Kuksu (religion)

Kuksu, also called the Kuksu Cult or Big Head, was a religion in Northern California practiced by members within several Indigenous peoples of California before and during contact with the arriving European settlers. The religious belief system was held by several tribes in Central California and Northern California, from the Sacramento Valley west to the Pacific Ocean.

The practice of Kuksu religion included elaborate narrative ceremonial dances and specific regalia. The men of the tribe practiced rituals to ensure good health, bountiful harvests, hunts, fertility, and good weather. Ceremonies included an annual mourning ceremony, rites of passage, and intervention with the spirit world. A male secret society met in underground dance rooms and danced in disguises at the public dances.[1][2]

Among the Patwin and Maidu, Hesi developed as a subdivision of Kuksu distinguished by its female participation.[3][4]

Kuksu has been identified archaeologically by the discovery of underground dance rooms and wooden dance drums.

Kuksu map
Map of California showing hypotheses on the distribution of the Kuksu religion
DivisionsNorthern Kuksu, Southern Kuksu
RegionNorthern California
Konkow dancers
Konkow Kuksu ceremony

Northern Kuksu religion


The Patwin culture of Northern California had comparatively strong and noticeable Kuksu systems and rituals.[1]

Maidu dancer
Maidu Kuksu dancer


The Maidu culture of Northern California had comparatively strong and noticeable Kuksu systems and rituals.[1]

Doctor's Headdress (guk-tsu-shua), Pomo (Native American), 1906-1907C.E., 08.491.8952
Pomo headdress used in Kuksu ceremonies


Kuksu was personified as a spirit being by the Pomo people. Their mythology and dance ceremonies were witnessed, including the spirit of Kuksu or Guksu, between 1892 and 1904. The Pomo used the name Kuksu or Guksu, depending on the dialect, as the name for a red-beaked supernatural being, that lived in a sweathouse at the southern end of the world. Healing was his province and specialty. The person who played the Kuksu/Guksu in Pomo dance ceremonies was often considered the medicine man, and dressed as him when attending the sick.[5] A ceremony dance was named after him. He also appeared in costume at most ceremonies briefly in order to take away the villager's illnesses.

All males were expected to join a ceremonial society; some of their dances were private or secret from women and children. Scholars differ in their opinions of the societies' power in the tribe: "There was no secret society of importance as there was among the Maidu and presumedly among the neighboring Wintun, and no organized priesthood vested with control over ceremonies."[6] In contrast, in 1925 a witness of the Clear Lake Pomo said: "The heart of religious activities lay in a secret society called kuhma, akin to that of the Patwin and Maidu and composed chiefly of men, which managed the ritual of the ancient hindil or kuksu religion.[7]

Southern Kuksu religion

The ethnohistorian Alfred L. Kroeber observed that Kuksu existed, but had less "specialized cosmogony," in the "southern Kuksu-dancing groups" of the Ohlone/Costanoan, Salinan, Miwok and Esselen and northernmost Yokuts, in comparison to the groups in the Northern California and northern Sacramento Valley.[8]


  1. ^ a b c Kroeber, Alfred L. The Religion of the Indians of California, 1907.
  2. ^ The Kuksu Cult paraphrased from Kroeber. Archived 2006-10-11 at the Wayback Machine
  3. ^ Kroeber, Alfred Louis (1923). Anthropology. Harcourt, Brace.
  4. ^ Okladnikova, E. A. (1983). "The California Collection of I. G. Voznesensky and the Problems of Ancient Cultural Connections Between Asia and America" (PDF). Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology.
  5. ^ Barret (1917): 423, 430-431
  6. ^ Barret 398
  7. ^ Gifford 353
  8. ^ Kroeber (1925) 445: "It is true the Costanoan and Salinan stocks, who participate in the Kuksu cult and live in the same transverse belt of California as the Miwok, seem also to lean in their mythology toward the Yokuts more than to the Sacramento Valley tribes. A less specialized type of cosmogony is therefore indicated for the southern Kuksu-dancing groups. [1. If, as seems probable, the southerly Kuksu tribes (the Miwok, Costanoans, Esselen, and northernmost Yokuts) had no real society in connection with their Kuksu ceremonies, the distinctness of their mythology appears less surprising.]"


  • Barret, Samuel A. "Ceremonies of the Pomo Indians", Published by University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnicity, July 6, 1917, Vol. 12, No 10., pages 397-441. Thi Stephen Powers.
  • Kroeber, Alfred L. The Kuksu Cult. Paraphrased. Maidu Culture [1]
  • Kroeber, Alfred L. 1907. The Religion of the Indians of California, University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology 4:#6. Berkeley, sections titled "Shamanism", "Public Ceremonies", "Ceremonial Structures and Paraphernalia", and "Mythology and Beliefs"; available at Sacred Texts Online
  • Kroeber, Alfred L. 1925. Handbook of the Indians of California. Washington, D.C: Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin No. 78; (Miwok chapter is available at Yosemite Online Library - discusses Kuksu)
  • Gifford, Edward W. 1926. Clear Lake Pomo Society,University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology 18:2 p. 353-363 "Secret Society Members" (Describes E.M. Loeb's 1925 investigation of the Clear Lake Pomo's practice of the Guksu [sic] religion.)

See also

Bay Miwok

The Bay Miwok are a cultural and linguistic group of Miwok, a Native American people in Northern California who live in Contra Costa County. They joined the Franciscan mission system during the early nineteenth century, suffered a devastating population decline, and lost their language as they intermarried with other native California ethnic groups and learned the Spanish language.

The Bay Miwok were not recognized by modern anthropologists or linguists until the mid-twentieth century. In fact, Alfred L. Kroeber, father of California anthropology, who knew of one of their constituent local groups, the Saklan (Saclan), from nineteenth-century manuscript sources, presumed that they spoke an Ohlone (a.k.a. Costanoan) language.In 1955 linguist Madison Beeler recognized an 1821 vocabulary taken from a Saclan man at Mission San Francisco as representative of a Miwok language. The language was named "Bay Miwok" and its territorial extent was rediscovered during the 1960s (see Landholding Groups or Local Tribes section below).

Bay Miwok language

Bay Miwok (Saclan, Saklan) was one of the Miwok languages spoken in California, around San Francisco Bay. All of the population has shifted to English.

Buena Vista Rancheria of Me-Wuk Indians of California

The Buena Vista Rancheria of Me-Wuk Indians of California is a federally recognized tribe of Miwok in Amador County, California. The Buena Vista Miwok are Sierra Miwok, an indigenous people of California.

Chicken Ranch Rancheria of Me-Wuk Indians of California

The Chicken Ranch Rancheria of Me-Wuk Indians of California is a federally recognized tribe of Miwok people in Tuolumne County, California. The Chicken Ranch Rancheria Miwok are central Sierra Miwok, an indigenous people of California.

Coast Miwok

The Coast Miwok are an indigenous people that was the second largest group of Miwok people. The Coast Miwok inhabited the general area of modern Marin County and southern Sonoma County in Northern California, from the Golden Gate north to Duncans Point and eastward to Sonoma Creek. The Coast Miwok included the Bodega Bay Miwok, from authenticated Miwok villages around Bodega Bay, and the Marin Miwok.

Coast Miwok language

Coast Miwok was one of the Miwok languages spoken in California, from San Francisco Bay to Bodega Bay. The Marin and Bodega varieties may have been separate languages. All of the population has shifted to English.

Jackson Rancheria

Jackson Rancheria is the landbase for the Jackson Rancheria of Me-Wuk Indians of California, a federally recognized tribe of Miwok people, located near Jackson, California. It is located in Amador County, about midway between Jackson and Pine Grove. The reservation operates the Jackson Rancheria Casino Resort, located on its territory.

Lake Miwok

The Lake Miwok are a branch of the Miwok, a Native American people of Northern California. The Lake Miwok lived in the Clear Lake basin of what is now called Lake County.

Lake Miwok language

The Lake Miwok language is a moribund (or possibly extinct) language of Northern California, traditionally spoken in an area adjacent to the Clear Lake. It is one of the languages of the Clear Lake Linguistic Area, along with Patwin, East and Southeastern Pomo, and Wappo.

Middletown Rancheria of Pomo Indians of California

The Middletown Rancheria of Pomo Indians of California is a federally recognized tribe of Pomo Indians, as well as some Wappo and Lake Miwok Indians, in California, headquartered in Middletown, California.The tribe's reservation is the Middletown Rancheria, located north-northeast of Santa Rosa. It was established in 1910 and occupies 109 acres (0.44 km2) in Lake County. Approximately 73 tribal members live on the reservation.The Middletown Pomos own the Twin Pine Casino and Hotel, located in Middletown.

Miwok languages

The Miwok or Miwokan languages (; Miwok: [míwːɨːk]), also known as Moquelumnan, are a group of endangered languages spoken in central California in the Sierra Nevada. There are five somewhat diverse Miwok languages, two of which have distinct regional dialects (Sierra Miwok and Coast Miwok). There are a few dozen speakers of the three Sierra Miwok languages, and in 1994 there were two speakers of Lake Miwok. The best attested language is Southern Sierra Miwok, from which the name Yosemite originates.

Northern Sierra Miwok

Northern Sierra Miwok is a Miwok language spoken in California, in the upper Mokelumne and Calaveras valleys.

Plains Miwok language

Plains Miwok, also known as Valley Miwok, was one of the Miwok languages spoken in central California by the Plains Miwok people. It was spoken in the deltas of the San Joaquin and Cosumnes Rivers. Plains Miwok was once one of the most populous Miwok languages. All of the population has shifted to English.

Plains and Sierra Miwok

The Plains and Sierra Miwok were once the largest group of Native American Miwok people, indigenous to California. Their homeland included regions of the Sacramento Valley, San Joaquin Valley, and the Sierra Nevada.

Pomo religion

The indigenous religion of the Pomo people, Native Americans from Northwestern California, centered on belief in the powerful entities of the 'Kunula', a Coyote, and 'Guksu', a spirit healer from the south.


The Salinan are a Native American tribe whose ancestral territory is in the southern Salinas Valley and the Santa Lucia Range in the Central Coast of California. Today, the Salinan governments are now working toward federal tribal recognition from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

There were two major divisions, the Miguelino in the south, on the upper course of the Salinas River (which flows south to north), and the Antoniano in the north, in the lower part of the Salinas Basin, corresponding to the two missions in the Salinas Valley (Mission San Antonio de Padua and Mission San Miguel Arcángel). There were also a Playano group on the Pacific Coast in the vicinity of what is now San Simeon and Lucia. Before European contact, Salinans lived by hunting and gathering and, like most other California tribes, were organized in small groups with little centralized political structure.

Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuk Indians

The Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuk Indians is a federally recognized tribe of Yokuts and Miwok people in Tuolumne County, California. The Tuolumne Band are central Sierra Miwok people. Annually, in September, the tribe holds an acorn festival and intertribal gathering.

Wilton Rancheria

Wilton Rancheria is a federally recognized Native American tribe of Miwok people. They were formed from Wilton Rancheria Miwok and the Me-Wuk Indian Community of the Wilton Rancheria.The Wilton Rancheria has more than 700 enrolled members, 62% of the enrolled population resides in Southern Sacramento County. The rancheria (or reservation) consists of 38.5 acres (156,000 m2) of land located in the Sacramento Valley, near the city of Elk Grove, CA in the census-designated place of Wilton, California.


The Yokuts (previously known as Mariposas) are an ethnic group of Native Americans native to central California. Before European contact, the Yokuts consisted of up to 60 tribes speaking several related languages.

Some of their descendants prefer to refer to themselves by their respective tribal names and reject the name Yokuts with the claim that it is an exonym invented by English speaking settlers and historians. Conventional sub-groupings include the Foothill Yokuts, Northern Valley Yokuts, and Southern Valley Yokuts.

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