Northwestern California (Mendocino County, northern Lake County)
Language: Yukian family
1770 estimate: 2,000
1910 Census: 100
The Yuki were the largest of four groups united by the Yukian language family, a language family found only in California. The other Yukian speaking peoples were the Huchnom, the Coast Yuki, and the Wappo. The culture of the Yuki was different from the northwestern tribes, though their lands bordered. It was also different from the larger groups to the south and east, who considered the Yuki to be rough mountain people.
Yuki territory was completely in the Coast Range Mountains, a rugged land. It included the area along the upper part of the Eel River above the North Fork, except for the part of the South Eel River occupied by the Huchnom.
Yuki villages, each of which had a local headman, were grouped into tribelets. Each tribelet had a dance house, located in one of the larger villages, and a tribelet chief. The job of the tribelet chief was to encourage the people and to settle disputes, while the local headman decided where the people would go to gather food. Groups of tribelets made up tribal subdivisions. There were likely more than 500 Yuki village sites, making up the eight or nine tribal subdivisions. Each tribelet occupied the land along a part of the river or a creek that joined it.
The name Yuki is a Wintun word meaning stranger or foe. The Yuki did not use this name for themselves. Their neighbors regarded them as fierce and warlike.
Tribelets had war chiefs, in addition to the tribelet chief. The Yuki fought with the Nomlaki to the northeast and the Pomo to the south, and sometimes with the Cahto. They also did not get along with the Coast Yuki, though they shared a similar language.
The Yuki word for house was han, and their dance house was called iwil-han, meaning poisonous house or powerful house. Houses were cone-shaped, starting with a circle on the ground. Larger buildings were dug out inside so the floor was below ground level. A center pole supported a series of rafter poles. Over the poles, layers of bark, grass, pine needles and earth formed the walls. A low entrance tunnel was made by four forked sticks covered with poles and earth. A deerskin or large woven mat covered the doorway. The largest dance houses could hold several hundred people.
Smaller houses were built with fewer poles. The smallest had no center pole; the framing poles and bark formed a cone shape that supported itself at the top. A fire pit was placed in the center of the house.
Deer, acorns, and salmon were the main foods of the Yuki. Their location on the upper Eel River, near the headwaters, meant that the Yuki did not have as good a fish supply as the neighboring Wailaki, downriver. At times the water level in this part of the river was so low that the salmon were almost stranded in pools. Then the Yuki men could dive in and catch the salmon by hand. At other times they used spears, nets, traps, and poison to catch salmon and trout. They had a supply of fresh fish all year.
The men used snares as well as bows and arrows when hunting deer. Sometimes the hunter wore a deerhead disguise in order to get closer to the game. Bears were hunted only for their skin. The Yuki did not eat bear meat.
Acorns provided the Yuki with the mush that was a part of almost every meal. They also gathered various other nuts and seeds, clover, tubers and roots, berries, mushrooms, and bird eggs. The Yuki ate grasshoppers, though they did not eat gopher, weasel, fox, wolf, coyote, beaver, or snake meat.
The Yuki did not seem to need many clothes. Women wore a fringed skirt or apron made of deerskin. Young men wrapped a piece of deerskin around their hips, and older men usually wore nothing. When it was cold, both men and women put a deerskin blanket over their shoulders. They seldom wore moccasins. Basket caps worn by women in other areas were not as common among the Yuki.
Yuki men covered their heads with nets made of iris fibers. These nets were decorated with feathers when the men were dressed for special ceremonies. Both men and women had tattoos on their faces, mostly on the cheeks. Some Yuki had small bones inserted through their noses or earlobes.
A variety of tools were made to help with getting and preparing food. Wood was used to make bows and arrows, spears, and paddles to stir the acorn mush. The wood was shaped by scraping it with pieces of bone or elkhorn. Mussel shells were used as spoons, though the acorn mush was commonly eaten by scooping it up with two bent fingers. Flat stones and club-shaped stones were used as mortar and pestle to grind the acorns into flour. Knives and hammers were also shaped from stone.
In their warfare, the Yuki used arrows with flint or bone points, with the shafts decorated by feathers. Other weapons were knives or daggers made of flint (quartz), clubs, and slings.
The Yuki made coiled baskets from dogwood, honeysuckle, hazel, or willow shoots, sewn together with fibers of redbud. These baskets, though not as finely made as the Pomo baskets, were decorated in patterns and colors of white, red, and black. Twined baskets, which were made more quickly, were not decorated. The Yuki had no boats or rafts; sometimes children or old people were floated across the river in large baskets pushed by swimmers.
Trade was common between the Yuki and their neighbors to the south. Though they often fought with the Pomo, they also traded with them for shells and beads, ocean fish, mussels, seaweed, and salt. In exchange, they gave furs and food products.
The most important shells obtained from the Pomo were the clamshell disks used as money. The pieces of clamshell had small holes drilled in them and were kept on strings, like beads. Beads made from magnesite stone were also valued. The Yuki got some dentalium shells (tube-shaped mollusks) from the Pomo, but these were not the large dentalium shells used as money by the northwestern groups.
The Yuki system of counting is based on the number eight. They counted by using the four spaces between their fingers, putting two twigs in each space to equal eight.
The Yuki felt that ceremonies were important, and they had many special customs having to do with young people growing into adulthood.
In January and May, an Acorn Sing was held. This was a happy ceremony, held to please Taikomol, the creator of the Yuki world, so that there would be a good acorn crop. Sometimes both men and women danced, and special feather capes and dance skirts were worn.
Before each battle, the Yuki danced a war dance. They celebrated victory with another dance
Headbands made with yellowhammer (a type of woodpecker) quills were worn by the Yuki during ceremonies. With the dancing they used rattles and whistles.