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Maidu Indians

The Maidu were the Native Americans who once inhabited the region of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the Sacramento valley. The Maidu are divided into principally three groups called, the mountain Maidu, the hill Maidu and the valley Maidu. The hill and mountain Maidu were the divisions who actually used the term Maidu which means “person” whereas; the valley Maidu used the term Nishinam or Nisinan. The differences between these three groups exist in slight distinctions in language, customs, either subtly or grossly, and relative wealth.

The Valley Maidu tended to be wealthier, living in more weatherproof houses, and having more elaborate ceremonial regalia. Probably at least partially because for the mountain Maidu, summer was short, and the gathering season needed to be fully taken advantage of because they lived in harsh conditions most of the year was either spent preparing for winter or trying to live through the winter. Whereas, for the valley, and to some extent the hill Maidu, there was more time during the summer and in the mild winter for the development of their society and culture.

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The Maidu were divided into villages each containing two to eleven houses, and almost always a sweat lodge (a larger house in which ceremonies and dances were held. ) The mountain Maidu typically only interacted with villages within a twenty-mile radius of them, only occasionally trading with the Northern Paiute, but there is evidence that the valley Maidu may have traveled farther, visiting other tribes such as the Pomo, Wintun and Miwok. The Maidu received their money, clamshells and glass beads, solely from trade; the beads were counted in tens and handled on strings.

But the most common form of currency was the disk bead made by the Pomo, and transmitted by the Wintun. Five of the larger version of these beads (about a third of an inch thick) equaled about one dollar in today’s currency, and the smaller ones were about twenty beads to the dollar. In Maidu culture, money was more of a casual thing than it is today, it was traded with other tribes to acquire such valuables as obsidian for knifes and arrows, as well as tobacco and the green pigment used for bow decoration. However there was no real feeling of ownership, at least not in an individual sense.

A person’s house belonged to the tribe, as well as anything that they might gather. Everything was in reference to the tribe, and a person’s identity was in terms of the tribe. This is reflected in the view of Maidu warriors, The foremost responsibility of an Indian warrior is to be true to one’s self (… ) to the People (… ) and to the Creator. The purpose in life is to ensure the survival and well being of The People (…) A true Warrior will sacrifice His Heart upon the altar of life for the survival of the People (…) A true Indian Warrior is Proud (… yet humble, with a heart full of love for the People. (Schneider, “What is a Warrior? ”) Therefore, a very different view, that that of an individual. The tribe was the each person, and each person was the tribe. There were however, different roles that individuals played in the tribe. Such as the Warriors, who hunted game such as deer, wild dog, wolfs, coyotes, large birds, salmon, rabbit and on occasion grizzly bear. They also went to battle with other tribes when necessary, and defended the tribe from wild animals.

There were also Shamans who were the spiritual teachers and guides of the tribe, and Chiefs who acted in conjunction with Shamans when it came to decisions about the tribe. The specific role a chief played in the tribe varied according to the region. In the valley, the line of chiefs was hereditary. A chief also received a larger part of game brought in for the tribe and sometimes even had young men hunt for them specifically. The hill and mountain Maidu choose their chief for his wealth and popularity. In these areas by popular vote, a chief could be disposed of at any time if the people in anyway saw his actions as displeasing.

A chief, as well as any other wealthier members of the tribe, could also have more than one wife if he chooses, however a wife could divorce her husband if she found him at all displeasing. In the valley, the chief lived in the dance house, called a k’um, which was a 20’to 40’ diameter round house dug out to the depth of three feet. This round hole was lined with bark, split logs or poles, and two or three oak posts were set up in a row with one in the middle called the spirit post, which was the focal point of the house. Then four more posts were set up in between the middle posts and the wall, totaling ten.

Then logs were set up at a slope to the ground for the roof, converging at the smoke hole, which also served as the main door. The roof was then covered in cross logs, and then sticks, grasses etc… and finally a foot or more of earth, so that the finished product looked like a small hill when viewed from the outside. Houses for other members of the tribe were made in a similar fashion only they were typically only 10 to 15 feet in diameter, and called a Hubo. The tribe also had a kind of lean-to dwelling where women would stay during their menstrual cycle. During this time, women went on spiritual retreat and were not to work.

Like most California tribes, the Maidu used tule mats, which is a kind of reed-like grass, as seats and bedding. For blankets, deerskins were used for milder weather, and tightly woven rabbit skin for harsher weather. In winter, especially among the mountain Maidu, rabbit skin was also worn as clothing, as well as made into moccacins, which came almost all the way up the calf to the knee. In the summer however, most people only wore a deerskin loincloth, and elderly women often went nude. The Maidu also made coiled, woven baskets out of peeled willow, redbud, hazel shoots, pine roots and maidenhair fern.

Red or sometimes black designs were woven into the baskets as well. These were used for a variety of tasks, such as holding infants, gathering grains, acorns, nuts, berries etc… they also made bows, ideally out of yew branches and arrows out of rose bush with obsidian tips. Which were used to hunt deer, bear and other animals. For the Maidu, hunting was dealt with in a very sacred way, the warrior would stalk the animal for days, before the kill, “The animal, unable to feed or ruminate, becomes so weak in a couple of days that the hunter can overtake it. (Kroeber, 410) They would pray to the Great Spirit for the animal’s soul to be liberated from bondage, “Drives of this type were undertaken with prayers and magical observances” (Kroeber, 410) The Maidu practiced a branch of Native American Spirituality called “Kuksu” the Maidu form being the most well known. Each tribe who followed Kuksu ways had their own form. Central to Kuksu and all Native American spirituality was the Shaman, or medicine person. Within the Maidu, Men as well as women were trained as Shamans, from a very early age. There were six principle types of Shamans: Weather Shamans- very little is known of these,

Rattlesnake Shamans- These treated snake bites, and performed what is called the great rattlesnake ceremony or kauda. They also did this ceremony in the spring to reduce snakebites for the coming year because it is said these Shamans had rattlesnake medicine, they could talk to the spirit of the snake for ceremonial and healing purposes. The Grizzly Bear Shamans were masters of killing enemies, to do this they would put on garb made out of grizzly bear skin and perform the grizzly bear ceremony. The dreaming Shamans dreamed dreams and saw visions and prophesies, which they spoke to the people.

Healing Shamans Healed the sick and wounded, with herbs and their magic power, and orchestrated mourning ceremonies and burials and knew about totem or medicine animals. According to the Maidu, each animal has special characteristics, each person has a totem animal, which is reflective or their character. The Clown, was a type of Shaman who played the role of Coyote in ceremonies and dances, unlike other types of Shamans, there was only one clown per tribe. Among the Maidu, a Shaman could have one or a combination of these gifts, except for the grizzly bear gift; people with this gift were regarded as sorcerers or evil magicians.

Generally, the more gifts a Shaman had, the higher their realization, but the two principle types of Shamans were healing and dreaming Shamans. Most of the time apprentice Shamans would be picked out of the tribe by the existing Shaman(s), or be brought to the Shaman(s) by the parents, it was very rarely hereditary, and for those tribes that it was, exceptions were usually made if the child was observed to have the necessary gifts and abilities, such as being able to talk to spirits and to see into the spirit realm.

When a child was found, they would move in with the Shaman, essentially becoming the son or daughter of the Shaman as well as their apprentice, which may last for a decade or more. Spirit possession is a common practice in ceremony of all types of Maidu Shamans, this is where a Shaman will consciously intend to become possessed by helpful spirits, such as the spirit of a mountain, or the deer, or a certain rock or tree etc… in order to transmit this energy or give teaching related to the spirit to the people.

Beside local spirits of a rock or mountain, there were sixteen characters or spirits, which may be likened to deities or Gods and Goddesses that Shamans would become possessed with or enact during ceremonies. They are: Moki, the spirit who takes on the likeness of a duck, whose garb consists of a complete feathered cloak. Moki is the highest of the spirits. Oleli, who is the spirit of coyote, is dressed with a feathered cape and coyote headdress. K’opa is the spirit of the goose and is dressed in a goose feathered cape.

Pano-Nkakini is the spirit of the grizzly bear and is dressed in a bearskin and bear headdress. Sumi-Nkakini is the spirit of the deer and is dressed in a deer mask. The others we know little about are: Yati, Shoe, Hahe, Wuhui, Tokoiluli, Yuyinang, Wetu, Yohu, Du, who wears a woodpecker headdress, Sili, Who wears a feathered mask, Yompui, who wears a grass mask and Koto, who wears a net cap plastered with mud. For each spirit, there was once a dance, a song and a ceremony associated with them. At first, spirit possession was quite an ordeal for the novice apprentice.

Most, upon becoming possessed, would become violently ill, This is because it was said that the spirits were angry, they did not know this new practitioner, and were therefore hostile. The novice would then dance and sing for the spirits, and play an instrument called the rattle, made from deer hooves. At this time, if the novice bleeds at the mouth or nose, and it does not stop, they will not become a Shaman. After this has been going on for quite some time, the other Shamans will gather around the novice, dancing, and her or his ears are pierced.

After this is done, the novice goes on retreat to a remote location, on top of a mountain, or in a cave, fasts from food, and enacts cycles of bathing, and prayer/meditation for two or three days, in order to cleanse themselves. Ceremonies that involved some sort of ordeal were common in Maidu culture to mark times of change and growing in people’s lives. For instance, during a girls womanhood ceremony (Yupu-Kato or Dong-Kato) She would be covered with a veil most of the time and her face would sometimes be painted, she would hardly eat any food and no meat.

There would be often be singing for five nights and sometimes ten, this began with the grasshopper song and concluded with the roof song, “The dawn begins to show on Manzanita hill…” The first night, the girl is put into the center of a circle of pine needles, and they are lit on fire, and she is told to escape, then the old woman bathe her and there is singing and dancing. At the conclusion of the five nights there is a feast. The rituals and ceremony that surrounds the dead are also interesting in Maidu culture.

The dead were generally buried; cremation was only used when a person died away from home, as ashes are easier to carry than a body. The body would be wrapped in a bearskin and all possessions would be burned, including the person’s house, unless the person was a Shaman, in which case their magical items would be passed onto their successor. Mourning lasted for one to five years, during which time a person would cut their hair and sometimes wear a special necklace. The Maidu were the first of the Native Americans to do an annual ceremony honoring the dead, called an “Utsu” meaning cry or burning.

By the Maidu, it is believed that the soul of a person is in their heart. Therefore, when someone died, they would say, “Their heart has gone away. ” They believed that when a person dies their heart lingers around their body for three days and then journeys to every place the person had visited, and enacts every deed the person had committed in life. The soul then seeks the Milky Way, or the Great Spirit Mountain, where they eat the food of the spirit realm for the first time and are washed. Then the soul ascends to the sky land, and then the flower land where they abide. Myths and legends were a very important aspect of Maidu spirituality.

They believed that the world was a circular disc suspended by five ropes and surrounded by water. They also believed that their origin was, they were living peacefully in the Sacramento Valley, when all of a sudden, huge waters came, and drowned all of their villages, and all of their people except two who escaped to the foothills. So they prayed that all of the water would go away and the Great Spirit was merciful, and cause a great split to be in the Earth, from the place of the flood, all the way to the ocean. Safe in the mountains, they produced many offspring, which became to Maidu (Lit. eople) Coyote was the central figure in Maidu myth cycles, and was viewed as a wise old man, so he was sometimes called, “Old man coyote. ” He is the trickster and fool in all Native American myth, and while seeming cruel, he often teaches valuable lessons. One myth of him is, in the days of the first sweat lodges, Coyote visited the Maidu. He observed their lodge and said to the people, “I know about a better rock you can use in your lodge” (Because in sweat lodges, there is a pile of stones, over which water is poured, creating steam, to raise the experience of heat in the lodge. the people said, “Will you show us where we can find these stones? ” Coyote said he would and lead them to a place on a mountain where there were beautiful stones, which were unlike anything the people had ever seen before. They said, “These are so beautiful! They are white, and transparent, good magic power. ” So they brought enough stones back for the lodge. They placed the stones in a pile in the sweathouse and lit the fire inside, to place the stones into in order to heat them. Then Coyote ran as fast as he could in the opposite direction, until he heard a “Boom! “Oops, he chuckled, I guess they’ll know next time not to put crystal in fire. ” There is so little known about what Maidu spirituality was when actively practiced, because most of the ones who knew it were killed in the Native American genocide. It is estimated that of the 9,000 Maidu who originally inhabited this region, only about 70 remain. This is largely due to a huge blow that happened in 1844 to them. Most of the land to which was originally Maidu territory was given in a grant to a white settler who was a cattle rancher. The cattle destroyed the Maidu’s food sources, and many died of hunger.

More Maidu people perished during smallpox epidemics brought to the area by white gold miners. Survivors of the epidemics resorted to eating livestock in order to prevent starvation. White settlers hunted down members of this group and killed them. In a treaty signed by the Maidu and federal officials, ancestral Maidu lands were signed over in exchange for the safety of a reservation. The government failed to honor this treaty and ordered soldiers to remove the Maidu from reservation lands. “One hundred and sixty-one Maidu were forcibly marched from their reservation to Round Valley in northern California. (Mechoopda Maidu Indians, “History and Culture) During this march thirty-two people died. Today the Maidu’s descendants live on small reservations in California or in communities near these reservations. Unfortunately, most of their sacred sites no longer belong to them. Some are owned privately by people, and others are public land, but most Maidu people have formed a kind of Americanized Native American culture where they still practice some of the old ways, to try and preserve what is left of their heritage. Works Cited Azbill, Elaine. Interveiw. April 25. 2006. Bruchac, Joseph. The Native American Sweat Lodge, History and Leagends.

Berkley, Toronto, The Crossing Press, 1993 Gray-Kanatiiosh, Barbara A. The Maidu (Native Americans). Chicago: Checkerboard Books, 2002. Josephson, Dale. Konkow Valley Band of Maidu. 6 Nov. 2005. 15 April. 2006 . Kroeber, A. L. Handbook of the Indians of California. Mineola, New York: Dover Publicatons, 1976. Mechoopda Maidu Indians. 2004. History and Culture. 27 April. 2006 Potts, Marie. Northern Maidu. New York: Naturegraph Publishers, 1971. Schneider, Robert. Home page. The First Americans. 11 April. 2006 Spencer, Lewis. Native American Myths. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 2005.


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