Published on October 22, 2010 by John
The name Cahto (Kato) means loosely “People of the Lake” or “Lake People,” and refers to an ancient lake shore where parts of the Cahto people once lived, although we, the inhabitants of the six villages of the Long Valley, called ourselves the Tlokyáhan, or “Grass People.” Historically, the principal language of the Cahto was Wailakian. Unfortunately, this particular Athapascan language has been mostly lost through the intervention of the white man and his culture over the years.
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Our homeland is comprised of mountains and hills covered with fir, pine, oak and redwoods and is veined with streams, most of which are almost dry during the summers, but are drenched with torrential flooding during the rainy winters. A nearby 4,213 foot high mountain summit is named Cahto Peak in our honor.
Two important totem symbols for the Cahto are the bear and quail.
Like other California tribes, our ancestors were hunters and gatherers. Besides gathering the plentiful nuts, seeds, berries, roots, bulbs, and tubers, we hunted for deer, rabbits, quail, and fish to provide additional food for our people. The dog was our only domesticated animal. Ours was a partially nomadic culture; we traveled within our traditional homeland to where the food was plentiful, taking yearly treks to the Mendocino coast, for instance, to harvest seaweed and fish. Today, once a year the Cahto retrace the yearly migration to the coast using “sacred” trails in remembrance of the ancient tradition.
The traditional Cahto house was circular, built over a circular excavation about two feet deep similar to this Tule shelter. The space between the supporting posts was stuffed with slabs of wood and bark. An opening in the roof served to carry off smoke, and the doorway was a narrow opening in front. A whole family would live in one of these little houses, and for summer camps, brush lean-tos were set up.
We manufactured our tools out of stone, bone, horn, wood and tanned skin. Our clothing, for both men and women, was a tanned deer-skin, wrapped about the waist, and a close-fitting knitted cap, which kept in place the knot of hair at the back of the head. Another Cahto garment included a shirt made of two deer-skins, laced down the front and reaching to the knees. Both men and women generally had tattoos on their faces and the chest designs consisted largely of upright lines, both broken and straight.
Our government was fairly simple, each village had a chief or headsman. The duty of a village chief was basically to be an advisor. When anything of great importance was to be decided, the village chief would summon the council, which was comprised of all our elder men. After each expressed his opinion, the chief normally would go along with the majority decision. Generally, our village chief’s son would succeed his father, but if a chief died without sons, we selected from among ourselves a new leader.
In the evenings our women would assemble for singing in chorus. One of the best singers would lead, and two others kept time by striking one bone with another. The men took no part, but hung around and listened. In midsummer, our boys were led out to a solitary place by teachers and learned our stories and customs. In the winter, these boys assembled again in the ceremonial house and remained there during the four winter months for instructions on tribal folklore. At puberty, our girls also received special sacred instruction, remaining always in or near their homes, abstaining from meat, and drinking little water for five months. During this time of learning they were not permitted to work, but instead were taught the tribal folklore.
The Cahto were not professional warriors, fighting for pleasure and glory, but when our rights were challenged, or our lands were invaded, we could make war with ferocity. We had conflicts with the Yuki just prior to the arrival of the White man; but following the Gold Rush of 1849, White settlers, armed with their technology and diseases, devastated our traditional ways of life and led our people in desperation to seek help from the Ghost Dance.
It was in the late 1870s that the intriguing and often misunderstood Big Head Cult movement, with its “Ghost Dance Ceremony,” came to the Cahto people from the Northern Pomo living near Sherwood and Little Lake. Ghost Dancers performed their “round” dances at night in hopes it would magically restore our tribal life to what it once had been, allow our dead to come back to life, and to restore the animals we had traditionally hunted. The movement, which originated with the Northern Paiute in Nevada, seems to have first reached the Pomo of the coast living near Point Arena and Fort Bragg, then traveled northward and inland to reach the Cahto. The Cahto then spread the Ghost Dance further north to the Wailaki on the North Fork of the Eel River and to the Round Valley Yuki (Click here for map). As the movement spread it evolved and each group adapted the ritual to fit within its own traditions. The Cahto version of the Ghost Dance Ceremony consisted of about four nights of dancing with special detailed regalia and headgear.
Approximately 1,100 Cahto people lived in the Laytonville area in the early 18th century in about 50 separate village sites. Today, the only remaining Cahto tribal homeland is the 202 acres of land of the Cahto Rancheria in Laytonville which was purchased in 1908 for the Cahto Tribe by missionaries. The Rancheria currently has a population of 250 residents, with 52 being voting members of the Cahto tribe.