ETHNONYMS: Talawa, Tah-le-wah

The Tolowa are an American Indian group numbering about two hundred whose ancestors in the early nineteenth century numbered about twenty-four hundred and were located in the Pacific coast region from the Oregon boundary of California south to Wilson Creek. In 1850 the California gold rush reached the Tolowa area, and in the latter part of the century the Tolowa population was decimated by measles and cholera. Subsequently, they were removed to small Reservations and rancherias where most intermarried with other North American Indian groups.

The Tolowa spoke an Athapaskan language and were a fishing and gathering people. Traditionally, in the summers on the coast the Tolowa fished for smelt and hunted sea mammals from forty-foot redwood canoes; in the autumn they moved inland to temporary camps where they fished for salmon and gathered acorns. Prestige was gained through the accumulation of wealth, consisting primarily of obsidian knives, headdresses of red-headed woodpecker scalps and dentalium shell bead necklaces; the wealthiest man in a Village was usually its headman.

The important religious ceremonies of the Tolowa were connected with catching the season's first salmon, smelt, or sea lion. Both men and women could serve as shamans and cured the sick by dancing, trancing, magical formulas, and sucking the sources of evil out of the afflicted. The dead were wrapped in tule mats and buried along with shell beads and other objects.


Drucker, Philip (1937). The Tolowa and Their Southwestern Oregon Kin. University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology 36, 221-300. Berkeley.

Gould, Richard (1968). "Seagoing Canoes among the Indians of Northwestern California." Ethnohistory 15:11-42.

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