Native California Ethno-Linguistic Areas

Almost 90 of the 300 indigenous languages spoken in North America were in California, making the state a very complex, linguistically diverse area. Researchers have attempted to delineate contact-period Native California linguistic and tribal boundaries using oral history, ethnographic records, place-names, linguistics, population density, geography, Spanish and mission archives, and archaeology.

The Native California Ethno-Linguistic layers presented in the Interactive Map are based on the work collected, tabulated, and mapped by the following linguists, anthropologists, archaeologists, and ethnographers: Alfred L. Kroeber, Robert F. Heizer, Randall T. Milliken, John Johnson, and Victor Golla. The details of these works and the corresponding ethno-linguistic areas are detailed below. 

IMPORTANT NOTE: The research presented here does not take the place of local knowledge and understanding of place by indigenous populations. Nor is the understanding of space strictly bounded by mapped polygons, forming borders or territories.  Many California tribal people share ancestry with multiple linguistic/cultural groups, and areas of cultural concern may span multiple ethno-linguistic areas.  Tribes should always be consulted directly regarding their specific geographic areas of cultural concern during planning and project development. 

Use the Research Tool to learn more about tribal languages, ethnographies, ancestry, and more. Use the Interactive Map Tool to compare the ethno-linguistic areas resulting from previous ethnographic studies.

About the Ethno-Linguistic Map Layers

Victor Golla

2011. California Indian Languages. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. 

According to Golla, a defining feature of the California language area was "the absence of congruence between the linguistic and sociopolitical" (Golla 2011:2). Rather, the defining social unit was a "village community" or "tribelet" (Kroeber 1925, 1936) consisting of a few hundred individuals living within a demarcated territory. Language areas were almost always larger than any tribelet or group of tribelets and did not define political divisions or imply a common culture (Golla 2011:3). In addition, language and sociopolitical boundaries were living entities, constantly in flux.  Golla, therefore, attempted to define sociolinguistic areas that would serve as "fossilized traces of past migrations and expansions" (2011:1).

Randall T. Milliken and John Johnson

2010. Contact-Period Native California Community Distribution Model. Submitted to California Department of Transportation, District 6, Fresno, California. 

A quote from Heizer (1966:9) states: "It may be anticipated that future scholars, undaunted by the huge mass of available published and manuscript data on California Indians, will work over the information on a tribe-by-tribe basis and prepare maps showing the domains of the identifiable or inferable tribelets." Milliken and Johnson attempted to fulfill this prediction by compiling mission records of baptisms and marriages, classic ethnographies, mission and village locations, expedition routes and diaries, mortality rates, inferred population densities, and family reconstitution. Alternative spellings of rancheria names were reconciled, reducing 4,000 names to 1,300.

Milliken and Johnson identified 663 year-round local group regions as they might have been in 1770s California (2010:20). Each was named after ethnographic tribal or “rancheria” groups. In contrast to Heizer (1966), Milliken and Johnson argued against the “tyranny of ‘language group as tribe” (2010:3).  As well as tribelets with defined boundaries, they identified groups comprising loose regional communities, unbounded small villages, or ambiguously bounded regions of large sedentary villages (see definitions below). Two main variables were used to define group regions—nature of land-using organization (bounded versus non-bounded territories), and nature of the data (mission outreach areas versus other).  Milliken and Johnson’s collected data are available at the Bancroft Library, Berkeley.

Learn more about the Contact Period Native California Community Distribution Model at this Wiki and Story Map.

Robert F. Heizer

1978. Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 8, California. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution. 

One of the most widely referenced sources for California, Volume 8, compiles chapters on 55 individual or closely related tribes, each written by different specialists and including detailed maps of tribal boundaries as well as village and camp locations.

The Volume 8 tribal territory map covers Kroeber’s (1936) Northwestern, Central, and Southern culture areas and is primarily based on Harold Driver’s (1961) map of California “culture areas." It also updates Kroeber’s (1925, 1936) language classifications and tribal names.

Heizer noted: “By the time ethnographers began to systematically record the names and territories of individual tribes…a certain amount of territorial readjustment, through expansion or retraction…may have occurred,” and place-names used to distinguish boundaries might reflect these adjustments (1978:5). Further, by the time ethnographers asked survivors the names of their neighbors, many small independent tribes might have been forgotten.

Heizer also proposed a reconstruction of language distributions and population movements: Hokan is the oldest language group, with incoming Penutian pushing Hokan to the periphery, followed by Uto-Aztecan coming to the southeast separating the Yuman from their fellow Hokan speakers (1978:81). According to Heizer, the Ukian family spread into the northwest, and the late-arriving Athapaskans came from the north.  

Alfred L. Kroeber 

1976. Handbook of the Indians of California. Bulletin 78, Bureau of American Ethnology of the Smithsonian Institution. Dover Publications, Inc., New York. First published in 1925.

Kroeber’s work is based on 17 years of research and conversations with early 20th-century Native Californians. Kroeber noted that “exact delineation of…ethnographic provinces is almost invariably an artificial and unprofitable endeavor (1925:6). It is the foci that can be tolerably determined, not the limits.” He presented “the customs of…50 little nations” as a compromise between detailing all the many variations or lumping larger regions (Kroeber 1925:vi). Kroeber (1936:Map 1) later slightly adjusted his culture classifications.

Other References

Harold E. Driver

1961. Indians of North America. University of Chicago Press.


Alfred L. Kroeber

1936. Culture Element Distribution: Area and Climax. University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology 37(3):101-116. Berkeley, California.

1955. Nature of Landholding Group. Ethnohistory 2(4):303-314.

1962. The Nature of Landholding Groups in Aboriginal California. In Two Papers on the Aboriginal  Ethnography of California. Del. H. Hymes and Robert F. Heizer, editors pp. 19-58. University of California Archaeological Survey Reports 56, Berkeley California.



Language Stock - A parent language and all its derived dialects and languages

Language Family – Has a historical origin in a single ancestral language. There were as many as 80 mutually unintelligible languages in California

Dialect – Way of speaking within a language family peculiar to a specific region or social group.

Tribal Territory

Culture Area – Composed of several societies within a defined geographic area that possessed the same or similar traits or shared a dominant cultural orientation. 

Analytical Zone –Grouped “regions” on the basis of mutual histories, shared language, and similar land-use patterns (Milliken 2010:20).

Region – Locations on the landscape that represent known or inferred homelands of contact-period communities (Milliken 2010:20)

Tribelet –Multi-family, sovereign, sedentary, land-owning political communities of about 200 individuals with fixed territorial boundaries (Kroeber 1932, 1955, 1962; Milliken 2010:6). Initially called village community (Kroeber 1955)

Loose Regional Communities – Mobile family clusters that shared numerous short-term villages within tribelet-sized territories that lacked defended boundaries and central leadership (Milliken 2010:7).

Unbounded Networks of Small Single-Lineage Villages – Small, semi-sedentary villages of 40-100 inhabitants that intermarried with near neighbors in overlapping spheres of outreach that extended for great distances (Milliken 2010:7).

Ambiguously Bounded Regions of Large Sedentary Villages – Closely-spaced, large permanent, seemingly independent villages which likely shared hinterlands (Milliken 2010:8).

Seasonal Use Area – Not used intensively year-round (Milliken 2010:18).