The Tolowa people or Taa-laa-wa Dee-ni’ are a Native American people of the Athabaskan-speaking ethno-linguistic group. They still reside in their traditional territories in northwestern California and southern Oregon.

Related to current locations, Tolowa people are members of several federally recognized tribes: Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation,[3] Elk Valley Rancheria, Confederated Tribes of Siletz, Trinidad Rancheria,[4] as well as the unrecognized Tolowa Nation.[5]


Their homeland, Taa-laa-waa-dvn (“Tolowa ancestral-land”) lies along the Pacific Coast between the watersheds of Wilson Creek and Smith River basin and vicinity in northwestern California and the Winchuck, Chetco, Pistol, Rogue, Elk and Sixes rivers, extending inland up the Rogue River throughout the Applegate Valley in southwestern Oregon in the United States. Today this area is in what is known as Curry, Josephine and Del Norte counties. The area was bounded by Port Orford, Oregon to the north and Wilson Creek, north of the Klamath River in California, to the south. They lived in approximately eight permanent villages in what are divided into California and Oregon, including on Crescent Bay and Lake Earl.[5] The most important Tolowa village is Yan’-daa-k’vt. Their tribal neighbors are the Coquille and Umpqua to the north; Takelma, Shasta and Karuk to the east; and the Yurok to the south.

The name "Tolowa" is derived from Taa-laa-welh (Taa-laa-wa), an Algic name given to them by the Yurok (Klamath River People), meaning "I speak Tolowa".

Their autonym is Xus or Xvsh, meaning "person" or "human being".[1] The neighboring Karuk called them yuh'ára, and used this Karuk name, meaning "Indian from downriver", also for the Yurok.[6]

They called themselves in a political sense also Dee-ni’, which means "(is a) citizen of a yvtlh-’i~ (polity)". The ancient Dee-ni’ Taa-laa-waa-dvn was divided into various yvtlh-’i~.

The Tolowa or Dee-ni’ population exceeded 10,000. In the 19th century, epidemics of new infectious diseases, such as smallpox, broke out among the Tolowa, resulting in high mortality. These occurred before they had face-to-face encounters with non-natives because of contact through intermediaries. In 1828 the American Jedediah Smith and his exploration party were the first known non-natives to contact the Tolowa.

During the 1850s, more than half of the Tolowa people died, primarily from disease and mass murders by Anglo-Americans, such as the Yontoket Massacre and the Achulet Massacre. In 1860, after the Chetco/Rogue River War, 600 Tolowa were forcibly relocated to Indian reservations in Oregon, including what is now known as the Siletz Reservation in the Central Coastal Range. Later, some were moved to the Hoopa Valley Reservation in California. The tribe embraced the Ghost Dance religion from 1872 to 1882, in hopes of getting relief from European-American encroachment.[1]


They have traditionally spoken Taa-laa-wa Dee-ni' Wee-ya' (Tolowa Dee-ni' Language), the Tolowa language, one of the Athabaskan languages.

At the Siletz Reservation in central Oregon, tribes speaking 10 distinct languages were brought together in the mid-19th century. In the early 21st century, the remaining native language spoken is known as Siletz Dee-ni, related to Tolowa, although many of the original tribes spoke Salish languages.[7]

In 2007, in coordination with the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians produced a "talking dictionary" in this language to aid in preservation and teaching.[7] Alfred "Bud" Lane, among the last fluent native speakers of Siletz Dee-ni on the reservation, has recorded 14,000 words of the language in this effort.[8]


The Tolowa organized their subsistence around the plentiful riverine and marine resources and acorns (san-chvn[9]). Their society was not formally stratified, but considerable emphasis was put on personal wealth.[10]

Tolowa villages were organized around a headman and usually consisted of related men, in a patrilineal kinship system, where inheritance and status passed through the male line. The men married women in neighboring tribes. The brides were usually related (sisters), in order for the wealth to remain in the paternal families.


They apply a poultice of the chewed leaves of Viola adunca to sore eyes.[11]


Estimates for the pre-contact populations of most native groups in California have varied substantially.[12] Various estimates for the 1770 population of Tolowa have ranged from as low as 450 to an upper end around 2,400.[13][14][15][16]

In 1910, there were reportedly 150 Tolowa.[13] The 1920 census listed 121 Tolowa left in Del Norte County, California. By 2009, there were approximately 1,000 Tolowa Indians.[5]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e Pritzker, Barry M. A Native American Encyclopedia: History, Culture, and Peoples. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. ISBN 978-0-19-513877-1, p. 147
  2. ^ California Indians and Their Reservations: Population. San Diego State University Library and Information Access. 2009 (retrieved 5 Dec 2010)
  3. ^ The Smith River Rancheria. (retrieved 8 April 2009)
  4. ^ "Cher-Ae Heights Indian Community of the Trinidad Rancheria", Alliance for California Traditional Arts. 2009. Retrieved 26 June 2012.
  5. ^ a b c California Indians and Their Reservations. San Diego State University Library and Information Access. 2009 (retrieved 8 April 2009)
  6. ^ Bright, William; Susan Gehr. "Karuk Dictionary and Texts". Retrieved 6 January 2013. 
  7. ^ a b "Guide to using the Siletz Dictionary" by Amy Smolek, in Anderson, Gregory D.S. and K. David Harrison. (2007) Siletz Talking Dictionary, Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages; accessed 25 November 2016
  8. ^ Jonathan Amos (18 February 2012). "BBC News - Digital tools 'to save languages'". Retrieved 2012-06-03. 
  9. ^ Bommelyn, Loren (2006). Tolowa People's Language. p. 22. 
  10. ^ Gould, Richard A. (18 February 1966). "The Wealth Quest Among the Tolowa Indians of Northwestern California". Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society. 110 (1): 67–89. Retrieved 6 January 2013. 
  11. ^ Baker, Marc A., 1981, The Ethnobotany of the Yurok, Tolowa and Karok Indians of Northwest California, Humboldt State University, M.A. Thesis, page 62
  12. ^ See Population of Native California
  13. ^ a b Kroeber, A. L. 1925. Handbook of the Indians of California. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin No. 78. Washington, D.C., p. 883
  14. ^ Baumhoff, Martin A (1963). "Ecological Determinants of Aboriginal California Populations". University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology. 49: 155–236 [231]. 
  15. ^ Cook, Sherburne F. 1943. The Conflict between the California Indian and White Civilization I: The Indian Versus the Spanish Mission. Ibero-Americana No. 21. University of California, Berkeley, p. 170
  16. ^ Cook, Sherburne F. 1956. "The Aboriginal Population of the North Coast of California". Anthropological Records 16:81-130. University of California, Berkeley, p.101

Further reading

  • Collins, James. 1996. Understanding Tolowa Histories: Western Hegemonies and Native American Responses. London: Routledge.
  • Drucker, Philip. 1937. "The Tolowa and their Southwest Oregon Kin," University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology 36:221–300. Berkeley.
  • Gould, Richard A. 1978. "Tolowa," In California, edited by Robert F. Heizer, pp. 128–136. Handbook of North American Indians, William C. Sturtevant, general editor, vol. 8. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

External links