North central California (Butte County, eastern Glenn County)
Language: Penutian family
1770 estimate: not known
1910 Census: not known
The Konkow are sometimes called the Northwestern Maidu. Their language was similar to the Maidu who lived to the northeast of them, as well as to the Nisenan who lived south of them.
Konkow villages were located along the Feather River and along a portion of the Sacramento River. Their territory also included a section of the Sierra foothills to the east of their villages. Much of Konkow territory had wet winters and dry summers. The rivers that cut through Konkow territory had carved deep, narrow canyons. The Konkow chose spots on the ridges above the rivers for their villages. About 150 Konkow village sites have been identified.
Each Konkow village had a headman. Although the headman had more authority than others in the village, he did not make rules. Rather, he was an advisor and a spokesman for the other people.
The name Konkow comes from a native term kóyo mkàwi, meaning meadowland.
The Konkow built three types of houses. Small cone-shaped houses were covered with slabs of bark. These were used as family homes in the winter. Larger, earth-covered houses were also used in the winter, usually by several families at a time. The larger houses were built around a pit dug in the ground, making the floor of the house lower than the ground. The poles that framed the house were covered with bark and branches, and then with earth. The headman's house, larger than the others in the village, might serve as the assembly house for the community.
For more than half of the year, the Konkow lived in temporary shelters built near where they were gathering food. They went to places in the valleys to gather seeds in the spring, into the mountains to hunt in the summer, and to places where there were groves of oak trees in the fall. As they moved around, the Konkow made campsites by putting up fences of brush and branches in a big circle. Several families lived inside each enclosure, which did not have a roof.
Deer, fish, and acorns were the most important parts of the Konkow food supply, as they were for many early California peoples. The Konkow spent more than half of their year traveling from the valleys to the mountains and back to the valleys, gathering the various plants that were available and hunting and fishing.
Besides acorns from the oak trees, other nuts and seeds were eaten. The Konkow used the nuts from the digger pine tree, either eating them as they came from the tree, or grinding them into a flour from which mush or bread could be made, similar to the way acorns were used. The shells of the digger pine nuts were made into beads.
The men traveled to the mountains in the summer to hunt deer and elk. They often worked together to trail and capture these larger animals. The extra meat was dried at the temporary campsites, and later carried back to the permanent village for use during the winter. The Konkow also hunted small animals such as squirrels and rabbits, and birds such as ducks, geese, and quail. They did not eat bear, mountain lion, buzzards, lizards, snakes, or frogs.
A sweet drink was made from the berries of the manzanita bush. Wild mint was used to make a tea drink. Wild rye grew in the valleys in Konkow territory. These seeds, as well as other seeds, berries, roots and bulbs were used for food. From the rivers, the Konkow got salmon, eels, and other fish. Some salt was available from salt deposits, but the Konkow also used dandelions, watercress, wild garlic, and onion to add flavor to their food.
Konkow women wore a two-piece apron-like skirt, one piece covering the front and the other the back. The skirts were made either from deerskin, or from thin pieces of bark. In warm weather, men often either wore nothing, or wrapped a pieces of deerskin around their hips. The Konkow did not wear moccasins. To keep warm in the winter, they put a blanket or robe over their shoulders. Blankets were made of deerskin or mountain lion skin.
The Konkow kept their hair cut to a shorter length than many of the neighboring groups. They used a hot coal to singe the hair off at the length they wanted. Konkow men did not let beards or mustaches grow on their faces, but pulled out the hairs. The people kept their hair neat and clean by using soaproot for shampoo, and pine cones and porcupine tails as combs and brushes.
Women had their ears pierced, and wore ornaments of bone or wood in their ears. Men had their noses pierced, and wore woodpecker feathers. The people also wore bracelets and necklaces made of shell, bone, and feathers. Both Konkow men and women had tattooing on their chins.
The tools that the people made were mostly connected with the process of collecting and preparing food. Several kinds of baskets were needed. The Konkow used both the twining and coiling methods of making baskets. In making twined baskets, they used slender willow or redbud branches for the upright parts, weaving in pieces of roots and fibers from other plants. The baskets were decorated with designs worked into the basket by using roots dyed black or red.
Since food was often gathered some distance from the village, burden baskets to carry the supply back were important. Burden baskets were worn on the back, and were held in place by a woven strap that went around the forehead or over the shoulders. Carrying sacks were made of cord. The cord came from fibers of the milkweed plant, twisted together. Cord was also used to make nets for catching fish and snaring small animals. Tule rushes that grew along the rivers were used to make mats used for sitting and sleeping on, and for covering doorways.
The Konkow did not make boats. The rivers in their area flowed too swiftly. The Konkow caught fish by stretching large nets across a stream. They also used fishing spears. Bows and arrows and knives were used in hunting. Knives and spears were made from basalt, a hard volcanic rock. Pieces of bone and stone were also used as scrapers in preparing animal skins.
The Konkow used clamshell disks as money. The clamshells came from the coast along Bodega Bay, and were traded from one group to another throughout central California. The round pieces of clamshell were polished and strung on strings. They were used in trade with neighboring groups. The Konkow traded with the Maidu for pine nuts and salmon. They supplied arrows, bows, and deer hides to the Maidu. From other neighbors the Konkow got abalone shells which they used for ornaments.
The Konkow had a ceremony to celebrate the catching of the first salmon of the season. Only after each man in the village had eaten a piece of the first fish caught could more fishing take place. Other ceremonies marked the time when girls and boys became adult members of the village. Dancing and music were always a part of the ceremonies.