California Indians

by Beth Ericson


Before the coming of the Spaniards, Central California had one of the densest Native American populations in North America. Over 10,000 people lived in the coastal area between the San Francisco Bay and Big Sur. These people belonged to about forty different language groups, each with its own territory and chief. Boundaries were acknowledged during the seasonal migrations as tribes hunted and gathered native foods. Eight to twelve different languages were spoken. These languages were closely related, by still so distinct that oftentimes, Native Americans living only twenty miles apart could barely understand one another.

The Spaniards were amazed at the cultural diversity of the dense population living around the Monterey and San Francisco Bay Areas when Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo arrived with his expedition in 1542. To the Spanish explorers, soldiers, and Jesuits, it was mind boggling that so many independent groups could co-exist peacefully in close proximity. These natives prospered, managing an abundance of wildlife, altering the natural environment to suit their needs without destroying natural resources. The natural food supply, which seemed inexhaustible to the Spaniards, supported the native people abundantly. Starvation and warfare were non-existent. Such a life was difficult for the Europeans to fathom. Cultural dominance through warfare was the European way of life. Manšs dominance over nature was equally unquestioned among Europeans but never assumed among any Native American group of people.

The Spaniards named these people the "Costenos," lumping together all the various tribes of the coast. But the Native Americans did not like this name because they did not see themselves as a single, unified group of people. They sometimes called themselves "Ohlones," but each group had a distinct name and territory. Although they belonged to the same language family, people in different "tribelets" could not understand each other easily. Because "Ohlone" was a name these various groups accepted among themselves, it will be used in this paper.

The Ohlones shared broad cultural characteristics with much more famous tribes such as the Apache, Sioux and Navaho nations: food gathering and hunting, animal worship, and world view expressed through the oral tradition of story telling. however, the Ohlones did not share other characteristics, such as the Sioux and Apache nations' sophisticated, complex political systems or deadly warfare. Unlike these other nations, the Ohlones and all other California Indians were flexibly affiliated with each other through bonds of trade and marriage. These bonds were strong enough to keep the peace among them for thousands of years before the arrival of the Spaniards in 1542. Ironically, their peaceful way of life made them an easy people to conquer, leading to their near extinction as first the people of Spain, then Mexico, and finally, the United States destroyed their culture.

The Ohlones lived in light, round houses made of reeds (tules) with a portable structure of supports. They could rebuild these houses easily when they moved from one place to another on their small home territories. The value of material objects was in their practical use. Because of their mobile lifestyle, they did not accumulate many objects. A tribešs chief would determine when and where to move a village, following ancient patterns of hunting and gathering according to the season. Tule houses were perfectly suited to the Ohlones' activities: the houses were light and portable, easily built, disassembled, transported and reassembled.

Seasonally available foods like acorns, berries and salmon were harvested in the same places every year as they came into season. It was the honor and duty of the chief to determine the exact place and time for the tribe to move together. In this manner, the Ohlones' lives were governed by the cycle of the natural world. They believed that the highest, best order of life was achieved by repeating the "old ways" of their elders. Their deep connection to the natural world was abiding. It was expressed with humor and reverence by their creation myths enacted in games, songs, and dances. These myths explain a cosmos in which animal-gods like Coyote and Bear are mankind's great ancestors, to be respected and obeyed.

The Ohlones had a strong sense of values which parents taught their children within the experiences of daily life. The worst vice was selfishness. Ohlones gained prestige and power by being in a position to give away possessions and resources. Parents taught their children to be humble by respecting the spiritual world, and to be competent members of their communities by developing practical skills. Rituals of daily life illustrated the fluid connection between spiritual and physical realms. The Ohlones believed that practical tools (for example, the stone and pestle used by a woman to grind acorns) were alive with spirits of their ancestral world. Children were taught to respect these spirits by using the natural gifts of life with gratitude and purposefulness.

The spiritual world of the Ohlones was invisible to European settlers in the religious forms to which they were accustomed. There seemed to be no "houses of worship" or altars to celebrate gods. The Ohlones' spiritual world was invisible, yet all-pervasive in every aspect of their lives. Hunters acknowledged the spirit of the animals they were about to kill. Women had their own special rites surrounding the process of acorn-gathering and basket-making. When someone died, the deceased person's material objects were never inherited. Instead, they were ritualistically burned because the spirits of these objects were forever tied to their original owners. The Ohlones believed totally in their dream life, in the power of animal spirits, and the spirits of each other, all of which were tied together inseparably forever. They worshipped animals as ancestors, imitated them in dance, and told stories about animal tricks. In many stories, Coyote was honored as their wisest, funniest, and trickiest forefather. Coyote was the Creator of all the Ohlone family of mankind.

Although the Native American population was nearly decimated during the California Gold Rush, the Ohlones and other distinct Native Californian tribal groups have survived. They have managed to survive disease, starvation, slavery, and outright policies of genocide throughout the history of disastrous encounters with Western Civilization. Today, California's Native Americans are thriving, reconstructing their old languages and myths, and asserting their legal rights as they reclaim old territories. In fact, the Ohlones are as close to you as this web site: www.muwekma.org/ .

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