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Visit Native California: Facts and Figures

Visit Native California: Facts and Figures

The statistics collected here provide essential context for understanding the size, evolution, and struggles faced by the state’s Native Americans

How long have Native Americans lived in California?

The current archaeological evidence traces the human presence in California back at least 12,000 years. But from the perspective of the state’s Native Americans, their ancestors have lived in what is now California since time immemorial rather than since some fixed point in time.

How many Native American tribes are there in California?

There are approximately 110 federally recognized tribes in California, including tribes with lands crossing state boundaries. In recent years, another 81 groups have also sought federal recognition.

Why are there so many different tribes in California?

California historian James Rawls said on PBS’s American Experience, “Most people are not aware that California was the most diversely populated area within native North America. Nowhere else was there a greater number or variety of cultures.” The state’s large size and varied topography, from mountains to desert to coast, meant that California’s Indigenous peoples lived under significantly different environmental conditions, which shaped and influenced their cultures. And landscape features, including rivers and mountains, often kept tribes isolated from one another, thus allowing separate lifeways to evolve in California’s 60 traditional cultural regions. Even so, there was still trade between tribes, as well as overlapping cultural practices and intermarriage among tribal members.

What was the Native American population in California before the arrival of the Spanish in 1769?

Most estimates put the state’s Native American population at 310,000.

How much did the population decline before it began to recover?

An article on the State of California Native American Heritage Commission (NAHC) website cites a source in 1900 that estimated the population dropped to just 16,000. Other accounts say that the population had plunged even lower—to just 12,000 as early as 1870.

What caused such a drastic drop in population?

A variety of factors decimated the Native American population in California. Native peoples lacked natural resistance to diseases brought in by Europeans, and there are estimates that disease killed 60 percent of the Indigenous population in California. Forced labor and poor nutrition, as well as unsanitary conditions under the Spanish Mission system further worsened the situation.

By the time the United States took control of California from Mexico in 1848, the Indigenous population had plunged by more than 50 percent in less than 80 years. The advent of the Gold Rush and the arrival of thousands of gold seekers and settlers further decimated native populations. An estimated 100,000 people died in the early years of the Gold Rush as vigilantes massacred Native Americans and seized land. Many Native American children were also kidnapped and sold into slavery, further destroying the state’s indigenous cultures.

What is the current Native American population in California?

Based on U.S. Census figures in 2022, 1.7 percent of the state population is American Indian or Alaska Native. That comes out to about 660,000 people. It’s important to remember, however, that the number reflects not only members of California tribes but also individuals from tribes outside the state. And another .5 percent of the state’s population is listed separately as Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander.

How many languages were spoken by California tribes?

According to California State Parks, California once had at least 64 distinct languages and was the world’s most linguistically diverse area of its size other than New Guinea. Some estimates put the number at around 100 languages, while the University of California, Berkeley’s Survey of California and Other Indian Languages’ California Language Archive estimates that between 80 and 90 different languages were spoken in the region 200 years ago.

According to one document from Cal State University Northridge, 70 percent of the languages were as distinct from one another as English is from Cantonese. With the disruption of traditional life, many dialects and languages died out and now tribes around the state have launched programs to help preserve these endangered languages.

What are the largest and smallest tribes by population in California?

With more than 6,000 enrolled members, the Yurok Tribe in Humboldt County is California’s largest. Once considered the smallest tribe in the entire country, the Coachella Valley’s  Augustine Band of Cahuilla Indianshas grown but still only has about 20 enrolled members.

What is the largest and smallest reservation by land area?

The Colorado River Indian Tribes reservation covers nearly 300,000 acres in southeast California and Arizona, while the Hoopa Valley Tribe’s reservation in Humboldt County spans 140,000 acres. According to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Pit River Tribe’s 1.32-acre parcel in northeast California, where a tribal cemetery is located, is both the state and the country’s smallest individual reservation property—although the tribe’s 11 bands own thousands of acres.

What is a land acknowledgement statement?

A land acknowledgement statement is a formal way to publicly recognize that the properties where buildings stand and events take place are on the traditional homelands of the tribe that is indigenous to a particular area. The acknowledgement is an act to show respect and recognize a tribe’s historic ties and continued connection to their lands. It’s also a recognition that tribes never ceded these lands.    

What’s the difference between a federally recognized tribe and one without recognition?

Federally recognized tribes possess certain inherent rights of self-government, such as tribal sovereignty. According to the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Office of Federal Acknowledgment, “A federally recognized tribe is an American Indian or Alaska Native tribal entity that is recognized as having a government-to-government relationship with the United States…”

Federally recognized tribes have greater legal standing and are also eligible for funding and services from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. More than 40 California tribes had previously been recognized by the federal government, then had their status terminated under the Rancheria Act of 1958.

How does a tribe receive federal recognition?

Most tribes received recognition through treaties, acts of Congress, or Presidential executive orders and court decisions.

Why don’t more tribes have federal recognition?

The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) describes the federal recognition process as “badly broken,” explaining that it can take 30 years for tribes to earn this vital designation.

Tribes need to meet and document exhaustive criteria to prove that they “are distinct autonomous communities, existing as such since historical times and recognized as such since prior to 1900.” Such documentation can be difficult to come by and gaining recognition can get quite costly, making it less likely for tribes to begin or complete the process.

Why are California tribes permitted to operate casinos?

Because federally recognized tribes are considered sovereign nations under the U.S. Constitution, they have the right to govern their own lands in the same way as any independent country might. In 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the right of tribes to conduct gaming activities on their lands in the case California v. Cabazon Band of Mission Indians.

In 1988 Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which requires that tribes be “the sole owner and primary beneficiary” of gaming operations. Under the act, tribes need to have compacts with states to negotiate the conditions for gaming operations. In 2000, California voters passed Proposition 1A, which amended the state constitution to permit casino-style gaming on tribal land in accordance with the existing gaming compact between an individual tribe and the state.

How many casinos are open in California?

Using 2022 figures from the National Indian Gaming Commission, the Indian gaming website 500 Nations says 73 California tribes operate 76 casinos and 5 mini-casinos. A document from the California Gambling Control Commission puts the number at 67 casinos operated by 64 tribes, while 76 tribes have signed and ratified Tribal-State Gaming Compacts.

What’s a good overall source for information about Native California?

You could try the Native American Heritage Commission’s Digital Atlas of California Native Americans. For a national overview, download NCAI’s Tribal Nations and the United States.

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