Close Window



Also known as: Mewuk; Me-Wuk  
From: Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes, Third Edition.

The Miwok, or Mewuk, of central California can be divided into three main groups: Valley Miwok, Coast Miwok, and Lake Miwok. The main group, the Valley, or Eastern, Miwok occupied ancestral territory on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada along the San Joaquin and Sacramento Rivers and their tributaries. (The Valley Miwok are further divided into the Bay Miwok, Plains Miwok, Northern Miwok, and Southern Sierra Miwok.) The Coast Miwok lived to their west along the Pacific coast north of San Francisco Bay. And the Lake Miwok lived near Clear Lake north of San Francisco Bay. Miwok, pronounced MEE-wuk, means "people" in the Penutian language of the tribe. Their language is related to that of the Costanoan living in coastal regions to the south.

The lifeways of the three Miwok groups varied with the food sources available near their more than 100 village sites. Like other California Indians, they gathered wild plant foods, especially acorns, hunted small game, and fished in rivers, ocean, and lakes. Miwok houses had frameworks of wooden poles covered with swamp plants, brush, grass, or palm fronds. Their coiled baskets had flared-out sides and black designs. The Miwok participated in the Kuksu Culf.

The Miwok generally maintained peaceful relations with the Spanish, who did not missionize peoples of this region to the degree they did the southern California tribes. The Mexican government pretty much left the Miwok alone after Mexico had gained its independence from Spain in 1821 and had taken control of California. The presence of Russian fur traders, who maintained Fort Ross on Bodega Bay from 1812 to 1841, had some impact on Miwok groups because of acts of violence and the spread of disease. Yet the majority of Miwok people were spared non-Indian settlement in their midst until the mid-1800s. In 1848, by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Mexico ceded California to the United States. At the end of that same year, gold was discovered in the region, starting the California gold rush.

Anglo-American settlers began coming in great numbers to California over the next years in search of the mother lode, the miners' name for a big strike of gold. The Indians suffered greatly. Diseases passed to them by non-Indians killed many of them. The presence of mining camps disrupted their hunting. And some miners shot Indians on sight.

The Valley Miwok and a powerful neighboring tribe, the Yokuts, fought back. In 1850, the same year that California became the 31st state of the Union, warriors under the Miwok chief Tenaya began attacking prospecting parties and trading posts. The owner of the trading posts, James Savage, organized a state militia, called the Mariposa Battalion, which he led into the Sierra Nevada highlands in pursuit of the Indians. The two forces met in a number of indecisive skirmishes. By 1851, however, with continuing militia patrols, the Miwok and Yokuts gave up their campaign of violence.

The Miwok presently hold a number of rancherias (small reservations) in their ancestral homeland. Since many tribal members intermarried over the years with neighboring peoples, such as the Pomo, Maidu, Wintun, Wailaki, and Yuki, there are Miwok descendants living among at least 17 other federally recognized tribes or bands as well as on their rancherias. The Miwok preserve their traditional culture in the form of songs, dances, hand games, weaving, and beadwork. The Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuk Indians of the Tuolumne Rancheria operates the Black Casino. Revenue from gaming is being used to build new tribal housing.


Text Citation (Chicago Manual of Style format):

Waldman, Carl. "Miwok." Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes, Third Edition. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2006. American History Online. Facts On File, Inc.
ItemID=WE52&iPin=ind2384&SingleRecord=True (accessed April 29, 2016).

Other Citation Formats:

Modern Language Association (MLA) Format
American Psychological Association (APA) Format

Additional Citation Information


Return to Top

Record URL: