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Location: Extreme northwest corner of California (Del Norte County)

Language: Athapaskan family

1770 estimate:
1910 Census: 150

Their location in the extreme northwestern corner of present-day California meant that the Tolowa had close ties with the people along the Oregon coast and in the Rogue River Valley, where there were others whose languages were of the Athapaskan family. The Tolowa also had much in common with the Yurok people, who lived just south of them.


Though Tolowa territory included some miles of coastline along the Pacific Ocean, the Tolowa were known as the people of the Smith River. Their land probably included much of the area drained by the Smith River. Land away from the ocean or river, however, was used mostly for hunting.

The name Tolowa was given to these people by their neighbors, the Yurok. The Tolowa did not refer to themselves as Tolowa, but used the word in their language that meant person or people. The village names that are known came from lists made by the Yurok and the Rogue River Athapaskan groups.

There were eight important Tolowa settlements, each with its own section of ocean-front property. The people of the various villages did not consider themselves to be part of a larger group.


To make their houses, the Tolowa used tree trunks that had fallen. Sometimes they made a tree fall by building a fire its base. The fallen log was split into planks using pieces of deer or elk antlers as wedges, which they hit with rock hammers. The walls of the house, which were low, formed a square and were covered by the overhanging roof planks.

Inside, the house was bigger than it looked from the outside. Most of the inside was dug out so that the floor was several feet below ground level, leaving a wide ledge around the inside walls. This ledge was used to store food and utensils. The women and girls worked and slept in the lower portion of the house, where the cooking fire was built.

The men and older boys spent more time in the village sweathouse than they did in the family homes. The sweathouse was made of wood planks, much like the family houses, but smaller.


The ocean and the river were a good source of food for the Tolowa. The men used spears and nets to catch fish. In the fall, when the salmon went upriver to lay their eggs, the men built dams in the river to help them catch the fish. They also caught lamprey eels in the river, and gathered large ocean mussels (shellfish) along the beach. Smelt (a small fish) were caught, dried on the beach, and stored for later use.

Because they had boats, the Tolowa could go out onto the ocean to hunt for seals, sea lions, and sea otters on the off-shore rocks. Whales that were washed ashore were claimed by the nearest village. The people used the skins of these animals as well as the meat. They also hunted deer, elk, and smaller animals in the inland forests.

Acorns were an important food for the Tolowa. Each fall, the people traveled inland from the coast several miles to gather the acorn crop from the oak trees. Tolowa families held the rights to acorns from certain groves of oak trees. Enough acorns were gathered in the fall so that some could be dried and stored for the winter. Other nuts, berries, and seeds were added to the food supply.


The Tolowa, like their northwestern California neighbors, used deerskins to make their clothes. The men wore a wide strip of deerskin folded around their waist. Women's dress was an apron-like skirt made in two sections, a front and a back. Women's skirts were often fringed and decorated with pine nuts, seeds, and shells such as abalone and clamshells. Deerskins were also used as blankets and shawls, worn around the shoulders when the weather was cold.

Before being made into clothing, the deerskins were often treated by a process called tanning. The skins were soaked in water for several days to loosen the hair, which was scraped off. Then the hides were soaked in an ash solution, stretched and dried. This process resulted in soft leather.


Tolowa women wove baskets using materials such as slender hazel and willow sticks, black fern and bear grass. The method they used is called twining, in which the branches or strips of roots are woven in and out across other branches. Baskets were used for gathering and storing food. Tightly-woven baskets could be used for cooking and eating. Baskets for carrying things (burden baskets) were cone-shaped and hung across the shoulders from a strap that went over the forehead. There were special baskets for carrying babies.

Canoes were made by the Tolowa, as they were by the neighboring Yurok. They used the trunk of a redwood tree that had fallen down. The inside was hollowed out by burning it, and then scraping it out with stone-handled tools made of mussel shells. The canoes were made watertight by a layer of wood pitch. The Tolowa used these canoes on the Smith River as well as in protected bays along the ocean.

For splitting logs and planks, the Tolowa used wedges of elk horn, pounding them with rock mauls (hammers).

Bows and arrows were used both for hunting and for warfare. The Tolowa used thin pieces of yew wood to make the bow, which was about three feet long. Arrows were about 30 inches long, and had tips of flint or obsidian (volcanic glass).


For money the Tolowa used the dentalium shells that were the standard currency for most of the early northwestern people. No doubt the Tolowa received the dentalium shells from the people further north along the Pacific Coast, and traded them on down the coast to other California groups. Although dentalium shells could be found in the sand under the ocean water off the California coast, the Tolowa did not dig for their own shells, but traded for them with more northerly groups. Many of the shells came from the waters around Vancouver Island.

Dentalium shells are tube-shaped mollusk shells that can be strung on strings. The shells were divided into five groups by their length, from about 1 inches up to 2 inches . The larger the shell, the more value it had to the native people. Shells were usually grouped by size on a string. Strings of dentalium shells were traded for boats, skins, or wives.

The Tolowa were considered to be wealthy people by their neighbors, the Yurok.


An important Tolowa ceremony included the Naydosh, or Feather Dance. This was held at the times of the summer and winter solstices (when the sun is at certain positions in its orbit). The Naydosh was part of a ceremony to renew the world.

Other Tolowa ceremonies celebrated the beginning of the salmon run, the smelt run, and the catching of the first sea lion. The Tolowa may have held the Deerskin Dance, as did other prosperous groups in northwestern California. At a Deerskin Dance, the men displayed their most valued possessions, such as their best deerskins.

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