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History of California's Indigenous Cultures

When you come to California, you step into a long and storied history of culture and environmental beauty. Your trip to an Indian Casino is more than just gambling. It is part of an indigenous heritage that you can explore all around you.

The story begins with New World Asians who crossed the Bering land bridge to the Americas 16,500 years ago to find an empty and varied land. The remains of Arlington Springs Man on Santa Rosa Island date early man to about 13,000 years ago during the Wisconsin Ice Age. Divided into six language groups, 30 tribes populated what is now called the State of California. These groups included the early-arriving Hokan family (winding up in the mountainous far north and Colorado River basin in the south) and the recently-arrived Uto-Aztecan of the desert southeast.

Early California was among the most culturally diverse places in North America resulting from continuous migrations and invasions during the last 10,000-15,000 years. When Europeans arrived, Native American tribes included the Chumash, Maidu, Miwok, Modoc, Mohave, Ohlone, Pomo, Serrano, Shasta, Tataviam, Tongva and Wintu.

Since California’s climate is so varied, early tribes adapted and developed many distinct lifestyles and cultures. Using stone tools, Coastal tribes traded beads made from mussel shells. Agricultural tribes of the broad Central Valley and the surrounding foothills burned grasslands to grow edible wild plants such as oak trees that produced acorns to be pounded into flour. Tribes living in the mountains were salmon fishers and hunters that collected and shaped volcanic obsidian for trade and tribal riches. Southwestern desert tribes thrived in an otherwise harsh environment by mastering of local plants and living in oases and along rivers and streams.

Arrival of Europeans

Spanish and English explorers sailed along the coast of California from the early 16th century to the mid-18th century, but no European settlements were established. The most important colonial power in the regions was Spain, which focused attention on Mexico and Peru. In later years Spain explored California laying claim to much of a state that had few apparent resources or natural ports.

Neither were other European countries eager to settle California concentrating more on the densely populated areas in the east. It was not until Russian and British explorers started trading furs in the middle of the 18th century that California started to become populated with European settlers.


Early indifference toward California changed instantly on January of 1848 when gold was discovered at Sutter's Mill in the Sierra Nevada foothills about 40 miles east of Sacramento. This discovery started a fabled movement of adventurers from the east known as the California Gold Rush.

Following miners were merchants that settled towns that sprung up adjacent to many of native lands. Deepwater ports like San Francisco Bay became the home for bankers who financed exploration for gold.

In effect, The Gold Rush brought the world to California. By 1855, some 300,000 "Forty-Niners" had arrived from every continent; many soon left, of course—some rich, but most poor. A precipitous drop in the Native American population occurred in the decade after the discovery of gold.

Those who remained in California after the Gold rush joined the indigenous peoples of California, which now comprise over one hundred federally recognized tribes. These tribes give California the largest Native American population (315,000) and the largest number of distinct tribes in the United States. Californian tribes are characterized by linguistic and cultural diversity. Get out and mingle. You’ll be glad you did.