Manataka American Indian Council





A Wintun Story


As told by Alfred C. Gillis[4], a Wintun Indian, and Recorded by George Wharton James[1]
Edited by Cindy Beck.  American Native Press Archives and Sequoyah Research Center

The Wintun tribe of Indians was, for long centuries, the most powerful tribe of the northern part of California. The men were stalwart warriors, made so by their training and the fact that they were ever at war defending the generous and fruitful land that the gods had bestowed upon them. They occupied all the upper part of the Sacramento River, together with the Pitt, McCloud and a large part of Trinity Rivers, with the tributary country. It was a wonderful land, the rivers teeming with fish, and their banks the populous homes of beaver, mink, otter and other fur-bearing animals.

On the hills were elk, deer, antelope and bear in abundance, as well as the smaller squirrel, rabbit and raccoon. The digger pine and the pinyon gave an abundance of delicious nuts, the white and black oaks yielded their rich harvests of acorns, the buckeyes gave their rich chestnuts, the meadows gave abundantly of nutritious grass seeds and fruits and berries abounded on the hillsides. In the swamps and marshes great bulbous roots were found which added to the food supply. It was a country of the yew, rarely found in California, and no wood was so suitable for making the bow of the warrior and hunter as this, and, as on the eastern slopes of Mt. Shasta vast ledges of native volcanic glass -- obsidian -- were found, it was comparatively easy to equip the Wintun warriors with bows and arrows that had no superiors and few equals in the land.

Possessing such a country as this it is no wonder the Wintuns were a proud and haughty people, ever boastful of their favored land and equally ready to defend it from those who would seize it from them.  For, naturally, being so desirable to the Wintuns, it was coveted by all other near-by tribes. Many were the endeavors made to wrest it from the Wintuns, sometimes by a single warrior-chief and his people, and again by the combined efforts of several.

Among the many stories of these endeavors is that of Sid-di-pou-i-wi-ta, A Pouiyail Yuki -- or eastern enemy as the name implies. Sid-di-pou-i-wi-ta's father was a Yuki and his mother a Wintun. His home was under the bluffs on the flat on the Sacramento River just east of the present town of Redding. As he grew to manhood he became a great warrior and a much dreaded one. For to make himself and his people invincible in war he was monstrously cruel to those who were weaker than himself and were unable to withstand his brutal tyranny.

As soon as he had fairly well established his power, he began the habit of making periodical raids on the camps located on the Sacramento River. From Kennett down he would seize every boy and girl of suitable age and bring them to his camp. He would also steal all the food, baskets, and blankets made from rabbit skins. This kept all the camps of the Dowpom Wintuns impoverished, and, having no sons to train for warriors, they were kept weak so that they could not oppose Sid-di-pou-i-wi-ta's plans. 

In his own camp, which was known as Nolta Pou-i-dall, signifying an angular flat at a bend in a river, Sid-di-pou-i-wi-ta would put the boys and girls he had captured through a rigorous course of physical training, the boys that they might speedily become competent warriors and the latter that they might be fit mates for them.

For long years Sid-di-pou-i-wi-ta looked with longing eyes upon the upper reaches of the Sacramento, and the Pitt and McCloud rivers. He lusted earnestly for their rich harvests of fish, game, seeds and fruit. Yet the Wintuns of this coveted country were strong and warlike. They had successfully resisted all endeavors, hitherto, to dispossess them, and Sid-di-pou-i-wi-ta knew that it would require a large army of his finest and bravest fighters to win a foothold there. So he drilled and trained, disciplined and marched week after week, month after month, until his warriors were able to obey his harshest commands with ease. They took long marches and endured great hardships and overcame tremendous obstacles in order that in combat they might be invincible. Then to make assurance doubly sure, Sid-di-pou-i-wi-ta made an alliance with the Pomquail Yukis, and, at an appointed time, marched northward, bound on his errand of conquest.

As he ascended the river and easily drove ahead of him the few small bands that were in his way, it was not long before the alarming runners and tell-tale watch-fires warned the Dowpom Wintuns that he was coming. Hastily they summoned all their warriors, even from the far-away Trinity River, and when the invaders reached the place where the McCloud River flows into the Pitt -- known, therefore, as Dowin-kil, "the meeting place of the rivers" -- They were ready to resist to the death their further progress. The main village of the Dowpom Wintuns was located at this place and many Indian houses, and the great ceremonial dance, and sweat-houses -- called schloots -- occupied the site.

The invaders came up the river on the other side and early in the morning began their attack by sending a fierce shower of arrows across the river into the village. This was done with the intent of forcing the Wintuns into shelter, so that the warriors of Sid-di-pou-i-wi-ta might secretly swim across the river and thus stealthily gain possession of the place. Many scores thus crossed, but they were met by the deadly arrows of the Wintuns, who were very crafty.  At the same time a band of the keenest and youngest of the McCloud River warriors cunningly planned and carried out a surprise attack.

See these brave and fierce defenders of their home as they prepare to circumvent their foes. After the orders are given and all fully understand what is to be done, not a word, a whisper is uttered. See them as they start off. A thousand or more of them. Each one is dressed in a long elk-hide cloak, with the right arm cut in half moon shape in such fashion as to have the warrior's arm exposed. 

Around the waist is a belt of dressed buckskin. Held upright in his long, thick, black hair which is tightly bound at the back of his head, is stuck and thus hidden, his weapon of close defense, a knife about six inches long, made from the shin-bone of an elk. Each carries his yew bow, with an otter-skin case full of arrows slung over his back. Silently they steal down to the river, and equally silently enter the water, holding bow, quiver and arrows up with one hand, yet deftly and swiftly swimming with the other. Soon they are all on the other side, and with silent speed are ascending the trail, through the forest. An hour or more passes and they are still moving rapidly in their warrior hop, but now, as they approach more nearly to where their enemies are -- whose shouts and yells can clearly be heard - they proceed more quietly and stealthily (were that possible) through with almost equal speed.

The enemy has been so occupied that there seems to have been no idea of pickets or sentries, so the Wintuns were able to line up in irregular formation directly on the ridge above where the archers were firing their arrows into the village across the river.

Then, with terrific yells, screams, screeching and howls that seemed enough to wake the dead, pulling their bows with fierce anger as they leaped forward, the advance was made. It was in reality a complete surprise, for, so quickly did they dash down the slope that the invaders were irresistibly swept into the river, where one by one they were either shot through and through with arrows, or smitten on the head with stones, stunned and thus drowned. A few of the more impetuous of the attackers seized the bodies of their enemies and fell with them into the river, where by stabbing or strangling they were soon overpowered.

This defeat was no sooner accomplished than the Wintuns again dashed into the river, swam across and with equally fierce impetuosity fell upon those of the Poouiyail Yukis who had succeeded in finding a landing on the other side. The conflict was too unequal, the surprise too complete, and in an incredibly short space of time there was not an enemy left on his feet. In accordance with their custom, every slain enemy was scalped, and each warrior looked among the dead in the hope of finding Sid-di-pou-i-wi-ta's body there. But that crafty warrior was too careful of his own life to risk himself in too great danger. When the flank movement was executed, he succeeded, in the ensuing confusion, in making his escape.

Though they were very sorry he had eluded them, the Wintuns were too proud of their victory to stop their rejoicings. With loud songs of triumph, in which their women joined, they danced around the scalp-pole, and drank and feasted in their joy. After a long night thus spent it was decided by the leaders to call all the men, women, youth, and maidens from the supper reaches of the Little Sacramento, the Pitt, the McCloud and Trinity rivers and have a great dance of rejoicing in the tribal schloot located on the McCloud River. This dance-schloot was a building such as no white man believes the Indians were able to build. It had a tree trunk for its center pole, with seven lesser trunks for main supports -- thus representing the polar star and the seven stars of the constellation of the dipper
[2]. It was circular and had a seat placed completely around its inner circumference. Over five hundred people could sit and dance conveniently in this great building at one time.

When the day of the great festival arrived the home women piled up great baskets full of acorn bread, roast and baked meats and other eatables; and nuts and roots and fruits were scattered around in reckless profusion. Near a score of fires a hundred baskets sent forth appetizing odors of delicious stews, and provision was made for everyone -- as no disgrace could have been greater than for them to fail in any of the duties of a generous hospitality.

And the crowds that came fully justified their expectations. All the valor and strength, and all the beauty and femininely [sic] desirable of the men and women and the youths and maidens of the tribe were present and each and all joined in the dances that were kept up continuously with enthusiasm and fervor.

When the dance was at its height a gorgeous personage appeared at the entrance way and proudly marched into the schloot. He was evidently a notable for he was clothed in the finest of garments and proudly wore on his breast the elaborately beaded mempoe, the sign of chieftainship.

It should be noted that there was a kind of runway or chute, leading to the main entrance and that, standing before this chute, were four men, all of who had suffered some wrong at the hands of Sid-di-pou-i-wi-ta. They had vowed to be on the watch for him, and if he dared to appear, to kill him.

As soon, therefore, as this proud person arrived, the leader of the four whispered to the others: "There goes Sid-di-pou-i-wi-ta!" "How do you know?" questioned the others. "Why, see his gorgeous clothes, and then notice the mempoc. He it is, sure enough. I know him well and there can be no mistake. Let us kill him."

But Sid-di-pou-i-wi-ta had already passed on into the schloot and it was decided not to kill him there, but to wait until he came out. Then --

In the meantime, Sid-di-pou-i-wi-ta had joined in the dance, which went on untiringly and continuously. Many made comment on his fine clothes and the wonderful mempoc he was wearing, but it was not considered proper to demand of him who he was, or require him to uncover his face, until the proper time came.

Towards morning, however, when all the dancers seemed to be tired, Sid-di-pou-i-wi-ta stepped up to a youth, the most handsome, athletic and powerful of them all, a young man of some thirty years who was destined ere long to be the chief of the McCloud River Wintuns. He was full of life and fire with considerable wit and humor and yet had a strong and commanding face. He was beloved by this people and had not an enemy among them.

Taking him by the hand Sid-di-pou-i-wi-ta said, "I understand you are the coming chief of the McCloud Wintuns." "I am," said the youth. "That is good," replied

Sid-di-pou-i-wi-ta. "I should like to see you become a great chieftain, an invincible warrior, the protector and father of your people. Let me decorate you with the garments of chieftainship and the special symbol of your high office." And taking off his own elaborate costume and the mempoc, he reverently placed them upon the youth saying, "Now I give you the garments and the mempoc of a chief. May you live long and wear them worthily."

And now the diabolical and crafty cunning of Sid-di-pou-i-wi-ta begins to manifest itself. Having divested himself of his chieftain's garments and the mempoc, the ordinary clothes he wore became in reality a disguise, so that as he passed out of the schloot no one recognized him. The four watchers saw him pass but never dreamed he was the enemy for whom they were searching.

Shortly, however, the young chief, full of joy and pride in the new garments that had been so generously bestowed upon him by the stranger, came marching towards the entrance. The watchers were on alert, but the morning light was dim so that they could not see clearly, and seeing only that the one who was approaching was clothed in the chieftain's garments and wore the mempoc, they hurled their sharp spears into his yielding body so that he fell dead at their feet.

It was not long before they discovered their awful mistake, but the deed was done and there was no undoing it. The crafty cunning of Sid-di-pou-i-wi-ta had again stood him in good stead, for he had not only escaped, but had succeeded in getting one of his chief rivals killed.

When the people saw what the treachery of Sid-di-pou-i-wi-ta had brought upon them, they were filled with deep sorrow, and loud wailings rent the air. Then their sorrow changed to anger and they decided to call a conference, for the purpose of determining what punishment should be visited upon the wicked chief.

As a result of the conference it was decided to send a force down the river to destroy the camp of Sid-di-pou-i-wi-ta, slay him and his sons and kill or disperse his warriors. Two chiefs were appointed to carry out this plan. One of them was Sed-im-seh-li -- the leader of the Coyotes -- one whom friends and foes alike agreed had never allowed his enemies to surprise him. The other was the chief of the McCloud Wintuns, Do-li-ken-til-i-ma -- the silver throated one -- who, in a long career as a warrior chief had never once been successfully challenged. He had always been ready for his enemies and had never failed to defeat them.

These two skillful and practical warriors soon had their forces well organized and when all was ready they started out to punish Sid-di-pou-i-wi-ta. When they came to within a bow-shot of his camp, a runner-herald was sent. All was alert and expectant in Sid-di-pou-i-wi-ta's camp, for his sentries and outlooks had warned him of the coming of the army of punishment. So they all heard what the herald said. In a loud voice he cried, "Do-li-ken-til-i-ma put these words into my mouth to speak to the cowardly and treacherous Sid-di-pou-i-wi-ta. 'I am dressed in my warrior's garments, ready to fight you.  Are you dressed in yours? When you came to our camp you played a woman's trick. Now I challenge you to come out and play the part of a man.'"

No sooner had the herald ceased speaking than Sid-di-pou-i-wi-ta's sons and warriors rushed forth and with great fury attacked the challenging army. They fought with desperation, for they knew it was a fight to the death, a fight of extermination. It was not long before Do-li-ken-til-i-ma picked out one of Sid-di-pou-i-wi-ta's sons for his special attack, while Sed-im-seh-li picked out the other. Though the youths were brave and expert fighters, neither of them could withstand the onslaught of these two chiefs and in a short time both of them fell dead. But nowhere in the battling throng was Sid-di-pou-i-wi-ta himself to be seen. So Do-li-ken-til-i-ma placed his foot on the breast of the son he had slain and called in a loud voice to Sid-di-pou-i-wi-ta: "Where is the braggart chieftain? How is it he does not appear to fight his foes? I came here to fight you, but you sent your son against me and he now lies dead before me with one of my feet on his breast."

But Sid-di-pou-i-wi-ta did not appear. He was afraid and in hiding.

The effect of the death of the two sons of the noted chieftain was so great upon the northern Wintuns that they fought more rigorously than before, while their foes became more and more disheartened and discouraged. It was not long, therefore, before the forces of the south were beaten back with great slaughter and their retreat soon became a disorganized flight.

Then, and not till then, did Sid-di-pou-i-wi-ta show himself. Angered at his defeat, infuriated by the taunts of his victorious foes, made reckless by the death of his sons, and hopeless by the seizure of his food supplies, he came out on the bluffs, overlooking the scene of conflict, and there with obscene gestures and disgraceful words, endeavored to make light of his situation. But nothing could undo the pain, chagrin and bitterness he felt. He saw his disorganized and defeated followers fleeing from his triumphant foes, and his cowardly heart prompted him to desert them and seek his own safety. Hence, he fled, and it was later learned that he had gone to the home of his father's ancestors, the Pouiyail Yukis, near Lassen Butte

In the meantime, Sid-di-pou-i-wi-ta's defeated warriors were captured and brought back by the victorious forces of Do-li-ken-til-i-ma and Sed-im-sch-li, to their former homes. There they were addressed by the great silver-throated chief in the following words: "O, warriors of Sid-di-pou-i-wi-ta, listen to the words of Do-li-ken-til-i-ma. Your great chief has fled, deserted you like the coward he is. You fought for him and tried to capture a territory that was not yours. You have been defeated. Now go back to the homes from which you were stolen in your childhood, or to those places where your own people belong."

Thus the Elpom Wintuns were returned to their homes and also those who came from Dowpom -- the region of the foothills.

Never again did Sid-di-pou-i-wi-ta appear as a warrior. He lived in seclusion, but was always spoken of by the Wintuns as a braggart, a coward, a traitor and a murderer. When, finally, he died, his body was brought to the place where he used to live on the flats near Redding, and there directly across from Turtle Bay he was buried in a vast mound raised over him, which remains to this day.

On the other hand, Do-li-ken-til-i-ma lived to a ripe old age, the honored and beloved chief of his people on the McCloud River, or Wena Mame -- the middle river -- sometimes called the Topy Mame -- the much coveted river.
He had one narrow escape from death which came about as follows:

It was soon after the great fight with Sid-di-pou-i-wi-ta that the white men first came in to the country of the Wintuns. A band of soldiers appeared and finding a good camping place at an Indian village named See-di-tom, the place of the pine leaves -- settled there and prepared for a long stay. As they were eager to eat venison they persuaded the Indians to take them hunting and they also wished to see the Indians dance, so the Wintuns prepared a great feast and arranged for a series of dances that should last many days. Many visitors came to the dances and among others a band from the Trinity River. These had had much experience with the white soldiers for the trail used by the latter came to their villages first. Consequently the dancers listened to them when secretly, they solemnly warned: "These soldiers are not your friends. They are deceiving you. They are preparing a trap for you and intend to kill you."

As soon as this warning spread among the dancers they rapidly began to dwindle away, as none of them had brought bows, arrows, spears, battle-axes or sling shots with them, and they were defenseless. Though there were originally over a thousand of them, soon less than sixty were left. When they realized this the soldiers expressed surprise, and some of them followed the Indians when they left camp to find out what had become of the others.

But Do-li-ken-til-i-ma, with forty-five of this warriors, still remained, and in order to capture them, the soldiers invited them to eat dinner with them. When they were all seated at the table some good spirit must have warned the old chief, for, rising from his seat and picking up a bucket, he said he must go to the river and fetch some fresh water. One of the soldiers stealthily followed him, but his suspicions were quieted when he saw that the chief did actually go to the river and dip up a bucket of water from it. But had he watched a few moments longer he would have been much surprised, for, placing the bucket on the ground, Do-li-ken-til-i-ma dived headlong into the river, hid himself under the bank until he felt sure that he was free from observation and then swam to the other side of the river, and escaped to the far-away homes of some of his people, where he lived happily to a ripe and well-beloved old age.

It was well that he thus escaped, for very soon after he left the room the soldiers fired upon his warriors and slew every one. It appeared that some white man had been slain and the soldiers, instead of finding out who had committed the crime, took this wicked and summary vengeance upon all the Indians for a wrong action of which they knew nothing.

Original notes:
The Sacramento River was called by the Wintuns, "Bo-ha Mem," "Big River," or "All Rivers Gathered Into One"; the Little Sacramento, "Nomp-ti-pom Mem," or "River of the West Ground"; the Pitt River, "Pu-e-ta pom Mem," or "River of the East Ground." It was the largest river to the East known to the Wintuns. The McCloud River was known by two names, vis.: "To-pi Mem" or "The Valuable and Much Coveted River," and "Wi-num Mem," or "The Middle River," flowing as it did between the Little Sacramento and the Pitt.

1. George Wharton James was born in Lincolnshire, England in 1858, immigrating to the United States in 1881 and serving the next few years as a Methodist minister. He became enchanted with the southwest and the native people of the area, and wrote numerous books, articles, and pamphlets on the area and the culture of the
Indian people. A recognized authority on basketry and weaving, James served as the editor of the California Indian Herald and was active in matters involving Indian rights.

2. The Big Dipper.

3. Lassen Peak, 10,457 ft (3,187 m) high, is officially an active volcano even though the last major eruption occurred in 1914; it was intermittently active until 1921. The peak was a prominent landmark in the mid-1800s for westward travelers to California.

4. Alfred C. Gillis belonged to the Wintun tribe of Heroult, Shasta County, California. He was an active member of the Indian Board of Co-operation and served on its Advisory Board. He also chaired the local auxiliary of that organization. Gillis frequently toured the California area with Edward Wharton James, editor of the California
Indian Herald, to promote Indian rights. Often on these tours, Gillis would entertain audiences with his singing of traditional Indian songs.

As told by Alfred C. Gillis [4], a Wintun Indian, and Recorded by George Wharton James [1]

Three California Writers
Edited by Cindy Beck
American Native Press Archives and Sequoyah Research Center