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Location: Central California (Coast Miwok - Marin County; Lake Miwok - Lake County)

Language: Penutian family

1770 estimate:
Coast 1,500; Lake 500
1910 Census: Coast 11; Lake 7

The Coast Miwok and the Lake Miwok were the northern members of the large Miwok group, most of whom lived inland, from the Sacramento River delta to the Sierra Nevada mountains. It was Coast Miwok people whom Sir Francis Drake met in 1579 when he explored along the California coast. The description of the people written by Drake's party was later confirmed by research.


Coast Miwok villages were on Bodega Bay and Tomales Bay, on the protected shores of San Francisco Bay, and in the wooded peninsula between these bays. Today's place names of Cotati, Olema, Tomales, and Tamalpais come from the Coast Miwok. The Lake Miwok lived along several creeks south of Clear Lake. They made trips to Bodega Bay, in Coast Miwok territory, to gather food.

Larger villages each had a headman, the hypu. One of his jobs was to give speeches about how the people should behave and what work needed to be done. An assistant leader, the mlle, helped to make sure that what the headman said was carried out. The myen (or mien) was a woman leader who supervised some of the important ceremonies, and sometimes told the hypu what to do.


Their houses were round, made on a frame of poles (often from the willow tree) around a hole dug in the ground. A large center pole supported side poles that were all lashed together at the top. Slender poles were tied across the upright poles. Over all of this, bundles of rushes or tule reeds were tied with cord. The reeds were then covered with dirt. The fireplace in the center of the house was surrounded by stones. A smokehole over the fireplace could be covered with a sealskin to keep out the rain. A flat woven mat covered the doorway.

Large villages had sweathouses or ceremonial houses built in much the same way as the family houses, though with the ground dug out four or five feet deep. These buildings had entrance tunnels that slanted down to the underground room.


There was a big variety of food available for the Coast and Lake Miwok. Oak trees were common, and acorns was one of the basic foods. Buckeye nuts were used much like acorns, ground into a meal and made into mush. Berries from the pepperwood (or California laurel) tree were made into cakes, or used to make a drink said to be something like chocolate. Manzanita berries were dried and then made into a flour that was rolled into balls and eaten as a sweet. Nuts from the yellow and sugar pine trees were eaten, as were the seeds that came from the pine cones.

The sea was an important source of food for both the Coast and Lake Miwok. They did not eat sea mammals, but did eat fish, eels, crabs, mussels and clams. Seaweed was gathered and dried. After being baked, it could be saved for eating later. The Coast Miwok, of course, had easier access to the ocean than did the Lake Miwok. Both groups caught trout and other freshwater fish in the streams. Salmon were taken as they entered the rivers to spawn.

Deer and elk were hunted all during the year. Deer bones were cracked open to get the marrow. The grizzly bear was less common than the deer and more difficult to kill. Smaller animals such as rabbits, squirrels, wood rats and gophers were easier to catch. Birds were hunted both as food and for their feathers. Ducks, geese, mud hens, and other waterfowl, as well as quail and other land birds, were caught in traps or nets.

The Lake Miwok liked to eat the larva (newly hatched) of yellow jackets, which they roasted. They also roasted and ate grasshoppers.


Because the climate was mild, the people did not need many clothes to keep warm. Men sometimes wore an apron-like loin cloth tied at the waist. Women wore a skirt, either made in two sections like a double apron, or in one piece with an opening down one side. The clothing was made of deerskin or of tule reeds tied together.

Deer or rabbit skins were used to make blankets or capes that were worn over the shoulders. The rabbit skins were cut into strips and then fastened together with cord to make a blanket. Both men and women usually had their feet bare. Men wore a net cap on their head, sometimes with the soft feathers of baby eagles drawn through the mesh of the net. Feathers were also used to decorate bracelets and belts.


The Coast and Lake Miwok were skilled in making baskets, which they used for all cooking, carrying, and storing. Women did most of the basketmaking, though men sometimes made carrying baskets and special willow containers for their hunting equipment. Both methods of making baskets (twining and coiling) were used. Willow sticks were bent to form the basic shape of the basket. Woven through the willow were pieces of grass or pine roots. Tule reeds were used to make mats. Designs were made by using bulrush roots blackened in ashes, or redbud sprouts. Special baskets were decorated with abalone shells and with red and white feathers.

From wood the Coast and Lake Miwok made bows and arrows, hollow-log foot drums, and double-bladed paddles for their rafts. The bow was backed with sinew from the wing of the brown pelican. The arrows had three feathers. Obsidian (volcanic glass) and flint (a type of quartz) was used for axes, spear tips, knives, and arrowheads. The flint was shaped with tools made from deer and elk antler.

To cross streams or bays, rafts of a few logs or of tule reeds were made. Bundles of reeds were bound together with grapevines or rope made of milkweed fiber. The rafts were shaped somewhat like canoes.


Clamshell beads were used as money. The beads were made by polishing small disks of shell, punching a hole in each, and stringing them on cords. Though the clamshells came from Coast Miwok territory, the people here did not seem to have any advantage of wealth and did not engage in a great deal of trading. The Lake Miwok had a source of magnesite (a stone that turns reddish when heated) from which beads were made. Magnesite beads were of more value than clamshell beads (one report is that a one-inch magnesite bead was worth two yards of clamshell money).


The Coast and Lake Miwok held many dances during the year. Sometimes a large dance house was built for a special ceremony. Dances were held to celebrate the capture of bear, deer, or salmon; to mark a young person's becoming an adult; to install a new headman. In some ceremonies, the dancers would take on the role of a bear or a coyote. Sometimes only the men danced; other times women and children participated, with a woman sometimes being the head dancer.

Dance costumes were made from the skin of a brown or white pelican, cut in such a way that the wings made the sleeves of the costume. Feather headdresses were worn. Foot drums, flutes, cocoon rattles and split-stick clappers made music for the dances.

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