Who We Are
The Tolowa (Taa-laa-wa Dee-ni’)
Submitted by Loren Me’-lash-ne Bommelyn
With the Pacific Ocean to the west, the majestic ancient Redwood Forest to the east and the streams filled with salmon, the home of the Tolowa is truly one of the most beautiful places on earth. These tallest trees on earth, the K’vsh-chu (Redwood) and runs of lhuk (salmon) are so awe inspiring that they play a powerful role in the Tolowa world view and religion.
The citizens of the Smith River Rancheria are a nation of Dee-ni’ known today as the Tolowa Dee-ni’. They are governed under the Smith River Rancheria as a Federally Recognized Nation. Their Administration Office named the K’vsh-chu Administration Building is located in Smith River, California in the Pacific Northwest.
Their Taa-laa-waa-dvn(Tolowa-Ancestral-Land) lays along the Pacific Coast between the water sheds of; Wilson Creek and Smith River in California and the Winchuck, Chetco, Pistol, Rogue, Elk and Sixes Rivers, extending inland up the Rogue River throughout the Applegate Valley in Oregon. Their Taa-laa-waa-dvn roughly covers what are today Curry, Josephine and Del Norte Counties. The Dee-ni’ population exceeded ten-thousand. Their tribal neighbors are the Coquille and Umpqua to the north, Takelma, Shasta and Karuk to the east and the Yurok to the south.
Yan’-daa-k’vt (Yontocket) located at the mouth of the Smith River is the Dee-ni’ place of Genesis. The Dee-ni’ Waa-tr’vslh-’a~ (Religion) centers around the act of Genesis, the K’vsh-chuu-lhk’i (White-Redwood) and the Nee-dash (World-Renewal) Ceremony. At Yan’-daa-k’vt the Creators, completed Creation, set forth life, the first human beings and prescribed the laws for life. The Dee-ni’ and their neighbors made an annual pilgrimage to attend the ten-day Nee-dash Ceremony to participate in the re-making of the universe. Srxii-yvlh-’a(Baby-Sender) foretold that the Dee-ni’ would expand across the land and become differing people speaking unique languages.
The Dee-ni’ know that they come from the pool of life of Yvtlh-xay (Daylight), their Father before birth upon the sacred Nvn-nvst-’a~ (Earth), their Mother. The mountain ridges and peaks are the Dee-ni’ temples for prayer and meditation. The Tr’vm-dan’ (Early) Dee-ni’ practiced the Xuu-cha~ (Sacred) Way of life during their time here. They knew everything in the universe has a place in creation, a spirit and is sacred. They prayed daily at dawn before they bathed and dusk before they retired for the night. They made offering and sang for each animal, fruit and herb taken in its season and purpose. The Dee-ni’ understand that after death they will travel to live with their ancestors, the Yaa-me’ Dee-ni’(Sky People).
The Dee-ni’ names for themselves are the Xvsh (human-being) or Dee-ni’. Dee-ni’ means to be a citizen of a yvtlh-’i~ (polity). The ancient Dee-ni’ Taa-laa-waa-dvn was divided into governance yvtlh-’i~. In the case here the name Taa-laa-wa Dee-ni’ it describes them as citizens of the Taa-laa-waa-dvn. The name Taa-laa-welh (Taa-laa-wa) was applied to the Tolowa Dee-ni’ from the Yurok(Klamath-River-People). Taa-laa-welh is the Yurok name for, the most important village, Yan’-daa-k’vt. In all, there are more than twenty-eight (28) various names the Dee-ni’ have been documented as by anthropologists, linguists and the Federal Government.
After the invasion of the Natlh-mii~-t’i (Of-the Sword or Whiteman) they mistakenly interpreted these governance yvtlh-’i~ to label the Dee-ni’ as separate tribes, although, the Dee-ni’ were the same people who shared a common language and Center-of-the-World, Yan’-daa-k’vt. Other names these same Dee-ni’ are known as include Chit-xu (Chetco) and T’uu-du’-ni’ (Tututni). These names are Dee-ni’ words after two principal villages once located within the Chetco and Rogue River yvtlh-’i~ respectively.
The Dee-ni’ language is a member of the Athabaskan or Na-Dené language family. These languages are spoken from western Alaska and central Canada and south to the Rio Grande. Fellow Dee-ni’ who speak Athabaskan include the Apache, Haida, Koyukon, Hupa, Ahtna, Navaho, Tlingit and Wailaki.
By the use of the rivers, sea and the land the Tr’vm-dan’ (Early) Dee-ni’ produced a rich and highly developed culture. Salmon, whale, seal, clams, deer, elk, eggs and duck provided a diet rich in protein. Acorns, berries, seaweed and vegetables supplied them with carbohydrates. Their traditional mvn’ (homes) were rectangular single ridge gable roofed structures built into the ground from redwood, cedar and pine timbers and planks. Mvn’ unearthed by archeologist at Xaa-yuu-chit (Hiouchi) California, in 2003 have been carbon dated conservatively at six-thousand (6,000) B.C.E., eight-thousand (8,000) years before now.The Tr’vm-dan’ Dee-ni’ traveled by foot and in canoes carved and seared from k’vsh-chu on streams, lagoons, bays and at sea. Some of their sea-going canoes measured up to forty-two (42) feet long and eight (8) feet wide that transported five (5) tons of cargo.
Tr’vt (money) leveled-up all forms of social, spiritual and legal disputes and completed economic transactions. The tr’vt used by the Dee-ni’ was formalized units of ten dentalia shell strands. Tr’vt arrived from southern Alaska and Canada along a vast trade system. Valuables items also arrived from the interior and southern trade routes. These items included obsidian blades, sea lion tusks, woodpecker top knots, clamshell heishi, pine nut beads, abalone shell necklaces and juniper seed beads and ceremonial regalia. All legal disputes such as war, murder and insults were resolved with tr’vt and other valuable items at courts held by the Xvsh-xay-yu’ (Headmen) and the K’wee-shvt-naa-gha (Mediators).
Through these long established laws society achieved Lhee-wi (Balance). At times Lhee-wi was achieved by execution of the guilty. In some cases human beings were moved into Ch’ee-na’sr-yu’ (Slavery) to level-up a dispute. These laws and principals were enforced by the Mii~-xvsh-xay(Bosses). The Mii~-xvsh-xay were the Sub-Headmen who were well trained in combat and loyal to the Xvsh-xay-yu’ of their yvtlh-’i~.
Some original trading contacts with the Spanish and Russian Natlh-mii~-t’i resulted in death of Dee-ni’ from their many diseases. The explorer Jedediah Smith passed through the Taa-laa-waa-dvn in 1928 and honored himself by naming a Dee-ni’ river the “Smith’s River”.Then gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in 1848 that brought a horde of three-hundred-thousand (300,000) aggressive gold seeking invaders to the west coast.The greed for gold rushed California into statehood in September 9, 1850 that started the next chapter of the American Holocaust and the organized destruction of the Dee-ni’. The California Indian population plummeted from one-hundred-fifty-thousand (150,000) in 1848 to thirty-thousand (30,000) in just twelve years.
Following the practices of the Spanish, the Act for the Government and Protection of Indians was enacted on April 22, 1850 at the First California State Constitutional Convention. The act was an Indian slavery law. Indians of all ages could be indentured or apprenticed to any White citizen for a period of involuntary servitude for an average term of sixteen years. The Indian slave brought in from $50.00 to $250.00 each. It was legal to murder the Indian parents and sequester their children for sale into slavery. The Act was not repealed until 1863 although, the practice continued for decades.
With the imposition of a line at the 42ndParallel dividing the State of California and the Oregon Territory the Taa-laa-waa-dvn was broken in two parts. The Taa-laa-waa-dvn was further colonized later with its division into four (4) county governments as follows; Coos County in 1853, Curry County in 1855, Josephine County in 1856 and Del Norte County in 1857. The Oregon Territory would not join statehood until 1859.
The Dee-ni’ Holocaust began in California in 1851. On September 20, 1848, The first Governor Peter Burnett and followed by Governor John McDougal of California sponsored the California Holocaust with Burnett’s campaign, “That a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the two races until the Indian race becomes extinct…” and with the appropriation of one-million-four-hundred-thousand (1,400,000) dollars to pay vigilantes to destroy them. The California Holocaust spread to the Rouge River in the Oregon Territory from Yreka California. In 1853, The Yreka Herald reported; “We hope that the Government will render such aid as will enable the citizens of the north to carry on a war of extermination until the last redskin of these tribes had been killed. Extermination is no longer a question of time – the time has arrived, the work has commenced and let the first man who says treaty or peace be regarded as a traitor.”
The expansion was organized by mercenaries at Jacksonville Oregon, with their slogan, “The only good Indian is a dead one”, that rang across the land. The mercenaries raked life in the Rogue Valley and moved on to all of the rivers flowing into the Pacific and then to include the entire seaboard back to California. The Mii~-xvsh-xay suffered huge casualties defending the Dee-ni’. The population plummeted from thousands of individuals to a mere few hundreds. The Dee-ni’ Holocaust ended at the mouth of the Smith’s River in 1856 with the execution of Xvsh-xay-yu’ leading the resistance. And thus began, the Ethnic Cleansingof the Dee-ni’.
The surviving Dee-ni’ populous was divided at the State line of California and the Oregon Territory and was driven onto separate concentration camps. Dee-ni’ were detained on military concentration camps at the Klamath River Reservation and Wilson Creek in California. These Dee-ni’ were re-named the Smith River, Lagoon and Tolowa, to include a few. Dee-ni’ married to Pioneers managed to remain on the in the Oregon Territory at locations like Agness, Gold Beach, Harbor and Port Orford. One-thousand-eight-hundred-thirty-four (1,834) Dee-ni’ were driven far north of the Taa-laa-waa-dvn and imprisoned in a foreign land. The Dee-ni’ were imprisoned on the Coast Reservation in the Siletz Valley to live with multiple Non-Dee-ni’ Tribes in Penutian speaking country.The Federal Government re-named these Dee-ni’ in general, the Chetco and Tututni among other names. Several Ratified and Un-ratified Treaties were negotiated during the Dee-ni’ Holocaust. The Xaa-wan’-k’wvt (How-on-quet) Treaty negotiated by Xvsh-xay-yu’ K’ay-lish in 1855 on the Smith’s River allowed an enduring number of Dee-ni’ to remain in the Taa-laa-waa-dvn in California, while facing Ethnic Cleansing. For the next fifty (50) years the predators of the Dee-ni’ were never charged or brought to justice for their murder, bludgeoning, poisoning, kidnapping and rape of the Dee-ni’. The scalping of the Dee-ni’ continued.
Towns across the state offered rewards from five (5) dollars for a severed head to twenty-five (25) cents for a scalp. Dee-ni’ scalps were taken and sold to the state through 1895. In this face of adversity the Dee-ni’ endured.
They rebuilt their lives from the ashes of the burned ruins that included Cushing Creek, Elk Creek, Gasquet, Lake Earl, Nii~-lii~-chvn-dvn, Pebble Beach, Srdvn-das-’a~ (The-Island), Yan’-daa-k’vt and Wagon Wheel. They returned to hold ceremonies upon the plank floors in charred remains of their once great named Dance Houses.
The seventeen thousand (17,000) acre Smith’s River Reservation was established in 1862 honoring the promises made under the Xaa-wan’-k’wvt Treaty and the flooding of Fort Terwer. In 1868, the valuable lands of the Smith’s River Reservation were abandoned by the U.S. Government following the death of K’ay-lish in 1866 and for the benefit of the insatiable settlers of the Smith’s River Valley. The Dee-ni’ again became landless in their own land and many were driven to the Camp Gaston concentration camp on the Hoopa Valley Reservation. Yet again, some Dee-ni’ managed to hide out in the Taa-laa-waa-dvn while others escaped Camp Gaston and illegally returned home.
During the 1880s several Dee-ni’ received scattered Public Domain Trust Allotments across the Taa-laa-waa-dvn. The Dawes Act of 1887 was designed to break up the Indian lands on the reservations. The Act allowed Natlh-mii~-t’i to homestead Indian lands for free. The purpose of the Act was to force assimilation and acculturation upon the Indians to “civilize” them. Once the reservation lands were busted up, the Dee-ni’ were allowed to legally leave their concentration camps in California and Oregon in 1902. More Dee-ni’ moved out and returned to the Taa-laa-waa-dvn. The Natlh-mii~-t’i complained that the Dee-ni’ were returning to their ‘former haunts” and needed to be dealt with. This dilemma further divided the Homesteaders and the need for the indigenous Dee-ni’ to eek out an existence. The Rancheria reservation system was created in California following after the Spanish Large-Land-Grant Rancho system where Small-Land-Grants or Rancherias were set aside on their Ranchos for their Indians slaves to live on.
Under the Landless California Indians Act of 1906 the one-hundred-sixty (160) acre Smith River Rancheria was finalized for the use of the Dee-ni’ in 1908. The small size of the land provided only some Dee-ni’ parcels of Assignment Land leaving the rest to fend for themselves. As the Final Solution, the Federal Government forced Termination upon the Dee-ni’ in 1960. Termination split up their land base and dissolved the Dee-ni’ Government for the next twenty-three (23) years. This action left only one Dee-ni’ Land Allotment of 1881 in Trust at Nii~-lii~-chvn-dvn on the Smith River. In 1983, the Tillie Hardwick Case reversed Federal Termination and restored the Tolowa Dee-ni’ and Federal Government relationship under the Tribal Government of the Smith River Rancheria.
The Smith River Rancheria built tenets in their constitution that provides for the Dee-ni’ to enroll under three standards. The modern Tolowa Dee-ni’ population has reached over one thousand-four-hundred (1,400) citizens. As an outcome of the removals to the concentration camps during the Dee-ni’ Holocaust, today, hundreds of Dee-ni’ descendants are enrolled with other Tribes throughout the Northwest.
The survivance of the Tolowa Dee-ni’, their language and religion that have endured the fire storm of European and American contact, their obliteration and their subjugation remains a miracle. Despite the fact that the Dee-ni’ Holocaust ripped their social fabric apart by: genocide, the colonization of their land, ethnic cleansing, removal, and by the depletion of their resources, they continue to re-build their Nation. To meet the ravages of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that thrust upon them by: the forced acculturation, the boarding school experience, the religious prohibition, the sterilization, and finally by Termination, the Tolowa Dee-ni’ remain unbroken and work to mend the wounds left behind.
Living in their ancient ancestral home of Genesis with the K’vsh-chu and Lhuk, the Tolowa Dee-ni’ continue to pursue a livelihood. The Tolowa Dee-ni’: support education, language and health; continue ceremony and to procure food; acquire land and art; pursue economic development and social programs; and defend sovereignty to meet the terms set forth in their mission statement: