The Indians that lived in and around the Sutter Buttes were the Southern Maidu or Nisenan. These Indians, like all American Indians, were descendants of the migratory peoples that crossed the Bering Straits from Asia and then spread southward into the North and South American continents.
There is no precise way to date the American Indians' arrival in what is now the United States, but by 15,000 years ago, people were living throughout the American continents. The best guess at the number of Indians living in present day California at the time of the arrival of the first Europeans is between 310,000 and 500,000. Authorities agree that the Indians of California made up about 10% of the entire Indian population north of Mexico.
The greatest concentration of Indians within the state was in the Central Valley. The Maidu, which simply means "the people," lived in the Sacramento Valley and surrounding foothills. The southernmost Maidu were the Nisenan.
Maidu society was organized in tribes. A tribe was a conglomeration of villages numbering from two to twenty or more. One village was the main village, sort of the capitol, and this would be the site of the ceremonial and religious buildings such as the temescals or sweat houses. Some villages had populations of 500 or more, and others were made up of one or two families. The villages were very loosely organized. Leaders of the villages were mainly advisors, not decision makers. There might be one leader for war, another for religious matters, but there was not a designated leader who could speak for the entire village on all matters.
Being hunters and gatherers, much of their energy went into food gathering and preparation. As with most Native Californians, the acorn was the staple of the Nisenan diet. It took a great deal of time to gather and prepare the approximately 2,000 pounds of acorns every adult ate in a year. Acorn meal provides more calories per serving than either wheat or corn, an important factor in a hunting/gathering society's diet. However, before an acorn can be used for food, it must be processed. Acorns contain tannic acid, and this must be removed prior to using them as food.
The acorns would be gathered in the fall, with some being prepared immediately while the rest of the supply was stored in cone-shaped baskets for use over the winter months. After shelling the acorns and removing the membrane that surrounds the meat, the meat was ground into a meal in mortars. The meal was then placed in a sand basin near a stream or river, and warm water was poured over the meal. This was repeated until the water leached the acid out of the acorns and left the Nisenan with a nutritious meal that they could eat as a mush, soup or bread.
Besides acorns, the Nisenan utilized nearly everything that nature had to offer as a food source. A few animals were not eaten, such as the grizzly bear, coyote or owl, but for the most part, the diet of the Nisenan was varied. Fish, game, seeds, insects, nuts, berries and grasses all had places in their diet. The Nisenan were not farmers because there was no need to farm. The valley and foothills provided enough food and shelter to meet their needs.
The Nisenan were followers of the Kuksu ceremony. This religion originated among the Patwin people and spread throughout the entire Central Valley. Partially because of the abundance of food sources, the Nisenan had the time to develop and practice a very elaborate and intricate form of this religion. The ceremonies consisted of dressing up in elaborate costumes and impersonating gods by performing ceremonial dances. Death released a person's soul to travel west. A spirit might enter a coyote, an owl, a snake, a lizard or perhaps become a whirlwind and be transported to the final resting place. If someone died in a home, the dwelling was abandoned, and the name of the deceased was never mentioned again. The Nisenan cremated their dead and performed yearly mourning ceremonies to honor those who had died.
As with all Native Americans, the most deadly contact the Nisenan had with Europeans came in the form of microbes. In 1833, a trapping party from the Hudson's Bay Company brought malaria into the Central Valley. Within a few short months, thousands of Indians had died. It is estimated that 75% of the Central Valley Indians died in this epidemic alone. In a few short months villages that had numbered in the hundreds were empty. When the discovery of gold was made in 1848, thousands of men poured into the region to hunt for gold. The fertility of the valley floor was soon recognized, and the farmers and ranchers began carving up the land. The Nisenan's environment was altered forever, and those that remained were forced to live in a new society.
Suggestions for further reading:
The California Indians by R.F. Heizer and M.A. Whipple. 19.71, The University of California Press.
Indians of the Feather River by Donald P. Jewell. 1987, Ballena Press.
Maidu, An Illustrative Sketch by Roland B. Dixon. 1910, U.S. Government Printing Office.
The Natural World of the California Indians by Robert F. Heizer and Albert B. Elsasser. 1980, The University of California Press.
The Northern Maidu by Marie Potts. 1977, Naturegraph Publishers Inc.