The Tolowa

Tolowa Tribe & Other Nations

Today, the Tolowa Dee-ni’ are a federally recognized Indian Nation. The Tolowa Dee-ni’ Homeland, the Taa-laa-waa-dvn, lies along the Pacific Northwest Coast between the watersheds of Wilson Creek and Smith River in California and the Winchuck, Chetco, Pistol, Rogue, Elk and Sixes rivers, extending inland up the Rogue River throughout the Applegate Valley in Oregon in the United States. Today this area is in what is known as Del Norte, Curry and Josephine counties. Their tribal neighbors are the Coquille and Umpqua to the north; Takelma, Shasta and Karuk to the east; and the Yurok to the south. The historic Dee-ni’ population exceeded 10,000.

They speak the Dené Language, formerly known as Athabaskan. This region of Dené speakers forms the Oregon Pacific Coast Dené (OPCD) population. The OPCD includes three mutually intelligible dialects, the southern Tolowa-Chetco, the northern Tututni-Lower Rogue River and the interior Illinois Valley-Upper Rogue River.

The ancient dee-ni’ lived in approximately fifty permanent villages governed under thirteen yvtlh-‘i~ (polities), their Xvsh-xay-yu’ (Headmen) and the Mii~-xvsh-xay (Bosses) who enforced the body of laws, rules and customs. Each yvtlh-‘i~ had a capitol and its suburb towns that formed citizen allegiances. The yvtlh-‘i~ capitols in California where the Taa-‘at-dvn (Crescent Bay), the ‘Ee-chuu-le’ (Lagoon at Lake Earl) and the Yan’-daa-k’vt (Yontocket). The most significant and central capitol of Yan’-daa-k’vt is their axis mundi. Being their place of Genesis, Yan’-daa-k’vt unified them as a people and brought them en masse to the annual winter solstice pilgrimage for worship. Archeology dates Dee-ni’ civilization to be present for 8,000 to 12,000 years.

The dee-ni’ produced a rich and highly developed culture, legal system and fiscal economy administered by dentalia currency. Salmon, whale, seal, clams, deer, elk, eggs and duck provided a diet rich in protein. Acorns, berries, seaweed and vegetables supplied them with carbohydrates. The region is host to a diverse medicinal herbaceous environment for healing, including the cultivation of tobacco and nut orchards.

Their traditional mvn’ (homes) were rectangular single ridge gable roofed structures built into the ground from redwood, cedar and pine timbers and planks. At Xaa-yuu-chit (Hiouchi) California, in 2003 mvn’ were carbon dated conservatively at six-thousand (6,000) B.C.E.

Dee-ni’ commerce and travel was by foot and in canoes carved and seared from k’vsh-chu (redwood) on rivers, lagoons, bays and at sea. Some of their sea-going canoes measured forty-two feet long and eight feet wide that transported five tons of cargo.

Disputes and conflict were judicated in court under the Lhee-wi (Level-Up) judiciary system. The K’wee-shvt-naa-gha (Judge) though case law established resolution and consensus that maintained civil society and social balance.

The name “Tolowa” is derived from Taa-laa-welh (Taa-laa-wa), a Yurok and Wiyot name from the Algonquian language for the capitol of Yan’-daa-k’vt. Their autonyms are dee-ni’ and xvsh, meaning “person” or “human being”. In the political sense they are the dee-ni’, which means, “to be a citizen.”

In the 19th century, epidemics of new infectious diseases, such as cholera, broke out among the Tolowa, resulting in substantial mortality. These occurred before they had on the ground face-to-face encounters with non-natives because of contact with Spanish and Russian intermediaries.

In 1828 the American Jedediah Smith and his exploration party were the first known non-natives to contact the Tolowa Dee-ni’. Gold discovery in 1849 rushed California into statehood. On April 19, 1850 the California State Legislature passed the slavery Act for the Government and Protection of Indians that facilitated slavery and removing California Indians from their traditional lands, separating at least a generation of children and adults from their families, languages, and cultures. This California law provided for indenturing Indian children and adults to Whites by hiring them out to the highest bidder at a public auction. Although the California legislature repealed parts of the statute after the 13th Amendment in 1865 to abolished slavery, the law was not repealed in its entirety until 1937.

Starting in 1851, eighty percent of the Tolowa people perished from mass murders by Euro-Americans under governor Peter Burnett. The Tolowa Holocaust began in 1851 and ended in 1856 in the Oregon Territory. Burnett was an open advocate of exterminating local California Indian tribes. His policy continued with successive state governmental administrations for several decades. The state offered $10 to $25 for evidence of dead Natives by scalp and body parts. Burnett’s Second Annual Message to the Legislature, January 7, 1851 was: “That a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the two races until the Indian race becomes extinct, [it] must be expected.”

Multiple exterminations left the Taa-laa-waa-dvn in complete ruin. The Yan’-daa-k’vt Massacre in 1853 near the mouth of the Smith River is the second largest single mass killings of Indians in American history. Three Headmen during the Xaa-wan’-k’wvt Treaty in January of 1855 stopped the murders and their complete removal to Fort Terwer and agreements for loss compensation. Meanwhile destruction continued in the Oregon Territory. The Chetco-Rogue River “War” ended in 1856. And 1,834 survivors were forcibly relocated to concentration camps in Oregon, including to what is now known as the Siletz Reservation in the Central Coastal Range.

In 1862 Congress honored the intents approved under the Xaa-wan’-k’wvt Treaty and established the 44,000-acre Smith River Reservation. It covered two and a one-quarter townships in the northwest quarter of Del Norte County and established Camp Lincoln to protect Tolowa lives from further settler depredations. Following the death of Xaa-wan’-k’wvt Headman K’ay-lish in 1866, the valuable lands of the Smith River Reservation were retracted by the U.S. Government in 1868. The reservation was opened for the benefit of the insatiable settlers of the Smith River valley. The Dee-ni’ again were made landless and most were driven to the Camp Gaston concentration camp on the Hoopa Valley Reservation. Yet again, some Dee-ni’ managed to hide out in the Taa-laa-waa-dvn while others escaped Camp Gaston and Fort Terwer to illegally return home to their “former haunts” as trespassers.

The Dee-ni’ restored their lives at Big Flat, Cushing Creek, Elk Creek, Gasquet, Lake Earl, Nii~-lii~-chvn-dvn, Pebble Beach, Srdvn-das-‘a~ (The-Island), Yan’-daa-k’vt and Wagon Wheel. They held ceremonies upon the plank floors in charred remains of their once great named Dance Houses. A few gained homestead allotments during the 1880s. The Oregon population did not re-establish new communities in the homeland. Some married settlers and could return Siletz. Furthermore, the Dee-ni’ embraced the Ghost Dance religion from 1872 to 1882 that helped to transcend their catastrophic devastation and in hopes of getting relief from European-American encroachment. To remedy their homelessness federal appropriations provided new reservations.

In 1906 the Landless California Indian Appropriations purchased new reservations known as “rancherias” at the mouth of the Smith River and in Elk Valley. Under a myriad of forced assimilation policies, the federal religious prohibition was brought against the Tolowa in 1923. It prohibited public worship at the World Renewal Naa-yvlh-sri Nee-dash Ceremony. As a final solution, the federal termination of the rancheria governments were concluded in 1966 and 1967 terminating their status as Indians by the US government. Fortunately, the Tolowa governments were restored under the Tillie Hardwick decision in 1983. The contemporary Tolowa Dee-ni’ are governed under the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation while other dee-ni’ are registered under various federally recognized nations and tribes throughout the Pacific Northwest.

The contemporary Tolowa are citizens and governed under the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation and with various federally recognized nations and tribes throughout the Pacific Northwest including: The Elk Valley Rancheria, The Resighini Rancheria, The Big Lagoon Rancheria, The Trinidad Rancheria, The Confederated Tribes of Siletz Oregon, The Yurok Tribe, The Blue Lake Rancheria, The Bear River Rancheria and The Hoopa Valley Reservation.

Tribal Website