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Forty archaeological sites have been found on the banks of the American River from the river's mouth to the area where the middle and south forks meet. The forks meet at Folsom Lake. The group of people who lived in the area are known as the Maidu. The Maidu is a large group which is broken into smaller groups based on language differences. The Nisenan is the name of the southernmost group, and it is the group that lived in the Sacramento area. The Nisenan lived in the area from the eastern side of the Sacramento River to the 3,000 foot level of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The area in which they lived went from the Bear and Yuba Rivers to the Consumnes River. That land included all of the American River drainage area.




It's been said that the Nisenan were river dependent people. Villages were often built on raised mounds to protect them from seasonal flooding. A small village had from three to seven houses and a population of 15-25 people. Larger villages had over 500 people. Several villages may have grouped together and had a headman with the power to call on neighboring villages when matters that concerned all the people came forward.


The structures that were built in the villages were of two types. The home, or hu, was a dome shaped structure with a pole frame and covered with brush or tules and earth. These buildings were 10-15 feet in diameter. A ceremonial house, or kum, was larger and was built 3-4 feet underground with the rest of the building above ground. It had heavy beams and was covered by earth, tules, and brush. The kums were only in the larger villages or were shared by several small villages. A sweathouse was also found in some areas.




The Nisenan were hunters, gatherers and fishermen and had year-round food sources. During the winter, the Nisenan hunted by stalking game and setting traps. When summertime came, they gathered seeds or hunted by setting nets over drying water holes to capture small birds and mammals. Deer were captured by burning dry grass in a circle around them and then shooting them with arrows when they were surrounded.


The Nisenan lived in areas where acorns were plentiful. The acorns would be gathered by a family or the entire village. The men would knock the acorns from the trees, and the women and children gathered them and put them in storage in the granary. The acorns would be removed later, and they were cracked, shelled and ground into flour on a bedrock mortar, often by the river. The tannin in acorns, which is bitter and hard on the stomach, would be removed by running water through the flour. Water-tight baskets would be used to cook the flour. The flour would be placed in the basket along with water and fire-heated stones. The stones would be flipped around in the mixture with two sticks to heat the acorn. Once the mush or soup was prepared, it would last for several days.





Trade was common for the Nisenan who lived in different areas. The Lower American River provided the valley Nisenan with roots for baskets, fresh water mollusks, salmon, antelope meat, and other dried fish, and white oak acorns. The hill Nisenan had dried deer and bear meat, hides, rabbit-skin blankets, black oak acorns, sugar-pine nuts, manzanita berries, tobacco and the feathers of the red-shafted flicker and acorn woodpecker. The two groups would trade the resources they had for the resources they needed.


The clothing worn by the Nisenan was from materials found in the area in which they lived. The women wore aprons made from pounded willow or maple bark or from tules. Men wore deer or rabbit skins with the hair part toward their skin. During colder times, duck-feather or rabbit-skin blankets were worn.




The Nisenan created weapons from the resources in their area, as well. Bows were constructed from gray pine or cedar and were scraped and bound with deer sinew. Arrows were made from hardwood or marsh plants and usually had three feathers tied to the shaft. Points were created from obsidian, stone or chert. Spears, which were only used in war, were made from willow and had obsidian tips.




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