The second of a two part series. Read part 1 here.
In this second part, we discuss Ohlone culture, including political organization, religion, myths, music and art, tools and crafts, the Ohlone today and Ohlone sites you can visit.
How Was Ohlone Culture Organized?
Although today the Ohlone are referred to with one name, they were not one single tribe. Instead, there were many different groups of one or more villages. The Spanish referred to them as “nations,” and anthropologists have used the term “tribelet” to describe this organization.
In the period before contact with the Spanish, there were probably at least 40 tribelets or nations between San Francisco and Big Sur. Usually each tribelet was made up of dozens of family groups organized around a main village. The boundaries of tribelets depended on geographic features, like rivers, forests or hills, and could be very strict. At times war could break out over the boundaries between different Ohlone groups.
Each group was led by a chief, who could be either a man or a woman. There was usually a council of elders to advise the chief. The office was normally passed down from father to son, but when the chief had no son, his sister or daughter inherited the office.
During the Spanish and Mexican periods, the Ohlone who lived at missions had a different organization. According to Spanish law, there were to be alcaldes and regidores at each mission. These would be people who represented the interests of the native community at the mission to the padre, and who would be in charge of enforcing the rules of mission life.
Another difference between the time before and after contact with the Spanish was in the area of religion. In traditional Ohlone religion, the different elements of nature were considered to have their own special powers. For example, people would make prayers and offerings to the sun and to spirits they believed inhabited different places in their territory. Sometimes they would offer seeds, shell beads or tobacco, and also blow smoke toward the sky.
When Ohlone people died, they believed the dead went to a land across the sea. They were buried or cremated at death, and all their belongings were destroyed or buried with them. People would mourn for the deceased by cutting their hair, and the dead were not to be spoken about again.
One of the most important people in the Ohlone religious system was the shaman. The Ohlone believed he had the power to communicate with the spirit world, to cure diseases or to control the weather. He was in charge of performing special dances or ceremonies to ask for abundant growth of acorns, fish or animals to hunt.
After encountering Franciscan missionaries and joining the missions, the Ohlone began to adopt Christianity. This involved a gradual process of education by the missionaries. Many Ohlone embraced the new religion, while others continued to maintain some or all of their old beliefs. Nevertheless, after a number of generations had been born at the missions, Catholicism became the dominant religion among the Ohlone.
In traditional Ohlone culture, there were many stories for explaining how the world came to be, and how human beings fit into it. Animals played a very important role in these stories. For example, to the Ohlone, the coyote was the chief of the animals and a trickster who would play jokes on other animals. But he was also known for being a teacher to human being and giving them the skills necessary to live in the wild.
The following is a story about Coyote and teaching human beings about how to survive:
Now Coyote gave the people the carrying net. He gave them bow and arrows to kill rabbits. He said: ‘You will have acorn mush for your food. You will gather acorns and you will have acorn bread to eat. Go down to the ocean and gather seaweed that you may eat it and your acorn mush and the acorn bread. Gather it when the tide is high, and kill rabbits, and at low tide pick abalone and mussels to eat. When you can find nothing else, gather buckeyes for food. If the acorns are bitter, wash them out; and gather ‘wild oat’ seeds for pinole, carrying them on your back in a basket. Look at these things of which I have told you. I have shown you what is good. Now I will leave you. You have learned. I have shown you how to gather food, and even though it rains a long time people will not die of hunger. Now I am getting old. I cannot walk. Alas for me! Now I go.”
Music and Art
The Ohlone created art in different ways. One was in the form of petroglyphs (rock carvings) and pictographs (drawings on rocks). Some of them display astronomical symbols or figures related to Ohlone mythology. There are a number of Ohlone petroglyphs preserved throughout northern California.
In Ohlone tradition, music was very important. Music accompanied most important ceremonies, especially dances. The Ohlone had whistles and flutes that were made of either bird bones or wood and bows that made music by attaching a string to them and plucking it.
They also had rattles and other percussion instruments. Some rattles were made from moth cocoons attached to a stick. Another rattle was made from splitting a bay laurel branch and striking it against the palm of the hand.
Ohlone people were very talented musicians. At the missions, some learned how to play musical instruments from Europe and Latin America and to sing Catholic hymns in Latin and Spanish. An American who visited Mission San José in 1831 commented that “the music was well-executed, for it had been practiced daily under the particular supervision of Fr. Narciso Durán. The number of musicians was about thirty; the instruments performed were violins, flutes, trumpets and drums.”
In Ohlone culture, dances were very important and there were many ceremonies that involved dancing. Some were named after animals, such as bear, coyote or dove. Men would often paint their bodies and cover them with feathers, or wear special headdresses made of feathers. Oftentimes dancing would be accompanied by singing and clapping with the split stick, and making movements, such as jumps. The movements would imitate events of daily life or battles.
A Russian visitor to Mission San José described a dance that men performed in imitation of a battle:
A large straw figure represented the enemy, and a number of the men armed with bows and arrows sprang and danced about with fierce gesticulations and contortions… One of the Indians finally gave a signal and at the same moment, the straw figure was pierced with arrows, whereupon it was presented in triumph to the man who personated the chief.”
According to many traveler’s accounts, the Ohlone loved to play games in their leisure time. One game was called “Tussi,” and involved trying to guess which hand a small stick was held in. Another game involved rolling a stick with a hole carved in it along the ground. As the stick rolled, someone would try to throw a spear through the hole. You would get 10 points if the spear went through the hole. Some other games involved throwing carved pieces of wood and getting points based on whether the pieces fell on their flat or curved sides.
Ohlone Tools and Crafts
Another aspect of Ohlone culture was toolmaking and crafts. One of the most important hunting tools used by the Ohlone was the bow and arrow. These were usually 3 to 4 1/2 feet long. The Ohlone would attach sinew to a bow made of wood while it was wet to use as a string. That made the bow very effective and easy to draw. They would use arrows with points made of lava rock or obsidian. According to Fr. Palóu, the biographer of Junípero Serra, the Ohlone were also known to carry short lances with points made of flint.
The Ohlone crafted boats, called balsas, for fishing, hunting waterfowl, and traveling up and down the coast. Some early visitors said they were about ten feet long and made of rushes or rolled up dried grass. These boats would be thick in the middle and tapered on the ends. Whoever was in the boat would use a double-bladed oar to paddle through the water.
Early visitors were also very impressed with Ohlone basketwork. They were able to weave plant fibers in such a way that they were completely waterproof. This way, they could be used for drinking, holding food and even roasting over a fire. Ohlone baskets were often decorated with beads, mother-of-pearl and feathers.
Ohlone Culture Today
During the American period, they had to fight for their survival, and some scientists who studied Native American life considered the Ohlone to have disappeared. But they had never left.
Today the Ohlone are still with us, and continue to maintain their traditions. If you would like to know more about Ohlone culture today, their descendants are represented through groups such as the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe of San Francisco Bay, the Indian Canyon Nation, and the Amah-Mutsun Tribal Band.
Ohlone Sites to Visit
There are many sites you can visit today to learn about Ohlone culture and life. Some are outdoors, where you can experience the natural setting in which the Ohlone lived before the encounter with the Spanish. In those places you may even see pictographs and petroglyphs. Other places are indoors, such as museums, where you can see artifacts and exhibits related to Ohlone culture. Below are a few of my favorites:
• Alameda County: The museum at Mission San José has some very informative exhibits about the Ohlone before, during and after the mission period.
• San Francisco County: The museum and grounds at Mission San Francisco de Asís (Mission Dolores) have excellent exhibits on Ohlone culture. The museum at the Presidio of San Francisco also has some very good information about the life of the Ohlone in early times.
• San Mateo County: The Sanchez Adobe not only gives insight into Hispanic Alta California, but is built on the site of an Ohlone village called Pruristac.
• Santa Clara County: Chictactac-Adams County Park features Ohlone grinding rocks, petroglyphs, and information about the Ohlone up until modern times. The De Saisset Museum at Santa Clara University even has a reproduction of an Ohlone tule house.
• Santa Cruz County: The Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park provides access to the adobe homes that Ohlone families lived in at Mission Santa Cruz.
Have you visited an Ohlone site? Are there any you would like to recommend? If so, let me know in the comments below!