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, Elk Valley Rancheria, Confederated Tribes of Siletz, Trinidad Rancheria, as well as the unrecognized Tolowa Nation.
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. 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 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.
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.
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. 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.
The Tolowa organized their subsistence around the plentiful riverine and marine resources and acorns (san-chvn). Their society was not formally stratified, but considerable emphasis was put on personal wealth.
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.
Estimates for the pre-contact populations of most native groups in California have varied substantially. Various estimates for the 1770 population of Tolowa have ranged from as low as 450 to an upper end around 2,400.