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Who are the Miwok Indians?

By Hilary Evans
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Miwok Indians are a tribe of Native Americans who lived primarily in Northern California, and most of their tribal ancestors are still in that region today. Before the arrival of European settlers, these people lived throughout the coastal and mountainous regions of Northern and Central California, including some parts of what is now southern Oregon and Western Nevada. There were two main branches of the tribe, divided primarily with regards to where they spent the majority of their time, namely inland or on the water. Both were primarily hunter-gatherers, and they lived in semi-permanent villages known as “ranchieras” that could move if need be to follow food sources. The United States government removed the people of this tribe to reservations in the mid-19th century, which put a virtual end to the ranchieras. Many Miwok still live on government-sponsored reservations today, and often are very involved in keeping elements of the old culture and belief system alive.

Early Tribal Life

The Miwok traditionally lived in small groups or villages run by a male leader called a headman. Leadership followed family lines, typically from father to son. In situations where a headman had no sons, his daughter would be known as the headman — but a male relative would perform her leadership duties.

They lived together in small groups, sleeping in structures just big enough to cover the family and a small fire. Large villages had a shared shelter, usually known as a “round house,” which was used for ceremonies and other important gatherings. During festivities, the members of a community would sleep together in the round house.

Main Branches

There once were two main branches of Miwok, the "land" and "water" tribes. Early groups fall into four general categories — Coastal, Lake, Bay and Plains — although there were also a large number of individuals who lived in the Sierra Mountain range. In fact, Yosemite National Park was the summer home of one such group, and Yosemite takes its name from "asamati," the Miwok word for “bear.”

Culture and Diet

This group of Native Americans were have said to have eaten every living animal for food, but this is not quite true. While less common animals, such as the skunk, bat and grasshopper, were staples of their diet, the tribe did not typically eat king snake, rattlesnake or grizzly bear. Their diet varied greatly by location, but along with fish and large and small beasts, they also ate nuts, fruit, bulbs and roots.

Traditionally, like many Native American tribes, the Miwok enjoyed a variety of games. Some would be described as sports, often played in mixed groups of men and women. Others could be considered gambling or games of chance, such as an acorn throwing game played among women.

Typical attire consisted of deerskin loin cloths for both men and women, with longer tunic pieces and calf-high boots reserved for the coldest periods. Men and women let their hair hang loose or bundled it at the nape of the neck. Both sexes enjoyed piercings in the nose and ears. The Miwok Indians also traditionally sported tattoos on their foreheads, cheeks, chins and chests. They had their own language with a few regional dialects, and the word “Miwok” actually means “people” in the main branch of Miwokan.

Displacement and Interactions with European Settlers

Disease, fighting and enslavement by early Spanish and Mexican explorers destroyed great portions of the tribe's culture. During the 1800s, their population was estimated to be about 20,000. By 1990, the United States Census showed 3,500 Americans with Miwok ancestry. Only 500 lived on the rancherias that were speckled throughout California at that time.

Treaties and U.S. government programs established a number of permanent sites for the Miwok Indians to call home, but most of those sites were overtaken by settlers or abolished by various government agencies between the 1920s and 1960s. During the late 20th and early 21st century, eight rancherias reclaimed or solidified their recognition. These are Buena Vista, Chicken Ranch, Ione, Jackson, Middletown, Sheep Ranch, Shingle Springs and Tuolumne. At one point the different ranchieras had distinct identities, but most modern government programs and classification rubrics group everyone with Miwokean lineage together and treats them as equal.

Modern Recognition

Like many California tribes, the Miwok fought for and won recognition as indigenous people of the state and enjoy their own land rights as a consequence. In most cases, life on the reservation isn’t all that different from life in regular society. The tribes don’t usually live in shelters anymore, and they don’t typically wear traditional clothing except for special events or tribal rituals.

Despite their protected status, though, many Indians became indentured servants as settlers moved into the area. This is reflected in the largely agricultural nature of their population. The government has taken steps to correct past wrongs, and provides a number of financial and educational incentives to tribal members who want a different life. A number of Miwoks have gone on to be leaders in both the local and national communities, but the majority tend to live in poverty or near-poverty today.

America Explained is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By anon293796 — On Sep 27, 2012

What are their families called?

By upnorth31 — On Feb 22, 2011

I think it's great that so many names we use today, are from Native Americans. It seems like I notice more and more names of places that I find out were named after Native Americans, or their names for things.

I didn't know that Yosemite was one of those places. But now, every time I hear it, I will remember that it came from a Miwok Indian word.

I myself am not Native American, but I think it's good that we continue to remember who was here first. We shouldn't lose sight of the whole history of our country. And we should honor the lives and traditions of the earliest people.

By geronimo8 — On Feb 19, 2011

I love learning about Native American history, and I think it is very sad that their numbers were so drastically decreased by new settlers. It would have been nice if everyone could have lived in peace together.

The Miwok Indians are new to me, maybe because I don't live on that side of the country. I'm happy to hear that some of the land that was taken from them has been reclaimed.

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