The Yokuts

The Yokuts - By Ellen Gorelick, Director-Curator Emerita - Tulare Historical Museu

Before the white man settled in the San Joaquin Valley, this land, from the entire valley floor to the adjoining foothill belt, was home to the Native American people known as the Yokuts Indian Nation. The word Yokuts means “Person” or “People” and is never used in the singular form. They numbered about 25,000 and were clustered into nearly fifty independent local sub-tribes. Approximately twenty-two villages stretched from Stockton in the north to Tejon Canyon in the Tehachapi mountains to the south. Perhaps the greatest concentration of Yokuts were found in eight villages located around Tulare Lake and the Kaweah River and its tributaries.

The Yokuts were unceremonious and friendly and visited back and forth amongst villages although each tribe definitely held its own territory. Although each tribe spoke its own slightly different dialect there was at least a partial ability to communicate throughout the widespread territory, and the customs and institutions of the many tribes were basically the same.

Except in the Tulare Lake area, Yokuts villages were of a permanent nature and family huts were built to last. Around Tulare Lake, however, because of the constantly shifting shoreline and the fierce winds, the Yokuts built huts of a temporary nature. The Yokuts living around Tulare Lake were more migratory than other sub-tribes, and their houses were mostly communal. Wedge-shaped tents up to 300 feet long housed a dozen or more families, and the tents could be quickly raised and moved or replaced whenever the Lake went on a rampage.

The Yokuts were great hunters and fishermen, and although they had a great variety of food, they didn’t waste it and carefully stored it for use in the winter. The acorn was a principal food and was made into flat cakes or mush. Besides acorns, they ate fish, game birds, elk, deer, antelope, grasses, nuts, berries and seeds of all kinds. They dried meat like jerky and caught clams and mussels in Tulare Lake. Salt was a principal seasoning and came from salt grass which grew in swampy areas and was threshed from the grass as it dried. Perhaps the Yokuts Indians are best known for the beautiful baskets which they created and which are highly prized by collectors today.