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California Indians: Lessons from the Ohlone
July 27, 2009, 12:00 AM

Twenty-thousand years ago, the little San Jose River meandered across the valley that had formed between the western Coast Range Mountains and low mountains to the east.

The river didn’t empty into the Pacific Ocean until it reached the shores of the Farallon Islands, 20 miles to the west of what would someday, geologically, be the future Golden Gate opening to the Bay. Less than 10,000 years ago, a large migration of Homo sapiens (modern man) was able to take place from Asia to the North American continent across a land bridge that had been exposed when ocean levels dropped, the water having been stored in great ice-sheets and glaciers.

The inquisitive nature of this new immigrant drew him over the continent, allowing him to develop tools and survival skills. Slowly these people pushed southward and spread across the plains and mountains. Some of them finally arrived at the valley where the San Jose River had flowed 10,000 years before, but was now drowned by the waters that had flowed out of the melting glaciers. These hunter-gatherers found in the area between San Francisco and Monterey a cornucopia of food, requiring very little effort to secure, fresh water in abundance and a climate they could survive in. Paradise found.

The mud flats were breeding grounds for waterfowl, since the tides provided brine shrimp and other microorganisms upon which the birds could feed. Oysters, mussels and clams were plentiful along the shore, as were steelhead trout and salmon. Great mounds of shells were found later, some 30 feet deep.

Ducks by the thousands used the marshes for nesting and both birds and eggs were on the Ohlone’s menu. The Indian’s main hunting weapon was a bow and arrow, tipped with flint or obsidian. Deer were abundant, as well as rabbits and coyotes. All parts of a hunted animal were used, meat, skin, bones, nothing was wasted. And the animal was respected and thanked for its sacrifice. Thousands of grizzly bears were everywhere, dangerous and to be avoided. Now there are none, unless you count the one on California’s flag. 

Acorns were an important staple of the Indian’s daily diet. The women prepared them by pounding them into a flour, then leaching out the bitter tannins with water. Finally they cooked the flour with more water, making a kind of gruel or soup. Pine nuts and berries were gathered and eaten, as well as roots of some plants. The women were expert and artistically creative basket weavers, the baskets used for storage of food stuffs and other necessities. Some baskets were woven so tightly and expertly, they could hold water.

Abundant tule reeds growing on the Bay flats and marshes provided material for dwellings and for small boats. To build their homes, bundles of tule rush were fastened onto a framework of willow poles. Ranging in size from 6 feet to 20 feet in diameter, the shelters could hold one or two families, up to 12 people. The Ohlone Indians spent most of their day outdoors, hunting, fishing, preparing food and caring for the children. They migrated seasonally from the Bay to the foot of the oak-covered western hills, following their food supplies. They abandoned their tule homes and built new ones. No loans, no foreclosures, no moving companies. (The women did the heavy lifting).

The Spanish called these Indians Costenos. It was later mispronounced as Costanos, and then in error again as Costanoan. Finally they were called Ohlones. The Indians themselves never used these names. Each of the 40-some tribes had its own name and shared about a dozen similar languages among them. There was a complex network of trading and social interaction, intermarriage, competition and rivalry. There were squabbles, but it was primarily a peaceful coexistence.

The tribes lived in bountiful isolation for thousands of years, until the 1770s when Europeans suddenly appeared, bringing guns and germs. The Indians were terrorized at first, then remembered their manners and welcomed the newcomers as guests. Gifts were exchanged. Between 1770 and 1797, the Franciscan order of monks set up six missions. Believing it was their God-given duty to convert the savages to Christianity, they forced the Indians into the missions, keeping them virtual prisoners. Hundreds died from new illnesses and harsh treatment. Many succumbed to depression, longing for their own way of life.

With guns, the Spanish slaughtered much of the wildlife, often just for sport, until entire species were decimated. For some 60 years, the Ohlone were subjugated, long enough to destroy their spirits and their way of life. The incredible artistry of the basket weavers was all but lost. Only about 12 examples remain. There is one basket in the Smithsonian. The last Ohlone who understood their language died in 1935. Paradise lost.

While it is estimated that 10,000 Ohlones lived between Monterey and San Francisco in the early 1700s, probably only a few dozen lived at ay one time in the immediate area of San Bruno, Millbrae and South San Francisco. In the 1960s, an Ohlone settlement was excavated by Emile Hons of San Bruno in the flat expanse below the present Interstate 280/380 interchange in the Crestmoor Canyon area.

This archeological dig on the banks of the Crestmoor Creek in late 1969 and early 1970 uncovered hard-packed mud and clay house foundations, fragments of primitive utensils and other artifacts. Artifacts were also discovered near San Bruno Creek (San Bruno Senior Center), as well as a burial ground near the present site of the senior citizens building on Crystal Springs Road. Many of these artifacts are displayed in a small museum on the Junipero Serra County Park grounds.

For further information, there is an excellent book entitled The Ohlone Way: Indian Life in the San Francisco-Monterey Bay Area, written by Malcolm Margolin and illustrated by Michael Harney, published by Heyday Books, Berkeley. ISBN:0-930588-01-0

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