Northwestern California (Humboldt County)
Language: Athapaskan family
1770 estimate: 500
1910 Census: 50
The Whilkut were closely linked by language with the Hupa and Chilula, but they were considered the "poor relatives." Not as much is known about the Whilkut as their more populous neighbors to the north, the Hupa and the Yurok. Probably their customs were much like the Hupa.
Whilkut villages were located on the upper part of Redwood Creek, above the territory of the Chilula, and on parts of Mad River, which ran parallel to Redwood Creek to the southwest. Their land was mountainous and rugged, and covered by forests.
There may have been more than twelve Whilkut settlements along Redwood Creek, and at least 16 along Mad River. In addition, six Whilkut villages on the North Fork of the Mad River have been identified. The villages were probably quite small.
The name Whilkut comes from the word the Hupa used to refer to these people, Hoilkut-hoi. They are also known as the Redwood Indians.
The manner in which the Whilkut built their houses was one thing that marked them as poorer and less skilled than their neighbors. Instead of cutting planks of wood from fallen trees, they used pieces of bark. They placed the bark slabs in an upright position to form the walls, and also used bark to make the roof. The Whilkut houses were rectangular in shape, like those of their wealthier neighbors. However, they did not have a pit inside to enlarge the living area.
The type of sweathouse found in the villages of other northwestern California tribes were not used by the Whilkut. Instead, some Whilkut villages had special buildings in which they held ceremonies. These buildings were round, and were covered with dirt, like the earth lodges of central California tribes.
Since each of their settlements was close to either a creek or a river, the Whilkut depended on the streams to provide much of their food. Redwood Creek and Mad River had salmon, steelhead, and lamprey eels, all of which were caught and cooked fresh. In addition, some fish were smoke-dried and stored for use in times when food was not as plentiful.
The mountains also provided food for the Whilkut. Nuts, berries, and seeds were gathered. Edible bulbs were dug up. Leafy green plants, roots, and fruits could be found in the meadows and woods.
Acorns were a main part of the diet for the Whilkuts, as they were for most early Californians. Each tribe felt that the acorns growing on trees in their territory belonged to them, and people from outside their group were not to gather their acorns. The Whilkut had conflicts with the Wiyot, who lived on the coast, when Wiyot women gathered acorns from trees that the Whilkut considered theirs. The Wiyot had very few oak trees in their own area.
Autumn was the time when the acorns were harvested. This is when the acorns began to fall from the trees. The women usually did the gathering, with the children helping. It might take an entire day for a family to collect the acorns from one tree. They avoided collecting acorns which had cracks or holes in them, as these might have worms.
Before the acorns could be used for food, they had to be cracked and ground up into a flour called meal. Sometimes the women did this grinding right there by the oak trees, because the acorn meal was lighter than the whole acorns to carry back to the village. Acorns that were to be stored for the winter were dried in the shells, and then cracked open and ground into meal later, when they were needed.
Venison was also part of the regular food of the Whilkut. Deer were plentiful in the hills that bordered Redwood Creek and Mad River, and they were hunted by the people. Sometimes smaller animals such as rabbits or squirrels were caught in snares or traps. The meat was cooked by roasting it on hot coals, or by hanging it on sticks over the fire.
The clothing worn by the Whilkut was like that of other early people living in the area. Deerskins provided the material for the clothes of both men and women. Men wore just a folded piece of deerskin around their hips. Older men in the villages often went without clothing when the weather was warm. In winter, blankets of deerskin or of smaller skins sewn together were used by everyone to keep warm.
The women made apron-like skirts, with one piece covering them in the front and a second piece in the back. Sometimes the skirts were decorated with fringe, or with seeds and shells sewn onto them. Both women and men usually had their feet bare. Only when going on a long trip would they wear moccasins made of deerhide.
Whilkut women made baskets much like those of other early northwest California women. They used a method called twining, where fibers from plants or strips of root were woven in and out between slender young branches. Baskets were important to the people. They were used to carry the food that they gathered, to store extra food, and even for cooking. Baskets also served as cradles for babies.
The Whilkut are known to have used baskets made by another method, called coiling. This was the method used by people who lived to the south. It is likely that the Whilkut got their coiled baskets by trading for them, rather than making them.
The men in Whilkut villages used deer and elk antlers to scrape pieces of wood into the shapes they needed for use as spears, bows and arrows, traps for catching small animals, and paddles for stirring acorn mush. The Whilkut did not have canoes, like the people on the coast near them. They waded into the creek or river to catch fish with spears, or by building dams of brush across the creek. Sometimes they caught the fish with their bare hands.
The Whilkut lived in the area where dentalium shells were used as money. These tube-shaped mollusk shells are found in deep ocean water off the coast of North America. The shells valued by early Californians came from around Vancouver Island. They were traded from tribe to tribe along the Pacific Coast, and eventually came to the people living in northwestern California.
Dentalium shells ranged in size from very small up to about 2½ inches long. Only shells at least 1¾ inches long were considered valuable enough to be used in trade. Some men had marks tattooed on their arms so they could measure the size of the dentalium shells. The shells were strung on strings, grouped by size. The longer shells were considered to be the more valuable ones. Since the Whilkut were considered by their neighbors to be poor people, it is likely that they did not have much wealth in dentalium shells or other prized possessions.
The fact that the Whilkut were considered to be poor by their neighbors probably means that they did not hold big dances, and did not have articles of value to display at dances. Early reports indicate that the Whilkut had ceremonies that differed from the Chilula and Hupa, but we do not know just what these were like.