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Who Are the Miwok Indians?

A Miwok cedar dwelling.
A map of California.
Grasshoppers were part of the Miwok indians' diet.
A king snake, which was not eaten by the Miwoks.
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  • Written By: Hilary Evans
  • Edited By: A. Joseph
  • Last Modified Date: 11 September 2014
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The Miwok Indians are one of the California tribes of Native Americans. They live on small reservations called rancherias, but they once lived throughout coastal and central California and in the Sierra Mountains. As with many groups of American Indians, the Miwok population and culture are evident throughout the region.

During the 1800s, their population was estimated to be about 20,000. By 1990, the United States Census showed 3,500 Americans with Miwok ancestry. Only 500 lived on the rancherias speckled throughout California. There are 11 tribal groups recognized by the U.S. federal government.

Treaties established a number of permanent sites for the Miwok Indians to call home, but most of those sites were overtaken by settlers or abolished by various government agencies between the 1920s and 1960s. During the late 20th and early 21st century, seven rancherias reclaimed or solidified their recognition. These are Buena Vista, Chicken Ranch, Ione, Jackson, Middletown, Sheep Ranch, Shingle Springs and Tuolumne, all located in California.

There once were two main branches of Miwok, the "land" and "water" tribes. Disease, fighting and enslavement by early Spanish and Mexican explorers destroyed great portions of the tribe's culture. Early groups fall into four general categories — Coastal, Lake, Bay and Plains — although there were also a large number of individuals who lived in the Sierra Mountain range. In fact, Yosemite National Park was the summer home of one such group, and Yosemite takes its name from "asamati," their word for bear.

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The Miwok lived in small groups or villages run by a male leader, called a headman. Leadership followed family lines, from father to son. In situations where a headman had no sons, his daughter would be known as the headman, but a male relative would perform her leadership duties.

This group of Native Americans were have said to eat every living animal for food, but this is not quite true. While less common animals, such as the skunk, bat and grasshopper, were staples of their diet, the tribe did not eat king snake, rattlesnake or grizzly bear. Their diet varied greatly by location, but along with fish and large and small beasts, they also ate nuts, fruit, bulbs and roots.

Traditionally, like many Native American tribes, the Miwok enjoyed a variety of games. Some would be described as sports, often played in mixed groups of men and women. Others could be considered gambling or games of chance, such as an acorn throwing game played among women.

They lived together in small groups, sleeping in structures just big enough to cover the family and the fire. Large villages had a shared shelter, or round house, used for ceremonies. During festivities, the members of a community would sleep together in the round house.

Typical attire consisted of deerskin loin cloths for both men and women, with longer tunic pieces and calf-high boots reserved for the coldest periods. Men and women let their hair hang loose or bundled it at the nape of the neck. Both men and women enjoyed piercings in the nose and ears. The Miwok Indians also traditionally sported tattoos on their foreheads, cheeks, chins and chests.

Like many California tribes, the Miwok fought for and won recognition as indigenous people of the state with their own land rights. As settlers moved into the area, many Indians became indentured servants. This is reflected in the largely agricultural nature of their population.

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anon293796
Post 5

What are their families called?

upnorth31
Post 2

I think it's great that so many names we use today, are from Native Americans. It seems like I notice more and more names of places that I find out were named after Native Americans, or their names for things.

I didn't know that Yosemite was one of those places. But now, every time I hear it, I will remember that it came from a Miwok Indian word.

I myself am not Native American, but I think it's good that we continue to remember who was here first. We shouldn't lose sight of the whole history of our country. And we should honor the lives and traditions of the earliest people.

geronimo8
Post 1

I love learning about Native American history, and I think it is very sad that their numbers were so drastically decreased by new settlers. It would have been nice if everyone could have lived in peace together.

The Miwok Indians are new to me, maybe because I don't live on that side of the country. I'm happy to hear that some of the land that was taken from them has been reclaimed.

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