First Nations Era

While recent scholarship in the areas of anthropology, archaeology, ethnohistory, and linguistics has gone far in ongoing efforts to define the tribal areas of aboriginal California, much of what we know is predicated on Spanish and Indian mission records. As such, Franciscan mission registries have proven an invaluable resource for identifying Contact era Native Californian communities (e.g., As with the Ohlone and Esselen peoples of the Monterey Bay, however, tribal names were often designated by Franciscan missionaries, or identified by scholars, on the basis of village names as opposed to descendant community consensus regarding longstanding tribal territories and identities. Dr. Hornbeck’s early efforts to define Spanish mission land allotments, and thereby, associated aboriginal traditions, set precedent for the systematic consideration of such records in recording Native Californian traditional territories.

Given the paucity of federally recognized tribal communities in California, the interpretation of tribal territories is often fraught with political and economic contention and or implications for descendant communities. This is further complicated by the inherent challenges of attempting to authenticate tribal boundaries or private land ownership solely on the basis of culture area maps and social histories. This fact is further complicated by the distinct linguistic and cultural diversity of early California. With over 300 dialects corresponding to over 100 distinct language groups, the early Franciscan missionaries set about the task of grappling with the linguistic diversity of the region by way of creating glossaries that form the basis of indigenous language revitalization to this day. The complexity of this culture contact scenario is rendered all that more challenging by traditional cultural lifeways that did not acknowledge real estate as such, or individual land allotments in the pre-Hispanic era. As such, tribal communities did not maintain fixed, geographical, boundaries prior to the Spanish entrada or colonization of Alta California. The Spanish missions were in effect established with an eye to the reorganization or reducción of dispersed tribelets into consolidated Hispanicized indigenous communities. The indigenous mission communities of Alta California were thereby deemed to constitute the basis for agrarian development and land allotments identified with the aboriginal communities of Alta California. Like the ejido system of 20th century Mexico, the ultimate objective of missionization was the consolidation of Hispanicized Indian communities with rights predicated on the system of land tenure in vogue at that time. The granting of both communal and private parcels to Native Californians was incumbent on their meeting regulatory thresholds established by both Church and State.

According to Professor David Hornbeck, the Native Californians “did not organize themselves into large cultural groups with the type of social and political organizations usually associated with aboriginal tribes. Instead, the basis of California Indian occupance was the tribelet, a small, self-governing, autonomous sociopolitical group.” Moreover, Dr. Hornbeck goes on to acknowledge that “the important feature of the tribelet was its role as the basic landholding unit in aboriginal society and in turn the foundation upon which the aboriginal landscaped rested. Land ownership was based upon occupancy and continued use. … Boundaries for the most part, outlined the areal extent or economic range in which a group hunted and gathered food; movement was confined to this area which was considered the property of the tribelet” (cf., Hornbeck, “The California Indian before European Contact.” In Journal of Cultural Geography, p. 26).

In the Native California Guide: Weaving the Past and Present, Dolan H. Eargle notes that language was used to delineate the locations of the various tribes of California (p. 13). Otherwise, there is no documentary evidence to indicate that the Indians of California maintained defined territorial boundaries identified with tribal lands in the pre-Hispanic era.


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