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When Europeans came to the Berkeley area in 1772 they encountered the Native Americans known today as the Ohlones. Anthropologists speculate that several waves of immigration preceded them, and linguistic evidence suggests that they arrived here around 500 A.D.
The 18th-century Spanish explorers and missionaries estimated that approximately 2,500 Ohlones lived along the edge of the bay between north Oakland and Martinez. In the 1960s UC Professor Sherburne Cook placed their number at between 3,000 and 4,500. From time to time archaeologists discover new evidence or reinterpret old evidence, and estimates of the Native American population and their length of residence change.
However, new information doesn’t seem to alter our basic understanding of the Ohlones. Like many Native American Californians, they were hunter-gatherers. Acorns, berries, fish and game supplied them with food. Reeds supplied the material for their huts and canoes and for the skillfully woven baskets they used for storage. They were not agricultural people, and their needs did not require writing. Their way of life appears to have been unchanged for over a millennium.
Some people today admire the Ohlones as proto-environmentalists who lived in harmony with nature, not harming the land, or killing off other species, or fighting destructive wars. They are not the first to have been charmed by the Ohlone way of life. It even cast a spell on that ruthless old pirate, Sir Francis Drake.
John Collier summarized Drake’s description of the coastal tribes of Northern California as follows: “Arcadian people . . . whose natures could hardly be told save through the language of music; peoples joyously hospitable who seemed as free as birds, whose speech and colors were like the warbling and plumage of birds.”
In 1772, when Fr. Juan Crespi saw the East Bay’s Native Americans for the first time, he wrote, “We found a village of heathen, very fair and bearded, who did not know what to do they were so happy to see us.”
Fifty years later Spanish soldiers cleared them out of the East Bay, moving them to Mission Dolores in San Francisco. There the law of unintended consequences began to operate and the Ohlones were stricken by epidemics: measles in 1827, small pox in 1833, and cholera in 1834.
After Mexico secularized the missions, many of the surviving Ohlones drifted south to Monterey, and a few returned to the East Bay. They did not fare well under American rule. Their numbers continued to decline, and eventually the Bureau of Indian Affairs declared the Ohlone tribe to be extinct because it had ceased to function as a genuine tribal organization.
People of Ohlone descent in Northern California have petitioned for reversal of this decision, negotiated with museums for reburial of ancestral bones and artifacts, and taken sides—for and against—the beatification of Father Serra.
Signs of Ancient Days
In the greater Berkeley area there were once a number of Ohlone villages—at the intersection of Hearst and Fourth Street in Berkeley, at Claremont and Telegraph Avenue in Oakland, and at Shellmound Street and Ohlone Way in Emeryville. There may also have been a village on the University campus, near the faculty club, and another at Mortar Rock Park in North Berkeley.
Actual signs of the ancient Ohlones can still be seen in three places. First, at Indian Rock Park visitors can find (in Trish Hawthorne’s words) “smooth cylindrical holes ... made by generations of Indian women as they ground the acorns which were the basis of their diet.”
Next, in Emeryville near the multiplex movie theater, a mini-park has been created around the little hillock which is all that remains of an old shellmound. (Shell mounds are important signs of long-term residence. In Richmond there was one which is said to have been 30 feet high, 460 feet long, and 250 feet wide.) Finally, at Oakland’s California Museum there is a permanent display of Ohlone artifacts.
Songs and Stories, Hopes and Dreams
Although Native Americans in California tended to live in isolated groups, they did have a recognizably consistent culture, and what they had in common seems more important in defining it than incidental differences from place to place. As Robert Pearsall wrote, “It was chiefly in the works of the imagination that they came together, for magic and literature skipped easily across all their painstaking boundaries.” The same may be said of their music.
Some early Native American songs were recorded on wax cylinders by anthropologists at the beginning of the twentieth century. In 1997 the Franciscan Order released “Mission Music: A 200-Year Anthology,” a CD that includes two of these cylinders; both recordings have a strange, spectral sound, as though ghosts are singing somewhere down the street, just out of view. Some contemporary choral groups, such as the Choir of Angels, include ancient Native American songs in their repertoires (along with the beautiful baroque masses written by Franciscan composers and performed so famously by mission choirs). Though not specifically Ohlone, these do evoke the sounds of Native American culture.
When Theodore Kroeber went to Monterey in 1901 to interview Ohlones, Maria Viviana Soto (1823-1916) sang an old tribal song for him. Its words, a spectacular image, are now one of the best known of the surviving Ohlone poems:
See! I am dancing!
On the rim of the world I am dancing!
Kroeber heard several versions of their creation myth. One of the richest (reprinted in Theodora Kroeber’s Almost Ancestors) begins, “In the beginning there was no land, no light, only darkness and the vast waters of Outer Ocean where Earth-Maker and Great-Grandfather were afloat in their canoe.”
It proceeds, as does Genesis, to the creation of day and night, land and water, and all living things, including people: “Earth-Maker took soft clay and formed the figure of a man and of a woman, then many men and women, which he dried in the sun and into which he breathed life: they were the First People.”
“The Beginning of the World,” the version of the creation myth given him by Maria Viviana Soto, appears to be incomplete or mis-remembered. It substitutes Coyote, Eagle and Hummingbird for the Earth Maker and Great-Grandfather, and sounds more like the story of Noah than the creation of Adam and Eve. It begins:
“When this world was finished, the Eagle, the Hummingbird, and Coyote were standing on the top of Pico Blanco [north of Big Sur]. When the water rose to their feet, the Eagle, carrying the Hummingbird and Coyote, flew to the Sierra de Gabilan [near Fremont]. There they stood until the water went down. Then the Eagle sent Coyote down the mountain to see if the world was dry. Coyote came back and said, ‘The whole world is dry.’ The Eagle said to him, ‘Go and look in the river. See what there is there.’ Coyote came back and said, ‘There is a beautiful girl.’ The Eagle said, ‘She will be your wife in order that people may be raised again.’”
Then the story loses coherence, becoming briefly a naughty tale about Coyote’s ignorance of how to beget children, and ending with a trick played on him by his pregnant wife:
“So she ran to the ocean. Coyote was close to her. Just as he was going to take hold of her, she threw herself into the water and the waves came up between them as she turned into a shrimp. Coyote, diving after her, struck only the sand. He said, ‘I wanted to clasp my wife but took hold of the sand. My wife is gone.’”
The Native Americans created stories to explain the geography of the world around them. Charles Marinovich, a knowledgeable local historian and skillful researcher, found one about the bay’s origin in a rare book, Dr. Platon Vallejo’s Memoirs of the Vallejos (1915). Vallejo attributed it to Suisun Indians.
They believed, he said, that long ago “the Central Valley was an immense deep freshwater sea that was divided from the ocean by a narrow barrier of hills and mountains. The sun stole an Indian princess and “as he rose in the sky, he stumbled and his arm pushed through the barrier and created the Straits of Yulupa, which we call the Golden Gate.” He dropped the girl, and “she rests where she fell, the legendary sleeping princess of Mount Tamalpais.”
The myths of each tribe of Native Americans assured them that they lived at the center of the universe and that their gods meant well by them in this life and beyond. Many of the Native Americans—and the Ohlones may have shared some form of this—believed that after death their spirits were called to walk along a trail to the island of the dead, somewhere inland, in the middle of a river. A bridge reached from the land of the living to the shore of the island, and once the spirit crossed the bridge, it would be reunited with its dead friends and relatives.
In Earth Abides, the novel in which George Stewart imagined the collapse of our civilization after a devastating plague, a small band of survivors here in Berkeley are the hope of mankind’s future. At the novel’s end, Stewart left them living the way the Ohlones did before the Spanish came. Maybe, while he was writing it, Stewart heard Coyote laughing in the hills.,