The Waterworld of the Delta Yokuts

Repost from the old site.
One of the more thrilling passages I have ever read was an account of the first Spanish contacts with the Indians of the California Delta. In expeditions around 1800-1810, Spanish ships sailed into the Delta and first contacted these tribes, who have since vanished with almost no trace left except for their names and a handful of word lists. There were around 5-10 tribes in the Delta, all Yokuts.
Yokuts is just a White word for a group of about 60 tribes who all spoke related languages. Yokuts just means “man” in the Yokuts languages so we stuck that name on them as a way to characterize them. The Yokuts came to California along with the ancestors of the Ohlone (Costanoan) and Miwok around 4000-5000 years ago.
The Ohlone then took off towards the San Fransisco Bay Area, the Miwok towards the Central Sierra Nevada and the Yokuts to the Delta, San Joaquin Valley and Central and Southern Sierra Nevada. Prior to migrating to the Delta, this conglomeration of groups (Yok-Utian) were located in southeastern Oregon, now a desert but at that time a series of marshlands.
They moved down the spine of the California-Oregon border and settled in the Delta. The Yok-Utians are surely related linguistically to some other Penutian language groups, in particular Klamath, Sahaptian and Wintu.
The Klamath are in northeastern California, the Wintu around Shasta Lake, and the Sahaptians towards northeastern Oregon and Idaho. Penutian studies by Scott Delancey available on the net make this connection quite clear to me.
The Delta Yokuts were part of a group called Northern Valley Yokuts. They had only come to the Delta perhaps 500 years before, or around 1300. They may have been pushed out of the foothills by other tribes.
At any rate, around 1806, Spanish ships sailed into the Delta and met the Delta Yokuts for the first time. At this time, the Delta was a water wonderworld overflowing with fish and wildlife. The entire drainage of the San Joaquin River on the West Side of the Valley was a series of marshes as far as the eye could see.
From these marshes sprang forth the greatest flocks of ducks and geese that one had ever seen. The flocks would stretch from horizon to horizon and darken the sky for hours as they flew over in a stunning spectacle which can probably never be seen anywhere on Earth again.
At the narrowing of the Delta near Pittsburg, magnificent runs of salmon completely covered one end of the merged Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers. At this point, the merged rivers may be a mile or two across even today.
The salmon would be so think there that you could see their backs on the surface of the river, a never-ending run that stretched from shore to shore, so thick that it seemed that one could walk from shore to shore on the backs of salmon. The ducks and salmon are but shadows of their former selves as water withdrawals progressively ruin the Delta.
It was in this glorious Delta that the Delta Yokuts evolved a wonderful culture. Many people are suspicious of outsiders, and the Delta Yokuts would have been wise to have been suspicious of the Spaniards.
But when the Spanish ships sailed forth in 1806, a startling sight greeted their eyes. On the islands where they lived, entire Indian tribes came out to wave to the huge boats, cheering, laughing, waving and singing.
The women, incredibly, were dressed from head to toe in costumes made entirely of bird feathers – feathers of swans, pelicans, coots, ducks and geese. The men worse interesting clothes made of beaver and otter skins. Both sexes wore ornaments made of otter and beaver teeth. There were tule boats on the shore, used for fishing for sturgeon and salmon.
The Spaniards came ashore and they were greeted like kings. These gracious, happy Indian showered them with love and gifts. The Spaniards accepted them, though neither could speak a word of the other’s language. When the Spaniards got back in their ships, the Indians again came to the shore to wave them goodbye.
The saddest part of this story is what happened to these wonderful, happy people. Within a few short years, parties from the missions had come to the Delta and carted off all of these tribes for forced conversion. Their naivety and kindness led to their ruin. We are left only with the names of the tribes (often confused) and a few spare wordlists of their languages.
In the chaos of the missions and the aftermath, all this was lost. Indians escaped from the missions, only to be recaptured. Indians sent to the missions were Christianized and led expeditions to capture other Indians from their tribes not yet missionized. The death rate in the missions was high, mostly from syphilis and smallpox.
The priests often whipped the Indians, many of whom became gambling addicts in the missions (California Indians always loved gambling). In the missions, many tribes were all grouped together, with many different cultures and tongues mingled together – the result being the beginnings of mass language and culture death.
Further, droves of Indians were continuously fleeing the missions, so there was a continuous need to repopulate them with new Indians. With demissionization, Indians dispersed from the missions and formed haphazard groupings other demissionized Indians of varying linguistic and cultural backgrounds, enhancing the linguistic and cultural genocidal processes described above.
Many others married Spaniards, mestizos or Californios and adopted those cultures, losing their own.
That this should happen to such a loving and warm people is especially poignant.
Some of the best records we have of these tribes is recorded in the notes of these early Spanish explorers. Some Delta Yokuts (or Far Northern Valley Yokuts – sample words here) languages still had speakers until the early 1900s’s. One language for which decent records exist is called Chalostaca.
Other languages are Yachikumne (Chulamni), Cholvons [drawing of nearly naked Cholvons warriors here], Lower San Joaquin, Lakisamni and Tawalimni.
The Lakisamni were a warlike tribe along the Stanislaus River who waged a number of famous battles against Mexican forces during 1828-1829. Their leader in these struggles, Estanislao, also waged continuous horse and cattle-stealing raids against local ranchos. He died of smallpox in 1839.
The last known Indian who recalled ancestry linking him to the Delta Yokuts was a Tawalimni Yokuts Indian named Gomez who was living in Jamestown, California when interviewed by the famous S.A. Barrett in 1906.
He was apparently the last surviving member (or at least the last who knew of his ancestry) of the Delta Yokuts, hammered first by missionization, massacres and epidemics, until the Gold Rush delivered the finishing touch. History Detective resolves the controversy over which tribes inhabited the California Delta and makes clear the entire Delta was inhabited exclusively by Yokuts and not by Miwok Indians.
Much of this material is from the superb Handbook of the Yokuts Indians by Frank Latta (1949). It’s been out of print for many years and only 7,000 copies were published, but the book has recently been reissued by Coyote Press in a limited run. If you are interested in the Yokuts, you may want to snap it up.
Latta was an amateur anthropologist and linguist from Bakersfield who spent years studying the Yokuts and interviewing some of the last surviving members who still remembered aboriginal ways and spoke the languages fluently.

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5 thoughts on “The Waterworld of the Delta Yokuts”

  1. Years ago I read Mitchner’s Chesapeake. He did a good job discribing what that bay had been in its day. The delta must have rivaled it.
    Between the Spanish misionaries and the 49er’s, Ca. indians really got the short end of the stick.
    Nice post

    1. Wouldn’t it be cool to go back in time and see what it looked like back then? My God. You could almost walk across the delta on the backs of migrating salmon! Flocks of geese and ducks so thick they darkened the skies for hours on end! Wow!

      1. are you familiar with Tulare lake. Aparently it was the nations largest lake west of the great lakes rights smack in the middle of the Central Valley.

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