The Maidu are a Native American people of northern California. They reside in the central Sierra Nevada, in the drainage area of the Feather and American Rivers. They also reside in Humbug Valley. In Maiduan languages, Maidu means "man".

Local division

The Maidu people are geographically dispersed into many subgroups broken up by valleys, foothills, and mountains in Northeastern Central California.[2] There are three subcategories of Maidu:


Original title: Maidu Headmen with Treaty Commissioners. Treaty Commissioner O. M. Wozencraft is seated center front. Image was captured on or around August 1, 1851 at Bidwell's Ranch at Chico Creek.

Estimates for the pre-contact populations of most native groups in California have varied substantially. Alfred L. Kroeber estimated the 1770 population of the Maidu (including the Konkow and Nisenan) as 9,000.[4] Sherburne F. Cook raised this figure slightly, to 9,500.[5]

Kroeber reported the population of the Maidu in 1910 as 1,100. The 1930 census counted only 93. As of 1995, the Maidu population had recovered to an estimated 3,500.


The Maidu were hunters and gatherers.

Baskets and Basketmaking

The Maidu were exemplary basket weavers, weaving highly detailed and useful baskets in sizes ranging from thimble-sized to huge ones ten or more feet in diameter. The stitches on some of these baskets are so fine that you need a magnifying glass to see them. In addition to closely woven, watertight baskets for cooking, they made large storage baskets, bowls, shallow trays, traps, cradles, hats and seed beaters. To make these baskets, they used dozens of different kinds of wild plant stems, barks, roots and leaves. Some of the more common were fern roots, red bark of the redbud, white willow twigs and tule roots, hazel twigs, yucca leaves, brown marsh grass roots and sedge roots. By combining these different kinds of plants, they were able to make geometric designs on their baskets in red, black, white, brown or tan. Maidu elder Marie Potts explains, "The coiled and twining systems were both used, and the products were sometimes handsomely decorated according to the inventiveness and skill of the weaver and the materials available, such as feathers of brightly plumaged birds, shells, quills, seeds or beads- almost anything that could be attached." [6]


A mortar ground into the solid rock near a stream.

Like many other California tribes, the Maidu were hunters and gatherers and did not farm. They practiced grooming of their gathering grounds, with fire as a primary tool for this purpose, and tended local groves of oak trees to maximize production of acorns, which were their principal dietary staple, according to Maidu elder Marie Potts:

"Preparing acorns as food was a long and tedious process that was undertaken by the women and children. The acorns had to be shelled, cleaned and then ground into meal. This was done by pounding them with a pestle on a hard surface, generally a hollowed-out stone. The tannic acid in the acorns was leached out by spreading the meal smoothly on a bed of pine needles laid over sand. Cedar or fir boughs were placed across the meal and warm water was poured all over, a process which took several hours, with the boughs distributing the water evenly and flavoring the meal."[6]

The abundance of acorns made it possible for the Maidu to store large quantities for harder times, and they used their basket-making skills to construct above-ground acorn granaries.

Besides acorns, which provided dietary starch and fat, the Maidu lived in an environment rich in plant and animal life, much of it edible, and they supplemented their acorn diet with edible roots (for which they were nicknamed "Digger Indians" by European immigrants), fish from the many streams and rivers, and other plant and animal species. The seeds from the many flowering plants as well as the corms from many wild flowers provided much of the sustenance to the People of the area. Wildlife of every sort was also utilized within a spiritual reference. Deer, elk, antelope as well as all the multitude of smaller game were utilized on a regular basis. Fish were a prime source of protein, starting with the multi run salmon, then relying on the local indigenous fishes that supplied food the year round.


Maidu housing, especially higher in the hills and the mountains, was largely semi-underground. These houses were sizable, circular structures twelve to 18 feet in diameter, whose floors were as much as three feet below ground level. Once the floor of the house was dug, a pole framework was built, then a covering of pine bark slabs upon which a heavy layer of earth was placed along the base of the structure. With a central fire in the house at ground level, a stone-lined pit and bedrock mortar to process foods, meals were always ready to feed the family. For summer dwelling, a different structure was built from cut branches tied together and fastened to sapling posts, then covered with brush and dirt. The summer shelters were built with the principal opening facing east to catch the rising sun, and to escape the heat of the afternoon.

Social organization

Maidu lived in small villages or tribelets with no centralized political organization. Leaders were typically selected from the pool of men who headed the local Kuksu cult, but generally did not exercise day-to-day authority, being primarily responsible for settling internal disputes, and negotiating over matters arising between villages.


The primary religious tradition of the Maidu revolved around the Kuksu cult, which was a central California religious cult system based on a male secret society and characterized by the Kuksu or "big head" dances. Maidu elder Marie Potts expresses that the Maidu were monotheistic people, "they greeted the sunrise with a prayer of thankfulness; at noon they stopped for meditation; and at sun set they communed with Kadyapam and gave thanks for blessings throughout the day." [6] A traditional celebration for the Maidu was the Bear Dance, when the Maidu honored the bear during Spring. The bear's hibernation and survival through the Winter symbolized perseverance to the Maidu, who identified with the animal spiritually.[6]

Besides the Maidu, this cult system was also followed by the Pomo and the Patwin among the Wintun and later were forced by the missionaries to change their religion.


The Maidu spoke a language held by some authorities to be of the Penutian linguistic stock. While all Maidu spoke a form of this language, the grammar, syntax and vocabulary differed sufficiently that Maidu separated by large distances or by geographic features that discouraged travel might actually speak nearly mutually unintelligible dialects of the tongue.

There were four principal divisions of the language: Northeastern Maidu, Yamonee Maidu (known simply as Maidu); Southern Maidu or Nisenan; Northwestern Maidu or Konkow; and Valley Maidu or Chico.

Rock art

The Maidu inhabited areas in northeastern Sierra Nevada. This area and the sites they occupied contain many examples of rock art and petroglyphs. There is some confusion on whether this rock art and other site remains are from previous populations of peoples or from the Maidu people themselves. Regardless, the Maidu people incorporated these works into their cultural system, due to their beliefs that artifacts are real, living energies that are an integral part of their world.


Federally recognized

Non-federally recognized

  • Honey Lake Maidu Tribe
  • KonKow Valley Band of Maidu Indians
  • Nevada City Rancheria
  • Strawberry Valley Band of Pakan'yani Maidu (aka Strawberry Valley Rancheria)[7]
  • Tsi Akim Maidu Tribe of Taylorsville Rancheria
  • United Maidu Nation
  • Colfax-Todds Valley Consolidated Tribe of the Colfax Rancheria
  • Ninsenan

Contemporary artists

Ninsenan Indian tribe

Traditional narratives

Stories of K'odojapem/World-maker and Wepam/Trickster Coyote are particularly prominent in Maidu traditional narratives.[9][10]


  1. ^ "California Indians and their Reservations." SDSU Library and Information Access.
  2. ^ Johnson, Micheal G. (2014). Encyclopedia of Native Tribes of North America. Buffalo, New York: Firefly Books. p. 198. ISBN 978-1-77085-461-1. 
  3. ^ Robbins, John (2000-12-14). "ACTION: Native American human remains and associated funerary objects:". thefederalregister.com. Archived from the original on 2008-09-19. Retrieved 2008-08-14. 
  4. ^ Kroeber (1925:883)
  5. ^ Cook (1976:179)
  6. ^ a b c d Potts, Marie (1977). The Northern Maidu. Happy Camp, California: Naturegraph Publishers Inc. pp. 34–35. ISBN 0879610719. 
  7. ^ Strawberry Valley Rancheria
  8. ^ Frank Tuttle (Konkow Maidu, Yuki, Wailaki)
  9. ^ "Maidu Indian Legends." Native Languages of the Americas. Retrieved 30 Dec 2011.
  10. ^ [1] Shipley, William. The Maidu Indian Myths and Stories of Hánc'ibyjim. 1991. (w/ forward by Gary Snyder)


  • Cook, Sherburne F. 1976. The Conflict between the California Indian and White Civilization. University of California Press, Berkeley.
  • Kroeber, A. L. 1925. Handbook of the Indians of California. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin No. 78. Washington, D.C.
  • Heizer, Robert F. 1966. Languages, Territories, and Names of California Indian Tribes. University of California Press, Berkeley.
  • Pritzker, Barry. 2000. A Native American Encyclopedia: History, Culture, and Peoples. Oxford University Press, New York.

External links