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  • Ellen Gorelick

The Yokuts Indians

Before the white man settled in the San Joaquin Valley, this land, from the entire valley floor to the adjoining foothill belt, was home to the Native American people known as the Yokuts Indian Nation. The word Yokuts means “Person” or “People” and never used in the singular form. They numbered about 25,000 and clustered into nearly fifty independent local sub-tribes. Approximately twenty-two villages stretched from Stockton in the North to Tejon Canyon in the Tehachapi mountains to the South. Eight villages located around Tulare Lake and the Kaweah River and its tributaries hold Yokuts' greatest concentration.

The Yokuts were unceremonious and friendly and visited back and forth amongst villages, although each tribe held its territory. Although each tribe spoke its own slightly different dialect, there was at least a partial ability to communicate throughout the wider region. The customs and institutions of the many tribes were the same.

Except in the Tulare Lake area, Yokuts villages were permanent with family huts built to last. However, around Tulare Lake, the Yokuts built huts of a temporary nature because of the continually shifting shoreline and the fierce winds. The Yokuts living around Tulare Lake were more migratory than other sub-tribes, and their houses were mostly communal. Wedge-shaped tents up to 300 feet long housed a dozen or more families, with tents quickly raised and moved or replaced whenever the lake went on a rampage.

The Yokuts were great hunters and fishermen, and although they had a great variety of food, they didn’t waste it and carefully stored it for use in the winter. The acorn was a principal food, which they made into flat cakes or mush. Besides acorns, they ate fish, game birds, elk, deer, antelope, grasses, nuts, berries, and seeds of all kinds. They dried meat like jerky and caught clams and mussels in Tulare Lake. Salt was a principal seasoning and came from salt grass, which grew in swampy areas and was threshed from the grass as it dried. Perhaps the Yokuts Indians are best known for the beautiful baskets they created and highly prized by collectors today.

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