Tolowa Deen’i Peoples

History of the Tolowa Deeni

The Tolowa have undergone a history of continued removal, genocide, and discrimination within their traditional homelands by the settlers, miners, and ranchers who colonized the area. Table 1 illustrates the forced demographic movements of the Tolowa over the past century and a half. These events served to remove the Tolowa from their homelands so that white Americans could settle and “make better use” of the land. Redick McKee, a United States Indian Agent assigned to California, in 1850-51 traveled northward from Sonoma, California to sign treaties with all of the Indian tribes for their removal to a few reservations. The McKee party traveled up the Klamath River but apparently never reached the Tolowa lands. The 18 California treaties were never ratified by Congress and were “lost” until 1906 (Reed 1999). Nevertheless the Indian Tribes had voluntarily moved to reservations, trusting in the words of the United States Indian agents. The Tolowa never entered into any sort of ratified agreement with the United States. Their lands were overrun by widescale American settlement of their homelands.

The Tolowa were seen as inferior to the Americans, and their rights to the land were taken away, usually by force. Diseases killed many of the Tolowa, even before the settlers came and this is likely the way the Point St. George people died (Drucker or Gould  ?). The main threat to the Tolowa  came from being murdered by the settlers. As American settlers took the lands, they forced the Tolowa into smaller areas, and people in the outlying small villages and camps moved to the larger towns like Howonquet. One of these large towns, Yontocket, was determined to be significant by Thomas King (1973) for the genocidal events of 1853.  Yontocket was renamed, Burnt Ranch, because in 1853 the town was literally burnt to the ground during the Nee-dash (World Renewal celebration) and an estimated 600 Athapaskan-speaking people from throughout the region were burned alive (Loren Bommelyn 1985). This type of massacre was particularily devastating to the whole of the Athapaskan-speaking peoples of the larger region because the Nee-dash and other yearly spiritual ceremonies were visited by people from the upper Rogue River in Oregon and the Tututni of the Oregon Coast, all of whom looked to Yontocket as the spiritual genesis place (Loren Bommelyn, pers. comm. 1999, 2000). Many tribal leaders were killed and this event is likely an instigator of the Rogue River Indian Wars, begun in 1855. Table 2 lists the main massacres while Table 4 points out the many militias created in the Crescent City area, formed to stem the tide of so-called, “Indian depredations”on lands claimed by Americans and other settlers.

Massacres, epidemics, and the razing of tribal villages threatened the cultural and genetic survival of the Tolowa people and had the long-term effect of disempowering the Indian people of northern California. This history is not unlike the experiences of most if not all Indian Tribes of the Americas. To protect themselves, the Howonquet people moved to Stundossun Island, a former island located in the Smith River estuary. Until 1910, Nee-dash was held at Stundossun. When the island eroded away in 1911, the people moved to the recently created Smith River Rancheria and Nee-dash was held in private homes. After the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Congress passed Circular 1665, Indian religions were illegal and actively halted by Indian agents (Reference ?). The Indian Shaker Church (1928) became the institution where many Tolowa practiced their spirituality, mixed with elements of Christianity. Nee-dash continued privately until 1978 when the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (1978) was passed. Loren Bommelyn began building the Dancehouse (ne’srdashdun) at Nelechundun in the early 1980s and it was finished in 1994.  Nee-dash is now held twice annually, during the summer and winter solstices, at the Nelechundun Dancehouse. Nee-dash has also been re-established at the Siletz Reservation in Oregon where another Dancehouse has been built. Nelechundun is a salmon fishing camp site about 8 kilometers upriver from Howonquet at the “Henry Riffle,” a place where fishing weirs were placed.  Nelechundun was part of the Howonquet yetl-ein. Loren Bommelyn (pers. comm. 2000) tells this story of how Nelechundun got started:

When one of the headmen died at Yontocket, way before the whiteman came, the two sons fought over the ownership, who was going to be the headman controlling that rock out there on the ocean, and they argued and squabbled, and finally one of the brothers said “Fine, then I’m leaving.” So former to that, Nelechundun was just a weir site, where they grew tobacco, and camped there. Then it became a year-round town after that. [At the Henry Riffle?] Yep. So it was just a subgroup breaking off of Yontocket. But then when the … Takelma people came down and stole women from Nelechundun that time, right before the whiteman came, then they went to Yontocket and Howonquet, and they came out and helped them. And they kicked their butts.

Many of the traditional Nelechundun inhabitants still live here on Jane Hostatlas’ off-reservation allotment of 1892, part of the original Nelechundun village. Parts of Nelechundun village existed on both banks of the Smith River but Tolowa residences have been maintained only on the south bank. The Hostatlas 1892 allotment has been permanently occupied for more than a century. However, salmon fishing on the Smith River is not legal for Tolowa who do not have a regular California fishing license. When they do possess a license, net and weir fishing is still not legal, even though those forms of fishing for salmon are traditional for the Tolowa.

All of the permanent and temporary camps are part of the Howonquet yetl-ein. The fish camp on Indian Beach is mainly associated with surf smelt fishing and shellfish gathering activities. Even though salmon fishing with weirs and nets is illegal, smelt fishing with a net has been allowed throughout the post-settlement history. Because of this, the surf smelt fish camp is now considered “Fish Camp.”  Fish Camp is a temporary and seasonal camp occupied for three weeks during the summer. The physical fish camp can be established in a different locality along Indian Beach from year-to-year depending on how well the surf smelt are running in each particular area and whether the Tolowa have easy access to the beach. While surf smelt fishing is the main activity associated with Fish Camp, there are a range of associated activities which take place at the site. Throughout the Tolowa history, smelt fish camps have continued as important parts of the culture of the Tolowa Deeni people.

The Bommelyn family fish camp, which appears to be one of the last remaining continuously used fish camps for the Tolowa. Other Tolowa families appear to be setting up their fish camps sporadically and on beaches other than the North Beach (pers. observation 1999).

The main villages of Howonquet and Yontocket were never completely abandoned during any part of the year. Canoes provided fast and efficient travel on the river “highways” from the temporary camps to the main villages. Even on the coast, Tolowa paddling their large ocean-going canoes transported dried smelts and sea mammals back to the main villages for storage during the winter. The Tolowa were highly specialized and some people would work at fish camps while others would hunt sea lions and still others would be looking for signs that the acorns were ripe for gathering (Loren Bommelyn, pers. comm. 2000). Howonquet village was situated in a particularly good place, on the Smith River estuary, for easy and efficient canoe access to the resources of the outer coastline (teeníílí– down river) and the interior (geníílí– upriver). Loren Bommelyn (pers. comm. 2000) describes the use of the canoe for transportation:

[In the old days people used canoes to transport supplies and dried fish back to the main village?] Yeah, that’s right. You go right out the mouth of the river, or wherever they were going. And they would beach the canoes, unload, and it was the transportation. It was a lot easier than walking… and now going up and down the rivers and out in the ocean, canoe is the way to go. Because all you’re doing is paddling and that’s it.

Moratto (1984:478) writes “[t]he large canoe, employed by Yurok and Tolowa, appears to have been associated with the hunting of sea mammals at offshore rookeries and resting locations.”

Additional Articles:

The Most Persistent attempt to exterminate the tribes

Tolowa Fish Camp and Chronology

Massacre of the Chetko Villages

A State of Open Warfare, the Chetko Massacre revisited.


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