small-scale social groupings stood in marked contrast to the settled nations living west of the Sierras.

Third, anthropologists disagree about the number of culture areas in California. Some divide California into three regions, other four, while still others into six or more. In this class I use a modified version of one of the more popular culture area classificatory schemes, categorizing Native California into six regions, each characterized by distinctive social and economic orientations. It's neither better nor worse than others, but reflects my own theoretical and research interests.

I am still adding material to the Regions listed below; hopefully all the essays will be finished by the time the Fall Semester begins. After viewing the material I have prepared, please visit Dr. Tad Beckman's Resources for California Teachers & Students site. For each of the various culture areas Dr. Beckman provides (or soon will provide) a wealth of information including: Reservations and Rancherias, Museums and Archives, Ongoing Programs, Native American Contacts, as well as a list of pertinent publications. In addition, Dr. Beckman provides links to his work in progress, The View from Native California, which he describes as representing a "long period of personal discovery and adventure" into the lifeways of the Native Californians.

Please Select a Region Most Applicable to Your Interests

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

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California Indian Medicine

This portion of the class considers how the Native Californians coped with the challenges of sickness, disease and imbalance with the world through the use of herbal medicines. This may seem an unlikely choice since California's native peoples were considered by many, until quite recently, as marginal, backward societies, caught in a cul-de-sac of time and cultural development. But within the past two decades, as new techniques of investigation have been applied and old data re-examined from new perspectives, it appears that California's native peoples were as knowledgeable in herbal and non-herbal therapeutics as any group of people anywhere in the world.

Please Select a Topic Most Applicable to Your Interests

Introduction & Overview

Conceptions of Health,
Illness, &Curing
Healers & The Healing Process People With Special Knowledge Treatment of Specific Disorders
Midwives, Pregnancy,
& Birth
Menstruation &
Girls' Puberty Rites
Psychotherapy Death


Anthro 6 Syllabus - Cabrillo | Resources

Last Update: 27 June 2005