OUR STORY

TRADITIONAL SHASTA LIFE

The wilderness of northwestern California and southwestern Oregon, has been, and still is, the traditional homeland of the Shasta Indian people. Most traditional Shasta villages were located along the Klamath, Shasta, Salmon, and Scott Rivers, and their tributaries. The major structures of a Shasta village included the dwelling house (umma), a "big house" (okwa-umma), the sweat house (wukwu),and the menstrual hut (wapsahuumma). Each village was integrated into a larger band, each led by a headman.

This headman was the head of the richest family in the district, and his succession to the 'title' was only incidental to his inheritance of the family's wealth. The Shasta bands had highly sophisticated rules for resolving crimes and torts. Major and minor disputes required payment, which was usually arranged by the headman or a negotiator. Murder required the complete payment of the bridewealth. The same was expected if one Shasta man drew a gun and aimed it at another. People were urged to negotiate and settle disputes quickly. Shasta children inherited the value of their social rank from their mother. The amount was equivalent to their mother’s bridewealth, which constituted the value of the goods given to a woman’s parents from a man’s family to formalize a marriage. Because this exchange affected the status of another generation, both sets of the parents negotiated for as high a value as practically possible. The bridewealth was commensurate with the woman’s rank, beauty, and moral stature, and an average amount was fifteen to twenty long dentalia shells, ten to fifteen strings of clamshell disk beads, between twenty and thirty woodpecker feather scalps, and one or two deerskins.

Shasta language is from the language family known as Hokan. Although there are no longer fluent speakers, language revitalization efforts are underway.

The Shasta word "Waka" means Great Spirit. It is believed by the Shasta people that the Great Spirit brought their people to their aboriginal, ancestral lands. The Shasta religion also involves ceremonies for the salmon. There were three major anadromous fisheries within Shasta territory along streams and creeks feeding the Klamath River.

Fish were harvested by employing a combination of techniques, including weirs, nets, spears, and fish drives. One or two prominent men owned these weirs, but the owners were obligated to let other men fish at the weir and give anyone who asked for fish as many as he could carry. All of these fishing places were inherited along patrilineal lines. Shasta people followed strict rules to ensure the success of the fishery. They believed that the first fish to ascend the stream annually brought the “salmon medicine” from the First Salmon Ceremony of the Yurok tribe at the mouth of the Klamath River. In deference to this medicine, the first salmon was allowed to swim upstream unharmed. As soon as it passed, fishing could begin. The first salmon taken from the water was split and hung up immediately to dry. No other fish could be eaten until the men fishing consumed part of this salmon. Furthermore, salmon and steelhead could not be eaten before the completion of the Karuk pikiyawish ceremony, which the Shasta people attended as spectators.

Shasta people also conducted a First Salmon Ceremony within their own territory, one at Hamburg along the Klamath River and the other at Big Bend in the Shasta River. The First Salmon Ceremony at Hamburg was conducted at the time of the summer salmon run, just before a day of communal fishing. It was the annual custom of the Shasta River group to hold the ceremony for the purpose of making “big medicine” to aid them in salmon fishing. In dry years water was diverted from the rivers to streams that needed more water to allow the fish to spawn. It is believed by the Shasta people that the salmon must return to their rivers to allow the world of the Shasta Nation to prosper. When the salmon season was over prayers were said by the medicine people to the Great Spirit to thank him for taking care of the Shasta people.

Although the salmon provided the primary food resource for Shasta people, the open valleys situated between the mountainous peaks provided an abundance of edible plants, berries, and bulbs. Blackberries, serviceberries, elderberries, and chokeberries were collected, dried, and consumed with grass seeds. The sweet thimbleberry gooseberry, acorns and pine nuts, are important staple foods along with hunting deer, antelope, elk, and bear.