Northwestern California (Humboldt County)
Language: Athapaskan family
1770 estimate: 500-600
1910 Census: not known
The language spoken by the Chilula was very close to that of the Hupa, a larger group who lived just to the east of the Chilula. The Whilkut people, who lived south of the Chilula, also shared this language. By the late 1800's, the few remaining Chilula people had become integrated with the Hupa on the Hoopa Reservation.
Chilula villages were built along Redwood Creek, which ran southwest of the Klamath River and emptied into the ocean north of Humboldt Bay. The Chilula, however, occupied only a portion of the land along Redwood Creek. They were cut off from the ocean by the Yurok, whose lands extended across the mouth of Redwood Creek and who were not friendly with the Chilula. The upper reaches of Redwood Creek were occupied by the Whilkut.
There were high hills along both sides of Redwood Creek in Chilula territory. On the western side, thick forests of redwood and oak trees came down to the creek. On the eastern side of the creek, the hills were broken by valleys with little streams running down them. It was here that the Chilula built their homes. There were more than 20 villages, with an average size of about 30 people.
These people who lived along Redwood Creek did not call themselves Chilula. This name was given to them later, and comes from a Yurok term, Tsulu-la, meaning people of Tsulu. Tsulu refers to the Bald Hills, the name given the hills in this area because there are no trees on the hill tops. The Chilula are also called the Bald Hills Indians.
The Chilula built their houses in the same style as the larger northwest California tribes. They cut planks from fallen trees. The planks were placed upright to form the walls of the house, which was rectangular in shape. The floor of the house was sunk into the ground by digging a pit several feet deep. A notched log served as a ladder for the people to climb down into the house. This is where the women and children slept and worked, and where the family ate.
The men and older boys slept together in the village sweathouse. The sweathouse was smaller than a family dwelling, but made in the same manner with wooden plank walls and a pit inside where the fire was built.
The Chilula left their villages in the summer and went to the grassy hills where they gathered plants for food. Individuals claimed ownership of certain seed-gathering or hunting spots, and camped near these spots during the summer. Their temporary houses were made of pieces of bark placed upright to form walls, with the floor at ground level.
Because Redwood Creek was a small stream, it had fewer fish than the nearby rivers. However, it was still a major source of food for the Chilula. They used spears or dip nets to catch salmon. Temporary dams made of brush were placed in the creek to catch steelhead (trout). To catch lamprey eels, the Chilula sometimes built two small platforms above a barrier placed across the creek. From the platforms, the men used dip nets to catch the eels.
Because the fish supply in Redwood Creek was limited, the Chilula depended more on plant food than did their neighbors who lived along the Klamath or Trinity Rivers. The Chilula gathered bulbs and seeds on the hillsides in the summer. In the autumn they gathered acorns. They gathered enough food to store for the rest of the year.
Many deer and elk were found in the Bald Hills and in the meadows among the redwood forests. The Chilula hunted these animals for food. The men were skillful hunters. They often worked together to drive the deer or elk into a place where they could use their stone-tipped arrows to bring an animal down. Sometimes they made a noose of iris-fiber rope and placed it along a deer or elk trail. When an animal caught its foot in the noose, the men would be waiting nearby to use their bow and arrows.
The deer that were a source of food for the Chilula were also the main source of clothing. The women usually wore a skirt made from two pieces of deerskin, one covering the front and the other covering the back, and hanging from the waist to below the knees. The back section was fringed on the lower edge. The front section was sometimes made of many strips attached to a belt.
The men usually wore a piece of deerskin around the lower part of their body. When the weather was cold, both men and women used a robe or blanket of animal skins wrapped around their shoulders to keep them warm. The people went barefoot except when going on a long trip. Then they would make moccasins from a piece of deerhide. A single piece of hide became a shoe by making a seam up one side for the heel, and another seam on top of the foot.
Baskets were important to the Chilula, as they were to the other early Californians. The women were the basketmakers. They became skillful at weaving branches, twigs, and roots into useful shapes. The basketmaking process used by the Chilula was called twining. The warp (upright) pieces of the basket were often made of hazel shoots (new slender branches). In between these branches the women wove strands cut from tree roots. Sometimes they wove the pieces very close together so that the baskets could be used to hold mush or water. Many baskets were needed for gathering, cooking, and storing food. Rocks heated in a fire were placed in the food inside the basket to cook it.
Other baskets were made to be used as hats. These basket hats protected the forehead when heavy loads carried on the person's back were held in place by a strap around the forehead. Special baskets were made to serve as baby cradles.
The Chilula men made spears, bows and arrows, and traps from wood. These things were necessary for them to use in getting their food. Pieces of elk or deer antlers were used as tools for scraping and shaping the wood. They may also have made low stools and wooden-block headrests from cedar logs. These would have been the only furniture in their houses.
Redwood Creek was too small for the Chilula to use canoes.
Wealth was important to the Chilula. The richest men in the group had the most power. Like their neighbors, the Chilula placed great value on dentalium shells. These tube-shaped mollusk shells, which were obtained in trade from tribes further north, were kept on strings. They were grouped by size, with the larger shells being the more valuable. Deerskins (especially ones of unusual color), scarlet woodpecker scalps, and black or red obsidian (volcanic glass) were also considered valuable.
Little is known of Chilula ceremonies. They may have held the Deerskin Dance, like their neighbors, or they may have joined the Hupa in their dances. Unlike the Hupa, the Chilula made headbands of yellowhammer quills, and used them in some ceremonies. The yellowhammer is a bird of the flicker or woodpecker family.