California (Amador, Calaveras, Tuolumne, Mariposa, Contra Costa Counties,
northern Madera & San Joaquin Counties, southern Sacramento County)
Language: Penutian family
1770 estimate: 9,000
1910 Census: 670
Though they now share a name with the groups known as the Coast Miwok and Lake Miwok, the territory of this largest group of Miwok was separated from that of the Coast and Lake Miwok.
The Miwok, also called the Eastern Miwok, lived mostly along the foothills of the Sierras, and up into the mountains below the line of heavy winter snows. Northern branches of the group, known as the Plains Miwok and the Bay Miwok, lived along the Sacramento River and its delta. The Miwok considered themselves to belong to tribelets, or small groups of villages, of 100 to 500 people.
Each tribelet was led by a headman, who inherited the position from his father. The headman settled arguments and directed the hunting and food gathering. Young hunters supplied food for the headman, who was a wealthy person. To assist him there were speakers and messengers who made sure everyone knew what the headman decided. Each village within a tribelet had a speaker who was important as a sort of sub-chief.
Every thing and every person in the Miwok world was classed as either belonging to water or to land. Personal names often related to which group the person belonged. On the water side were such things as goose, frog, salmon, cloud, and ice, but also deer, antelope, coyote, rock, and sand. The land side included bear, fox, lizard, bluejay, fire, and drum.
In mountain areas, the Miwok house was made of layers of bark slabs leaning against each other in a cone shape. In the lower foothills and on the plains, the house was made around a frame of poles covered with bundles of grass or tule reeds, or with mats woven from tule reeds. In the center of the house was a fireplace and an earth oven. Pine needles covered the floor. Tule reed mats and animal skins were used for sitting and sleeping.
The largest building in each community was the assembly house, used for dances and other gatherings. A hole three to four feet deep was dug in the ground. The roof beams were held up by center posts and by the edge of the hole. In this way, a room 40 to 50 feet across could be made. The roof beams (which were also the upper walls) were connected by smaller branches, and then covered with layers of brush, pine needles, and earth. There was a smoke hole in the center of the roof, and a door at one side. The village sweathouse was made like the assembly house, but much smaller.
The Sierra Miwok depended on deer as their main source of meat. For the Plains Miwok, elk and antelope were easier to get. Each group traveled to the other's area for hunting. Black bear and grizzly bear were hunted in the Sierras, though the Plains Miwok did not eat bear, fox or wildcat. Smaller animals like rabbits, beaver, squirrels, and woodrats were used as food, but not coyotes, skunks, owls, snakes or frogs. The Plains Miwok took salmon and sturgeon from the Sacramento delta waters. The Sierra Miwok caught trout in mountain streams. Fish and meat were cooked over an open fire, or roasted in the ashes of the fire. Earth ovens heated by stones were used to bake and steam food.
In the spring, the Miwok gathered green plants to eat fresh. They ate columbine, milkweed, wild pea, sheep sorrel, and many other greens. In the summer, many types of seeds were gathered. Roots and mushrooms were also eaten. In the fall, pine nuts and acorns ripened and fell from the trees. Seven types of acorns were gathered by the Miwok and stored in village granaries for use throughout the year. The granaries were round, as big as five feet across and 12 feet high. They were made by standing poles in a circle, and lacing grapevines and smaller poles through the frame, then lining the inside with grass, twigs and brush.
Northern Sierra Miwok women wore a piece of deerskin wrapped around as a dress. In Central Miwok territory and among the Plains Miwok, the women wore a two-piece apron-type skirt made of deerskin, grasses, or shredded tule reeds. Miwok men wore a piece of deerskin around their hips. For added warmth in cold weather, both men and women used blankets or robes made from animal skins. Deer, bear, mountain lion, coyote, and rabbit skins were used to make robes.
Young children had their ears and noses pierced, and wore flowers as ear and nose ornaments. Adults wore beads, shells, bones, and feathers as ear and nose ornaments. Both men and women had tattoos, usually three lines running from the chin down the body. Hair nets were worn only by the village leaders, except at special ceremonies.
Bows and arrows were used in hunting and in warfare. The Sierra Miwok used cedar wood to make the bows, which were backed with layers of sinew (animal tendons). Pieces of antler were used to chip and shape the arrowheads. Also used in warfare was a spear with a tip made from obsidian (volcanic glass). No shields or body armor were used by the Miwok.
The Sierra and Plains Miwok used both the twining and coiling methods of making baskets. Young willow branches were used as the foundation for both types of baskets. Redbud fibers were wrapped around the willow coils in the coiled baskets. Coiled baskets took more time to make, and were used when the basket needed to be watertight. Twined baskets were used for carrying and as seed beaters.
Tule reeds that grew in marshy areas were woven together to make mats, used on the floors of houses. Bundles of tules were tied together around a frame made of willow poles to make a kind of canoe, used on the delta by the Plains Miwok. Wooden paddles were used to propel the canoes. In the mountains, rafts made from two logs tied together with vines were used for crossing streams.
String and cord were important in the making of nets which were used to catch fish, birds, and small animals. Fibers from the milkweed and hemp plants were rolled into string.
Clamshell disks were used as money, though they were considered less valuable among the Miwok than among their neighbors to the north. Pieces of clamshell were shaped into small circles, holes bored in them, and strung on strings. Miwok men and women wore strings of clamshells as necklaces, and to show their wealth. Olivella shells and magnesite (stone) cylinders were also strung on strings and used in trade. The Sierra Miwok got salt and obsidian from groups on the east side of the Sierras, and shells from those living on the sea coast. Baskets and bows and arrows were traded between groups.
Some Miwok ceremonies were connected with religious practices. For these, special robes and feather headdresses were used. Other dances were held for fun and entertainment. Some Miwok dances included clowns called Wo'ochi who were painted white and represented coyotes. The Miwok also had the Uzumati or grizzly bear ceremony, where the dancer pretended to be a bear, with pieces of obsidian attached to his fingers as claws.