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Location: Central California coast (San Luis Obispo County, southern Monterey County)

Language: Hokan family

1770 estimate:
1910 Census: 16

The explorer Gaspar de Portolá recorded a meeting with Salinan Indians in 1769 as he explored along the central California coast.  He reported seeing seven villages.


The territory where the Salinan lived was a rugged mountain area where the hills of the Coast Range came down to cliffs and rocky beaches along the Pacific Ocean.  This area included the headwaters of the Salinas River, but most of the Salinan villages were located along the Nacimiento and San Antonio Rivers.  The mountainous area was used for hunting.

There were two major divisions of Salinan--one northern, one southern--and one minor division along the coast.  There were small differences in language between the groups.  The northern group became known as Antoniaños after being taken into Mission San Antonio de Padua.  The southern group became known as Migueleñia after Mission San Miguel was built in their territory.  The small group on the coast were called Playaños, meaning of the beach people.  The name Salinan comes from the Salinas River, and was first used in the 1890's.

The people lived in villages with an average of about 100 people in each village.  Each village or small group of villages had a headman.  He was chosen by the men of the village because of his courage, but he was usually a wealthy person as well as brave.  The headman did not hunt or fish, but had food given to him by the villagers.  In some Salinan areas there was a District Chief who had several village headmen under him.  The headmen directed the food gathering and hunting activities of the villages, declared days of rest, and led war parties.  Salinan villages often had disagreements with one another, and the headmen took the lead in settling these disputes.


Salinan houses were made with a framework of four posts forming a square about ten feet on each side, plus one post in the center.  Four roof poles supported a thatched roof of rye or tule grasses tied together with thin strips of willow wood or bark.  The walls were also covered with bundles of tule reeds.  The floor was at ground level, with a fire place in the middle and a smoke hole directly above.

Each Salinan village had a sweathouse.  A round pit about four feet wide and one foot deep was dug.  Around the pit, brush was arched over to make a dome-shaped hut.  Deer skins were placed over the brush, and a layer of mud spread over the skins.  A fire in the middle of the hut produced smoke and heat, but no steam. 

There are reports of assembly houses or dance houses in Salinan villages, but no descriptions of how they were built.


Six kinds of acorns grew in Salinan territory.  Acorns were collected in the fall and stored in tall basket granaries made from slender branches of white willow trees.  Other plants used as food included wild oats, sage and sunflower seeds, pine nuts, buckeye nuts, grapes, prickly pears, yucca root, and bulbs.  Three kinds of clover were eaten raw.  Blackberries, strawberries, elderberries, gooseberries, toyon berries, and choke cherries were gathered.  

Salmon and trout were caught in the Salinas River and other streams.  From the ocean, the Salinan got bullhead fish, clams, abalone, mussels, crabs, and seaweed.  Many animals were hunted in the hills and valleys, including deer, antelope, mountain lion, wild sheep, ground squirrels, and rabbits.  Two kinds of quail and other small birds were caught with nets.  The northern Salinan ate lizards, but none of the Salinan ate dogs, coyotes, or wolves, nor did they eat birds of prey such as the hawk, condor, buzzard, or eagle.  Bears were hunted for their skins but were not often used as food.


In summer many people wore no clothing.  Sometimes the women would make a skirt like a double apron, with one part in front and the other part in back.  They used tule reeds and grasses tied in small bundles to make the skirts.  In colder weather, both men and women wore capes or blankets made from rabbit or otter skins, or from tule grass.  They sometimes put a layer of mud on their bodies to keep them warm. 

When carrying a heavy burden basket on their back, they wore basket caps so that the strap supporting the burden basket could rest on the cap instead of on the forehead.  The Salinan wore their hair at shoulder length, tied at the neck with a strip of deerhide.  For decoration they painted their bodies with red, white, blue, and yellow dyes, and wore earrings made from abalone shells. 


The Salinan used both twining and coiling methods for making baskets.  Willow branches and tule reeds were the main materials for the baskets, with fern roots woven in to make the design.  Split grasses were soaked in water and then used as sewing thread to hold together the coils.  An awl (sharp pointed tool), made from the sharpened end of the ankle bone of a deer, was the needle. 

Pieces of  bone and shell were used as wedges and fishhooks.  Stone was shaped into arrowheads, spear points, scrapers, choppers, and grinders.


The Salinan used abalone or mussel shells to make beads which were used as money.  The value of the bead was based on its color.  Blue beads which were long and came from some other area were the most valuable.  Owning just two blue shells made a man wealthy.  Pink beads, valued for their shininess, were next in value.  White beads were worth less.  It is reported that the Salinan loaned money at an interest rate equal to the amount of the loan for each day the money was kept.  This was very high interest!

The Yokuts, to the east, were good friends of the Salinan, who visited them and fished in their lakes. The Yokuts had access to the ocean through Salinan land.  The Salinan traded shell beads and unworked shells to the Yokuts for obsidian (volcanic glass for spear points), seeds, lake fish, and animal skins.  They also traded with the Chumash to the south for shell ornaments, and wooden dishes.  The Salinan were seldom on good terms with their neighbors to the north, the Costanoans.


Some dances were done by a single dancer.  In the Coyote, Bear, Owl, and Deer dances, the dancer imitated the actions and sound of the animal.  One or two dancers performed the Kuksui dance.  The dancers were naked with their bodies painted red, white, and yellow.  They wore feather headdresses with eagle feathers extending from their foreheads.  The Kuksui dance was accompanied by singers, sitting in a row and clapping their hands.

While no instruments were used in the Kuksui dance, at other times the people used cocoon rattles, wooden rasps (notched sticks rubbed against each other), rattles and flutes made of elderwood, and bone whistles.  They may also have had a drum made by stretching an animal skin over a wooden frame.  Group dances were part of the celebration when a community building was completed.  These dances were held more as social events than for any ceremonial purpose.

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