Wintun Tribe of California

Published on September 17, 2010 by Alice

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A Wintun Indian Woman Pounding Acorns

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A Wintun Indian Woman Pounding Acorns

The ancestral homeland of the Wintun was situated on the west side of the Sacramento River, extending from the valley to the Coast Range in territory now part of California. The Wintun, along with other Penutian­speaking CALIFORNIA INDIANS to their west, such as the MAIDU and MIWOK, as well as Hokan-speaking Indians living nearby, such as the POMO, although in territory now considered northern California, some­times are designated central California Indians to dis­tinguish them from peoples to the north, who drew some elements from NORTHWEST COAST INDIANS, and peoples to the south, who were heavily mission­ized by the Spanish, becoming known as MISSION INDIANS.

The name Wintun, pronounced WIN-tun, means “people” in Penutian. The Wintun consisted of three divisions, the Wintu (Northern), the Nomlaki (Wintun proper or central), and the Patwin (Southern). All three branches are further categorized as hill, plains, and river valley subgroups.

Wisconsin, where they were finally granted reservation lands and now are known as the Ho-Chunk Nation (formerly the Winnebago Tribe) of Wisconsin. Some tribal members also live in Minnesota. The operation of casinos by both groups has helped them develop their economy and invest in new tribal enterprises.


As is the case with other California Indians, the Wintun can best be described as being organized in a number of tribelets, made up of a main permanent village and several temporary satellite villages. They were hunter-gatherers who did not farm. Their staple foods included deer, rab­bits, grubs, grasshoppers, fish, acorns, seeds, nuts, and greens. They wore little clothing, mainly breechcloths, aprons, blankets, and robes. They lived in a variety of sim­ple types of shelters—brush, grass, rush and bark-covered, and sometimes partly underground. They made tightly woven baskets for cooking, storing, and carrying.

The Wintun had a system for passing from father to son such specialized skills as hunting, fishing, the mak­ing of ceremonial objects, bow and arrow making, pipe making, fire building, or salt making. A family had a monopoly on a certain activity and would perform this service for other members of the tribe in exchange for payment. This type of social organization was unusual among Native peoples.

The Kuksu Cult

The Wintun, like most other central California Indians, participated in the secret society known now as the Kuksu Cult. Members impersonated spirit beings in order to acquire some of their power. Kuksus wore long feather or grass headdresses that disguised them from fel­low villagers. Kuksu was a principal god, shared by sev­eral tribes and known by different names. To the Wintun, Moki was the most powerful god-figure. To dis­guise oneself as Moki was a major responsibility. The Wintun believed that to make a mistake in the ritual meant death. Other powerful spirits in the Wintun reli­gion were Tuya the Big-Headed and Chelitu the Unmasked. The Kuksus held ceremonies in the cold months to bring about an abundance of wild plant foods and game the following spring and summer. The Wintun Kuksus called the first of their rituals Hesi. Hesi was a four-day dance, with one Kuksu acting out Moki, and others, in pairs, representing different versions of Tuya and Chelitu. While villagers looked on, drummers provided a beat for the dancers, usually by stomping on a foot drum, and singers chanted sacred songs.

Contacts with Non-Indians

The central California tribes managed to endure the first stages of non-Indian expansion: the period of explo­ration, when Spanish, Portuguese, and English naviga­tors sailed the coast, starting in the 1500s; the Spanish mission period, from 1769 to 1834; and the Mexican occupation, from 1821 to 1848. But with the United States takeover of California in 1848, the gold rush start­ing in 1849, and California statehood in 1850, pressures on the Indians increased and led to their rapid decline. Pollution from copper-processing plants at the turn of the century caused further hardship.

Religious Revitalization Movements

Reservation life in the second half of the 19th century led to the spread of religious revitalization movements among tribes of the West, including the Wintun. Norelputus (or Nelelputa), born of a Wintun mother and a Yana father in northern California, rose to prominence as chief of the Wintun. He reportedly learned of the early version of the Ghost Dance, founded in 1870 by Wodziwob of the PAIUTE, from the ACHOMAWI (PIT RIVER INDIANS) living to the northeast of his people. The Ghost Dance prophesied the end of the existing world. Norelputus added to the religion by advocating the making of underground earth lodges, where devotees would be safe until the ancestors returned from the dead and established a new world. The Earth Lodge Religion, as it came to be called, spread to tribes to the south, such as the POMO, as well as to tribes to the north on the Grande Ronde and Siletz Reservations in southern Oregon, such as the SHASTA, among whom it came to be called the Warm House Dance. Among the KLAMATH and MODOC on the Klamath Reservation in southern Ore­gon, it was known as the Dream Dance.

Lame Bill, a Patwin, is considered one of the founders of the Bole-Maru religion, which drew on elements of the Ghost Dance of 1870, the Earth Lodge Religion, and the Dreamer Religion founded by Smohalla of the WANAPAM. Bole is a Wintun word; maru is a Pomo word in Hokan; both refer to the dreams of shamans. The name Dreamer was also applied to Bole-Maru because revelations from dreams played a central role. Dances included the Bole (or Maru) Dance; the Bole-Hesi Dance, taken from the Hesi Ceremony of the traditional Kuksu Cult; the Toto (or Blanket) Dance; and the Ball Dance. The Big Head Reli­gion in which dancers wore large headdresses, with devo­tees among the Wintun, Cahto, Lassik, Shasta, Wailaki, and YUKI, is thought to be an offshoot of Bole-Maru. Lame Bill is credited with using a flag placed on a pole in front of the ceremonial house to indicate when dances were taking place—an early use of flags by Native Americans. Flags have now become an expression of Indianness and tribal sovereignty.

Contemporary Wintun

Of the three divisions, the northernmost, the Wintu, have fared the best, then the Nomlaki. Few pure Patwin remain. The Wintun presently hold several small rancherias and share the Round Valley Reservation with many other California tribes. Current issues concerning the Wintun people are the protection of sacred sites in the region, such as Mt. Shasta.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes by CARL WALDMAN Unabridged
Based on the collective work of, © 2015 Native American Encyclopedia.
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