ETHNONYMS: Achomawi, Pit River Indians, Pitt River Indians
The Achumawi are an American Indian group located in northeast California. "Achumawi" means "river people" and referred, aboriginally, to only one subgroup. Today, both the Achumawi and Whites commonly use "Pit River Indians" in reference to the entire society. "Pit River" is derived from the Achumawi practice of trapping deer in deep pits. An aboriginal population of about three thousand has been reduced to about one thousand, although the exact population is unknown owing to the group's dispersed settlement pattern and its mixing with the neighboring Atsugewi. Along with Atsugewi, Achumawi forms the Palaihnihan branch of the Hokan language family.
Little is known about the Achumawi prior to the twentieth century. First contact was probably with trappers in the early 1800s, followed later in the century by an influx of gold miners and settlers which disrupted the traditional culture. Because the group lacked centralized leadership and was marred by factionalism and regional self-interest, much of its aboriginal land was lost to Whites. Since the 1950s members have conducted a series of legal battles to regain some of this land. The Achumawi were in close and regular contact with the Atsugewi, who were bilingual in the two languages. Contacts with other groups were infrequent.
The Achumawi were divided into eleven named subtribes or tribelets, with each occupying a distinct territory. Villages were located on or near water such as rivers or marshlands. The typical winter dwelling was the semisubterranean longhouse, with tule mat-covered conical dwellings used in the summer. Today, about five hundred Achumawi live on the Round Valley and XL Ranch Reservations, with the remainder dispersed among the White population.
The Achumawi occupied a rich and varied ecological region that included pine and oak forests, sagebrush lands, swamps, streams, lakes, meadows, and grasslands. All provided resources for food and manufactures obtained through hunting, fishing, and gathering. Fish, birds, bird eggs, and deer, badgers, and other animals were taken for food and for raw materials for tools, utensils, and clothing. Tubers, roots, and bulbs were dug, and sunflowers, tobacco, and other plant foods and materials collected. In regions with large oak forests, acorns were the dietary staple. Twined basketry was a highly developed craft that survived into the twentieth century.
The aboriginal kinship system has not been well described. Evidently, descent was bilateral and marriage partners were expected to be nonrelatives, which in practice meant people living outside of one's own or nearby villages. Marriage was marked by gift exchange, and both widows and widowers were seen as "property" of the deceased spouse's family. Marriage between members of different tribelets was apparently encouraged as a means of building cross-tribelet solidarity. Puberty rites for boys were minimal, and a girl's first menstruation was marked by a ten-day rite.
Achumawi society was divided into eleven named tribelets, each controlling a distinct territory. Ties between tribelets were based on the common use of the Achumawi Language and tribelet exogamy.
Religious beliefs and practices focused on the identification and treatment of illness and misfortunes. Male and female shamans, the central figures in this process, sought to effect cures through contact with the powerful tamakomi forces. Each male sought contact with and protection from a personal tinihowi, "guardian spirit." Death was unmarked and the soul was thought to travel to the western mountains, where the Achumawi hoped it would remain.
Garner, Van Hastings (1982). The Broken Ring: The Destruction of the California Indians. Tucson, Ariz.: Westernlore Press.
Olmsted, David L., and Omer C. Stewart (1978). "Achumawi." In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 8, California, edited by Robert F. Heizer, 225-235. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.