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Impearls: HIC 7.1.1: The Athabascans of California: Origin and movements

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Earthdate 2005-11-12

The Athabascans of California:  Origin and movements   by A. L. Kroeber

The peculiar conservative genius that pervades all Athabascan tongues rendered the early recognition of those on the Pacific coast easy, in spite of the great distances that separate these tongues from their congeners in the northwestern tundras and forests and in the arid highlands of New Mexico.  The origin of the vastly distributed family is, however, as obscure as its coherence is obvious.  This is a problem involving an understanding of all ancient North America, and the fragments of the stock in California can contribute only a minute quota to the solution.  It is superficially probable, as a glance at a map of the continent will sustain, that the Pacific coast can scarcely have been the first home of the family when it was still united.  The Pacific coast Athabascans were therefore immigrants of some remote period; and for those of California, their extreme southerly position makes it probable that they drifted into their present seats from the north.

This movement must not be underestimated as recent; and there must have been many crowdings and rollings about, perhaps even refluxes.  On the map, for instance, the Kato look as if they were invaders who had nearly split the Yuki in two and might have made the division complete if the white man had left them alone a few more generations.  But such an assumption is pure speculation.  It is not beyond the limits of possibility that the Kato have been in their present seats for a very long time, and that in recent centuries it has been the Yuki who gradually confined and nearly surrounded them.  Any hypothesis on these points is as yet only a guess.

Two things argue against any rapid conquering match of the Athabascans southward: their assimilation to their linguistically alien neighbors in culture, and in bodily form.  The Hupa are as wholly and integrally a part of the hearth of the northwestern civilization as are the Algonkin Yurok or the Hokan Karok.  The Lassik show Wintun influences.  The Wailaki were similar to the Yuki.  And the Kato were substantially one in customs and beliefs with the Coast Yuki.  Within the short distance of less than 100 miles, therefore, there were Athabascans of entirely northwestern and of entirely central culture: a situation which could have arisen only among long sessile populations of contracted outlook.

In northwestern California, as in southwestern Oregon, a single physical type is the predominant one among the multitudinous tribes: a tallish stature with round head.  These are also the traits of the Athabascans in the northwest and the southwest of the continent.

It is therefore quite possible that the prevalence of this type in the region where California and Oregon adjoin is due to a sustained and abundant infusion of Athabascan blood.  But as Athabascans and non-Athabascans are indistinguishable, a considerable period must be allowed for this assimilation of the once separate and presumably different races that now are blended.

In the extreme south the result has been the reverse, but the process the same.  The Wailaki have taken on the narrow-headed, stumpy-bodied type of the Yuki — a markedly localized type, by the way.

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