The Northern Maidu, the native inhabitants of Plumas and surrounding counties, occupied the Feather River region and its many tributaries. The terrain is mostly timber clothed mountains dotted with high lakes and green valleys. Big Meadows is now Lake Almanor. Indian Valley, Genesee, American, and Sierra valleys are now occupied by Plumas County settlements, but once were home solely to the Maidu. The areas to the east, namely Mohawk and Sierra valleys were claimed for hunting grounds, containing few, if any, permanent villages due to heavy winter snow.

The Maidu language is part of the Penutian language family, and is closely related to the Konkow and Nisenan dialects. It is a spoken language only, and there exists no written history of the Maidu before the arrival of Euro-Americans. The tribal name “Maidu” means simply
“the People.”

The Maidu lived along the edges of valleys in small settlements, usually of a hundred people or less. There was no overall tribal organization throughout the region. There was also no private ownership of land, but each group generally remained within its own valley. Frequently they would migrate into the mountains to hunt or gather food in the warm seasons, then return to their villages in the valleys with the arrival of the winter snows. In winter the cedar bark K’um served as the main family home. Their village sites were picked to afford protection from strong winds, flooding streams, and to be in the proximity game and plants. The Maidu lived with their environment and were guided in much of their culture by nature's forces.

In summer, the Maidu people traveled about their territory in search of all the food and materials necessary to their way of life. Roots were gathered by means of a digging stick. These were eaten raw, roasted, boiled or sometimes dried, pounded fine, mixed with berries and baked into a small flat cake.  Seeds and underground parts of plants were important, as well as greens which were a part of the seasonal diet, both fresh and dried. The chief dependence of the Maidu was upon the acorn, particularly from the black oak. The acorns were ground with stone mortars and pestles, and then rinsed repeatedly to remove the harsh tannic acid. The meal was then cooked in numerous ways, often using tightly woven baskets into which water and hot rocks were placed. It took almost 2,000 pounds of acorns annually to feed one adult. Acorn meal provides more calories per serving than either wheat or corn, an important factor in a hunting/gathering society’s diet.
Animal food resources were varied as well. The Maidu didn’t have far to travel for good hunting and used every part of the animals they obtained. In addition to deer, elk, mountain sheep, rabbits, raccoons, squirrels and fish, the Maidu knew how to prepare yellow-jacket larvae, worms, grasshoppers, locusts and crickets. Grasshoppers were caught by digging a large shallow pit in a meadow and setting fire to the grass on all sides to drive the insects into the pit. As the fire burned off their wings they were easily collected and prepared for food by drying. Salmon were split and dried by hanging them over a pole after which they were pounded into small pieces, somewhat like coarse flour, and stored in baskets.   Deer and other meat was cut into strips and dried.
The Maidu were a peaceful tribe. They did not make war on other tribes, although there were occasional skirmishes with the Pit River Indians to the north, or the Washo to the east. There were usually isolated incidents set off by renegades or overly adventurous hunters. The Maidu also endured numerous raids by the Mill Creeks. The population of the Northern Maidu before contact with Euro-Americans was estimated at about 4,000.  Their population was greatly reduced by the malaria epidemic of northern California in the years 1830-1833.
To make matters worse, the arrival of miners in 1850 brought diseases and other factors that continued to reduce the Maidu population. In the 1880s smallpox took a heavy toll on the remaining Maidu. Their population rapidly diminished until in 1962, the number of Native Maidu was estimated at only 300 to 400. There was no organized resistance to the arrival of white settlers. For the most part, the Maidu were quietly compelled to accept white civilization and technology. Many were employed as farm hands by white ranchers or as laborers in the gold mines.

Among the arts and crafts practiced by the Indians, basket making was one at which the Maidu excelled. A rare and impressive collection is on display at the Plumas County Museum. Both coiled and twined baskets were created incorporating designs usually suggested by natural themes. Materials were gathered throughout the year from favorite locations and much care was taken in their preparation.  Parts of various species were used, primarily those of willow, red bud, yellow pine, bear grass, bracken fern. Beadwork was another important craft with the Maidu. It was valued not only as a decoration, but was often used as a medium of exchange to barter for other items.

Fires were set in the fall months when rains were sure to control them. The snags and brush around maple trees were burned to promote growth of new shoots for basketry. Fires set in grass and brushlands as well as in forests helped promote easier travel, hunting, and production of better crops of wild food plants.

Commerce trails were numerous in Maidu country and items of trade flowed freely over them.  From the valley beads reached the mountains along with salmon, salt, and nuts of the digger pine. In turn, the mountaineers traded bows and arrows, deerskins and sugar pine nuts, as well as acorns. Obsidian for arrows was obtained from the Achomawi to the north.

Much can be learned from studying how the native Maidu harmoniously lived with respect for the land. Various events are held annually, recalling and preserving customs and traditions. The Northern Sierra Indian Days are held in September in Greenville, call Plumas County Arts Commission at (530) 283-3402 for more information. 

Numerous publications, photos, a video and displays are available at the Plumas County Museum. 

Excerpts are from Mary Dunn and James McMillan, The Northeastern Maidu (Plumas Memories # 8), Kenneth Kolb, The Maidu Indians of Plumas County, and Marie Potts, The Northern Maidu.