Miwok (pronounced MEE-wock or MEE-wuk). The name is derived from míwûk, the Central Miwok word for “people.” It is sometimes spelled Me-Wuk, Mewuk, or Meewoc. The Lake Miwok called themselves kó·ca, which also means “people”; they referred to themselves as Pomo, however, when they spoke English.
Formerly, three groups lived in more than one hundred villages in a large area in central California. Their territory stretched from the Sierra Nevada mountain range in the east to the Pacific Coast just north of San Francisco. In the early twenty-first century they live on small, often isolated rancherias see scattered throughout their former territory.
In the late 1700s there were about twenty-two thousand Miwok. In 1910 the population was down to about seven hundred. In the 1990 U.S. Census, 3,438 people identified themselves as Miwok. The 2000 census showed 2,785 Miwok and 4,923 people who had some Miwok heritage.
Origins and group affiliations
Miwok groups have occupied Central California for at least three thousand years. The four Miwok groups are Coast Miwok, Lake Miwok, Bay Miwok, and Valley (or Sierra) Miwok. The Coast, Bay, and Lake Miwok were cut off from the Sierra Miwok and from each other by the Pomo, Patwin, and Wappo tribes. The Miwok married people of the Pomo and Maidu tribes among other neighbors. During the mid-1800s the Valley Miwoks formed an alliance with the Yokuts to fight white encroachment on their territory. In modern times some Miwok share reservations or rancherias with the Maidu, Pomo, and Wintun.
An easy-going, happy people who loved to dance, the Miwok were divided into four groups who shared a language and customs, but were each unique. Their differences stemmed from the ecology of the regions they inhabited, for a life lived in the mountains is unlike a life lived by the ocean. Like other California tribes, they lived a comfortable, peaceful life until gold was discovered on their lands. Since then they have struggled to survive and maintain their culture, identity, and language, and to recover some of their former homelands.
Encounters with Europeans
The Coast Miwok were the first to meet Europeans. In 1579 British explorer Sir Francis Drake (1540–1596) sailed into Miwok waters. He spent five days there repairing his ship, the Golden Hind, and wrote an account of his meeting with the tribe. At about the same time Spanish explorers claimed California, but did not encounter the Miwok, nor did they build any settlements in the tribe’s territory. Two centuries passed before the Miwok again encountered Europeans.
In 1769 the Spanish began building forts and missions in California to protect the land from the British and Russians. They also intended to teach Native Californians to be “useful” to future Spanish settlers. They converted the Native Americans to the Catholic religion, moved them into the missions, and taught them Spanish and skills such as farming and carpentry.
1579: Sir Francis Drake encounters the Coast Miwok.
1794: First known Miwok baptism takes place at San Francisco Mission.
1821: Mexican independence from Spain hastens settlement of Miwok territory.
1848: Gold Rush brings U.S. settlers in large numbers into Miwok country.
1900–20: Several rancherias are established for the surviving Miwok.
1934–72: Most Miwok rancherias are terminated.
1972–94: Tribal status is restored to several Miwok rancherias.
Spanish missionaries baptized their first Miwok convert in 1794. Soon most of the Coast Miwok had either been converted or had died from harsh treatment at the missions or from diseases brought by Europeans. Next the missionaries turned their attention to Native Americans living inland. By 1811 they had reached the Sierra Miwok groups and forcibly took them to San Jose Mission.
Spanish soldiers rounded up those who tried to flee. Some Miwok were killed, but others joined people from the Yokuts tribe and rebelled. During the 1820s and 1830s they learned Spanish fighting techniques and used them to carry out raids against the missions and to acquire horses from Spanish ranches. (By the late 1820s horsemeat had become a staple in the Miwok diet, and they could only obtain it by raiding the settlements.) Horses also gave them mobility, and they soon became expert riders whose hit and run attacks posed a real threat to the Spanish.
The Miwok who had been taken to the missions, like the Cahuilla, Chumash, and Costanoan (see entries), endured great hardships and the near-destruction of their culture. Those who could manage it, fled; others were forced into labor at the missions or on nearby ranches. Disease spread quickly in the close quarters of the mission, and many Miwok died.
Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821 and ended the mission system in 1834. But for California Natives, freedom from the missions did not mean a return to their old way of life. Although Mexico had promised them land, they never received it. Instead they were forced to work for the Mexican settlers who flooded into California. One Mexican rancher gathered a posse of other ranchers, slaughtered large numbers of Miwok, and took hundreds more as prisoners to work as slaves. Massacres and enforced labor of Native Americans became common throughout California as Mexican settlers moved northward in force.
A third wave of settlement washed across Miwok territory after 1848. Mexico ceded (gave up) California to the United States following the Mexican-American War War (1846–48; a war fought between the United States and Mexico which led to loss of about one-half of Mexico’s national territory to the United States). Gold was discovered in the Sierras, and shortly after the war was over, the California gold rush began. Now the Miwok of the Sierra Nevada, largely unaffected by Mexican settlement, were confronted with an invasion of prospectors and miners. The newcomers brought fatal diseases and alcohol, which caused many longstanding problems for the Miwok.
Relations between the Miwok and miners were almost instantly hostile. Whites took over Native American land, leaving the Miwok with only small plots. Some Miwok went to work for miners; others searched for gold themselves. Often whole families worked together. Men dug and passed full baskets to their children who carried them to their mothers. The women washed the diggings in specially made grass baskets. Some Miwok made good money until prospectors ran them off and took over their claims, often stealing their gold and even killing them. Between 1847 and 1860 miners killed at least two hundred Miwok and took their land.
Beginning in 1851, 18 treaties were drawn up between the U.S. government and California tribes—including the Miwok. The tribes agreed to give up most of their lands to the U.S. government in exchange for about 7.5 million acres that would be set aside for reservations.
Settlers objected that so much land was being given away (about eight percent of the state). They convinced the U.S. Senate to reject the treaties. Unaware that the treaties had not been ratified, many tribes moved to the reservations they thought belonged to them. Most Miwok remained in the area of their homelands, but they had no land rights. During this time hundreds more Miwok were enslaved or murdered by American settlers.
Rancherias for the Miwok
By 1910, the population of the Sierra Miwok had fallen to 670 from its pre-European contact high of 19,500. Only 41 Lake Miwok and 11 Coast Miwok were counted in a census about that time.
In the early 1900s the U.S. government addressed the problem of homeless Native Americans in California by buying small parcels of land called rancherias (the Spanish word for ranch). Much of this property was located in isolated areas where settlers did not want to live. The land was poor and lacked developed water sources. The Lake Miwok moved onto the Middletown Rancheria (near Clear Lake) with the Pomo (see entry). Some Sierra Miwok went to Jackson Rancheria and Tuolumne Rancheria, both in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Other rancherias started at that time whose residents were all or partly Miwok are Buena Vista, Chicken Ranch, Ione, Sheep Ranch, and Shingle Springs.
Natives on the rancherias were expected to farm and to assimilate, or become more like white Americans. The land was so poor, however, that it was nearly impossible for the people to support themselves. Most Miwok became dependent on government aid.
The government, finding that its assimilation policies were not working, adopted a new policy called termination. Termination ended all U.S. government relations—including federal financial assistance—with Native tribes and peoples. Those who agreed received a monetary settlement for their share of tribal assets, but they lost federal recognition.
The Rancheria Act of 1958 forced California Natives on the rancherias to decide whether to accept or reject termination. Thirty-six of the most isolated California Native American rancherias accepted termination, including most of the Miwok rancherias. Some tribe members were forced to accept termination if others on the rancheria agreed to it. The payments they received in exchange for the reservations were, in most cases, very small, and the people no longer had land of their own. Extreme poverty resulted.
In 1979 a Pomo woman, Tillie Hardwick, filed a lawsuit on behalf of 34 terminated rancherias. The courts declared termination illegal and restored the rancherias, including several Miwok ones. By the early 2000s the ten Miwok reservations and rancherias were federally recognized, which entitles them to federal funds and benefits. Most have opened, or are planning to open, casinos to improve their economies as well as to fund land purchases and tribal services.
Rancheria Act of 1958
The Rancheria Act was passed by the U.S. Congress in 1958. It required that rancherias decide whether to accept or reject the federal government’s new policy of termination. Termination would end the relationship between the U.S. government and Native tribes and instead make the tribes subject to state laws and taxes. Some tribes accepted termination, but others hesitated.
State authorities, hoping to collect taxes on this land, visited the rancherias that had not agreed. They promised that if tribal members agreed to accept termination, the state would provide new housing, road and water system improvements, and even college scholarships for Native children. Before long, however, the state government realized that it would cost more to keep these promises than it would collect in taxes from the rancherias.
The termination policy soon came under heavy criticism, and support for it died. However, 36 of the most isolated California Indian rancherias had already accepted termination. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s ushered in a new era of government programs and policies that were more friendly toward Native Americans, but it would be years before terminated tribes regained federal recognition.
The Miwok believed in a Creator, an animal god called Coyote. Other important animal gods were Coyote’s son, Condor, and Condor’s son, Chicken Hawk. Mount Diablo is a sacred place for the Miwok because that is where these creative forces came together. Grandfather Coyote created the Native American people at Mount Diablo, along with everything that they would need for life.
One of the most important figures in Miwok society was the spirit doctor, or sucking shaman (pronounced SHAH-mun or SHAY-mun), who could cure illnesses (see “Healing practices”) and who was in charge of sacred ceremonies (see “Festivals and ceremonies”).
Secret societies were common; a major one was the Kuksu Society. Young boys who were chosen to be members underwent a long training process in which they learned special dances and prayers. The society held ceremonies in a large, circular dance house. Members wore feathered headdresses and imitated the spirits while praying for favors like rain and an abundance of crops.
Some Miwok converted to Catholicism during the mission period (1769–1834). Some Miwok took up the Ghost Dance Religion in about 1872. Those who performed the Ghost Dance believed that the Native American way of life would soon be restored. Some elements of the Ghost Dance Religion still survive among the Miwok.
The Miwok language has two major divisions: Eastern Miwok and Coastal Miwok. The two appear to have separated about 2,500 years ago. There were many different dialects of each language spoken by Miwok groups.
Under the mission system, the Miwok were forced to speak Spanish. Later, facing prejudice from American settlers, many refused to speak their language in order to conceal the fact that they were Native American. Government-run schools did not allow Miwok children to use their language. When Miwok elders died, the language began to die, too. Attempts are being made by the few remaining Native speakers to teach the Miwok language to the younger generation.
Coastal Miwok Words and Phrases
Spelling is very important in Coastal Miwok. Many words are similar, except for one doubled consonant. For example, hama means “not,” while hamma is “grandmother.” Yulu is “to be angry,” but yullu is a “rat.” When speaking, the Miwok pronounce doubled consonants longer rather than twice.
To say “goodbye,” the Miwok use the first two phrases below:
- eyya manay kanni … “Don’t forget me!”
- kaópyati nii … “I am going now.”
- kamaccaw … “I’m speaking.”
- ’unmaccaw … “You’re speaking.”
- oppun towih … “Are you well?”
- katowih … “I am well.”
- ’uu … “yes”
- hama … “no”
- hayuusa … “dog”
- ’ellée … “fish”
- wuki … “fire”
- ’umpa … “acorn”
- ’oolok … “ocean”
The Miwok were divided into tribelets—one main settlement surrounded by a few minor outlying settlements. Each tribelet was a separate nation, and each was headed by a chief (hóypuh) and one or two female leaders who oversaw either the dances or the women’s ceremonial house. The woman who handled the dances was part of the Bird Cult. The other female chief directed the construction of the ceremonial house, supervised wood gathering and food preparation, sent out invitation sticks for dances, and sometimes chose the performers.
In some groups the position of chief was handed down to a male heir. If there were no male heirs, a woman could inherit the position. If the heir was too young, a woman could rule in his place until he came of age. In other groups an old chief and four old women chose a future chief and trained him. When he was ready to take over, the old chief stepped aside. If he refused to do so, a poisoner might be hired to remove him from office.
A chief’s duties could include managing food resources, giving personal and legal advice, settling disputes, and making speeches. A Miwok chief who had morning wake-up duty was described in The Indians of California. At sunrise he made the rounds of his village, calling out: “Get up! Get up! All the people get up! Wash your face. After you wash yourself, eat breakfast. Go hunt for something. You will get hungry. After you get something, you will eat it. Get up.”
In modern times there is no unified Miwok nation, but rather a dozen separate Miwok rancherias or reservations. Each is governed by an elected tribal council, with the exception of Tuolumne Rancheria, which is overseen by a community council composed of all eligible tribe members.
Before contact with Europeans, the Miwok economy was based on hunting and gathering; some trading was also done. Shells, which were polished and strung into necklaces, served as money.
The Miwok had a strong sense of property. Land was not private property, but the acorn-producing oaks on it, for example, could be. Fees were charged for the use of the dance house for a girl’s puberty rite. People paid to attend dances, but received a refund if they were unhappy with the performance. Chiefs were paid for their services by hunters, who were required to turn over a portion of the meat they had caught.
After the arrival of the missionaries and settlers, some Miwok still supported themselves by hunting and gathering. They supplemented their income with meager wages from seasonal labor. Some worked on ranches and farms located on their former homelands. Others earned a living by logging; the forestry industry continues to be a major employer. Yosemite National Park in the Sierra Nevada range provides employment as well.
Most Miwok lived in poverty and, for some, the situation has not changed much. One economic success story is the Jackson Miwok Rancheria Casino, one of the most profitable Native American casinos in California. It has been so successful, in fact, that in a matter of only a few years, every person living on the rancheria rose from poverty to live a middle- or upper-class life. The casino is a major employer; its profits allowed the tribe to offer free health care and substance abuse programs, hire a police force, build homes, and pave roads. Several other reservations have also improved their economies through gaming.
Miwok villages were made up of several extended families, consisting of a father, mother, children, and close relatives of the father. Usually six to ten people lived together in one home.
Miwok children learned by observing their elders. Everyone, even the smallest child, was expected to be productive. At age six or seven boys were trained in song and dance rites, and by adolescence they were ready to be welcomed into a variety of Miwok secret societies.
Under the mission system, children learned some Spanish and all about the Catholic religion. In modern times Miwok children attend local public schools; some efforts are also being made to supplement their education with programs on the rancherias.
Miwok home construction depended on where the group lived. Those in the mountains needed sturdier houses to stand up to severe weather; they built cone-shaped structures from three or four thicknesses of bark slabs with no supporting posts. At lower elevations most buildings were conical, formed over a frame of two forked willow poles that leaned together. More poles were tied to these, and then this framework was covered with brush, grass, tule, or bark. A hole in the roof vented smoke from the central fire pit. Eastern Miwok covered their floors with digger or yellow pine needles. Tule mats (pronounced TOO-lee; a type of cattail) and animal hides served as beds. Chiefs sometimes had beds made of poles.
Large villages had circular sweathouses, located partly underground and used only by men; ceremonial chambers or dance houses, sometimes with separate, smaller chambers for women; cone-shaped huts for menstruating women; and acorn granaries constructed of upright poles covered with brush. Many also had a conical hut built over a large rock used during bad weather for grinding.
The Coast Miwok made boats from tule reeds that could carry as many as eight to ten people. Though these boats sometimes became waterlogged after prolonged use, they worked well for short trips because they were light, fast, and easily steered with long poles in shallow water. Double-ended paddles were used in deep water.
The Miwok were hunter-gatherers with access to a great variety of foods. The acorn was a staple food for all groups. Like acorns, buckeye nuts were gathered and prepared in a mush. Women harvested seeds and greens in season, but fruits and roots were scarce. Tobacco was both gathered and planted; men smoked it in elderberry pipes. When the Miwok raided Spanish horse herds in the 1800s, they added horsemeat to their diet.
Before they went hunting, men spent time in sweat lodges to lessen their human odor. They also rubbed their bodies with angelica and mugwort and held their bows and arrows over the fire. Then they donned deer heads to lure animals to them, rather than chasing them. The Miwok caught birds using baskets, put plant bulbs in the water to stun fish, and used nets to catch salmon, geese, seagulls, and other wildlife.
Coast and lake dwellers
Coast Miwok built their villages close to the shore or to lagoons where fishing was plentiful. Crabs were available year-round; kelp, winter salmon runs, and late geese helped to round out the diet during cold weather. Fishing with nets and small traps began in earnest with the coming of spring. Larger fish, such as salmon, were speared, and smaller fish and eels were poisoned by throwing a root (Marah fabaceus) into shallow pools. Mussels and clams were important food from the sea. Small game such as rabbits, wood rats, gophers, and squirrels were eaten, but not sea mammals.
Lake Miwok followed much the same pattern. They also hunted deer by snaring them or tracking them until the animals were worn out. Before white settlers drove most of the animals away, the Miwok also shot elk and grizzly bears. Rabbits, squirrels, and ducks—hunted with clay pellets cast by a sling—also provided meat. They caught trout with their bare hands or by using basket traps or dip nets. Both men and women fished, while only the men hunted game.
In both groups women collected greens such as lettuce, clover, and nettles. They sometimes placed miner’s lettuce near a red ant hill. As the ants walked on the leaves, they secreted a vinegar-like substance, which was used as salad dressing. In the summer women gathered wildflower seeds to make pinole. They also toasted pine seeds, pounded manzanita berries into a type of candy, and dried or baked seaweed for a salty snack.
The Sierra Miwok gathered plants and hunted deer, elk, antelope, black and grizzly bears, quail, pigeons, woodpeckers, rabbits, squirrels, and wood rats. They would not eat dogs, coyotes, or eagles. Fishing was another important source of animal food, especially salmon and trout. Women dislodged seeds from the heads of plants with seed beaters and carried them in burden baskets. A few of the many plants they harvested included wild oats, balsam root, evening primrose, clarkia, gumweed, skunkweed, and California buttercup. Manzanita and madrone berries were used in a cider drink. They also picked wild plums, chokecherries, gooseberries, wild currants, and mushrooms in season.
Clothing and adornment
Clothing was fairly simple for all Miwok. Young children usually wore no clothing, while girls and women had two-piece skirts or double aprons made of deerskin or grass. Men wore animal-hide loincloths (apronlike flaps that hung from the waist in front and back; some were ankle-length) and sleeveless shoulder throws of deerhide or tule. In cold weather they wore robes made from strips of jackrabbit fur held together with vine cording; these also served as blankets. Footwear was not common, but sock-like deerskin moccasins were worn in cold weather and for hunting.
Hair was worn long, either braided, loose, or gathered in a woven hair net. Some men also let their beards grow. Tattoos were common throughout Miwok territory for both men and women. They made them by rubbing poison oak ash into cuts in the skin. A popular design included several vertical lines at the chin and sides of the mouth; the lines might extend from chin to navel. Body paint and feathered belts and bracelets were worn on special occasions. The Miwok believed that body piercing contributed to a long life, so children had both their nose and earlobes pierced and wore flowers through their ears. Women wore shell earrings and nose sticks of shell or polished bone.
Depending on the illness, several types of doctors were available. A person sickened by evil spirits called a sucking doctor, who made a cut in the patient’s body and sucked out the spirits. “Old dancers,” men and women who cured the sick by dancing, singing, and playing musical instruments, were the favorite doctors. People desiring revenge would call upon a professional poisoner. This “doctor” produced illness in others by spells or by actual poison.
Special doctors took care of young girls having their first menstrual period. The most powerful doctors of all were bear doctors, whose guardian spirit was a bear. When a bear doctor put on his bearskin, the people believed he actually became a bear. Since he could either harm or cure, he was greatly feared.
Less serious diseases were treated by herb doctors who used plants to cure. Although only men smoked tobacco, some women prescribed it for themselves to cure a bad cold. Ceanothus leaves (also called California lilac) could also be used like tobacco. The Miwok chewed galls from oak trees as toothpaste and made tea from iris bulbs to treat kidney stones. They set aside some acorn mush until it aged and grew a mildew-like substance. They scraped this off and used it like penicillin.
In more recent times the Miwok and other Native Americans have faced problems with alcoholism. Medical care on the rancherias was undependable. In 1969 the Miwok and eight other California tribes formed the California Rural Indian Health Board (CRIHB). Today the CRIHB oversees Native American health programs throughout the state. Through its efforts, health clinics have opened on or near most Miwok reservations.
The Miwok were gifted basket weavers, and the surviving examples of their work are highly prized by modern art collectors. The tribe was also known for their decorative use of feathers, which they wove into the rims of baskets and also used for ceremonial costumes. By the early twenty-first century some Native artists had revived the basketry tradition; examples of this as well as contemporary arts are exhibited at the Native American Invitational Art Show, held at Grinding Rock State Historical Park in conjunction with the Big Time festival (see “Ceremonies and festivals”) in September.
Favorite Miwok stories involve the adventures and misadventures of the creator, Old Man Coyote. He displays some of the best qualities of humans, but more often the worst ones. Also popular are tales of birds, who were believed to have magical properties.
Creation Of Man
After Coyote had completed making the world, he began to think about creating man. He called a council of all the animals. The animals sat in a circle, just as the Indians do, with Lion at the head, in an open space in the forest.
On Lion’s right was Grizzly Bear; next Cinnamon Bear; and so on to Mouse, who sat at Lion’s left.
Lion spoke first. Lion said he wished man to have a terrible voice, like himself, so that he could frighten all animals. He wanted man also to be well covered with hair, with fangs in his claws, and very strong teeth.
Grizzly Bear laughed. He said it was ridiculous for any one to have such a voice as Lion, because when he roared he frightened away the very prey for which he was searching. But he said man should have very great strength; that he should move silently, but very swiftly; and he should be able to seize his prey without noise.
Buck said man would look foolish without antlers. And a terrible voice was absurd, but man should have ears like a spider’s web, and eyes like fire.
Mountain Sheep said the branching antlers would bother man if he got caught in a thicket. If man had horns rolled up, so that they were like a stone on each side of his head, it would give his head weight enough to butt very hard.
When it came Coyote’s turn, he said the other animals were foolish because they each wanted man to be just like themselves. Coyote was sure he could make a man who would look better than Coyote himself, or any other animal. Of course he would have to have four legs, with five fingers. Man should have a strong voice, but he need not roar all the time with it.
And he should have feet nearly like Grizzly Bear’s, because he could then stand erect when he needed to. Grizzly Bear had no tail, and man should not have any. The eyes and ears of Buck were good, and perhaps man should have those.
Then there was Fish, which had no hair, and hair was a burden much of the year. So Coyote thought man should not wear fur. And his claws should be as long as the Eagle’s, so that he could hold things in them. But no animal was as cunning and crafty as Coyote, so man should have the wit of Coyote.
Then Beaver talked. Beaver said man would have to have a tail, but it should be broad and flat, so he could haul mud and sand on it. Not a furry tail, because they were troublesome on account of fleas.
Owl said man would be useless without wings.
But Mole said wings would be folly. Man would be sure to bump against the sky. Besides, if he had wings and eyes both, he would get his eyes burned out by flying too near the sun. But without eyes, he could burrow in the soft, cool earth where he could be happy.
Mouse said man needed eyes so he could see what he was eating. And nobody wanted to burrow in the damp earth. So the council broke up in a quarrel.
Then every animal set to work to make a man according to his own ideas. Each one took a lump of earth and modeled it just like himself. All but Coyote, for Coyote began to make the kind of man he had talked of in the council.
It was late when the animals stopped work and fell asleep. All but Coyote, for Coyote was the most cunning of all the animals, and he stayed awake until he had finished his model. He worked hard all night. When the other animals were fast asleep he threw water on the lumps of earth, and so spoiled the models of the other animals. But in the morning he finished his own, and gave it life long before the others could finish theirs. Thus man was made by Coyote.
“Native American Legends: Creation of Man.” First People. (accessed on August 30, 2007).
Courtship and marriage
Miwok brides were chosen not for beauty but for their love of hard work. Marriages were arranged by parents, although sometimes brides were kidnapped. Courtship began with the exchange of gifts such as beads, shells, or baskets. The bride usually moved in with her husband’s family, but a poor man lived with the bride’s family to prove that he would be a good provider. If a husband or wife died, the remaining spouse often married a relative of the dead mate. Marriage with members of non-Miwok tribes was common.
Some groups had special small grass huts for birthing. Other groups had rules about what the mother should or should not eat during pregnancy. Among the Lake Miwok, for example, a woman was forbidden to eat woodpecker while pregnant; if she did, the child would cry too much after birth. Infants were named either for animals or for family members or deceased relatives.
Some tribes had rules about how many children a couple could have. For example, the Coast Miwok had a limit of three children, and any additional children were supposed to be killed. Historians do not believe this happened often, however.
Some Miwok flattened the heads of their infants because flat heads were considered attractive. Shortly after birth they placed a baby in a cradle and tied a padded board to its forehead to mold the head.
The various groups had different puberty rites. The Coast Miwok celebrated a girl’s first period by welcoming her into a secret society and performing a circle dance for her. Girls who did not belong to dance societies stayed home, usually in a special hut. In all Miwok tribes, menstruating girls and women used a hairbrush and a scratching stick to avoid touching their hair or bodies. They also avoided fresh meat, and when they were led outside, their faces were covered. Boys usually fasted for the first time at adolescence, then went on their first hunt.
Ceremonies and festivals
Religious and social dances played an important part in Miwok ceremonies, although the Miwok were so fond of dancing they often danced to celebrate minor occasions like killing a game bird. Ceremonial dancers pretended to be spirits in order to acquire luck, power, or good health. Only men participated in some dances, while women and children would be included in others. Male dancers often closed the smoke hole in the dance house to make the room hot, and then jumped into a nearby creek to cool off hours later.
Some popular dances included the Big Head Dance, Ghost Initiation, Old Time Dance, First Fruits ceremony, and Dance of the Dead. Often these ceremonies continued for many days: the Big Head Dance, for example, lasted four days and nights and was conducted by a caretaker and a timekeeper, both trained for the purpose.
Traditional celebrations are still held at many rancherias. The dance house at Tuolumne Rancheria is used for the September Acorn Festival. The Graton Rancheria hosts both Acorn and Strawberry Festivals. At Grinding Rock State Historical Park (called Chaw’se by the Miwok), people from several tribes gather at the dance house for the September Big Time celebration, where they dance and play Native American football and the traditional handgame. Jennifer Bates described the game: “It involves the singing of songs and guessing of bones; there are two marked and two unmarked bones, and two teams play against each other for the money in the ‘pot.’” A player hides a bone in each hand inside a bundle of grass. The other team must guess which hand holds the unmarked bone.
It was believed that at death, humans traveled toward the west to live with Coyote. Miwok were either cremated or buried along with their personal possessions. Mourners cut their hair short or singed it off, and older women smeared charred laurel berries on their faces. People sometimes mourned for a whole year if the dead person was important, and widows remained secluded for several months or even for years. Most groups would not speak the name of the dead person. In the summer or fall the tribe held a mourning ceremony in memory of those who had recently died. The people gathered for three or four nights and wailed until about midnight. On the last night they lit a large pyre and burned the dead person’s property.
Current tribal issues
By the early twenty-first century many Miwok tribes had opened or were planning to open casinos. Reservations and rancherias that once struggled with poverty find gaming provides not only monetary benefits for individual tribe members but also funds important social, health, and educational programs. Casinos, however, have also brought difficulties to many tribes. The casino riches earned by the Jackson Miwok at the end of the twentieth century resulted in unfortunate side effects. Young people who are receiving a monthly share of the profits see no reason to attend school. The tribe finally issued an order: “No high school diploma, no money.” Greater difficulties arise between groups who want to preserve sacred sites and those who want to build or expand the various casinos. Many projects have also become embroiled in legal controversies over who owns the land and who is entitled to casino profits.
One of the biggest concerns of most groups is that although they have received federal recognition, which entitles them to financial benefits and government assistance, they have little or no land. When the rancherias were terminated, that land was sold. In the mid-2000s many tribes were working to recover their original acreage and rebuild their communities.
Marin (d. 1834) was a Coast Miwok chief who played an important role in the early history of the San Francisco Bay area. He led his people in several successful battles against the Spanish between the years 1815 and 1824, but was captured and imprisoned. He escaped, but was recaptured. Priests from the San Rafael Mission intervened to prevent his execution. Marin later converted to Catholicism and lived close to the mission until he died there in 1834. The island where he took refuge was named after him, and some years later the entire adjacent peninsula and county were also given his name.
Other notable Miwok include: Hopi/Miwok poet, artist, and educator Wendy Rose (1948–), Paiute/Miwok basketmaker Lucy Telles (1885–1955), and Pomo/Miwok professor and writer Gregory Sarris (1952–), who is also chairman of the Federated Coast Miwok Tribe.
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Merriam, C. Hart. The Dawn of the World: Myths and Tales of the Miwok Indians of California. Kila, MN: Kessinger Publishing, 2004.
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Edward D. Castillo (Cahuilla-Luiseño), Native American Studies Program, Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park, California