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Social Organization

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The Achumawi were organized into self-governing tribelets. In 1932, Kroeber defined the tribelet as "groups of small size, definitely owning a restricted territory, nameless except for their tract or its best-known spot, speaking usually a dialect identical with that of their neighbors, but wholly autonomous" (quoted in Olmstead and Stewart 230). Even though each tribelet was politically autonomous, they were linked to one another through intermarriage and a common language (Olmstead and Stewart 230).

Leadership among the Achumawi was informal, consisting of community leaders known as wehelu (better translated as leader than chief). They were older men who attained their positions by "growing into it". Leadership was by community consent; that is, the people determined whether or not to accept a particular man as wehelu. According to Angulo: "In the routine of everyday life the chief is not accorded any outward marks of respect. From the Achumawi point of view, he is no more entitled to formal consideration than any other old person" (Achumawi Sketches 81).

Family organization was BILATERAL, and marriage taboos included both siblings and cousins; the Achomawi often intermarried with their Atsugewi neighbors, strengthening the ties between the two groups. Unlike the Shasta, where the groom's family paid a bride price to the bride's family, among the Achumawi, gifts were exchanged by both the bride's and groom's families. This gift giving was considered payment for the bride and groom, and should either of them die, their in-laws would still "own" the surviving spouse, who was required to marry another member of the deceased's family (Olmstead and Stewart 230-231). POLYGAMY occurred occasionally, but only if a man was rich enough to buy and support more than one wife (Powers 270).

Achumawi women courtesy of the California Indian Library Collections
Achumawi Women: Lena Patterson and Bessie Mike
Courtesy of the California Indian Library Collections

At puberty, males had their nose and ears pierced but did not undergo a formal puberty ceremony. Girls, on the other hand, experienced a rigorous puberty ceremony at the time of their first menstruation, and then monthly for the next ten months. During this first ceremony, the girls were required to sing and dance all night while always facing east; this reoccurred each night for ten days. Often it became necessary for the males (not relatives) to hold them up so that the girls could keep dancing even when exhausted. During the days, the girls were only allowed minimal food and sleep. Each month thereafter, the ritual was performed again, but it became shortened by one day each subsequent month. At the end of the ten months, the girls were considered to be women. Neighboring villages were invited to these festive social ceremonies (Olmstead and Stewart 232).

The Achumawi cremated their dead without the benefit of ceremonies or purification rites, and their possessions were burned. Mourning relatives "shaved their hair and covered their heads with pitch" (Olmstead and Stewart 232). Powers, however, stated that they buried the dead in a "sitting position" (272); this discrepancy is most likely the result of reports from those observing practices of different groups. Kniffen clearly showed that no one burial method was used throughout the territory, and that some Achomawi groups buried their dead while other groups preferred cremation (319).

The Achumawi feared the dead, and observed a taboo against saying the names of the deceased. They believed that not only did the soul of the dead travel west to the mountains, but it also wanted to take along a loved one as a traveling companion. When a great chief died, the tribe would kill several of the least popular of their members to provide the chief with traveling companions (Olmstead and Stewart 232).


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