The Maidu was one of the largest tribes in California. According to Stephen Powers, the author of Tribes of California (1876): "This is a large nation, extending from the Sacramento to Honey Lake, and from Big Chico Creek to Bear River. As usual in the case of an extensive nation in this State, they have no name of general application, except that they call themselves Maidu."
They built small settlements close together, forming villages, that were connected together by foot-paths. The Maidu built a ceremonial lodge in the largest and most centrally located village. Evelyn Wolfson has pointed out: "Bands of Maidu who lived in the foothills built substantial earth-covered houses. Those who lived in the mountains built conical houses, which they covered with bark. When these people left their villages for prolonged periods of time, they built small temporary shelters covered with grass and twigs."
Maidu women wore two-sided aprons made of buckskin, whereas men wore buckskin breechcloths and in the summer went around naked. In the winter they wore robes of deerskin or mountain lion with the fur turned to the inside. The women pierced their ears whereas men made small holes in their noses. Alfred L. Kroeber has pointed out in Handbook of the Indians of California (1919): "The Maidu are on the fringe of the tattooing tribes. In the northern valley the women wore three to seven vertical lines on the chin, plus a diagonal line from each mouth corner toward the outer end of the eye. The process was one of fine close cuts with an obsidian splinter, as among the Shasta, with wild nutmeg charcoal rubbed in. For men there existed no universal fashion: the commonest mark was a narrow stripe upward from the root of the nose. As elsewhere in California, lines and dots were not uncommon on breast, arms, and hands of men and women; but no standardized pattern seems to have evolved except the female face."
The Maidu obtained food from the acorns they collected each year. All acorns contain tannin, which is very bitter. The Indians dealt with this problem by removing the acorn hull and to grind the interior into a flour in a stone mortar or on a flat grinding slab. They then constantly poured warm water over the flour to leach out the tannin. The leached flour was then mixed with water in a watertight basket and boiled by dropping hot stones into the gruel. The women also collected seeds, berries, nuts and wild plants.
In the autumn the Maidu assembled together throughout their villages to perform the acorn dance, to insure a good crop of acorns the following year. They danced in two circles, the men in one and the women in the other. The men wore feathers and the women decorated themselves with beads. At the end of the dance, two elderly priests come forward wearing colourful head-dresses and long mantles of black eagle's feathers. They then chant messages to the spirits while the dancers eat acorn-porridge.
The Maidu men caught salmon, trout and the lamprey and hunted deer, elk, bear, geese, ducks, and quail all year. They especially prized bear hides, and made them into robes to be worn during important ceremonies. The Maidu hunted deer by driving them over cliffs. They also ate grasshoppers, crickets and locusts. Coyotes were never eaten as they were considered to be "virtually poisonous".
Stephen Powers, who spent some time with them, has argued: "The Maidu have two contrivances for snaring wild-fowl that I have not seen elsewhere. One of them is a loose-woven net which is stretched perpendicularly on two rods running parallel with the surface of the water... When the ducks are flying low, almost skimming the water, they thrust their heads through the meshes of the net, while their bodies drop down into the fold, which prevents them from fluttering loose. The other contrivance is also a net, stretched on a frame projecting up out of the water in a shallow place. The Indian fastens decoy-ducks close by the net, or sprinkles berries on the bottom to attract the fowl."
Evelyn Wolfson has argued: "Most of the Maidu land was granted to an American settler who brought cattle into the area in 1844. The cattle destroyed most of the wild foods and many Maidu died from Hunger and later from smallpox brought to the region by gold miners. Survivors ate livestock to keep from starving, but white settlers punished the Indians by hunting them down and killing them."
President Ulysses S. Grant formally established the Round Valley Indian Reservation in Mendocino County, California, by Executive Order on 30th March, 1870. Government soldiers forcibly marched four hundred and sixty-one of the tribe to Round Valley. Thirty-two people died on the journey.
The anthropologist, Alfred L. Kroeber, suggested that in 1910 the population of the Maidu had fallen to 1,000. According to the census returns by 1930 it was down to only 93.
Maidu dress was similarly scant in the summer heat of the valley and the snowy winter of the mountains. A dear or puma skin with the hair side next to the body, a rabbit skin blanket, or a pair of skins sewn together, was worn as a mantle at need; but there was no true garment.
The mountaineers are said to have donned grass-stuffed moccasins for travel in the snow. The calf was protected by a deerskin legging, the hair side inward, tied above the knee and wound to the leg with a thong. The moccasin was of the usual California variety: unsoled, single piece, seamed up the front, and coming well above the ankle.
The netted cap completed the costume of Maidu men. It was indispensable in ceremony, through allowing headpieces to be skewered into the contained hair; and was convienent in many occupations, although we are uncertain whether it was worn habitually.
Women's clothing was constituted essentially of two shredded bark aprons, preferably of maple, the front one smaller and tucked between the legs when the wearer sat down. Grass may also have been used, and old women occasionally went naked. Outdoors in winter, women added moccasins and a skin robe.
Hair was most frequently trimmed with a glowing coal, but a flint edge bearing on a stick is also mentioned. Combs of porcupine tails, pine cones, and pine needles were in use. Only hair on the face was pulled out.
The Maidu are on the fringe of the tattooing tribes. In the northern valley the women wore three to seven vertical lines on the chin, plus a diagonal line from each mouth corner toward the outer end of the eye. The process was one of fine close cuts with an obsidian splinter, as among the Shasta, with wild nutmeg charcoal rubbed in. For men there existed no universal fashion: the commonest mark was a narrow stripe upward from the root of the nose. As elsewhere in California, lines and dots were not uncommon on breast, arms, and hands of men and women; but no standardized pattern seems to have evolved except the female face.
Ornaments were worn in the ear chiefly by women, in the nose only by men. Girls had their lobes pierced in the adolescence dance. Where the Kuksu society existed, the perforation of the septum occurred more ceremoniously in the initiation of boys. Ear ornaments were pieces of haliotis on thongs; or more characteristically, incised bird bones or polished sticks, with or without feather tufts or shell pendants. The horizontal nose ornament was a feather, a pair of feathers, or a feathered stick.
The list of animals not considered food was small. Foremost was the dog, regarded as virtually poisonous by most northern Californians; then the wolf and coyote. The buzzard is the only bird not eaten. Reptiles and amphibians were also avoided.
Invertibrates were freely eaten; worms, the larva of yellow jackets and other insects, grasshoppers, crickets, locusts, and fresh-water mussels were relished. Of fish , the salmon came first, in the region of the larger streams, and next the lamprey eel. In the higher mountains trout were nearly the only fish available.
Deer were often hunted by companies of men. They were driven over cliffs, or past hunters hidden near the runways. Drives of this type were undertaken with prayers and magical observances, and strict taboos were in force for the families of the hunters.
Rabbits were taken in long nets. Birds were killed by nooses and nets. Quail will often follow even a low fence rather than fly over it, particularly along their runways. A fine noose and bait at occasional gates usually trapped a bird.