The Tolowa people or Taa-laa-wa Dee-ni’ are a Native American people of the Athabaskan-speaking ethno-linguistic group. Two rancherias (Smith River and Elk Valley) still reside in their traditional territory in northwestern California. Those removed to the Siletz Reservation in Oregon are located there.

Total population
910 [1]
Regions with significant populations
United States
( California, Oregon)
Tolowa language, Siletz Dee-ni, English language
Traditional tribal religion,
previously Indian Shaker religion[2]
Related ethnic groups
Chetco and Tututni[2]

Related to current locations, Tolowa people are members of several federally recognized tribes: Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation,[3] Elk Valley Rancheria, Confederated Tribes of Siletz, Trinidad Rancheria,[4] as well as the unrecognized Tolowa Nation.[5]


Their homeland, Taa-laa-waa-dvn (“Tolowa ancestral-land”) lies along the Pacific Coast between the watersheds of Wilson Creek and Smith River basin and vicinity in northwestern CaliforniaDel Norte. The area was bounded by the California/Oregon to the north and Wilson Creek, north of the Klamath River in California, to the south. They lived in approximately eight permanent villages including on Crescent Bay and Lake Earl.[5] The most important Tolowa village is Yan’-daa-k’vt. Their tribal neighbors were the Chetco, Tututni to the north; Chasta Costa, Takelma, Galice Creek to the NE, all of which were removed to the Siletz Reservation, and Karuk to the east; and the Yurok to the south.

The name "Tolowa" is derived from Taa-laa-welh (Taa-laa-wa), an Algic name given to them by the Yurok (Klamath River People), meaning "people of Lake Earl".

Their autonym is Xus or Xvsh, meaning "person" or "human being".[2] The neighboring Karuk called them yuh'ára, and used this Karuk name, meaning "Indian from downriver", also for the Yurok.[6]

They called themselves in a political sense also Dee-ni’, which means "(is a) citizen of a yvtlh-’i~ (polity)". The ancient Dee-ni’ Taa-laa-waa-dvn was divided into various yvtlh-’i~.

The Tolowa or Dee-ni’ population exceeded 10,000. In the 19th century, epidemics of new infectious diseases, such as smallpox, broke out among the Tolowa, resulting in high mortality. These occurred before they had face-to-face encounters with non-natives because of contact through intermediaries. In 1828 the American Jedediah Smith and his exploration party were the first known non-natives to contact the Tolowa.

The Tolowa embraced the Ghost Dance religion from 1872 to 1882, in hopes of getting relief from European-American encroachment.[2]


In 1770 the Tolowa had a population of 1,000[7] their population would soon drop to 150[7] in 1910; this sharp was almost entirely due to deliberate mass murder in what has been called genocide[8] which has been recognized by the state of California.[9] In a speech before representatives of Native American peoples in June, 2019, California governor Gavin Newsom apologized for the genocide. Newsom said, "That’s what it was, a genocide. No other way to describe it. And that’s the way it needs to be described in the history books."[9] Among these killings the Yontoket Massacre left 150[8] to 500[8] Tolowa people recorded dead. Because their homes had burned down, the place received the name "Burnt Ranch." The Yontocket massacre decimated the cultural center of the Tolowa peoples. The Natives from the surrounding areas would gather there for their celebrations and discussions. The survivors of the massacre were forced to moved to the village north of Smith's River called Howonquet. The slaughtering of the Tolowa people continued for some years. They were seemingly always caught at their Needash celebrations. These massacres caused some unrest which led in part to the Rogue River Indian war. Many Tolowa people were incarcerated at Battery Point in 1855 to withhold them from joining an uprising led by their chief. In 1860, after the Chetco/Rogue River War, 600 Tolowa were forcibly relocated to Indian reservations in Oregon, including what is now known as the Siletz Reservation in the Central Coastal Range. Later, some were moved to the Hoopa Valley Reservation in California. Adding to the number of dead from the Yontoket Massacre l Massacre and the Battery Point Attack are many more in the following years. These massacres included the Chetko Massacre with 24[8] dead, the Smith creek massacre with 7[8] dead, the Howonquet Massacre with 70[8] dead, the Achulet massacre with 65 dead[10] (not including those whose bodies were left in the lake) and the Stundossun Massacre with 300[8] dead. In total, 902 Tolowa Native Americans were killed in 7 years. There are no records that any of the perpetrators were ever held accountable.[8] This means over 90% of the entire Tolowa population was killed in deliberate massacres.


They have traditionally spoken Taa-laa-wa Dee-ni' Wee-ya' (Tolowa Dee-ni' Language), the Tolowa language, one of the Athabaskan languages.

At the Siletz Reservation in central Oregon, tribes speaking 10 distinct languages were brought together in the mid-19th century. In the early 21st century, the remaining native language spoken is known as Siletz Dee-ni, related to Tolowa, although many of the original tribes spoke Salish languages.[11]

In 2007, in coordination with the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians produced a "talking dictionary" in this language to aid in preservation and teaching.[11] Alfred "Bud" Lane, among the last fluent native speakers of Siletz Dee-ni on the reservation, has recorded 14,000 words of the language in this effort.[12]


The Tolowa organized their subsistence around the plentiful riverine and marine resources and acorns (san-chvn[13]). Their society was not formally stratified, but considerable emphasis was put on personal wealth.[14]

Tolowa villages were organized around a headman and usually consisted of related men, in a patrilineal kinship system, where inheritance and status passed through the male line. The men married women in neighboring tribes. The brides were usually related (sisters), in order for the wealth to remain in the paternal families.


They apply a poultice of the chewed leaves of Viola adunca to sore eyes.[15]


Estimates for the pre-contact populations of most native groups in California have varied substantially.[16] Various estimates for the 1770 population of Tolowa have ranged from as low as 450 to an upper end around 2,400.[17][18][19][20]

In 1910, there were reportedly 150 Tolowa.[17] The 1920 census listed 121 Tolowa left in Del Norte County, California. By 2009, there were approximately 1,000 Tolowa Indians.[5]

See also


  1. American Indian and Alaska Native Tribes in the United States and Puerto Rico 2010 (retrieved 4 November 2019)
  2. Pritzker, Barry M. A Native American Encyclopedia: History, Culture, and Peoples. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. ISBN 978-0-19-513877-1, p. 147
  3. The Smith River Rancheria. (retrieved 8 April 2009)
  4. "Cher-Ae Heights Indian Community of the Trinidad Rancheria", Alliance for California Traditional Arts. 2009. Retrieved 26 June 2012.
  5. California Indians and Their Reservations. San Diego State University Library and Information Access. 2009 (retrieved 8 April 2009)
  6. Bright, William; Susan Gehr. "Karuk Dictionary and Texts". Retrieved 6 January 2013.
  7. Kroeber, A. L. (1925). Handbook of the Indians of California. Washington,. p. 883.CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link)
  8. Norton, Jack (1979). Genocide in Northwestern California: When Our Worlds Cried. San Francisco: Indian Historian Press. pp. 54–56. ISBN 0-913436-26-2 Parameter error in {{ISBN}}: Invalid ISBN..
    Lewis, David G. "The Most Persistent Attempt to Exterminate the Tribes, Beginning with the Yontocket Massacre 1853." NDNHISTORYRESEARCH, NDNHISTORYRESEARCH, 21 Aug. 2017,
    Madley, Benjamin. An American Genocide: the United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846-1873. Yale University Press, 2017.
    Lewis, David G. "Tolowa Dee-Ni Fish Camp & Chronology." NDNHISTORYRESEARCH, NDNHISTORYRESEARCH, 25 Nov. 2017,
  9. Cowan, Jill (June 19, 2019). "'It's Called Genocide': Newsom Apologizes to the State's Native Americans". The New York Times. Retrieved June 20, 2019.
  10. Norton, Jack (1979). Genocide in Northwestern California: When Our Worlds Cried. San Francisco: Indian Historian Press. pp. 56–57. 626892004.
  11. "Guide to using the Siletz Dictionary" by Amy Smolek, in Anderson, Gregory D.S. and K. David Harrison. (2007) Siletz Talking Dictionary, Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages; accessed 25 November 2016
  12. Jonathan Amos (18 February 2012). "BBC News - Digital tools 'to save languages'". Retrieved 2012-06-03.
  13. Bommelyn, Loren (2006). Tolowa People's Language. p. 22.
  14. Gould, Richard A. (18 February 1966). "The Wealth Quest Among the Tolowa Indians of Northwestern California". Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society. 110 (1): 67–89. JSTOR 986003.
  15. Baker, Marc A., 1981, The Ethnobotany of the Yurok, Tolowa and Karok Indians of Northwest California, Humboldt State University, M.A. Thesis, page 62
  16. See Population of Native California
  17. Kroeber, A. L. 1925. Handbook of the Indians of California. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin No. 78. Washington, D.C., p. 883
  18. Baumhoff, Martin A (1963). "Ecological Determinants of Aboriginal California Populations". University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology. 49: 155–236 [231].
  19. Cook, Sherburne F. 1943. The Conflict between the California Indian and White Civilization I: The Indian Versus the Spanish Mission. Ibero-Americana No. 21. University of California, Berkeley, p. 170
  20. Cook, Sherburne F. 1956. "The Aboriginal Population of the North Coast of California". Anthropological Records 16:81-130. University of California, Berkeley, p.101

Further reading

  • Collins, James. 1996. Understanding Tolowa Histories: Western Hegemonies and Native American Responses. London: Routledge.
  • Drucker, Philip. 1937. "The Tolowa and their Southwest Oregon Kin," University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology 36:221–300. Berkeley.
  • Gould, Richard A. 1978. "Tolowa," In California, edited by Robert F. Heizer, pp. 128–136. Handbook of North American Indians, William C. Sturtevant, general editor, vol. 8. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
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