The Coast Miwok are indigenous people of the area north of San Francisco Bay.
Coast Miwok Territory
The name “Coast Miwok” refers to the Native American communities who lived along the California coast north of the San Francisco Bay, in what is today Marin and parts of Sonoma Counties.
The terrain of that area is made up of coastal beaches, bays, lagoons and marshes, as well as low hills and open valleys. Mount Tamalpais, the peak with the highest elevation, dominates the area.
The Coast Miwok Language
The Coast Miwok share a similar language with other Miwok groups, such as the Bay, Plains and Sierra Miwok. The name “Miwok” comes from the word for “people” among the Native Americans of the Central Sierra.
Their language is part of a larger family known as Penutian languages. Penutian languages are the largest block of languages among California’s native peoples. For that reason, linguists began grouping them together in the 1870s. The Penutian family of languages includes the languages of peoples like the Wintu, the Maidu, the Ohlone and the Yokuts.
Several well-known places in the area north of San Francisco Bay have Coast Miwok names. Some examples are Cotati (“to punch”), Olompali (“south”), Tamalpais (“west hill” or “coast hill”), and Tomales (“west,” “coast,” “west coast”). Marin County is named for Chief Marin, a Coast Miwok leader, while the cities of Novato and Nicasio are also named for historical Coast Miwok people.
Coast Miwok Organization
Before contact with the Spanish, the Coast Miwok were not a single tribe. Instead, they were organized around villages or family groups. Coast Miwok villages were strategically located close to water sources such as beaches, lagoons, or sloughs. When summer arrived, they often relocated to the hills.
Larger villages had a headman or chief (hóypuh) whose job was to look after the group, give advice and make sure people did their tasks. There were also important female leaders, such as the máien. She held considerable authority, presiding over the women’s ceremonial house. The máien also took charge of tasks like supervising the construction of new dance houses or preparing food for celebrations. She also played a key role in the selection of performers for dances.
The Coast Miwok traded clamshells with other tribes, such as the Wappo and Pomo. In exchange, they received goods like venison, yellow paint, obsidian (for arrows), willow for basket making, and medicinal plants. They generally had good relations with their neighbors. At times, however, villages fought with one another over rights to certain hunting or gathering areas, for example.
Coast Miwok Food
The Coast Miwok had a diverse array of foods available to them throughout the year. Some animals, like crabs and deer, could be found all year round. But, during the winter and early spring, resources became scarce. This led to a reliance on stored dried acorns, seeds, and kelp. Additionally, they took advantage of steelhead and salmon runs and the availability of mudhens and geese in the winter. As spring arrived, small fish could be found stranded in tide pools along with kelp.
While they did not eat marine animals, they relied heavily on fish and various types of seafood. This included eels, shellfish, mussels, and clams. The Coast Miwok people employed methods like netting and spearing to catch fish.
Their diet also included land animals like deer, bear, rabbits and smaller creatures such as squirrels, gophers, and wood rats. They also trapped larger animals like elk and certain birds.
Plants and Seeds
A wide range of local plant varieties played a crucial role in the Coast Miwok diet. Among them, acorns were the most common food source. Acorns were carefully processed through grinding and leaching. People transformed them into a type of mush that could be either boiled or baked into cakes using earthen ovens. The fruit of the buckeye tree underwent a similar process. Besides acorns and buckeye fruit, the Coast Miwok gathered various types of seeds and edible plants.
Coast Miwok Houses
Coast Miwok homes were typically cone-shaped and constructed using materials like grass, rushes, tule, or bark. The framework consisted of light, flexible poles. Inside, they would dig a firepit and line it with stones at the center. An opening above the pit allowed smoke to dissipate. In cold or rainy weather, they covered the smokehole with seal skins. They would also cover the floor with grass mats, with another mat used over the doorway. These structures accommodated six to ten people.
In larger and more populous villages, people would make circular sweathouses by digging a pit approximately 4-5 feet deep into the ground. This subterranean structure was then covered with a combination of poles, grass, rushes, and earth. The space served as a gathering point for men to conduct ceremonies or socialize.
For more information about the Coast Miwok, read Part 2.
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