Plains and Sierra Miwok

Plains and Sierra Miwok
Plains and Sierra Miwok People
A Miwok house Reproduction
A Sierra Miwok cedar bark umuucha cabin reproduction in Yosemite Valley. The material came from lumbering operations of 19th century miners. Previously the Miwok lived in rounded huts made of brush and mud[1]
Total population
1770: 9000-17,800
1848: 6000
1880: 100
1910: 670
Regions with significant populations
 United States ( California):

Sierra Nevada Mountains
Central Valley


Plains Miwok, Northern Sierra Miwok, Central Sierra Miwok, Southern Sierra Miwok


Shamanism: Kuksu
Miwok mythology

Related ethnic groups

Other Miwok peoples: Coast Miwok, Lake Miwok, and Bay Miwok

The Plains and Sierra Miwok (the Miwok of the Sacramento Valley and the Sierra Mountains), were the largest group of Miwok Native American people. They lived in Northern California on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains between the Fresno and Cosumnes Rivers and also in the "Central Valley" in the north portion of the Delta area, where the Cosumnes, Mokelumne, and Sacramento rivers converge.



The Plains and Sierra Miwok lived by hunting and gathering, and lived in small local tribes, without centralized political authority. They are skilled at basketry and continue the traditions today.


The original Plains and Sierra Miwok people world view included Shamanism, one form this took was the Kuksu religion that was evident in Central and Northern California, which included elaborate acting and dancing ceremonies in traditional costume, an annual morning ceremony, puberty rites of passage, shamanic intervention with the spirit world and an all-male society that met in subterranean dance rooms.[2][3] Kuksu was shared with other indigenous ethnic groups of Central California, such as the Pomo, Maidu, Ohlone, Esselen, and northernmost Yokuts. However Kroeber observed less "specialized cosmogony" in the Miwok, which he termed one of the "southern Kuksu-dancing groups", in comparison to the Maidu and other northern California tribes.[4]

Traditional Narratives

The record of myths, legends, tales, and histories from the Plains and Sierra Miwok is one of the most extensive in the state. These groups participate in the general cultural pattern of Central California.[2]


Miwok mythology is similar to other natives of Central and Northern California. The Plains and Sierra Miwok believe in animal and human spirits, and see the animal spirits as their ancestors. Coyote is seen as their ancestor and creator god.[5]


There were four definite regional and linguistic sub-divisions known as: Plains Miwok, Northern Sierra Miwok, Central Sierra Miwok, and Southern Sierra Miwok:

Plains Miwok

The Plains Miwok inhabited a portion of the Central Valley's Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and adjacent plains in modern southern Sacramento County, eastern Solano County, and northern San Joaquin County. They spoke Plains Miwok, a language of the Miwokan branch of the Utian language family.[6]

Villages and Local Tribes

Classical anthropologists recorded a number of specific Plains Miwok villages, but it remained for work by Bennyhoff in the 1950s and 1960s to recognize multi-village territorial local tribes as the signature land-use organization of the Plains Miwok. The published specific village locations were:

  • On the Cosumnes River: Chuyumkatat, Lulimal, Mayeman, Mokos-umni, Sukididi, Supu, Tukui, Yomit.[7]
  • Near the Cosumnes River: Umucha, Yumhui.; on Mokelumne River: Lel-amni, Mokel(-umni), Sakayak-umni; on the east bank of Sacramento River below Sacramento: Hulpu-mni; on Jackson Creek: Ochech-ak.[8]

Among the important landholding local tribes at the time of Spanish colonization in California were:

  • Anizumne at Rio Vista on the west side of the Sacramento River.
  • Chilamne at Bellota on the Calaveras River.
  • Chucumne at Liberty Island on the west side of the Sacramento River.
  • Cosomne at the Wilton Rancheria Miwok on the Cosumnes River.
  • Gualacomne at Freeport on both sides of the Sacramento River.
  • Guaypemne at Terminous on the Mokelumne River delta.
  • Lelamne at Clements on the Mokelumne River.
  • Muquelemne at Ione on the Mokelumne River.
  • Musupum at Andrus Island at the confluence of the Mokelumne and San Joaquin rivers.
  • Ochejamne at Courtland on the east side of the Sacramento River.
  • Quenemsia at Grand Island among the distributary channels of the Sacramento River.
  • Seuamne at Jenny Lind on the Calaveras River (inter-mediate to Northern Sierra Miwok).
  • Sonolomne probably on Dry and Laguna creeks east of Galt.
  • Unizumne at Thornton at the confluence of the Cosumnes and Mokelumne rivers.
  • Ilamne at Yolano on the west side of the Sacramento River(northwest of Freeport).[9]


The majority of the members of the Plains Miwok local tribes moved to Franciscan Mission San Jose, in some cases through attraction and in other cases through intimidation, between 1812 and 1833. By 1815 they represented 14% of the Indian people at that Mission and by 1830 they had reached 42% of the mission's population. In 1834 and 1835, hundreds of Plains Miwok survivors of the Central Valley's 1833 malaria epidemic were baptized at Mission San Jose. By the end of 1835, Plains Miwok was the native language of 60% of the Indian people at the mission. Between 1834 and 1838 the missions were secularized (closed as agricultural communes). Many Plains Miwoks moved back to their home areas, where between 1839 and 1841 John Sutter played the local groups off against one another in order to gain control of the lower Sacramento Valley. Other Plains Miwok families remained in the San Francisco Bay area, intermarried with Ohlone, Patwin, and Yokuts speakers, and found work on Mexican ranchos.[10]

Northern Sierra Miwok

The Northern Miwok inhabited the upper watersheds of the Mokelumne River and the Calaveras River. See also Indian Grinding Rock State Historic Park near Volcano, California. They spoke Northern Sierra Miwok a language in the Utian linguistic group.

Authentic Villages

The authenticated Northern Sierra Miwok villages are:[11]

  • At present-day San Andreas: Huta-sil.
  • At present-day Jackson: Tukupe-su.
  • Near present-day Jackson: Pola-su.
  • On the Calaveras River Headwaters: Kechenti, Kaitimii , Mona-sti.
  • Between Calaveras River and Mokelumne Rivers: Apautawilti, Heina, Ketina.
  • On the CosumnesRiver: Noma (South Fork), Omo (South Fork), Yule (south of River).
  • On the Mokelumne River. Ktiniisti, Uptistini, Penken-sii (inland south of River), Sopochi (towards Jackson Creek).
  • On Jackson Creek: Chakane-sii?, Seweu-sii, Tumuti (on the headwaters), Yuloni, on Jackson Creek.


Central Sierra Miwok

The Central Sierra Miwok inhabited the upper watersheds of the Stanislaus River and the Tuolumne River. They spoke Central Sierra Miwok.

Authentic Villages

The authenticated Central Sierra Miwok villages are:[11]

  • At present-day Sonora: Akankau-nchi (1), Kuluti. Also in this vicinity: Hunga, Kapanina, Chakachi-no, Akankau-nchi (2), Kesa, Kotoplana, Olaw_ye, Pokto-no, Pota, Siksike-no, Sopka-su, Suchumumu, Sukanola, Sukwela, Telese-no, Tel'ula, Tunuk-chi, Waka-che.
  • "On the Calaveras River: Humata, Katuka, Newichu (between Stanislaus River and a head branch).
  • On the Stanislaus River: Akutanuka (northwest), Hangwite (South Fork ), Kawinucha (North Fork), Kewe-no, Loyowisa (near the junction of Middle and South Forks), Oloikoto, Sutamasina (South Fork), Takema (Middle Fork), Tipotoya, Tulana-chi, Tulsuna (between the South and Middle Forks). Tuyiwu-nu, Wokachet (South Fork), Wolanga-su (south of the junction between the South and Middle Forks), Wtiyu Yungakatok (near the junction of the North and Middle Forks).
  • On the Tuolumne River: Akawila (between a branch of Tuolumne and Stanislaus Rivers), Hechhechi (at headwaters), Hochhochmeti, Kulamu, Pangasema-nu (northern), Pasi-nu (southeast of Sonora), Pigliku (southern), Singawu-nu, Sala.
  • Near present-day San Andreas: Alakani (east) , Kosoimuno-nu (towards Stanislaus River), Sasamu, (almost due east), Shulaputi (southeast).


Southern Sierra Miwok

The Southern Miwok inhabited the lower banks of the Merced River and the Chowchilla River, as well as Mariposa Creek. They spoke Southern Sierra Miwok.[12]

The Merced River flows from the High Sierras and Yosemite Valley and near Livingston in the San Joaquin Valley. The Mono tribe people (considered Northern Paiute) occupied the higher eastern Sierras and the Mono Lake Basin, and entered Yosemite from the east. Miwoks occupied the lower western foothills of the Sierras and entered from the west. Disputes between the two were violent, and the residents of the valley, in defense of their territory, were considered to be among the most aggressive of any tribes in the area. When encountered by immigrants of European descent, the neighboring Southern Sierra Miwok tribe referred to the Yosemite valley residents as "killers".[1] It is from this reference and a confusion over the word for "grizzly bear" that Bunnell named the valley Yosemite. The native residents called the valley awahni. Today, there is some debate about the original meaning of the word, since the Southern Miwok language is virtually extinct, but recent Southern Miwok speakers defined it as "place like a gaping mouth." Those living in awahni were known as the Awahnichi (also spelled Ahwahnechee and similar variants), meaning "people who live in awahni".[13][14] The naming of the Ahwahnee Hotel was derived from the Miwok word.


The authenticated Southern Sierra Miwok villages are:[11]

  • Near present-day Mariposa: Kasumati, Nochu-chi.
  • On the Chowchilla Rive headwaters: Nowach, Olwia.
  • On the Fresno River: Wasema, Wehilto.
  • On the Merced River: Alaula-chi, Angisawepa, Awal, Hikena, Kakahula-chi, Kitiwana, Kuyuka-chi, Owelinhatihu, Palachan, Sayangasi, Siso-chi, Sope-nchi, Sotpok, WilitoYawoka-chi.


After Euro-Americans entered Yosemite and established Yosemite National Park the residents were of both Paiute and Miwok origin, they had either fought to stalemate or agreed to peaceful coexistence, and had intermixed to a limited extent.[13]

Notable Plains and Sierra Miwoks


Alfred L. Kroeber estimated to be 9000 Plains and Sierra Miwok combined in 1770, but this is an arguably low estimate.[15] Richard Levy estimated there were 17,800.[16] In 1848 their population was estimated at 6000. In 1852 estimated at 4500. In 1880 estimated at 100. In 1910 estimated at 670.[17]


  1. ^ Craig D. Bates Museum Anthropology 17(2):13 (June 1993)
  2. ^ a b Kroeber, 1907, Vol. 4 #6, sections titled "Shamanism", "Public Ceremonies", "Ceremonial Structures and Paraphernalia", and "Mythology and Beliefs".
  3. ^ The Kuksu Cult paraphrased from Kroeber.
  4. ^ Kroeber, 1925, page 445. "A less specialized type of cosmogony is therefore indicated for the southern Kuksu-dancing groups. [1. If, as seems probable, the southerly Kuksu tribes (the Miwok, Costanoans, Esselen, and northernmost Yokuts) had no real society in connection with their Kuksu ceremonies, the distinctness of their mythology appears less surprising.]".
  5. ^ Clark 1910, Gifford 1917.
  6. ^ Callaghan 1984; Mithun 1999:535-538.
  7. ^ Merriam 1907.
  8. ^ Kroeber 1925:444-445, Plate 37.
  9. ^ Bennyhoff 1977
  10. ^ Milliken 2008
  11. ^ a b c Kroeber 1925:445, Plate 37.
  12. ^ Broadbent, 1964.
  13. ^ a b Bunnel, 1892.
  14. ^ Anderson, 2005.
  15. ^ Kroeber
  16. ^ Levy, 1978, page 401.
  17. ^ Cook, 1976, pages 236-245.


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