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Yokut Information

Games Music and Dance Money and Trade Items
The Land The People Clothing
Foods Communication and Transportation Basketry
Making Acorn Bread Natural Resources Dwellings

Games

The Yokuts used their games to increase their skills. Games helped the Indians develop more self-control and more give-and- take. They made use of things in nature for game playing. Rocks, leaves, bark, seeds, gourds, shells, and cones are examples.

Guessing games were popular with Indian adults and children. Often a player would chant as the guessing took place. One favorite game was called the Handgame. Each team started with a row of ten or twelve sticks. While the Indians were chanting, one team passed two sticks or dice behind them. One was black; one was white. Then the whole team held its hands in front of it and the other team tried to guess which hand held the black one. If they guessed rightly they got to take a stick from the first team and add it to their row of sticks.

Shinny was another game the children liked to play. They used a ball about as big as a tennis ball which was made of an oak burl, (gall). Sometimes they made a hole in the ground and buried the ball.

Then they had to dig it out of the ground with their clubs before the first two players started hitting it toward their goals. The goals were about four hundred yards apart.

The game started from a spot half way between the two goals. Each team tried to get the ball into their goal by hitting it with the wooden clubs. It was a rough game.

 

The Land

The Yokut Indians lived in the region which is now known as the San Joaquin Valley. This region included the foothills of the Sierra Nevada on the east, Mount Diablo Range on the west, north to the Consumne River basin and southward to Tehachapi Pass and Fort Tejon. 

The San Joaquin Valley became known to  the early settlers along the coast as the "Valle de los Tulares." The name was given because of the many large tule marshes and lakes in the valley. The entire San Joaquin Valley had an abundance of fish, fowl, game, seeds, acorns, and roots.

Food

The Yokuts had a great variety of food.. They had fish, game birds, elk, deer, antelope, rabbit, grasses, nuts, berries, and seeds of all kinds.

The seeds, nuts, and berries were gathered during spring and summer. Some were eaten fresh while some were dried and stored for use in the winter. Later on they hunted game animals and dried some of the meat to make jerky. The Yokuts hunted these animals for food and clothing. They also used the bones to make some of their tools such as needles or awls. Since most of them lived near rivers they had lots of fish to eat, also.

The Yokuts used spears, traps, and nets as well as bows and arrows to catch their animals and fish.

The acorn was their main food. The women and children would gather acorns in big baskets, called burden baskets. Then they would take them home and store them. When they needed some food, they would fill a basket with acorns from the store house and prepare them for cooking.

To prepare the acorns for cooking, the hard shells had to be removed. The acorns were put in holes in large flat rocks. Then, they pounded the acorns with a round rock until they became a fine meal. The meal was sifted and placed in holes in the sand. The hole was lined with wild grapevine leaves and hot water was poured over the meal. This was called leaching. The acorn meal was not good to use until the bitterness was taken out. After the meal was leached, it was allowed to dry on the leaves and looked like a flat cake. This cake could be eaten as a bread or made into a sort of mush.

Baskets were used many ways in cooking their food. To cook the acorn meal the baskets were filled with water, but they were not put over the fire. The water was heated by dropping red-hot rocks into the baskets. When the water boiled they put the acorn meal in to cook. The Indians moved the hot rocks in the baskets with looped sticks to keep them from burning the baskets. This is the way the Yokuts cooked other foods, too.

Making Acorn Bread

It is harder to make flour of acorns than of corn or Wheat. Yet the California tribes learned to make flour from acorns many centuries ago.  In the fall the Indians gathered the ripe acorns and put them into storage bins and large baskets. When a woman wanted to make acorn flour, she first hulled a basketful of acorns. Then she pounded them with a stone, till she had a fine flour."

She next spread the meal in a shallow pit in clean sand and poured water over it. The water dissolved the tannic acid out of the flour. She let the flour dry.   As it dried, the flour formed a crust. It was easy to lift this layer from the sand. 

The woman mixed some of this flour with water. She patted the dough into cakes and put them on hot stones to bake acorn bread.

Acorn flour is rich and nourishing.  There were always enough acorns, so the people lived without fear of hunger.

 

Music and Dance

Singing and dancing were very important parts of the Yokuts' everyday life. The Indians chanted songs when they played games. The women would sing to their babies when gathering or preparing food. The men sang and danced when performing the many ceremonial dances, such as the Rainmaking Ceremony and Rattlesnake Dance.

The Yokuts used very few musical instruments. The most popular rhythm instrument was the clapper. Another commonly used instrument for rhythm was the rattle. Yokuts used few or no drums. They would beat two sticks together or beat on a log with a stick to keep time.

The People

The Indians of the San Joaquin Valley were known as Yokuts. The word "Yokuts" means people. The Yokuts were unique among the California natives in that they were divided into true tribes. Each had a name, a language, and a territory.

The Yokuts were a friendly and peaceful loving people.  They were tall, strong and well built. They had straight black hair and brown skin. The' Yokuts lived a simple life, depending on the land for food, clothing, and shelter.

The names of some of the inland tribes of California were Witun, Maidu, Miwok, and Yokut.  In the languages of these peoples these names usually mean "the people."  We believe these tribes belonged to the first groups that settled in California.

We call these early Californians seed-gatherers because they did no farming at all in the days before Columbus.  Their main food was acorns.  They also ate wild plants, roots, and berries.  They hunted deer, rabbits, prairie dogs, and other small mammals and birds.

They made simple clothing of bark and grass: breechcloths for the men and boys; skirts for the women and girls.  Their necklaces, earrings, armbands, and headbands were of seeds and feathers.  Because their climate was so mild, they did not need much clothing or warm shelters.

The seed-gatherers found life in the California valleys pleasant and peaceful for many centuries.

Communication and Transportation

Each Yokut tribe spoke its own language and could understand and speak the language of the other Yokut tribes. Because of this there was little use for sign language except with strangers.

Most signs were made with the hands, but they were used in relation to other parts of the body. Smoke was used sometimes as signals that there were strangers in the valley. Messages were delivered by runners from the villages, also.

Symbols were used for rock drawings or pictographs. Some of the symbols represent things, some happenings, but mostly they express ideas and emotions. Boats, rafts, and walking were the principal means of transportation. Boats and rafts were made from the tules that grew near the lakes and rivers.

Money and Trade Items

The Yokuts traded with other Indians westward as far as the Pacific Ocean and with the larger tribes east of the mountains. Yokuts used bead money made of different kinds of stones or shells. Three types of measurement were used by tribes to denote one chok, or unit of money. One measurement was to extend the beads around the hand. Another measurement was from the wrist to fingertips. The third measurement was around the four fingers of a hand. Ten average beads would buy one tanned elk skin or two tanned antelope skins. Key trade items were deer skins, antelope skins, salt from native salt grass, and baskets. These items were traded for obsidian to make good arrow points.  They were also traded for salt, abalone shells, Pismo clam shells, soapstone, and cowrie shells.

Clothing

The Yokuts dressed in very simple clothing. Young children wore no clothing except in the cold winter months. The women and older girls wore short skirts made of deerskin, small cords, or grass. Sometimes beads were woven into their skirts. Sometimes they put long feathers around the bottom of their skirts. The women used shell beads as necklaces.

The men wore garments made from soft deerskin and tied them with cords about their waists. The end of the garments were allowed to fall downward, forming a small apron. This apron could be painted several colors with a design related to the tribe or family.

Both men and women wore narrow bands around their heads to hold their hair away from their faces. All the Yokuts used fur blankets or robes around their shoulders in the winter.

In the early days, the floor of the San Joaquin Valley was covered with grass as soft and comfortable to the foot as a velvet carpet. Therefore, no foot covering was necessary. However, during extremely cold weather, the skins of animals such as the deer or rabbit were used to wrap the feet.

Basketry

The Yokuts made very beautiful baskets of all shapes and sizes. Interesting designs were woven into the baskets. Usually these designs were patterns to represent some animal. The most common design was the rattle-snake pattern, but pictures of quails, wild geese, trees, sun, moon and stars could be seen in some baskets.

The baskets were made from tule reeds and roots that grew near the rivers. The Indian women selected only the best reeds and roots to use when making a basket. Their baskets were made so well that they would even hold water. The colors used in basket-making were usually black, white or tan and red. The Yokuts made baskets for baby cradles, for playing games, gathering food, and cooking.

Dwellings 

            In the San Joaquin Valley, the Yokuts built several types of dwellings. Dwellings varied depending upon the various Yokuts tribes’ customs and their location.   Very common was the permanent pole house. These homes varied in size: some housing single families while others housed up to 10 families.  To construct a pole house, a circular hole was dug.  The holes varied in size from 10 -12 feet in diameter to a much larger diameter and to a depth of about 2 feet of the surrounding ground.  Branches from a willow tree were embedded around the perimeter of the pit.  Other poles were bent around the upright poles of this framework, parallel to the ground and lashed to them by means of bark, or by nettle, hemp, or milkweed fiber cord.  The tips of the standing poles were pulled together at the top and bent down beside the opposite poles to which they were lashed.  At this stage, the structure was hemispherical in shape.  Some houses had a circular opening at the top to allow for a fire inside the dwelling, and a rectangular door which faced the south. 

            Since there was an abundance of tule available, a thatch of tules and brush was laid on top of the wood frame.  Loose soil which had been set aside was wet and thrown on top of the tule thatch.  It was beaten down with sticks, and formed a tight covering varying in thickness from about 6 inches at the circular opening at the top to several feet at the ground.  The heavy mud and earth cover compacted the tules and brush until they were probably about 4 inches in thickness.  It was necessary for an average man to bend quite low in order to enter these houses.  The house would have to be entered as one would enter a shallow cellar or dugout.  During bad weather, an animal skin or a tule map was closed over the home’s opening. 

            Over time, wild grasses grew on the houses’ mud covering and they blended into their surroundings.  It seemed to early travelers in the San Joaquin Valley that Yokuts came running out of the ground like rabbits from burrows.

            The rest of the houses were of a more temporary nature.  The long tule- mat covered communal house called the kawe was most striking.  Sometimes the length of this house reached 300 feet and looked from the outside like a long, wedge shaped tent. 

Such communal houses were common because all Yokuts lived close to other tribal dwellers.  Yokuts only lived alone as a form of punishment. 

            Many families might live in the communal house.  In some instances, the people of an entire village might live together in one house.  The house was built with a long ridge pole, supported by notched posts and had a steep pitched roof.  Small cut off branches were left to be used as hooks.  Strings of dried meat, acorns, and fish, and personal belongings, camping equipment, bows and arrows were hung from these hangers.  Whenever possible the long axis of the house was laid out east to west probably as protection from the strong north winds.  The north wall of the house was covered solid with tule mats, several layers of them were needed.  Along this side were the beds.  Along the south side, were the doorways.  Although there were no walls in the house, each family had its own space, its own door, and its own fireplace.  Along the front, or south side of the house, a tule- covered shade was constructed much a modern day porch.

            On Upper Tule River, some Yokuts built their winter houses of tules in a cone shape.  Like the permanent pole houses, a circular opening was left the smoke arising from the fire pit below.  The framework was covered by sewn tule mats.  The house were placed in very straight rows with brush-covered shades in front.  These houses looked most like the tepee of the Plains Indians.

            When occupying temporary camps or when traveling, the Yokuts built smaller, and less permanent houses or shelters, some merely brush or tule wind breaks.