All Sources -
Updated Media sources (1) About encyclopedia.com content Print Topic Share Topic
views updated


ETHNONYMS: Mariposan, Noche


Identification. The groups classified under the name "Yokuts" include some forty to fifty subtribes which are usually distinguished by three main cultural and geographical divisions, the Northern Valley Yokuts, the Southern Valley Yokuts, and the Foothills Yokuts. The name "Yokuts" derives from a term in several of the Yokuts dialects that means "people."

Location. The traditional homeland of the Yokuts was the San Joaquin Valley and the adjacent foothills of the Sierra Nevada in south-central California. Their territory extended from the Calaveras River near Stockton south to the Tehachapi Mountains and into the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada between the Fresno and Kern rivers. The climate of the San Joaquin Valley is semiarid, with mild winters and long hot summers, especially in the south. The eastern side of the valley was characterized by extensive marshes that bordered the numerous rivers and streams flowing westward out of the mountains to the San Joaquin River. Fauna, in the form of fish, shellfish, waterfowl, and large and small game, were abundant. The foothills of the Sierra Nevada is a region of irregular and steep ridges and valleys, offering a diversity of ecological zones and varied plant and animal resources.

Demography. Prior to European contact the Yokuts numbered in excess of 18,000 and perhaps as many as 50,000. In 1833 epidemic disease, probably malaria, devastated the Yokuts, claiming as much as 75 percent of the population. In the late 1970s the Yokuts numbered several hundred, including 325 living on the Tule River Reservation and another 100 living on the Santa Rosa Rancheria.

Linguistic Affiliation. Each of the Yokuts subtribes had its own dialect, all of which belong to the California Penutian language family. In the mid-1970s only a few of the many Yokuts dialects were still being spoken.

History and Cultural Relations

Archaeological evidence indicates the presence of small hunter-gatherer bands in the southern part of the San Joaquin Valley dating to at least eight thousand years ago. The aboriginal neighbors of the Yokuts included the Miwok to the north, the Costanoans, Salinans, and Chumash to the west, the Kitanemuk to the south, and the Tubatulabal and Monache to the east. The Southern Valley Yokuts first encountered Europeans in 1772 when Spanish missionaries penetrated the region. Owing to the remoteness and inaccessibility of the region, however, both they and the Foothills Yokuts were spared intensive contact until the 1820s when Mexican settlers began to invade the area. The early contact experience of the Northern Valley Yokuts was quite different. Early in the nineteenth century many of the Northern Valley Yokuts were drawn into the Spanish mission system, and large numbers were lost to the combination of disease and cultural breakdown that was characteristic of the Spanish mission experience. Following the discovery of gold in California in 1848, White settlers flooded into the San Joaquin Valley and carried out a ruthless campaign to drive the Yokuts off their land. In 1851 the remaining Yokuts groups ceded their lands to the United States, and after resistance by Californians was overcome, a reservation system was eventually established for them. The demoralizing conditions suffered by the Yokuts gave way in 1870 to widespread but short-lived participation in the Ghost Dance. The Ghost Dance promised the return of dead relatives, freedom from sickness and death, peace and prosperity, and the disappearance of Whites. By 1875 interest in the Ghost Dance had died after the new world envisioned by the cult failed to materialize. Today the descendants of the Yokuts live on the Tule River Reservation near Porterville, California, established in 1873, and the Santa Rosa Rancheria near Lemoore, California, established in 1921.


The Yokuts occupied permanent residences for most of the year, a pattern that stemmed from the abundance and diversity of the plant and animal resources in their environment. Both the Northern Valley and Southern Valley subtribes made use of oval-shaped single-family dwellings constructed of a wooden pole frame covered with tule mats. The Southern Valley Yokuts also used similar, but larger dwellings that housed as many as ten families. Among the Northern Valley subtribes dwellings were scattered in an irregular pattern in close proximity to one another, and among the Southern Valley groups they were arranged in a single, regular row. The Foothills Yokuts followed the irregular pattern of housing arrangement, but dwellings consisted of conical-shaped huts thatched with pine needles, tar weed, and other locally available materials.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The traditional subsistence activities of the Yokuts varied from region to region but in all instances emphasized fishing, hunting, and gathering. Among the Northern Valley Yokuts the major food staples were salmon, taken in great numbers with nets and spears during fall spawning runs, and acorns, gathered in significant quantities in the late spring or early summer and fall. The hunting of waterfowl, such as geese and ducks, was also of major importance. The subsistence pattern of the Southern Valley Yokuts focused on lake and river fishing with nets, basket traps, and spears, hunting waterfowl from tule rafts, and gathering shellfish and tule roots. The Foothills Yokuts emphasized hunting deer by means of stalking, ambush, and collective drive techniques, trapping and shooting quail, and gathering acorns; fishing, employing spears, weirs, and poisons, supplemented this pattern during certain times of the year. The descendants of the Yokuts living on the Tule River Reservation now find employment in lumbering and farm and ranch work and derive some income from the lease of grazing lands and timber tracts. Yokuts living on the Santa Rosa Rancheria are less fortunate, with many unable to find anything more than seasonal employment as migrant workers.

Industrial Arts. The Valley Yokuts depended to a considerable extent upon tule as a raw material for baskets, cradles, mats for rafts and house coverings, and a variety of other items. Employing twined and coil techniques, the Yokuts wove baskets of a variety of types, including cooking containers, burden baskets, winnowing trays, seed beaters, and water bottles. Simple, functional pottery was produced by some Foothills Yokuts groups.

Trade. The Yokuts were heavily engaged in trade with their neighbors prior to European contact. Among the variety of goods traded by the Yokuts were fish, dog pups, salt, seeds, and tanned antelope and deer hides. In return they received acorns, stone mortars and pestles, obsidian, rabbit-skin blankets, marine shells, shell beads, and dried sea urchins and starfish.

Division of Labor. Both sexes contributed substantially to subsistence, with males primarily responsible for hunting and fishing and females for collecting shellfish and plant foods. In addition, men wove fishing nets and produced wood, bone, and stone tools; women cooked, cared for children, and wove baskets and tule mats.

Land Tenure. Local or subtribal territories were owned collectively. Each member of a local group possessed rights to utilize the resources of the group's territory; however, in some instances some seed-producing areas were owned by individual women.


Kin Groups and Descent. Beyond the family, the most important kinship groupings were patrilineal exogamous totemic lineages, each of which was connected to one of two patrilineal moieties; only among some of the Foothills Yokuts subtribes was the moiety organization absent. Subtribal offices and responsibility for certain ceremonial functions passed within lineages. Moiety members had reciprocal ceremonial obligations and formed groups for opposing teams in games such as gambling, races, and hoop and pole contests. Patrilineal descent was the norm.

Kinship Terminology. Valley Yokuts group kin terms followed the Omaha pattern; Foothills Yokuts terms followed the Hawaiian pattern.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriages arranged by families were preceded by gift giving to the family of the future bride and concluded with a feast. Lineage exogamy was enforced, and moiety exogamy was favored but not prescribed. Matrilocality was customary for newlyweds, but after a year the married couple shifted residence to the husband's father's home or set up their own residence nearby in his village. Polygyny was allowed but infrequent, and divorce was an easy matter to effect by either husband or wife.

Domestic Group. The basic economic and social economic unit among the Valley Yokuts was the nuclear family; among the Foothills Yokuts the extended family was the norm. Generally, each family lived separately in its own dwelling, but among some groups of the Southern Valley Yokuts as many as ten families shared a single large communal home.

Inheritance. Subtribal political offices and certain ceremonial functions were inherited patrilineally within lineages.

Socialization. During her first menstruation a girl was isolated in her home and prohibited from consuming certain foods and drinks. Subsequently, a celebratory feast was held to which neighbors were invited. No special puberty or initiation rite was held for boys. Adult status for both sexes was signified by a group ceremony intended to bring long life, happiness, and prosperity. The ritual involved the consumption of a hallucination-producing decoction derived from the root of jimsonweed.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social and Political Organization. Among the Yokuts there was no overarching political authority uniting the numerous subtribes. Rather, each subtribe was an autonomous unit composed of one or a few villages. Leadership within the village units was provided by a headman whose position was inherited patrilineally within a particular lineage and whose responsibilities included directing the annual mourning ceremony, mediating disputes, hosting visitors, sanctioning the execution of social deviants, and assisting the poor. The headman was aided and counseled by a herald or messenger, whose position also was inherited patrilineally. Relations between subtribes were usually peaceful and cooperative, although warfare between local groups was not unknown. In some instances subtribes united in warfare against common enemies.

Social Control and Conflict. Socially disruptive persons, such as shamans believed to practice sorcery, were sometimes murdered by an execution squad hired by the village headman.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Yokuts origin myth depicts a world covered with water, which is transformed by the action of Eagle, who takes mud brought from the depths by an aquatic bird, mixes it with seeds, and allows it to expand to form the earth. The Yokuts believed in a variety of localized spirits, some of whom were potentially evil.

Religious Practitioners. Part-time religious specialists, or shamans, with powers derived from visions or dreams cured the sick and conducted public rituals and celebrations. Most often males, the shamans were believed to be capable of using their powers for evil purposes and might be executed on suspicion of doing so.

Ceremonies. The most important of the Yokuts religious rituals was the annual mourning ceremony, a six-day rite held in the summer or fall to honor the dead who had passed away during the previous year. The ceremony, which involved the participation of visitors from other villages, included symbolic killing, the destruction of property, and the ritualized washing of mourners, and concluded with feasting and games. Other ceremonies included simple first-fruit rites held for various seeds and berries as they became available for harvest.

Arts. The most important artistic achievement of the Yokuts was in designs woven into their baskets. Musical instruments included rattles, bone and wood whistles, and a musical bow. Music was expressed primarily as an accompaniment to ritual activities.

Medicine. Serious illnesses were treated by shamans employing supernatural powers received in visions and dreams. Cures, effected only for a fee, involved consulting with spiritual helpers and sucking the sickness-causing agents from the patient's body.

Death and Afterlife. Cremation and burials were typical funeral practices for the Yokuts, with the latter becoming more common in the historical period as a result of White contact. After death the corpse was handled by paid undertakers and buried along with personal possessions with the head to the west or northwest in a cemetery outside the Village. Among the Southern Valley Yokuts cremation was reserved for shamans and individuals who died while away from home. After cremation, the remains of the deceased were buried in the village cemetery. The Yokuts believed that the soul left the body of the deceased two days after burial and journeyed to an afterworld in the west or northwest. Following a death, close kin maintained a three-month period of mourning, which included ritual abstention from eating meat and burning the hair short.


Gayton, Anna H. (1948). Yokuts and Western Mono Ethnography. University of California Anthropological Records, 10, 1-302. Berkeley.

Kroeber, Alfred L. (1925). Handbook of the Indians of California. U.S. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin no. 78. Washington, D.C.

Latta, Frank F. (1949) Handbook of Yokuts Indians. Bakersfield, Calif.: Kern County Museum.

Spier, Robert F. G. (1978). "Foothill Yokuts." In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 8, California, edited by Robert F. Heizer, 471-484. Washington, D.C: Smithsonian Institution.

Wallace, William J. (1978). "Northern Valley Yokuts." In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 8, California, edited by Robert F. Heizer, 462-470. Washington, D.C: Smithsonian Institution.

Wallace, William J. (1978) "Southern Valley Yokuts" In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 8, California, edited by Robert F. Heizer, 448-461. Washington, D.C: Smithsonian Institution.