University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology,

Date: 1916

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The Miwok Indians of the Sierra Nevada of California are divided by anthropologists into three dialectic groups, termed Northern or Amador, Central or Tuolumne, and Southern or Mariposa. These three groups occupy the western slope of the mountains from El Dorado County in the north to Madera County in the south. Their social organization takes the form of totemic exogamic moieties with paternal descent. . . .


As already related, the Central Sierra Miwok are divided into exo-gamic moieties with paternal descent, usually spoken of as kikua (water side) and tunuka (land, or dry, side). Frequently the former are referred to as "bullfrog people" (lotasuna) and the latter as "bluejay people" (kosituna). The presence of two exogamic divisions with animal nicknames has at least a superficial analogy to a case mentioned by Dr. W. H. R. Rivers as occurring on the island of Raga or Pentecost in the northern New Hebrides.

With the Miwok the moiety has no subdivisions. At first glance the fact that 16 per cent. of the Central Sierra Miwok are named after bears, and the remainder after numerous other animate and inanimate objects and phenomena, would seem to suggest a phratral system, with numerous totemic gentes, gone into decay. The Indians, nevertheless, positively deny the existence of smaller divisions. They in no way regard the people with bear names, for example, as forming a special group. Nothing in the information obtained points to a phratral system ever having been in operation. . . .


The exogamic rules of the moieties were not rigidly adhered to even before the coming of the whites. Out of a series of four hundred and thirteen individuals, whose names were obtained, one hundred and eighty-four, or 45 per cent., belonged to the water moiety, and two hundred and twenty-nine, or 55 per cent., to the land moiety. The greater number of these four hundred and thirteen individuals were either of the generation of the oldest Indians of today or of the preceding generation. Had the exogamic rules been strictly enforced it would have meant that ten people out of every hundred went unmarried or else married late in life. The natural result of this preponderance of one moiety over the other would be the breaking down of strict exogamy in actual practice, especially in a case like the present, where the system lacks the rigidity of the Australian marriage-class system. Informants stated that strenuous efforts were never made to prevent improper marriages. The relatives merely objected and pointed out the impropriety of such marriages. Under the heading "Marriages" are listed the recorded Miwok marriages, of which actually 25 per cent. are improper.

The figures in the last paragraph show the division into moieties of the Central Sierra Miwok as a whole, at least so far as the data go. A list of the inhabitants of only one village was obtained. This village was located on Big Creek near Groveland. The total number of individuals listed is one hundred and two and includes people of all generations within the knowledge of the informant. Out of this total, 56 per cent. belonged to the water moiety and 44 per cent. to the land moiety. This is the reverse of the situation among the Central Sierra Miwok exclusive of the Big Creek people. A table will perhaps make the situation clearer.

Unfortunately no other village censuses have been taken, so that in comparing the Big Creek people with the remainder of the Central Sierra Miwok we are comparing with a very miscellaneous and scattered lot of individuals. Roughly stated, however, they may be said to be mainly Jamestown and Knights Ferry people. At Big Creek twelve people out of a hundred were ineligible for monogamic marriage within the village, if strict exogamy were enforced. In the region outside of Big Creek, however, eighteen people out of a hundred were ineligible.


That totemic symptoms of one sort or another are present in the Miwok organization cannot be denied; yet, on the other hand, it must be acknowledged that the classing of the Miwok with totemic peoples is based on a rather weak foundation. The claims for Such classification rest on three well established facts.

First, all nature is divided between land and water, in a more or less arbitrary manner, to be sure, as shown by the classing of such animals as the coyote, deer, and quail on the "water" side.

Second, the exogamic moieties are identified respectively with land and water.

Third, an intimate connection exists between the land and water divisions of nature and the land and water moieties. This connection is through personal names, which usually have an implied reference to animate or inanimate natural objects or phenomena, although not infrequently to manufactured objects instead. The objects or phenomena referred to in personal names belong, as a rule, either to the water or to the land side of nature. The names are applied according as the individual is of the water or of the land moiety. Hence, it may be said that each moiety is connected through the personal names of its members with a more or less definite group of objects and phenomena.

The ensuing very incomplete lists, the contents of which were spontaneous on the part of informants, give some idea of the dual classification of nature. The reason for placing on the "water" side certain creatures which are actually land animals is hard to understand. An informant explained two of the cases to me as follows: The quail is placed on the water side because a turtle once turned into a quail; while the coyote is placed on the water side because Coyote won a bet with the creator and the latter had to go to the sky and take a land-side name, while Coyote remained on earth and took a water-side name.

On the water side are coyote, deer, antelope, beaver, otter, quail, dove, kingbird, bluebird, turkey, vulture, killdeer, jacksnipe, goose, crane, kingfisher, swan, land salamander, water snake, eel, whitefish, minnow, katydid, butterfly, clouds, and rainy weather.

On the land side are tree squirrel, dog, mountain lion, wildcat, raccoon, jay, hawk, condor, raven, California woodpecker, flicker, salmon-berry, "Indian potato," sky, and clear weather. . . .

The Central Sierra Miwok as a whole do not believe that they are descended from animals. They do believe, however, that they succeeded the animals on earth, which is the belief common to the typical central Californian stocks. This belief, that before the coming of the Indians animals possessed the world, is very different from the idea of descent from the totem.

Informants stated that in former days it was customary for people to "show respect" to the bear, the eagle, and the falcon after any of these had been killed. This was done by laying the body of the slain creature on a blanket and having a little feast in honor of it when it was brought to the hunter’s home. So far as I could ascertain, this was not a ceremony connected with moieties or with totemism. It was no different in import from the offerings made by the Miwok when a condor was killed or when the young of a certain hawk were taken from the nest. This type of ceremony was common to a large part of California. The purpose was to appease the animal or its spirit. The ceremony was based on the belief that the animals possessed dangerous supernatural power. Obviously the three cases in question are no different in motive from the above, or from the practices of other stocks, of which a notable example is the Maidu treatment of bears.

The supernatural powers obtained by shamans from animals were not received, except by coincidence, from the animal after which the shaman was named. A man of the water moiety might become a bear shaman just as readily as a man of the land moiety, even though bears and bear names are associated only with the latter moiety. Apparently a man’s moiety and his personal name had no influence on his acquisition of supernatural power. The animal he was named after did not become his familiar or guardian spirit, except, as I have said, by coincidence.


The participation of the moieties as such in games and ceremonies was unimportant. Out of forty-four known ceremonies, the moieties took part as such in only four—the funeral, the mourning ceremony, the girl’s puberty ceremony, and a dance known as the ahana. At least at Big Creek the moieties had reciprocal funerary functions, it being the duty of one moiety to care for the dead of the other. In the washing of the people which terminated the mourning ceremony washers of the water moiety tended one basket and washed people of the land moiety, while washers of the land moiety tended another basket and washed people of the water moiety. This custom, together with that of the moieties taking sides in game, obtained regularly at Big Creek, but not to such an extent elsewhere. This perhaps points to Big Creek as a place in which the moiety system was more firmly established.

In the girl’s puberty ceremony it was customary for some girl, for whom the rites had previously been performed, to exchange dresses with the initiate. In all cases the two girls belonged to opposite moieties; if the initiate was of the water moiety, the girl who exchanged dresses with her must be of the land moiety. In the ahana dance the spectators, who made gifts to the dancers, were always of the opposite moiety but of the same sex as the dancers to whom they gave presents. . . .


A child was named shortly after birth, preferably by a grandfather, but not infrequently by any one of the near relatives. The name received at that time was kept throughout life. Names of men and women did not differ. Occasionally a person received a nickname later in life.

The literal meanings or derivations, in part at least, as well as the connotations, of one hundred and forty-four personal names were obtained. Thirty-four of these names prove to be nouns or derivatives of nouns, and one hundred and two verbs or derivatives of verbs. . . .

To a strange Indian, not acquainted with the individual whose name is mentioned, verb names have only their literal meaning. To the friends and acquaintances of the individual, however, the name has more than its literal meaning. It has an implied meaning, which usually brings in a reference to an animate or inanimate object. For example, the personal name Wüksü is a form of the verb meaning "to go." Yet to the friends and relatives of the man his name meant "Sun going down." Another interesting case is found in the personal names Hausü and Hautcu, both derived from hausus, to yawn, or to gape. The former is a land moiety name and a bear is implied; the latter is a water moiety name and a salmon is implied. An extreme case, but one which throws light on the mental attitude of the name-giver, is that of the name Kuyunu. This name, according to the informant, had the connotation, "Dog wagging its tail." Kuyunu contains the same root as kuyage, to whistle. Apparently the name-giver thought of the whistling of a man to a dog as the cause of the dog wagging its tail, and, instead of naming the child after the action of the dog, named it after the cause of the dog’s action; namely, whistling. Without knowledge of the individual, a Miwok, on hearing any of the above names, would be unable to decide as to the person’s moiety or as to the animal or object implied. In the seventy bear names obtained, the word for bear is actually used in only one case.

In other words, among the Miwok there is absolutely nothing in the literal meanings of over 70 per cent. of the personal names even to suggest totemism. It is only in the implied meanings that the totemic element appears. In this respect there is a striking resemblance to the Mohave custom of calling women by names which have only an implied and perhaps esoteric reference to natural objects or phenomena, the coyote, for instance. . . .

Half-breeds born of Miwok mothers and white fathers are always considered as belonging to the moiety of which the mother is not a member. For example, if the mother is of the land moiety, the half-breed child will be of the water moiety and his or her name will refer to an animal or object identified with the water side of nature. . . .


Ninety-nine marriages were recorded among the Central Sierra Miwok, thirty-two of these being from Big Creek alone. In the following table proper marriages, that is, between individuals of different moieties, are indicated by W-L; improper marriages, that is, between individuals of the same moiety, are indicated by W-W for the water moiety and L-L for the land moiety.


In the genealogical information obtained there are forty-eight male lines of descent. Some of these are rather long, covering four or five generations. Others consist merely of two generations—a man and his offspring. Of these lines of descent only nine show complete transmission of the eponym of the paternal ancestor to the descendants. In other words, less than one-fifth of the Central Sierra Miwok families named all their children after the eponym of the father or other male ancestor of the group. Plainly, there is no rule of transmission of the eponym of the male ancestor, and consequently no widespread belief in descent from the eponymous animal. . . .


When asked if it were proper for a man to marry a cousin, Miwok informants always replied in the negative. In obtaining genealogical information, however, cases came up in which a man married his mother’s brother’s daughter. I called my informant’s attention to this fact and received the reply that the individuals concerned were not regarded as cousins, for they stood in the relation of añsi and anisü to each other, which translated into English would be son and aunt, or potential stepmother. This affords an excellent example of the futility of using English terms of relationship with natives when discussing native customs.

Every Miwok to whom the question was put stated that the proper mate for a man was a woman who stood in the relation of anisü to him, providing she was not too closely related to him. Although a man might marry his anisü cross-cousin, who was the daughter of his mother’s brother, he could under no circumstances marry his lupuba cross-cousin, who was the daughter of his father’s sister. This one-sidedness of cross-cousin marriage among the Miwok in no way affected its popularity, or, to be more exact, the popularity of anisü-añsi marriages, of which the cross-cousin marriage is one form. In many cases my informants would state that a certain man and his wife stood in the relation to each other of añsi and anisü. Although these instances were not substantiated, except in four cases, by genealogical proof, they show the popularity of this form of marriage. At Big Creek six of the listed marriages are of this type, eight are not, and on the remaining eight I have no information. Cases were encountered in which a husband and wife claimed to stand in the añsi-anisü relation to each other, but, when asked to demonstrate the relation, were unable to trace the connecting links. This state of affairs shows clearly that añsi-anisü marriages must have been the vogue, otherwise married people who could not prove such a relationship would not lay claim to it. Even among the Northern Sierra Miwok at Elk Grove, among whom the moiety system does not seem to exist, añsi-anisü marriages were the custom. The Southern Sierra Miwok of Madera County state that these marriages were proper, but that the contracting parties must be only distantly related.

Informants at Jamestown, while stating that anisü-añsi marriages were prevalent there as elsewhere, said that marriages between first cousins, who stood in this relation, were commoner higher in the mountains than at Jamestown. The men at Jamestown and lower in the foothills were inclined to marry an anisü further removed than a first cousin. There seems to have been a sentiment at Jamestown against the marriage of first cousins. One woman was asked if she would consider it proper for her son to marry her brother’s daughter. She replied, "No, she is too much like his mother," meaning herself. Her reply may have been engendered by the Miwok custom of a man marrying his wife’s brother’s daughter. By this marriage his new wife, who is also his son’s anisü cross-cousin, would become his son’s stepmother; hence perhaps the woman’s statement with regard to her son’s anisü cross-cousin, "too much like his mother."


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Chicago: University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology, in Source Book in Anthropology, ed. Kroeber, Alfred L., 1876-1960, and Waterman, T. T. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1920), Original Sources, accessed July 22, 2024,

MLA: . University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology,, Vol. 12, in Source Book in Anthropology, edited by Kroeber, Alfred L., 1876-1960, and Waterman, T. T., Berkeley, CA, University of California Press, 1920, Original Sources. 22 Jul. 2024.

Harvard: , University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology,. cited in 1920, Source Book in Anthropology, ed. , University of California Press, Berkeley, CA. Original Sources, retrieved 22 July 2024, from