Location: Northern California coast (Humboldt County)
Language: Algonquian family
1770 estimate: 1,000
1910 Census: 100
Wiyot territory connected with the territory of the Yurok, a larger group to the north. The Wiyot had many things in common with the Yurok, but there were also important differences. The Wiyot and the Yurok used many of the same tools, and their houses, clothing, and food were similar. However, the Wiyot had fewer ceremonies and rituals than the Yurok. They were a very practical people.
The Wiyot lived along the shore of the Pacific Ocean. Their villages were located in three areas, and they had a name for each group of villages. Those on Humboldt Bay were called Wiki; those near the mouth of the Mad River were called Batawat, and those near the mouth of the Eel River were called Wiyot. Their neighbors used the name Wiyot to refer to all three areas, but the Wiyot themselves did not use the name in this way.
Wiyot territory included about 35 miles of coast line, and extended about 15 miles back from the coast. The coastline at this point is low and sandy, unlike the rocky coastline to the south and to the north. Most of Wiyot territory was redwood forests. The rest was sand dunes, tidal marsh, or open prairie. Every Wiyot settlement was on a stream or bay. They preferred the still water on a protected bay or near the mouth of a river more than the open ocean.
There was no formal organization in the villages or among the Wiyot as a whole. The men with the most power were those who had the most wealth.
Houses built by the Wiyot were made of redwood planks, cut with stone tools from the redwood trees that grew nearby. The houses were rectangular in shape, with pitched roofs. A smoke hole in the middle of the roof allowed for a fire to be built in the middle of the dwelling. The entrance to the house was along one side, covered with a sliding wood door. It was usual for two or more families to live in one house. There were sleeping places in the houses for both men and women.
Each Wiyot village had one sweathouse, built like the dwelling houses but smaller. Inside was a fire pit lined with stones. The Wiyot sweathouse was used for relaxation and ceremonies, but seemed to have less importance than the sweathouses in other northern California regions. Only occasionally did the Wiyot men sleep in the sweathouse.
The ocean and rivers were the most important source of food for the Wiyot. Clams were gathered from the beaches. Fishing was done in the ocean as well as in the rivers. Salmon, the mainstay of the Wiyot diet, were caught as they swam upstream. The people used several kinds of nets, weirs (dams), and traps to catch the fish. Sea mammals were also used as food, especially sea lions and whales that had been stranded on the beach.
Deer and elk that lived in the redwood forests were hunted by the Wiyot, who used the meat as well as the skins. The forest also supplied huckleberries and other wild berries.
Acorns were not as important to the Wiyot as to many early Californians, because there weren't many oak trees growing in the redwood forest region. However, they did use some acorns which they ground with stone tools called mortar (a bowl-shaped stone) and pestle (a club-shaped stone used to pound the acorns). They may have gotten acorns from neighboring groups, or they may have made trips into the interior to gather acorns.
Meat and fish were cooked either by boiling, roasting, or smoke-drying them. Smoke-dried food would last for many months.
Deer and rabbit skins provided the material from which the Wiyot made their clothing. The Wiyot made more use of rabbit skins than did their neighbors. They used robes of skins to cover their shoulders. The men wrapped a piece of deerskin around the lower part of their body. The women wore aprons of deerskin that hung from their waist to below their knees. The aprons were decorated with fringe and with strings of nuts, seeds, or shells.
Both men and women wore moccasins on their feet when the weather was cold, or when they were going long distances in the forests. The moccasins were made of deerhide, and were sometimes decorated with shells.
The Wiyot women often had tattooing on their chins. Sometimes the tattoo was in stripes running down the chin, but more often it was a solid tattoo.
The Wiyot made canoes from redwood logs, as did the Yurok to the north. Only people who lived in an area of redwood forests that grew close to the water made these canoes. The redwood log was dug out using fire and tools made of stone and mussel shell. The front and back of the boat were blunt and square. These canoes were used both in the ocean and in the rivers. They were sometimes as long as 18 feet.
Baskets made by the Wiyot were used for carrying things, for cooking, and for wearing as hats. The method of basketmaking is called twining. Various types of branches and plant fibers were used for the twining. Hazelnut shoots were often woven with fibers from ferns or tree roots. Wiyot basket hats had a dome-shaped top. Their cooking baskets were smaller at the bottom, flaring out in the middle and then curving back in at the top. The baskets were decorated by weaving in fibers of darker and lighter colors, or by staining parts of the basket with dye. A reddish dye was made from alder tree bark. Another method of dyeing fibers was to bury them in the mud for a time, which made the fibers darker in color.
Bows and arrows were the most common weapons of the Wiyot. The bows were made of yew wood, with bowstrings of deer sinew. When battling with an enemy, the men wore armor made from elkhide and carried shields, also made from hides.
Dentalium shells were used as money by the Wiyot. These tube-shaped shells were used all along the northwestern coast, from Vancouver Island to northern California. The dentalium shells used in northern California mostly came from further north and were traded down the coast. The shells were strung on strings by size, with the larger shells being worth more.
Having many dentalium shells and prized skins made a Wiyot man wealthy. Woodpecker scalps were also highly valued. Although being rich was important, the Wiyot did not make slaves of people who had no wealth.
The Wiyot had fewer ceremonies than their northern neighbors, and they held the ceremonies less often. They performed the Jumping Dance, as did other northern groups, but they did not do the Deerskin Dance. The Jumping Dance for the Wiyot was done only at the village of Hieratgak on Humboldt Bay, and lasted for five days.
Unlike other northern groups, the Wiyot permitted women to join in the dances. In the Wiyot Jumping Dance, a woman stood in the middle of the line of dancers. The dancers sometimes wore obsidian (volcanic glass) pieces on thongs around their necks.