Relevance of ‘Sinkyone’ to local peoples’ cultural heritage explained


By Harriet L. Rhoades

This article is written from the viewpoint of an Indian elder who believes there is a real need to educate the public about the true histories of local Indian Tribes so that a greater understanding of and respect for California Indian peoples and their cultural heritage can be instilled in all communities, especially among the younger generations.

By way of background, this writer is a Coast Pomo, Coast Yuki, Sinkyone, Wailaki, and Wintu person whose ancestors include members of the Sutherland and Bell families. The writer also is a member of the Sherwood Valley Band of Pomo Indians with familial and ancestral ties along the Mendocino coast, and in southern Humboldt County and the Round Valley Indian Reservation. Many local Indian Tribal families, like this writer’s, have always maintained strong Native identity and knowledge of the cultural ways and beliefs our peoples have held for thousands of years. Among Tribal Elders, there are those who are responsible for passing on our knowledge to the younger generations who are the inheritors of our Indian ways.

Although the perspectives offered herein are those of a Native American Elder and Tribal community member, the writer also happens to serve in an official capacity advising the State on the protection of Native American cultural resources. Since 2002 the writer has served as Council Chairperson of the Native American Advisory Council to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE, formerly CDF). This Council, appointed by the director of CAL FIRE, works closely with California Indian Tribes, CAL FIRE, the California Native American Heritage Commission (NAHC), and other State agencies to promote the protection of Native American cultural resources and the involvement of California Indian Tribes in this important process.

The NAHC map of Native California Languages and Tribes ( depicts Tribal territories and boundaries that are based upon reliable information provided by California Indian informants intimately familiar with their peoples’ cultural histories and aboriginal land areas. The concept of Tribal territories is not a foreign or new idea for Indian people. Tribes’ territorial boundaries often matched the boundaries of major watersheds. Territorial boundaries and the geographies they encompassed also significantly influenced relations among Tribal groups, shaped the Tribes’ subsistence patterns, and informed their cosmologies, economies, and architectures. While not all the details of Tribal boundaries are known today, many Tribal members have retained important knowledge about their Tribal borders and geographies. An understanding of Tribal territorial boundaries is crucial to an appreciation of California Indian culture and history. Tribes, cultural resource managers, scholars, and state and county agencies — as well as foresters, conservationists, and other land managers — use the NAHC map and similar maps on a daily basis to gain a greater understanding of California Indian history, to ensure protection for Native American cultural resources, and to assist in the process of consultation with Tribes.

The NAHC map includes Sinkyone Tribal territory because Tribes, anthropologists, the ethnographic record, and the State recognize that Sinkyone is a distinct indigenous Tribal group; because information provided by Indian informants about the Sinkyone people, culture, and territory is considered reliable; and because Tribal members of Sinkyone ancestry are enrolled in federally recognized Tribes throughout the State. The Sinkyone, like every other California Tribal group, possessed their own territorial area and unique cultural elements that distinguished them in myriad ways from their neighbors of other Tribal affiliations.

Certain individuals have incorrectly asserted that the Sinkyone people, culture, and territory never existed. They want to “classify” the Sinkyone as part of other “better-known” Tribal groups. As a Sinkyone descendant, the writer believes it is important to counter such misconceptions with accurate information. Only a relatively small number of Sinkyone people survived the genocide of the 1850s-1860s that destroyed most Sinkyone communities and drove nearly all survivors from their homeland. The Sinkyone — like the Nongatl, Lassik, Chimariko, Whilkut, and a host of other Tribal groups whose numbers were dramatically reduced — were never recognized as a Tribe by the federal government. In order to qualify for membership in federally recognized Tribes, and to receive land allotments and other Indian benefits, the surviving Sinkyone were given the “option” of affiliating themselves with neighboring Tribes that had received federal recognition. Enrolling as “Sinkyone” or any of the several subgroups comprising the Sinkyone simply was not an option. Many Sinkyone eventually enrolled as Wailaki Tribal members because Wailaki was the closest, most prominent Tribe recognized by the federal government.

In describing their Tribal identities to ethnographers, it is well-documented that Sinkyone people including Sally Bell, Jack Woodman, Jennie Woodman-Young, Albert Smith, Ah-dah-dil-law (George Burt,) Se-sun-to (Briceland Charlie), and others referred to themselves as belonging to the To-cho-be keah, To-ku-be keah, Lo-lahn-kok, Sinkiene, Tahng-ah-ting keah, Nahs-lin-che keah, and other “Sinkyone” subgroups. These Sinkyone subgroups collectively spoke the same essential Athabascan language and shared common subsistence patterns and other important cultural attributes, along with the ability to freely travel and socialize throughout the overall Sinkyone territory. In their recorded accounts, informants provided many details that clearly characterize the Sinkyone as being culturally and linguistically distinct from the Wailaki and other Tribal groups. While their languages contain some similarities, dramatic differences can be seen when one compares the Sinkyone and Wailaki vocabularies.

Other examples of cultural differences become apparent when comparing the respective subsistence patterns and religious beliefs of the Sinkyone and the Wailaki. The Sinkyone depended on fish and marine resources as major components of their diet. They controlled 130 miles of fishing streams, and used fishing methods nearly identical to those used by Tribes of Lower Klamath and Humboldt Bay. Along the Eel, they speared salmon at night by the light of torches affixed to dugout redwood boats that were constructed like Yurok boats. Like other Tribes of the Lower Klamath River, the Sinkyone spoke to their boats and carved features like three-dimensional hearts into them. The Sinkyone were pelagic hunters, pursuing and harpooning sea lions and seals from their boats, which they navigated along their 40+ miles of coastline.

By contrast, the Wailaki depended more on deer and acorns than on fish and marine foods. They controlled 38 miles of fishing streams compared with the Sinkyone’s 130 miles. They did not construct redwood boats — in fact, few redwoods grew in Wailaki aboriginal territory — and their territory included no coastline.

The Sinkyone held annual ceremonies that show their religious affinity with Lower Klamath River cultures. Sinkyone informants who remembered how these ceremonies had been conducted provided details about their people’s “World Renewal” and “First Salmon” rites. The Wailaki belonged to the “Roundhouse” or “Kuksu” religion practiced by the Pomo, Wintu, and other Tribes whose religious belief systems and ceremonies vary significantly from those of the Sinkyone and other peoples of the “World Renewal” religions. The Wailaki and the Sinkyone believed in distinctly different Creator deities of dramatically dissimilar origins.

There are numerous other examples of cultural differences between the Sinkyone and the Wailaki. It is important to understand and appreciate these cultural differences and to recognize that the cultures of all California Indian Tribes are equally unique, beautiful, and important.

The recorded accounts of early Indian informants are an important part of the cultural heritage our ancestors have entrusted to us. Living relatives of many of these informants are among us today. Individuals who attempt to dismiss the accounts of our Indian ancestors are often those who are unable to understand the significance, or unwilling to discern the relevance, of the informants’ statements- or those who resent having their misguided views about Indian culture refuted by the informants’ greater cultural knowledge. But if you’re an Indian person who has been raised in your culture and around your people’s ceremonies, then you respect and understand the importance of this knowledge.

There exists a wealth of information on the Sinkyone people. In fact, more is known and documented about the Sinkyone than any of the other Southern Athabascan Tribal groups. Sinkyone informants never confused their territorial area with that of the Wailaki, nor did they confuse their own subgroup affiliations with those of the three Wailaki subgroups, the Tsen-nah-ken-nes (Mainstem Eel River band), the Bah-ne-ko keah (North Fork Eel River band), and the Che-teg-gah-ahng (Pitch band). Like the Sinkyone, Wailaki informants were very clear about the location and extent of their Tribal territory, which covered most of the mainstem Eel River drainage from Kekawaka Creek south to Big Bend Creek and most of the North Fork Eel River, including Hull’s Creek and Casoose Creek (North Fork tributaries).

Sinkyone informants consistently distinguished their own people from their Wailaki, Cahto, Yuki, Mattole, and other neighbors with whom they had relations but considered as distinctly different peoples (and vice versa). Attempting to classify the Sinkyone and their neighbors into an overall “super tribe” — as some have attempted — is not only a futile exercise for which there is no historic or cultural basis; it also disrespects the unique and diverse cultural identities that clearly define each Tribal group and are sources of pride for our peoples.

Some individuals, including ethnographer C. Hart Merriam, have assumed that “Sinkyone” was a term “coined” by the ethnographer Pliny Goddard, who supposedly derived the word from “Sinkyo-kok.” Although “Sinkyone” has phonetic and other associations with “Sinkyo-kok” (the Native word for S. Fork Eel River), “Sinkyone” is distinctly recorded as the word used by the Nongatl, another Southern Athabascan people, to denote their neighbors to the southwest. One large northern subgroup of the Sinkyone referred to themselves as the “Sinkiene.” In addition to “Sinkyone” and “Sinkiene,” Southern Athabascan peoples (e.g., Sinkyone, Lassik, Nongatl) used at least six other phonetically similar names for bands within the Sinkyone territory. These names include: Sinkunna, Sin-ke-ne, Sin-ken-ye, Sinkinne, Yis-sin-ku-ne, and Yes-sing’ ken’-a. Given the facts associated with these recorded names, using the word “Sinkyone” to denote the peoples of this region that shared common culture and language is quite appropriate.

The Cultural Resources section of the draft Sinkyone Wilderness State Park Resource Inventory (December 1987) states: “Sally Bell, Jack Woodman, and Jennie Young were fullblood Sinkyone most probably of the To-cho-be keah or Shelter Cove division.” The section goes on to explain that while both Bell and Woodman stated on their 1928 California Indian Census applications that they were “Wailaki.” their reasons for doing so were because both had been “youthful survivors [of massacres] raised by white families…[and] particularly fearful of the Wailaki, in isolation from their culture and family.” The Inventory also states: “In Briceland, descendants of the Sinkyone were working…in the nearby area for several decades…[T]hese people’s descendants consider their ancestors and themselves as Wailaki…” The ethnographer Stephen Powers’ explanation for this apparent contradiction was “If the whites call a California tribe by a certain name, no matter what, they soon learn to use that, whether speaking with whites or one another.”

Interestingly, the 1900 Indian schedule for the U.S. census lists Jack and Jennie Woodman (and all four of their parents) as “Coast Indians” — not Wailaki. This is interesting because aboriginal Wailaki Tribal territory is located nowhere near the coast — another important detail supporting the fact that the Woodmans and other families in the vicinity of the S. Fork and mainstem Eel River between Hollow Tree Creek and Scotia, and thence over to the coast, were indisputably Sinkyone rather than Wailaki.

Instead of being an indication that the Sinkyone and Wailaki were one-in-the-same people, the phenomenon of Sinkyone people having to identify as “Wailaki” is, in fact, indicative of economic and societal pressures to identify as members of a more prominent Indian Tribal group that had received federal and reservation status. Today, quite a few Tribal members familiar with their families’ histories and their cultural heritage consider themselves Sinkyone descendants. That certain anthropologists, the public, and even some Indian people have been unaware of this fact does not invalidate its veracity.

Persons who claim Indian ancestry understandably feel proud of the affiliations with which they identify. However, this feeling should not translate into an attempt to dismiss or marginalize indigenous Tribal groups such as the Sinkyone and others. The cultural contributions of the Sinkyone to our California Indian heritage should be appreciated and respected. That the Bear Gulch Bridge is situated in aboriginal Sinkyone Tribal territory is a fact supported by a wealth of Tribal oral history and ethnographic documentation, including specific information from original fullblood Sinkyone Indian people intimately familiar with their people’s cultural history and territorial boundaries. Because of these historic facts, naming the bridge “Wailaki Pass” would be incorrect. One reason local Tribes do not support changing “Bear Gulch Bridge” to “Wailaki Pass” is that the proposed name would entirely ignore and exclude the Sinkyone. Also, a number of Wailaki people feel that using the name of our Tribe for the purpose of naming a bridge is inappropriate — just as many of us understand that naming sports teams after Indian people is disrespectful and offensive.

Fifty or more years ago, using race or ethnicity for naming geographic features was, for many, an acceptable practice. Today, most people understand such practices are not acceptable. Humboldt County’s criteria for naming features such as bridges includes the requirement that proposed names “not be insulting to or derogatory of any cultural group.”

Efforts to name or memorialize Bear Gulch Bridge should not contribute to misinformation about the Indian Tribal territory in which the bridge is situated, or misconceptions about the Tribes of this region. Instead, such efforts should promote greater understanding and respect for Native peoples’ cultural history.

This is the goal motivating a proposal by InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council and Round Valley Indian Tribal Council to memorialize Bear Gulch Bridge with a plaque honoring the Sinkyone, the Wailaki, and several other Tribal groups that historically inhabited, traded, and traveled in the region immediately surrounding the Bear Gulch Bridge. Their proposal would a) ensure the bridge retains its official name of “Bear Gulch Bridge” and b) feature a plaque with the words for “Bear Creek” in the indigenous languages of the Sinkyone, Wailaki, Nongatl, Lassik, Mattole, Bear River, Cahto, Coast Yuki, Wiyot, and Yuki. Historically, all these Tribal groups had important interaction with each other and the vicinity surrounding the bridge.

The proposal is historically accurate, and honors and celebrates the cultural heritage of local Tribal peoples in a respectful way that also is educational. This is an extraordinary way of promoting the idea that we all should try to get along. Indigenous people have suffered many losses. Our people should find ways of working together, rather than allowing ourselves to be divided.

This proposal by the Indian Tribes of this region is worthy of everyone’s support. It acknowledges the region’s Tribal groups, excludes none of them, and officially recognizes the name “Bear Gulch Bridge” — an important part of the cultural history of the Indian and non-Indian peoples of the region.

Letters supporting this Tribal proposal should be sent to: Donald C. Tuttle, Special Projects Coordinator, Humboldt County Dept. of Public Works, 1106 Second Street, Eureka, CA 95501-0579.

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