First Encounters with Europeans
The Coast Miwok people’s encounters with Europeans date back to the sixteenth century. In 1579, the English privateer Francis Drake made landfall along the northern California coast. There, he probably met Coast Miwok people.
Portuguese explorer Sebastião Rodrigues Soromenho — also known as Sebastián Rodríguez Cermeño — surveyed the northern California coast for the Spanish crown in 1595-96. Historians believe he interacted with the Coast Miwok.
The Coast Miwok began to enter the Spanish missions as early as the 1770s at Mission San Francisco de Asís. Later, they entered San Rafael (founded in 1817) and San Francisco Solano (established in 1823).
The Rancho Era
After the secularization of the missions, some Coast Miwok found employment at ranchos. One Coast Miwok leader, Camilo Ynitia, even established his own rancho. Additionally, they worked at the Russian colony of Fort Ross from its founding in 1812 until the U.S. assumed control of California.
Coast Miwok Beliefs
The Coast Miwok people traditionally held beliefs to explain the origins of both human beings and natural phenomena. Coyote, also known as Coyote Man, stood at the forefront of their pantheon. According to their beliefs, Coyote was the creator of humanity and had power over elemental forces like tides, thunder, and fog. Their traditions contained many stories about Coyote’s exploits. Coyote often played pranks on fellow creatures, though some pranks turned against him.
They also revered other animals, such as the bear and different bird species, including the condor, pelican, and robin. Their prayers were often accompanied by ceremonies featuring song and dance. They also believed in spirits — including deceased people — who inhabited the world both above and below the earth’s surface.
The sacredness of certain landmarks was also integral to how they viewed the world. The Coast Miwok viewed mountains like Mt. Tamalpais, Sonoma Mountain, Mount Diablo, and Mount Saint Helena as places of great spiritual power. There were many other places and geographical locations that they considered sacred.
Coast Miwok Games and Pastimes
The Coast Miwok engaged in a variety of games and pastimes. One such game involved a wooden ball, akin to a form of hockey. Additionally, they indulged in games of chance that utilized sticks as dice.
Another popular pastime was the grass game. It required players to guess where their opponent had concealed sticks or bones. Some of these sticks or bones were marked to add an element of challenge, and players could rearrange them to confound their rivals. , these games could involve as many as 16 players.
Children had their own set of games that allowed them to have fun and develop their skills. They crafted dolls out of mud or sticks and even used acorns as makeshift jacks. These activities provided entertainment and opportunities for social bonding in the community.
Dancing held great meaning for the Coast Miwok people. Some dances were for specific occasions, such as celebrating a successful hunt or inaugurating a new chief. Their dances encompassed religious and secular themes. Some paid homage to specific animals, like the Bear Dance or the Coyote Dance.
Some dances were reserved for either men or women. But, there were also occasions when both men and women participated. Elaborate costumes were common, crafted from pelican skin and adorned with feathered headdresses. Dancers also incorporated items like deer bones, pelican wings, bundles of feathers, or tufts of grass into their costumes.
Music played an integral role in these dances. It was often accompanied by the rhythmic beats of drums, the sounds of rattles, or the clapping of hands. There were songs for every significant event in people’s lives.
They had an array of instruments. For example, they fashioned hollow logs into drums and crafted flutes from elderberry wood. They also made whistles from bones, fashioned rattles from cocoons, and derived clappers from split sticks.
Clothing and Decoration
Prior to the mission period, the Coast Miwok wore minimal clothing. Men sometimes wore a loincloth made of deerskin, which occasionally reached to their ankles. Women used a double apron of deerskin. They also cut the skins of jackrabbits or other small animals into strips and sewed them together to make blankets. It seems that no one wore shoes.
Both men and women typically maintained long hair, while men allowed their beards to grow. Sometimes, clamshell beads were used as decoration, but they were also used as money. Both men and women sometimes wore tattoos. For special occasions, individuals would wear bracelets and belts fashioned from feathers.
Coast Miwok Crafts
The Coast Miwok were skilled artisans and fashioned a diverse array of tools and objects essential for their daily lives. Among their creations were carved blades and amulets hewn from stone. They crafted knives from chalcedony (a variety of quartz) and chipped arrows out of black obsidian. They repurposed clamshells, boring holes through them to use as currency. They also fashioned slings, bows, arrows, and nets. These were indispensable tools for hunting and fishing.
Basketry was a significant aspect of their craftsmanship, a skill woven into their daily activities. Baskets served various functions. They would be used for carrying hunting gear or gathering seeds and other ingredients. They also served as bowls for eating and cups for drinking. This art was practiced by women, who wove grasses and flexible branches into decorative patterns. Feathers and shells were sometimes incorporated for added flair and cultural significance.
The Coast Miwok Today
People often ask, “Do Coast Miwok people exist today?” The answer is “yes.” There are many people today of Coast Miwok ancestry. They are represented by groups such as the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, the Coast Miwok Tribal Council and the Coast Miwok of Southern Marin Project.
Coast Miwok Resources:
- Chief Marin: Leader, Rebel, and Legend
- Native California: An Introductory Guide to the Original Peoples from Earliest to Modern Times
- Grass Games & Moon Races: California Indian Games and Toys
- Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources