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5.2: Indigenous Ways of Knowing

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    • Melissa Leal & Tamara Cheshire

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    We Have Always Been Here and We Shall Remain

    Salmon was presented to me and my family through our religion as our brother. The same with the deer. And our sisters are the roots and berries. And you would treat them as such. Their life to you is just as valuable as another person’s would be.

    -Margaret Saluskin, Yakama

    We have always been here. We learned to respect and appreciate the land, water, plants and animals as living beings, and know them as our equals, as family; because without them there is no us. We were created here, and we shall remain.

    Each nation has their own creation story telling of the way things came to be: plants, animals, water, rivers, lakes, rain, the earth, mountains, valleys, wind, fire, stars and people. Not only do these stories tell us about ourselves and our creation, but they reveal how everything is related, connected, and intertwined. Important information is passed down generation after generation in stories. For example, there is the Karuk story about how fire came to the people; and the Iktomi (the spider) trickster stories among the Lakota that teach us about how Iktomi lives in each of us when we trick others and laugh about it. We also understand that it is not fun being the one who is tricked and through this we learn humility and to laugh at our response to being tricked in the first place. These stories teach us about how things came to be and how they still continue to affect us every day.

    Reasons why we plant, what we plant, how we plant and how we harvest sustainably is passed on through storytelling. Stories tell us about what to gather and hunt as well as when to do so. Some stories tell us about medicine, while other stories warn us of poison and sometimes one plant can be both depending on how you prepare it. Specific stories can only be told during certain times of the year. Every story has a lesson which often includes how to behave and how not to behave in certain situations. Our creation stories root us here in our homelands in North America. These stories reveal our ties to everything here and provide evidence that attest to this as our homeland, our place of creation. Our stories are not fairytales. They teach us how to live in the world.

    Anthropologists are quick to put dates on our existence in North America because of their colonized mindset to attempt to "prove" we have no history or "not enough" history in our homelands to lay claim to it. By trying to date our existence closer to the invasion of the Americas, they are attempting to dismiss our connection to our place of origin and our creation. The Bering Strait Theory is one such attempt. More and more evidence is being found that dates the bodies of our ancestors before the Ice Ages. We don’t need their scientific evidence to prove we were created here, we have our stories of creation that mention in detail specific locations with landmarks, extreme weather events, stars and their locations in the sky to document our creation, existence, and so much more. It is the scientist who needs our stories and Indigenous ways of knowing to connect the past to the present and future survival of humankind. If you ask an American Indian person how long they have been in a place, their response will most likely be “since time immemorial.”

    Sidebar: Maidu Creation Story by Harry Fonseca

    Colorful painting of Maidu symbols with blue yellow and orange colors

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Creation Story, 2000. (Public Domain; Harry Fonseca, Smithsonian)

    In northern California Maidu belief, the world begins with Helin Maideh (Great Person), who first created water and air. He floated on a raft with Turtle at the beginning in that formless world with no sun, no moon, no stars. He was lonely, so he thought into creation Kodoyampeh (World Maker), and together, the three set out to make the world. Turtle dove into the water over and over for days on end—until finally he returned with a tiny bit of earth from the bottom of the waters.

    They took the dirt, formed it into a cake, anchored it with four white feathered ropes, and that became the world, with its hills and mountains, lakes and streams. Helin Maideh next made the animals, fishes, birds and plants. Then the three set out to populate the earth. There are many stories and many versions, but in one, Kodoyampeh put a willow stick under each arm, and went to sleep. When he woke, the first man and woman were there to greet him.

    Kodoyampeh made the world comfortable for First People, with food and fire, and changing seasons: Rain Season (kummini), Leaf Season (yominni), Dry Season (ilaknom), and Falling Leaf Season (matminni). He gave them songs and stories to tell to their children and grandchildren (Harry Fonseca: Maidu Creation Stories, 2020).

    Indigenous ways of knowing refers to the way of knowing that a band or tribe of people accumulates over generations of living in and experiencing a specific environment, resulting in them making sense of their world. Indigenous ways of knowing inform decision-making about fundamental aspects of day-to-day life. This knowledge is integral and fundamental to Indigenous cultures that encompasses language systems, sustainable resource use practices, cultural and social interactions, ritual and spirituality. Today Indigenous ways of knowing are one of the core concepts taught in American Indian/Native American Studies.

    There are currently 574 federally recognized Tribes, Nations, Bands, Pueblos, Native communities and villages. The Federal Register (Federal Register Request Access, n.d.. Indian Entities Recognized) published by the Bureau of Indian Affairs maintains the current list of tribes eligible for funding and services from the federal government and more importantly recognizes that tribes have a "unique" political relationship with the U.S. federal government. This relationship, as well as problems and issues that arise from a structurally racist government, as well as the ramifications of colonialism, and the resiliency of Native people will be discussed throughout this chapter. There are even more Tribes that are not Federally Recognized. There are many reasons for this, including but not limited to: false claims of extinction by anthropologists/census takers, genocide, and the very difficult Federal Acknowledgement Process.

    California - A Place Based History and Approach

    A place-based learning approach recognizes meanings and stories in the land, and celebrates the connection to Indigenous ways of knowing and being. Environmental history and Indigenous experience are intricately linked and carry a cultural responsibility to the land and the people. Learning about the relationship with place as family, is important and should not be separated. The authors of this chapter are including this section to provide you with that connection, specifically between California Native women and the land where we live.

    Prior to colonization of what is now called the “State of California,” American Indians lived fairly peaceful lives amongst each other. Resources (food, shelter, medicine, clothing, etc) were plentiful and the land was tended in a method that ensured bountiful and continuous harvests of staple foods like acorn and other nuts and grasses. To find out more about this connection between the people and the land please see the Sidebar: Tending The Wild below.

    Sidebar: Tending The Wild series on PBS

    The PBS series, Tending The Wild, reveals the environmental knowledge of Native people across California and explores how they have actively shaped and tended the land for millennia, developing a deep understanding of plant and animal life. This documentary series reveals the balance between nature and how traditional practices can inspire a new generation of Californians to live sustainably within their environment.

    Throughout different sections of this chapter, the reader will find timelines in order to put into context and in relationship to each other, important events happening to American Indians/Native Americans in the United States. It is important to recognize that United States federal policy has swung like a pendulum back and forth, seemingly in favor of Native people and then against them; but the reader must understand the context of such events and how all federal policy has been in opposition to tribal sovereignty, Native people and their survival.

    Sidebar - Timeline - Important Events in California Indian History After Colonization by the U.S. 1800's

    • 1834 - The California missions ended after Mexico became independent of Spain. The newly independent Mexican government eventually passed laws that called for an end to the mission system through a process called “secularization.”
    • 1848 – Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo - Signed between the United States of America and Mexico to end the Mexican-American War. This Treaty gave the U.S. ownership of California.
    • 1849 – Gold Rush – Devastated Indian communities in California. Those people and tribes that had survived colonization and missionization now had bounties on their heads as settlers flocked to California in search of gold and wealth. The California Indian population dramatically decreased (Exact numbers vary between sources).
    • 1850 – California State Constitution was ratified.
    • 1851-52 – Eighteen unratified Treaties with California Indians. These unratified treaties allowed the State of California to take Indian land without paying for it.
    • 1853- 1857 – Seven military reserves established by Congress.
    • 1863 – Section 3 of the Act for the Governance and Protection of Indians was repealed. Indians in California could no longer legally be indentured servants.
    • 1881-82 – State Superior Court decides that Indians on land grants can stay, however this decision was reversed on appeal to the Federal Court.
    • 1883 – “On the Conditions and Needs of the Mission Indians of California” was published as a special report to the Commissioner of Indians Affairs by Jackson-Kinney.
    • 1887 – Dawes Allotment Act permits granting of lands to individual Indians on and off reservations.


    In an effort to not glorify the Mission system and the horrible acts that took place because of the Missions, this chapter will not describe the creation of the California Mission system by Spain and the Catholic Church (this is a practice of decolonization). However, it will highlight California Native women who have made significant contributions to this world with their actions, words, and being.

    Toypurina (Kimivit - Gabrielino - Tongva)

    The invasion of Spanish people destroyed the land. The Spanish efforts to steal and occupy the land was what some authors call a dual revolution. The Spanish were also concerned with dominating the land and thus cleared the land for agricultural and pastoral production. Clearing the land was often the first step in settler colonialism. Spanish colonists also introduced livestock which then devastated the usual and accustomed places that California Indian people hunted, fished, gathered, and harvested. Domesticated livestock grew exponentially in California. The livestock were just set free to graze and roam, consuming grasses and acorns on which indigenous people subsisted. Livestock overgrazed areas and that allowed plants native to Europe to replace native plants and scare away deer and other animals.

    In an attempt to regain control over their lands (and bodies) and prevent further decimation by livestock and missionaries, Kumeyaay shot cattle at night and killed animals when they came too close to their towns. Some indigenous people did more. In 1784, a Tongva man named Nicolas Jose, an alcalde at Mission San Gabriel, went to the town of Japchavit and met Toypurina. Toypurina was known as a healer and they spoke about attacking the mission. Jose gifted her with beads in exchange for her to call together the unbaptized indigenous peoples from the area. Toypurina agreed and gathered people together to plan an attack. However, on the night of the planned attack, someone had betrayed the Tongva and the Mission guards were ready for them. Toypurina was captured and she and other leaders of the rebellion were put on trial.

    When asked about the attack, Toypurina is quoted as saying that she participated in it because she ‘‘was angry with the Padres and the others of the Mission, because they had come to live and establish themselves on her land.’’ Spanish officials found her and the three other men on trial to be guilty of leading the attack. The three men were held at the prison (presidio) in San Diego, and Toypurina was imprisoned at the prison in San Gabriel while they awaited word of their punishment. In June 1788, nearly three years later, their sentences arrived from Mexico City: Nicolás José was banned from San Gabriel and sentenced to six years of hard labor in irons at the most distant penitentiary in the region. Toypurina was banished from Mission San Gabriel and sent to the most distant Spanish mission. She ended up at Mission San Carlos Borromeo as an exile. She continued to move for the rest of her life and eventually passed away in 1799 at Mission San Juan Bautista. Toypurina's story is an example of indigenous resistance (Akins & Bauer, 2021).

    Sidebar: Toypurina: A Legend

    This article titled "Toypurina: A Legend Etched in the Landscape of Los Angeles" by Maria John on reviews the significance of Toypurina by examining various murals and artwork in L.A.

    The following timeline is important for readers to see significant points throughout California history that have impacted California Indians and tribes.

    Sidebar - Timeline - Important Events in California Indian History After Colonization by the U.S. 1900's

    • 1905-06 – Kelsey (Special Indian Agent) conducts a census of non-reservation Indians. It counted at least 11,755 Indians that were not supported by the United States Government.
    • 1917 – State court rules that non-reservation Indians are State citizens.
    • 1924 – U.S. citizenship granted to all Indians.
    • 1928 – California Indian Jurisdictional Act – Allowed the State of California to sue the United States on behalf of the Indians of California.
    • 1933 – 1st Roll of California Indians.
    • 1934 – Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) – also known as the Wheeler-Howard Act – was enacted to decrease federal control of American Indian Affairs and increase Indian self-government.
    • 1944 – United States Court of Claims issues judgment in favor of California Indians, $17.5 million for land minus $12 million in expenses.
    • 1946 – Indian Claims Commission Act – Created the Indian Claims Commission to hear any long standing claims of Indian tribes against the United States.
    • 1953 – Public Law 280 – A federal law that states that the State may assume jurisdiction over reservation Indians. California becomes a mandatory PL 280 state.
    • 1954-55 – California Indians Claims Case hearings in the Bay Area
    • 1955 – 2nd Roll of California Indians. Indian people on this roll would be given $150.00 per capita payment.
    • 1958 – California Rancheria Termination Act - 41 Rancherias vote for termination. The Act called for the distribution of the rancheria communal lands and assets to individual tribal members. 1,300 people/families received allotments of land.
    • 1963-64 – California Indians vote to accept compromise for land settlement claim.
    • 1969 – Occupation of Alcatraz Island – created a modern period of activism in Indian Country.
    • 1969 September – Indians on the Hoopa reservation in Northern California believe the BIA has short changed them by as much as 500,000 dollars. They are complaining of the housing provided for them after the flooding of the Trinity and Klamath Rivers in 1964. BIA records show that as much as $427,000 - $1,417,000 has not been accounted for.
    • May 18, 1970 – the Elem Pomo Indians reoccupied Mu-Do-N Island (Rattlesnake Island) in Clear Lake, California. They claimed the island was illegally acquired by Boise-Cascade Corporation.
    • June of 1970 – the Pit River Nation began to reassert its ownership of ancient lands in California. Many Indians are arrested as the government refuses to recognize their rights.
    • July 1970 – DQ University was incorporated as a tax exempt, non-profit institution. The initial incorporators were Kenneth Martin (Assiniboine), David Risling (Hoopa, Yurok, Karok), and Jack Forbes (Powhatan).
    • October 29-30, 1970 – Senator George Murphy’s Office issues a press release dated October 28, that the DQ-U site is to go to the University of California. This is in spite of the fact that DQ-U has submitted the only legally complete request for the site.
    • November 3, 1970 – Native American students occupy the former Army communication facility between Davis and Winters in support of DQ-U. DQ-U trustees initiate court action to prevent the illegal transfer of the site to the University of California.
    • November of 1970 – about 24 Pomo (and other) activists occupied an abandoned CIA spy post near Santa Rosa. Used in the 1950's to monitor foreign broadcasts, it had been vacant for a decade. They were forcibly removed 3 days later with 5 arrests. Ultimately, though, title to this land was transferred to the Pomo (intertribal). It is now the Ya-Ka-Ama ("Our Land," in Pomo) American Indian Learning Center, just as had been demanded in 1970. It maintains a nursery for endangered and other Native plants, carries out related economic development projects, and educational and cultural programs, supported and participated in by all the Pomo bands.
    • 1972 – 3rd Roll of California Indians, $668.51 per person settlement.
    • 1980’s – Tillie Hardwick, a Pinoleville Pomo, sued the U.S. on the behalf of the terminated Pomo reservations. Victory restored federal status to 17 small California reservations, including many -- but not all -- Pomo bands, which continue their struggle for federal recognition.

    Dr. Cutcha Risling Baldy
    (Hupa, Yurok and Karuk and an enrolled member of the Hoopa Valley Tribe in Northern California)

    Dr. Cutcha Risling Baldy (Native American Studies, Humboldt State University) researches Indigenous feminisms, California Indians and decolonization. In her blog post titled “Give It Back: Publishing and Native Sovereignty,” Cutcha writes:

    I’ve become obsessed with the idea of finding out what would happen if I started mourning loss of land, loss of lives, loss of fish - if my grief was on display. As an academic I’ve internalized the message that somehow the work isn’t supposed to be deeply personal. Like I don’t carry the blood of my ancestors in my veins, blood that has run rivers red as we held on to the bodies of slaughtered children and wailed into the night sky asking ourselves “why” or “what are we supposed to do now?”

    Like we didn’t sing or dance for all those we lost. Like that song doesn’t come from me now. Like I don’t close my eyes and hug my daughter just a little bit tighter at night because there was a time when they would have ripped her from my arms and sold her. And I would never stop looking for her. I would do anything to find her again. Like my ancestors didn’t search until they couldn’t search any longer. Like we don’t continue to search, or grieve even now.

    And we live here in this space that they stole from us. This place where we buried our beloved. Where we sing and dance and laugh and love. This place where we cried tears of joy and sadness and from laughing so hard our stomachs hurt and from hurting so hard we thought we’d never laugh again (2020).

    In just 3 short paragraphs Dr. Cutcha Risling Baldy describes what it is like to be a California Indian woman today. She bids us to think about land theft, loss and destruction. She makes us think about the significance of intergenerational trauma and how violence doesn’t just hurt the victim. Cutcha calls us to think about missing and murdered indigenous women and places that California Native people deem sacred. Her life is place based. She speaks and writes from an internal place that is spiritually, emotionally, and intrinsically connected to where her ancestors and she were raised, and where their creation happened. Colonization may have pushed many of us from our homelands, but we return. See more on Dr. Risling Baldy's work on the Hupa Coming-of-Age Dance as decolonizing praxis under Chapter 8, section 8.6: Transformational Liberation through Love.

    Deborah A. Miranda (Ohlone/Costanoan Esselen Nation, Chumash)

    In her phenomenal book titled Bad Indians, A Tribal Memoir (2013), Deborah Miranda writes, “Stories are their chief knowledge,” wrote the padre from Mission San Juan Bautista. Yes — and they are, still. May it always be so” (p.xx).

    She knew that the best way to tell the history of her people was to share stories. In this book, she tells stories specifically about her family and her life but all California Indians can relate. Moving through locations and time periods, Deborah teaches us about the results of missionization and later settler invasion and colonialism. She invites us into the world of a descendant of a survivor and she reminds us, as Cutcha does, that what the land and the people experienced during the first wave of colonization and genocide is still felt by the land and the people today. She places women and “women’s issues” at the forefront of all of her work. In an article titled "Saying the Padre Had Grabbed Her": Rape is the Weapon, Story is the Cure,” Dr. Miranda writes about the rape of a girl named Vicenta by a Padre at the Mission. Below is an excerpt from that paper.

    Why does Isabel Meadows tell Harrington this story about a girl named Vicenta who is raped by a priest and tells? And why do I retell this story now, so long afterwards? Why discuss sexual violence as part of reclaiming and reinventing a California Indian identity? Why give room to these particular destructive powers when trying to harness the creative powers necessary to create our mosaic history? I know these are questions that people will ask, even members of my own tribal community. The short answer is a brief and brutal fact: California Indian women have still not healed from the tragedy of Missionization, colonization, and the violence it inflicted on our bodies. As mentioned earlier, 86% of rapes against Indian women are committed by non-native men; this is unusual in a crime which, among other ethnic/racial groups, does not typically cross racial lines to any great degree (Miranda, 2010, p. 93).

    Stories hold truths and the only way that the history of these places can be told is if these stories remain at the forefront. American Indian women have and continue to suffer from extreme rates of violence. That violence occurred on or near the land that was the place of creation for their people. How can we not have a place based history in California? The places that we live in, and come from, are seeping with the story of that land. So how then do California Indian people begin to heal?

    Something Inside is Broken By Dr. Melissa Leal (Ohlone/Costanoan Esselen Nation)

    She woke up this morning, thinking about being broken

    About pieces of her body being torn apart

    Away from her core and stretching her soul a million miles.

    She wondered if her mother and grandmother and great-grandmother felt that way

    Or maybe what she felt was older than all of them?

    Maybe that feeling was from another time and place

    She remembered seeing a struggle, a fight between peoples

    A desperate attempt to eradicate what was, and remains so powerful

    The blood memory of generations of women

    Who were connected to the trees and rocks

    Who lived by the water and learned from the birds

    A people who sang and danced out of love

    Who prayed for renewal

    A people who carried generations of strength in their bones

    Whose veins flowed profusely with the blood of the sacred

    She saw these women in her dreams, mere shadows of light

    Moving within the darkness



    Resiliently beautiful

    With copper skin, kissed by the sun

    Given the breath of life from the Creator herself

    The dream seemed like a distant memory

    A thought she once had or a story she once heard

    She wasn’t sure of the time nor the place

    She wasn’t able to identify each face in the shadows

    But when she woke up that morning she knew that

    Something inside was broken.

    Our Local Story: Yokuts and Mono Tribes

    The San Joaquin Valley was initially settled by the Yokuts, the native people of the region, whose arrival dates back between 50,000 and 7,000 years ago. They established sixty-three separate tribes in the valley, connected by blood and language. The Mono inhabited the upper reaches of Fresno County’s major rivers. Along the San Joaquin, they were concentrated in the thirty-mile stretch between the northern edge of Millerton Lake and Fullers Meadow, and extended northward on Fine Gold and Willow creeks. To the south, they occupied the Kings upriver from Trimmer, and lived bear the North and Middle forks, and the Mill and Mill Flat creeks.

    For thousands of years, the Fresno County region was a peaceful valley with native villages along rivers and abundant wildlife like elk, antelope, horses, and salmon. Valley oak trees provided acorns, a dietary staple. Each tribe had its own chief, sub-chief, and a secretary of state called the winatun.

    Monache woman with children, 1895-96.jpgMen hunted for game and fish, while women gathered berries, insects, eggs, and acorns. The Mono people inhabited the upper reaches of the major rivers in Fresno County and had flexible inter-tribal relations, engaging in trade, ceremonies, and marriages with neighboring tribes.

    With the exception of the Chowchilla Tribe, the Yokuts were peaceful, mainly facing threats from grizzly bears. However, their way of life was disrupted when Spanish missionaries, European explorers, American trappers, and gold miners arrived in the valley during the 19th century. These outside groups introduced diseases, causing a significant decline in the indigenous population. Under American rule, Native people lost their land and had no legal rights, becoming laborers in various industries. The Federal government eventually established "Rancherias" as a way to provide land for landless Native Americans, though these were smaller than traditional reservations.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): "Monache woman with children, 1895-96" by Fresno Historical Society is in the Public Domain.


    Fresno County Historical Society (n.d.) Time Travelers: Native Americans of the San Joaquin Valley. Retrieved from

    In summary, the land that is now called “California” has many names. Each of the unique tribal groups in California called this large area of land something different. However, their homelands and rivers, creeks, bays all had specific names to them and other names for neighboring peoples. A person cannot understand the history of California without first understanding the stories of those places that hold significance to California Indian peoples. Stories hold truths and these stories are intricately connected to the people and place, from the past to the present, and are revealed in the resiliency of the people and places that we live and come from.

    This page titled 5.2: Indigenous Ways of Knowing is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Melissa Leal & Tamara Cheshire (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative (OERI)) .