- 1.1 Native American Tribes of the California Missions
- 1.2 Acjachemem (Juaneño)
- 1.3 Chalon
- 1.4 Chumash (Obispeño, Ventureño, Barbareño, Purisimeño, Yneseño, Canalino)
- 1.5 Coast Miwok
- 1.6 Esselen
- 1.7 Kumeyaay (Tipai, Ipai/Diegueño, Luiseño)
- 1.8 Maidu
- 1.9 Miwok (Eastern)
- 1.10 Mutsun
- 1.11 Ohlone (Costanoan)
- 1.12 Patwin
- 1.13 Quechnajuichom (Luiseño)
- 1.14 Rumsen
- 1.15 Salinan
- 1.16 Southern Pomo
- 1.17 Suisunes
- 1.18 Tataviem (Fernandeño)
- 1.19 Tongva (Gabrielino)
- 1.20 Wappo
- 1.21 Wintu
- 1.22 Yokuts
- 1.23 Learn more about Native American life in the missions and Native American jobs in the missions.
Native American Tribes of the California Missions
When Spanish explorers and missionaries arrived in Alta California, they found that it was home to numerous native people, from the far northern forests to the southern deserts, from the Sierra Nevada west to the Pacific coast.
California Indian populations were extremely diverse, with perhaps as many as 80 native language groups, often unintelligible to one another.
Most indigenous people lived in small communities, in settlements or groups of villages of not more than a few hundred at a time. It was unusual in California to have tribes numbering into the thousands, like those we often associate with other parts of North America.
Many moved around to support their food gathering, while others lived in villages that were occupied for hundreds of years. All supported themselves by hunting, tending and gathering wild plants, and in coast areas by fishing or hunting marine mammals. None practiced settled agriculture as was the case in the Valley of Mexico or in the Andes of Peru.
Beginning in the 18th century, a number of California native groups became connected to the missions. Some lived within mission boundaries, while others remained further out, with regular visits from priests.
One effect of joining the mission system was that native Californians intermarried with members of other groups associated the same mission community, thereby mingling traditions, cultures and languages. Many progressively abandoned the use of their native languages in favor of Spanish as a common tongue. In the case of some native groups, only a few fluent speakers conserved their ancestral language into the 20th century.
After the missions were dissolved in the 1830s, members of these groups were forced to find ways to survive, some as laborers or vaqueros on ranchos, others working in towns or households, some living in remote areas far from contact with non-Indians.
In some cases, the American anthropologists who studied their cultures in the 19th and 20th centuries thought them to be extinct. Today, many indigenous people have formed organizations to keep their traditions and customs alive, and to advocate for their rights.
The the groups below are arranged in alphabetical order by name. It is by no means an exhaustive list of all California Indian groups, but is intended to provide an idea of their ancestral territories, the missions they were linked to, and some information about their affiliations today.
The information is drawn from several works, which I have listed below. While each book has its limitations, together they offer a good deal of information about the native cultures of the California frontier.
- Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 8: California
- Handbook of the Indians of California
- California Indians and Their Environment: An Introduction
- The California Indians: A Source Book
- Native California: An Introductory Guide to the Original Peoples from Earliest to Modern Times
Home region: Orange County, from the ocean east to the Sierra Santa Ana, south toward San Onofre, north to Alisos Creek
Mission affiliations: San Juan Capistrano
Historical background: Acjachemem is a term used by Fray Gerónimo de Boscana (taken from the name of the main native village) to represent the native people associated with the San Juan Capistrano Mission, also known as Juaneños. Pablo Tac, the famous native ethnographer from the San Luis Rey mission, referred to them as Sanjuaneños.
They are very closely related to the Quechnajuichom or Luiseño people to the south, both culturally and linguistically. Prior to association with the mission, the Acjachemem lived in stable and autonomous villages, and believed in owning private property, both land and goods.
In addition to hunting terrestrial animals, they also harvested seafood, including marine mammals. Although earlier explorers had contact with the Acjachemem, they began to be associated with Mission San Juan Capistrano shortly after it was founded in 1776.
Today: Today the Acjachemem Nation of San Juan Capistrano seeks to represent the interests of Acjachemem people.
Home region: The area around the Soledad mission
Mission affiliations: Nuestra Señora de la Soledad
Historical background: Chalon is the name given to those who spoke an Ohlone or Costanoan language along the Salinas river and Chalon Creek in the area around Mission Nuestra Señora de la Soledad.
During the mission period, Chalon people intermarried with Essalen, Rumsen and Yokuts Indians.
Today: Currently there are no Chalon organizations.
Chumash (Obispeño, Ventureño, Barbareño, Purisimeño, Yneseño, Canalino)
Home region: San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties, as well as the Channel Islands, east to Castaic and Mt. Pinos.
Historical background: Chumash is the name given to a number of coastal native groups who spoke similar languages. The Chumash were the first native group that the Spanish encountered, beginning with Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo’s noting a number of villages on the Channel Islands in 1542 and Spanish-Chumash relations seem to have been very good from the beginning.
According to Cabrillo’s description, “They were dressed in skins and wore their hair very long and tied up with long strings interwoven with the hair, there being attached to the strings many gewgaws [trinkets] of flint, bone and wood.”
By the early 1800s, almost the entire Chumash population had joined the missions of San Luis Obispo, San Buenaventura, Santa Bárbara, La Purísima Concepción, or Santa Inés.
The Chumash had a highly developed and complex culture, and were known for constructing long and sturdy canoes called tomols, which they used for travel up and down the coast and for hunting marine life, especially marine mammals.
The rock paintings of the Chumash are some of the most interesting and impressive of any in the U.S., and a number of them still survive, including Chumash Painted Cave in Santa Barbara County.
Today: Modern Chumash are represented by the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians (Santa Barbara County), the Barbareño-Ventureño Band of Mission Indians (Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties), the Coastal Band of Chumash Nation (Santa Barbara County), and the Chumash Council of Bakersfield (Kern County). Organizations include the Candelaria American Indian Council, the Chumash Maritime Association, the Broken Rope Foundation, Red Wind Ranch, and the Wishtoyo Foundation.
Home region: Marin and southern Sonoma Counties
Historical background: Speakers of the Miwok language in northwestern Alta California were divided into Lake Miwok and Coast Miwok. Both Francis Drake in 1579 and Sebastián Rodríguez Cermeño in 1595 spoke of encountering the Coat Miwok. In addition to the Spanish missions, the Coast Miwok also were associated with the Russian colony around Fort Ross near Bodega Bay.
The Coast Miwok were especially fond of sea animals for food, but unlike other coastal indigenous groups, they don’t seem to have hunted marine mammals.
Today: Today, the Graton Rancheria includes descendants of Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo people. The descendants of Camilo Ynitia, a leader of the Coast Miwok during Spanish and Mexican times who was one of the few indigenous people to receive a land grant, also still live in the San Francisco Area.
Home region: Monterey County: the area around the Carmel River, south to Big Sur and the Ventana Wilderness area, east to the Salinas Ridge.
Historical background: The Esselen are one of the two major groups associated with the San Carlos Borromeo mission, along with the Rumsen. Though their home territories were adjacent to one another, the Esselen spoke a different language than the Rumsen, and there was traditionally hostility between them prior to mission affiliation.
Today: Descendants of Esselen people today are represented by two organizations: the Esselen Nation of Monterey County and the Ohlone/Costanoan-Esselen Nation.
Kumeyaay (Tipai, Ipai/Diegueño, Luiseño)
Home region: San Diego County, northern Baja California
Historical background: Kumeyaay (Spanish pronunciation: Kamia) is a name given to two closely-related groups, the Tipai and the Ipai, whose ancestral territory encompasses much of the far southwest of California.
The Kumeyaay people stretch across the international border between the U.S. and Mexico. They were earlier identified as “Diegueño” owing to their affiliation with mission San Diego de Alcalá.
Today: Today, the Kumeyaay people live on the following reservations in Southern California: Barona, Campo, Capitan Grande, Ewiiaappaayp (Cuyapaipe), Inaja-Cosmit, Jamul, La Posta, Manzanita, Mesa Grande, San Pasqual, Santa Ysabel, Sycuan and Viejas. In Baja California, at La Huerta, Neji, San Antonio Neidus, and San José La Zozza.
Home region: Lower reaches of the Yuba River, the American River and the Feather River, to the east bank of the Sacramento and the Sierra crest.
Mission affiliations: San Francisco de Asís
Historical background: The Maidu people occupied the areas of the northern Sierra, and down into the Sacramento Valley. Where weather would allow, they established permanent villages, while in other places they would establish seasonal villages or camps.
Maidu contact with the Spanish most likely came about as early as 1808, when Gabriel Moraga explored along the Sacramento River and into the lower reaches of the Feather River.
Today: The Maidu today have created the following organizations: The Susanville Rancheria (Lassen County), Greenville Rancheria (Plumas County), Roundhouse Council of Greenville (Plumas County), Berry Creek Rancheria (Butte County), Enterprise Rancheria (Butte County), Mooretown Rancheria (Butte County), the Mechoopda Tribe of the Chico Rancheria (Butte County), Butte County Indian Council, Auburn Rancheria (Placer County).
Home region: East of San Francisco Bay and northern San Joaquin Valley to the Sierra
Historical background: Eastern Miwok is the name given to a group of peoples that spoke five different, but related, languages. These groups inhabited the areas between what is today Walnut Creek in Contra Costa County all the way to the north-central Sierra Nevada. In areas closer to the Sierra, the Miwok were known to have cultivated plants and domesticated animals, especially dogs.
Miwok people from the San Francisco Bay region are recorded as having entered Mission San Francisco de Asís as early as 1794, and those from the Central Valley made up the largest number of people at Mission San José.
Today: Today the Eastern Miwok are represented by the following organizations: Wilton Miwok Rancheria (Sacramento County), Ione Band of Miwok Indians (Amador County), Buena Vista Rancheria (Amador County), Shingle Springs Rancheria (El Dorado County), Jackson Rancheria (Amador County), El Dorado Rancheria (El Dorado County), Calaveras Band of Mi-Wuk Indians (Calaveras County), Tuolumne Rancheria (Tuolumne County), Sheep Ranch Rancheria (Calaveras County), Chicken Ranch Rancheria of Me-Wuk Indians (Calaveras County), Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation (Mariposa County).
Home region: Southern Santa Clara, San Benito and Monterey Counties.
Mission affiliations: San Juan Bautista
Historical background: The Mutsun belong to the family of Ohlone-speaking peoples, and their tribal homeland was in the area around the Mission San Juan Bautista.
Modern-day Mutsun are those that trace their lineage to the baptismal rolls of Mission San Juan Bautista. Thanks to extensive conversations with Ascensión Solórzano de Cervantes, a Mutsun elder, in the early 20th century, the anthropologist John P. Harrington was able to document many aspects of Mutsun life.
Today: Today the Amah-Mutsun Tribal Band advocates for the rights of Mutsun descendants.
Home region: Greater San Francisco Bay region, including Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, San Benito and northern Monterey Counties
Historical background: Ohlone is a name used to describe a large number of diverse groups that spoke related (Penutian) languages throughout the San Francisco Bay region. The Spanish referred to them as costeños (coastal people), and American anthropologists anglicized that to “Costanoan,” later preferring the term “Ohlone,” after a village on the San Mateo County coast.
The legacy of Ohlone life can be found all over the greater Bay Area, from Monterey County to the south through San Francisco to the north and the Carquinez Strait to the east of the bay.
Today: Ohlone descendants today are represented through groups such as the Muwekma Ohlone tribe of San Francisco Bay, the Indian Canyon Nation, and the Amah-Mutsun Tribal Band.
Home region: West bank of the Sacramento River, the eastern slopes of the Coast Range, from near Willows to the Suisun Bay.
Historical background: Patwin is a native word that means “people.” Several related groups in the same general area to the north of the San Pablo Bay and up to the Sutter Buttes used this name for themselves.
The Patwin generally had a peaceful relationship with their neighbors, the Pomo, and traded with more distant tribes. As early as 1800, Patwin were living at Mission San Francisco de Asís, and in the 1820s at San Francisco Solano. Patwin also served ad military auxiliaries under Gen. Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo during the 1830s and 1840s.
Today: Today there are a number of Patwin organizations in existence, including Cortina Rancheria (Colusa County), the Colusa Rancheria (Colusa County), and Rumsey Rancheria (Yolo County).
Home region: San Diego County, north toward San Onofre, south toward Escondido
Mission affiliations: San Luis Rey de Francia
Historical background: Quechnajuichom is the Spanish spelling of the name that Pablo Tac, a nineteenth-century Luiseño ethnographer, used to describe his people. According to anthropologists, a distinct Luiseño culture existed at least as early as 1400 AD, and that their neighbors, such as the Cahuilla, the Tongva and the Ipai considered them to be fearful warriors.
Since their territory extended from the mountains to the coast, the Quechnajuichom hunted all types of animals, from deer and quail to marine mammals. They were also excellent fishermen in both ocean and streams.
The Luiseños first came into contact with Europeans at the time of the Portolá expedition in 1769. After the founding of Mission San Luis Rey in 1795, most Quechnajuichom eventually came to be associated with he mission, although they maintained their traditional settlement patterns and continued to each many of their traditional foods, in addition to adopting European agricultural methods.
Pablo Tac, a Luiseño youth who went to Rome to study for the Catholic priesthood, wrote a series of descriptions of Quechnajuichom life ways in the 1820s.
Today: Today the Luiseño are represented by the following organizations: the Pala Band of Mission Indians (San Diego County), the Rincon Luiseño Band of Indians (San Diego County), the La Jolla Band of Luiseño Indians (San Diego County), the Pauma Band of Mission Indians (San Diego County), the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians (Riverside County), the Soboba Reservation (Riverside County), the Mission San Luis Rey Band of Mission Indians (San Diego County).
Home region: Southwestern Monterey County
Mission affiliations: San Carlos Borromeo
Historical background: The Rumsen (Runsien in Spanish) were the first of the Ohlone-speaking peoples to be encountered by the Spanish, as far back as the 1602 voyage of Vizcaíno, and one of the two major groups at Mission San Carlos.
Although their ancestral territory neighbored that of the Esselen, their language was different, belonging to the family of the Olhone/Costanoan peoples to the north.
Members of a Spanish expedition that visited Monterey in 1792 reckoned that the Rumsen were less numerous than the Esselen.
Today: Today the following groups involve descendants of Rumsen people: the Pajaro Valley Indian Council and the Costanoan-Esselen Nation of Monterey County.
Home region: Monterey and San Luis Obispo Counties, around the Salinas River and its tributaries, as well as the Coast Range.
Historical background: There were probably as many as 21 Salinan villages in the extending just south of Mission La Soledad to the north of San Luis Obispo.
The Salinans had good trade relations with the Yokuts of the Central Valley, but with their closer Ohlone neighbors there seems to have been a good deal of hostility.
During the time of the missions, Salinans were often known as either Migueleños because of their association of Mission San Miguel Arcángel, or Antoniaños, because of Mission San Antonio de Padua.
Today: Today, many Salinan people still live in the area of their ancestors, Monterey and San Luis Obispo counties, and are active in the local mission communities, especially that of San Antonio de Padua.
Home region: Northern Sonoma County, Lake County
Mission affiliations: San Francisco de Asís
Historical background: “Pomo” is a name that refers to several groups that spoke related, but mutually unintelligible languages, and had cultures with some similarities, but also significant differences.
The Southern Pomo originated in the area around the present-day city of Santa Rosa north the boundaries of Sonoma County, and along the southern portions of the Russian River.
Today: In Sonoma County today, the Cloverdale Rancheria and the Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians represent the descendants of Southern Pomo.
Home region: Solano County
Mission affiliations: San Francisco Solano
Historical background: The Suisunes are considered by many to be a branch of the Patwin people, and their historical territory is said to the be areas around what is today Fairfield and Vacaville in Solano County.
The most well-known member of the Suisunes was Sem-Yato, who took the name Francisco Solano when he was baptized, and later came to be known as Chief Solano. Chief Solano became a powerful ally of General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, and at times served as his diplomatic representative, and at other times led native military auxiliaries into battle against other Indians over theft of livestock or other incidents.
Today: Today Suisun Marsh, Suisun Bay and Suisun City are named after the Suisun people.
Home region: Upper reaches of the Santa Clara River, just north of the San Fernando Valley, east to the Antelope Valley
Mission affiliations: San Fernando Rey de España
Historical background: The Tataviam historically lived between the Chumash to the north and west, the Tongva(Gabrielino) to the south, also they spoke a language (Tataviam) that was unintelligible to those other groups.
Their relations with the Chumash were often peaceful, though at times war did break out. The Tataviam likely lived in small settlements of 15-20 people, to larger centers with as much as 200 people at a time.
Spanish records mention the Tataviam as early as 1776, and by 1810, almost all had been baptized at Mission San Fernando.
Today: Today, the Tataviam are organized into the Ferandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians (Los Angeles and Ventura Counties), and the San Fernandeño Band of Mission Indians (Los Angeles County: Santa Clarita Valley and nearby areas).
Home region: San Fernando Valley east to the Los Angeles basin to near San Bernardino, Santa Catalina, San Nicolás and San Clemente Islands
Historical background: Anthropologists today believe that the people known as the Tongva arrived in the Los Angeles basin sometime around 500 BC, eventually displacing other inhabitants.
The Spanish first encountered the Tongva in 1542, when Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo made landfall. Even though the Tongva inhabited both the mainland and islands, the language and lifestyle of these people was very similar.
One of the major differences among island and mainland groups was that island dwellers mainly hunted sea mammals, while mainland groups hunted mainly terrestrial animals such as deer.
One of the most famous Tongva was Toypurina, a medicine woman who led a revolt against the Spanish in 1785. The revolt was put down, and after her trial, Toypurina was sent into exile at Mission San Carlos Borromeo, where she became Christian and married a Spanish soldier.
Friar Gerónimo Boscana, a Franciscan stationed at San Gabriel, wrote a famous treatise on Tongva religious practices, known as “Chingichngich.”
Today: There are several groups today representing the Tongva people, including the Tongva Band of Mission Indians of San Gabriel, the Tongva (Gabrielino) Indians of California, the Tongva (Gabrielino) Tribe, and the Gabrielino Band of Southern California Indians.
Home region: Napa and Sonoma Counties and along the Russian River, also Lake County
Historical background: The Wappo people occupied the Napa Valley at least as far back as 2,000 years ago, and the name “Sonoma” is a Wappo word, which may have meant “abandoned camp.”
The Wappo traveled all over the surrounding territories, up and down the Russian River, to the coast to fish, and to Glass Mountain in the Napa Valley to collect obsidian for arrows and blades.
Wappo people from at least six villages were listed as residing at Mission San Francisco Solano.
Today: The Mishewal Wappo Tribe of the Alexander Valley Rancheria are descendants of the original Wappo people.
Home region: Mt. Shasta south to Redding, east toward the McCloud River
Mission affiliations: San Francisco de Asís
Historical background: Wintu (also Wintun), refers to people who spoke similar languages in the far northwestern regions of California, in what is today Shasta County.
The Wintu hunted for large animals such as deer and black bear, but fishing for Chinook salmon and Steelhead was an important part of their food foraging.
Today: The Redding Rancheria (Shasta County), the Nor-El-Muk Wintu Nation (Trinity County), the Winnemem Wintu Tribe (Shasta County), and the Wintu Tribe of Northern California (Shasta County) all represent Wintu people today.
Home region: Northern and Southern San Joaquin Valley and the Siera Nevada foothills
Historical background: Yokuts is a term referring to a large number of peoples of the Central Valley of California and the Sierra foothills, all of whom spoke similar languages.
The Spanish referred to many of these people as tulareños or “people of the reeds.” In the case of the southern Yokuts tribes, they often lived in permanent structures thanks to the abundance of food resources in their home areas. The Yokuts traded with other tribes closer to the coast and were fond of wearing shell beads as necklaces.
The Spanish encountered the Yokuts very early in their land explorations, at least as early as the 1770s, but they began to join the missions around 1811. The padres had plans to establish missions among the Yokuts in the San Joaquin Valley, but for a number of reasons, these plans never materialized.
Today: Today there are a number of organizations representing Yokuts people, including Table Mountain Rancheria (Fresno County), Picayune Rancheria (Madera County), the Wuckchumni Tribe (Tulare County), and Santa Rosa Rancheria (Kings County).