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ETHNONYMS: Batawat, Du-Sulatelu, Patawát, So-lot-luk, Soo-lah-te-luk, Suláteluk, Viard, Wikí, Wishosk, Wíyat


Identification. The Wiyot are an American Indian group located in northern California. "Wíyat" is the name for Eel River delta, south of Humboldt Bay. Other synonyms listed above are variants of "Wiyot," of the name of the language itself, or of one of the three main tribal regional subdivisions.

Location. Centered around Humboldt Bay, the Wiyot occupied a strip of northern California coast about fifty-one miles long by fifteen miles wide between 40° and 41° N and 124° and 125° W. Wiyot territory was almost entirely in the moist redwood forest belt extending from the coast ranges to the coast itself. Fog and clouds are common throughout the year with the annual rainfall varying from thirty to one hundred inches.

Demography. The most reliable estimate for the aboriginal population is about 3,300. The population decreased markedly in the nineteenth century largely because they held land deemed highly valuable by White settlers. The process is exemplified by the well-documented massacre of Indians concentrated on Gunther Island in Humboldt Bay in 1860. The most recent population estimate (ca. 1968) shows about 190 persons of certainly mixed Wiyot ancestry living on small Reservations reported to have been terminated by the federal government in 1958.

Linguistic Affiliation. Along with its northern neighbor, Yurok, Wiyot is classified in the Algonkian language family. The two languages are only distantly related, suggesting a long presence in the region with a degree of isolation from each other.

History and Cultural Relations

Although the linguistic relationship between Wiyot or Yurok suggests a time of initial occupation of their territories around two thousand years ago, radiometric dating of an important Wiyot site shows an early date of a.d. 900. Cultural materials at the site suggest a continuity into historic times. Wiyot Territory is located at the southern end of what is called the Northwest Coast culture area, although the absence of Certain characteristic elements of the area requires that the Wiyot be classified as "marginal" to the classic culture. Despite the geographical proximity and linguistic affiliation, there are marked differences between the Wiyot and Yurok, with the Wiyot less like the Northwest Coast groups and more like the cultures of central California.


Archaeological and historical evidence points to more intensive settlement in tidewater regions such as the lower courses of streams like the Eel and Mad rivers and along the shores of Humboldt Bay. The open Pacific shore was evidently not used to any great extent. Villages were spaced a mile or so apart along the watercourses, with inhabitants numbering 50 to 150 persons. Permanent dwellings, occupied by two or more families, were rectangular and made from split redwood planks with two-or three-pitch roofs, a smoke hole at the top, and side entrances with sliding doors. Each village also Usually had a sweat house, shaped like the dwellings but smaller and with only a two-pitch roof. Conical plank huts were used only for camping.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Humboldt Bay and its associated rivers and creeks made for a predominantly maritime subsistence economy with mollusks, sea mammals, and fish (especially anadromous salmon) all heavily exploited. The fishing technology utilized boats, harpoons, traps, nets, weirs, and platforms. The surrounding forests, with clearings here and there, provided deer and elk as well as acorns, which were gathered, processed, and prepared in the classic central California manner. Dogs were the only Domesticated animals and were used in hunting as well as for Companions.

Industrial Arts. Woodworking (canoe carving and the production of split and dressed planks for dwellings), stone working (well-shaped adz handles and bell-shaped mauls), obsidian chipping (large ceremonial blades and projectile points), bone and shell carving (fishing and mammal-hunting equipment, ceremonial beads and pendants), and twined basket weaving (for acorn collection and processing and decorated women's hats) were the principal industrial arts.

Trade. The Wiyot supplied their southern neighbors like the Mattole with dugout canoes, dentalium beads, and local foods and received in return tobacco, haliotis shells, and local foods. They supplied groups to the north and west such as the Yurok with white deerskins and olivella shells and received iris-fiber rope.

Division of Labor. The typical dichotomy for much of California obtained, with men hunting large animals and women weaving baskets and processing and preparing plant foods. Both sexes gathered acorns and pinenuts and made rabbit-skin blankets and buckskin moccasins. Curers, sucking- or herb-doctors or shamans could be of either sex, although the little-known "soul-loss" doctors were all men, as were the priests or ceremonial officials.

Land Tenure. Dwellings, occupied by two or more Families, were privately owned, and there was a specific term for a rich man who owned one. Fishing places, hunting and seedgathering lands, and tobacco plots were also privately held, although particular trees, fishing weirs, and pens on weirs were not. Sweat houses were probably owned by the village, and beaches by the local group.


There was no formai tribal organization or clans, nor were there any standards of kin avoidances, especially those pertaining to in-laws. Descent was patrilineal, and there was no development of elaborate kinship terminology.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Monogamy was most common, though nonsororal polygyny was often practiced by most prominent men. Bride-price was negotiated, and sororate and levirate were known. Marriage between blood relatives was prohibited, and fathers could not marry stepdaughters. Both first and Permanent residences were patrilocal, except that "half-marriages" (those involving a man lacking some usual qualification for marriage such as the requisite bride-price) led to matrilocal residence. Adultery was a grounds for divorce for both husbands and wives, though it was less common for a man to be divorced for this reason. Children could go to either spouse's family, depending on payment to the husband.

Socialization. Absence of rigorous puberty rites suggests a general permissive attitude in child rearing. Boys' puberty ceremonies were unimportant, with girls' more important than one might expect.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. There was no formal or rigid Organization at the tribal level. The chief or headman's main function was apparently to receive the largest share of food and property during ceremonies. There were no war chiefs. Social rank was based on wealth and birth, although "common," or poor men were related to "nobles."

Political Organization. The Wiyot were divided into three separate subgroups occupying the Humboldt Bay (Wikí), Mad River (Batawat), and Eel River (Wiyot) regions. The groups evidently did not unite for common purposes such as war or conflicts with neighboring groups. Within each group, patrilineally related households and communities could form alliances against others when required.

Social Control. Physical and social self-restraint were encouraged as the qualities by which a man could obtain and retain his wealth and become wealthier. A system of fines for violations of the moral code (for example, adultery or seduction) and the low social status of the poor were the principal controls at work for individuals.

Conflict. Murder, insults, and poaching were causes of both internal and external conflicts. Both surprise attacks and staged battles were fought with neighboring groups such as the Whilkut. Warriors used bows and arrows, elkhide body armor, and rawhide shields. Women and children were not killed, and both sides were compensated for destroyed property.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Wiyot shared with other northern California groups beliefs about creation and culture heroes, although they lacked the latter's belief in a pre-human race. In addition, they had a conception of a supreme deity, "The Above Old Man," and a Noah myth, both without parallel in the Northwest, although the supreme creator belief is found in central California. Powers or guardian spirits allegedly could be heardthat is, sucking healers could be told by the spirit what caused the illness or where the poison objects were located in the body. Ghosts, souls of the dead, were thought to be audible and visible.

Religious Practitioners. Shamans or curers (probably mostly women) were distinguished from priests (men) who directed ceremonies.

Ceremonies. World renewal rites, of much importance elsewhere in northwestern California, were practiced only irregularly by the Wiyot. They did not hold the associated White Deer Dance at all, although the Jumping Dance was performed.

Arts. Apart from the aesthetic expressions described above under Industrial Arts, singing and dancing, especially Ceremonial dancing, along with storytelling, were the only other notable art forms. Ceremonial activities were not as flamboyant as those of the neighboring Yurok.

Medicine. Although detailed ethnobotanical information is lacking, it is likely that the Wiyot, like their neighbors, used a wide range of medicinal herbs in the treatment of common maladies. As disease was believed to be caused by the intrusion of poison objects, soul loss, or violation of a taboo, Serious illnesses required treatment by sucking with or without herbs.

Death and Afterlife. The corpse was carried on a plank or pole stretcher out through the door of the house to a cemetery outside the village. It was buried in a plank-lined grave along with money and valuables. Houses of the deceased were purified with tobacco or other burning vegetation, and taboos were observed by undertakers, spouses, and blood relatives for five days. Ghosts were believed "to go East, five days after burial and good and bad had different destinations." Ghosts of some "bad" were thought to stay on earth.


Driver, Harold E. (1939). Culture Element Distributions X: Northwest California. University of California Anthropological Records, 1(6). Berkeley.

Elsasser, Albert B. (1978). "Wiyot." In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 8, California, edited by Robert F. Heizer, 155-163. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.

Kroeber, Alfred L. (1925). "Wiyot." In Handbook of the Indians of California. U.S. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin no. 78, pp. 112-120. Washington, D.C.

Loud, Llewellyn L. (1918). Ethnogeography and Archaeology of the Wiyot Territory. University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology, 14(3). Berkeley.