From Peace To Present:
A Look at the Ohlone Indians

by Heather Hemingway
This essay was written as a class assignment in SBSC 326: History of the Monterey Bay Area, 10,000 B.C. to Steinbeck, California State University Monterey Bay, Spring Semester 1996.

Merely two hundred years ago the land we now call California was very different from what we now know it to be. Not so long ago the natives of the Monterey Bay area, known as Costanoan or Ohlone Indians, flourished amongst a rich, teeming atmosphere rich with life of all kinds. Today, they are all but gone. The coming of Spanish missions issued in a sad, new chapter of history for these people. Forced into missions and forbidden to maintain their own culture and beliefs, they were removed from their lands, assimilated, and almost annihilated. The problems did not end with the mission era. They lost not only their heritage, but their forced exodus from tribal lands now makes them ineligible for tribal status as outlined by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and as such, the state and federal government are not bound to uphold treaties made with the Ohlone concerning land and water rights, as well as other privileges afforded to federally recognized tribes. The struggle continues to keep alive a culture that so nearly became extinct.

First, let us step back in time, to a life before European explorers encountered this shore. The area itself would be hardly recognizable by today's inhabitants. There was a wealth of flora and fauna that borders on the mythical. Many common and highly nutritious plants abounded that are now extinct. The Ohlone diet included many different kinds of foods from these varied and nutritious plant sources. Roots, seeds, grasses, and especially acorns were an important part of the diverse range of foods eaten.

Along with abundant plant life was a staggering animal population. The land was crawling with all types of animals, from lowly insects to the now vanished grizzly bear. The Ohlone ate them all: insects, reptiles, rodents, birds, fish, and larger game animals of all kinds. Things that seem to be repulsive to today's modern pallet, such as grasshoppers and yellow jacket grubs, were enjoyable additions to the native diet. Animals were everywhere and, as explorer Captain Beechey once noted, they "...seem to have lost their fear and become familiar with man." Other accounts tell of wildlife so thick and unafraid that one shot commonly killed three birds, and rabbits could sometimes be caught with your bare hands as they ran by. Animals that in modern times are very shy and reclusive, such as the sea otter, the gray fox, and the grizzly bear, were under foot and frequently a nuisance. The deer were so familiar with man that early explorers could ride their horses right up into the herd without disturbance. The whole landscape throbbed with living things.

Contrary to derogatory, stereotypical views of the California natives, they were not filthy, root diggers who were too stupid to develop agriculture, but rather an intelligent group of people who made full use of the abundant resources available to them in a land of "inexpressible fertility." Very little in their surrounding environment went to waste. They invented clever snares, decoys, and weapons for hunting, and devised advanced methods of preparing all types of acorns that leached away the bitterness and turned them into a highly versatile food staple from which they made flour, bread, soups, and mush.

Their effective use of all the area had to offer yielded a very well balanced diet that took relatively little hard physical labor. The gathering and preparing of food became a key social and religious aspect of the Ohlone's daily lives. The whole tribe was a part of the process. They moved frequently to different locations throughout the year in order to make the most of their territory. The patterns of their lives revolved around this cycle.

Women were typically involved in the gathering and processing of plants and acorns. The tribe worked together in a large social celebration during the harvest to set aside stores for the upcoming winter. The women took care of these stores, and spent much of their time sitting together singing, chanting, telling stories, and chatting as they ground acorns or seeds with their mortars and pestles. They sang songs about acorns and tried to receive favor from the spirits that related to the plants and the process. Food preparation served an important role in the social and religious cohesion of the group. Bonds were made and strengthened with the human and spiritual worlds.

The women were not alone in providing the tribe with food. Hunting was just as important for the men as acorn production for the women. They too received reinforcement of tribal values and communal ties through their contribution to the food supply. Even more ceremonial was the way the men regarded the hunt. They went through intense physical and spiritual preparation, with strict guidelines as to correct behavior from beginning to end. They prepared their spirits with songs and dances; prepared their bodies through strict dietary provisions and by refraining from sexual activity; and prepared their minds through visits and meditations in the sweat lodge. The men followed these steps together and developed stronger relationships amongst themselves and their spiritual world. They paid due respect to the forces of nature and the supernatural.

The Ohlone also paid a good deal of respect to their fellow tribe members. Sharing is a fundamental precept in the Ohlone philosophy, and so there was rarely a broad division of wealthy and poor. After a hunt, meat was distributed to friends, extended family members, and those members in the community who were in need. The hunter rarely kept any of the fruits of his hunt for himself, and women often gave their finest baskets or flour to another woman. They did not place value on the acquisition of physical wealth, but rather the esteem and friendship brought about by generosity. Sharing with others ensured a strong position in the tribal structure that guaranteed a man and his family security should anything bad befall them. Other members would care for them just as they had cared for others. Behaving generously was the only way they could conceive of acting appropriately. Living in moderation went hand in hand with the concept of sharing. It demonstrated that you were not greedy in accumulating wealth.

It would be unfair to portray the Ohlone as a blissfully happy group where everyone loved and shared in paradise. There were wars with other tribes, disagreements with each other, fights, and other problems common to man. However, they did manage to maintain a successful way of life for over 3,000 years. Through a life of resourcefulness, moderation, and respect for people and nature alike, they were able to maintain their culture for centuries.

Unfortunately, the fate of indigenous people across the continent befell the Ohlone as well. Foreign explorers discovered them during the 16th century, and the religious zeal of padres and politicians to conquer this newly encountered land led to the eventual destruction of one of the world's most successful and admirable societies. The Spanish government set up a military fortification and the Catholic church sent missionaries to save these "savages" from their lowly state.

Accounts of the first contacts between the Spanish and the Ohlone recount that the natives were "amazed and confused," but upon perceiving they were not in any apparent danger, they became excited at the prospect of interacting with the strangers, bringing gifts and sending for their friends and family to come. When the explorers traveled they were eagerly greeted by generous hospitality. The Spanish brought with them wonders and miracles in the form of glass beads, cloth, and metal. The Ohlone marveled at these new items and integrated them into their belief system. In their culture, every object was alive and contained varying levels of power. These new items and the people who brought them were mysterious and different from anything they had ever seen before, so they must surely possess great power. These new additions to their world were viewed with great awe and they were the given respect due to those who held power.

When the Franciscan missionaries arrived, they too were treated with respect. When the missions were established, the people at first came willingly, drawn by awe and curiosity. The padres held an ardent desire to teach these people. They came to instruct the natives of Christ and how to be "civilized" and hoped to set up a "perfect Christian community." Despite recent animosity towards the padres and the mission system, it would be equally unfair to say that these were depraved men who set out to instigate genocide. They came with good intentions, but unfortunately these intentions became the impetus for actions that brought about the destruction of a whole nation of people and their way of life.

When the Ohlone came down to the missions, wanting to see what strange new things had arrived, and hoping, perhaps, to set up trade, the fathers encouraged them to accept baptism. The Ohlone accepted the urgings and were baptized, having no idea what that meant or how far reaching its affects would be. Upon baptism, the people lost their freedom, as the padres took this act to signify that they now had the power to hold the Ohlone in the missions against their will and enforce any means necessary to make the people act as they wished. The padres even baptized children and held them at the mission to entice the adults to become baptized as well. The missions rapidly filled and soon began to resemble a prison rather than the pastoral paradise the fathers had envisioned. Soldiers were employed to detain those who tried to leave and those who tried repeatedly to escape were brutally punished. They were shackled, bastinadoed, and whipped to discourage future thoughts of escape and to serve as an example to others who entertained similar notions. These measures were deemed necessary in order to teach them how to live properly.

The women were locked inside cramped buildings without windows, and employed with spinning, weaving, and sewing to make cloth. This was very impractical occupation for they had no need of the cloth; it was too hot to wear in the summer and their traditional rabbit and otter skin cloaks were infinitely more efficient at keeping them warm in the winter. The men were forced into agriculture: tilling fields and planting crops. This work was grueling and equally unnecessary in light of the abundance of resources available to them with a much smaller expenditure of time or effort. They existed on a diet of gruel and soup that was extremely inferior to their formerly varied and nutritious diet.

But beyond the redundancy of the tasks they were employed in was what it took from them socially, culturally, spiritually, and in numerous other facets of their lives. They were accustomed to working together as a tribe and as groups of women or men, sharing companionship and support. They were now forced into a severely segregated atmosphere where they had to perform solitary work that was physically more demanding than they were accustomed to. They were forced to learn a new language, religion, morals, and etiquette. They were emphatically forbidden to share their stories, speak their own language, or follow their own traditions and customs. Mission life stripped them of their culture and their dignity. Visitors to the mission wrote, "A deep melancholy always clouds their faces, and their eyes are constantly fixed on the ground."

Stripped of their former lifestyle of communal support and sharing, along with the stresses of malnutrition, overwork, fear, and imprisonment, they very quickly fell victim to disease and death. At first the birth rate could scarcely compensate for the accelerated rate at which mission inhabitants died; very shortly the death rate far exceeded the birth rate. Still, they were not allowed to return to their former homes and way of life. They were hunted down and beaten if they were found. They were removed from their lands and distanced from their friends and families. The losses were too great and large numbers of people died in the missions.

Some did survive the mission era, though. Unfortunately, their problems did not end with the missions. They were hated, persecuted, and seen as slave labor. They went from being the true owners and inhabitants of California at the time the missions made their appearance in the late 1700s, to being slaves and treated with no more dignity than animals and pests.

Problems increased when California switched from Mexican hands to American in 1846. The attitude of the U.S. was that the Indians were a ready slave labor force to be exploited and manipulated at will. The press was no help to the natives' plight, and incited people to hatred and violence. A writer in the Yreka Herald in 1853 insists,

...we hope that the government will render such aid as will enable the citizens of the north to carry on a war of extermination until the last red skin these tribes has been killed. Extermination is no longer a question of time--the time has arrived, the work has commenced, and let the first man that says treaty or peace be regarded as a traitor.
A gold miner also recounts, "Whites in California hunted Indians 'as though they were wild beasts' and shot them 'with as much nonchalance as though they were squirrels.' "

Soon after California gained statehood in 1848, legislation was passed that became disastrous to any hope the Ohlone might have had of recovering. In 1850 an act with the misleading title of "An Act for the Government and Protection of Indians" was passed, which, through its convoluted clauses, legalized the slavery of Indians and robbed them of their rights to testify on behalf of themselves of against any white person in court, thereby placing them at the complete and total mercy of a people that despised and abused them.

Now that the native peoples were stripped of any means of defense, the government set out to strip them of their lands and their legal right to it. In a report to the U.S. Senate, Senator John C. Fremont stated, "... the statements I have given you, Mr. that...Spanish law clearly and absolutely secured to Indians the rights of property in the lands that they occupy...and that some particular provision will be necessary to divest them of these rights."

In 1851 a California Land Claims Act appointed a commission to review the claims of those people living in the new state. The claims of the Indians came long before those of Mexican, Spanish, and Americans, but the Indians were unaware of the act or what it meant to them and the state refused to perform its legal duty and file on their behalf. This failure cost them dearly, for now all Indian claims were declared void and their lands were forfeited as "public domain."

The Federal government did, however, recognize the tribes as being able to make "intergovernmental" treaties and sent commissioners from Washington to negotiate with them. The treaties offered the tribes territory on a reservation and status as a "sovereign nation" if they would agree to cede all of their lands to the government. Across the state 18 treaties were signed, involving most of California. After laboring for almost a year, the commissioners returned to Congress with the signed treaties, however, because of complaints from businesses and legislature in California, the federal government refused to ratify the treaties and quickly placed them under an "injunction of secrecy." The Indians were not notified that the treaties had not been ratified until 1905 when they discovered that they held no title to treatied land.

This action served to seal the Indians fate. By the 1890s the surviving population from the missions was slashed by another 90%. Seven reservations were thrown together in an effort to protect them, but this was sadly insufficient. In 1928, Congress allowed them to sue for compensation but, following the pattern of injustice, the claims of the Mission Indians, the Indians of California, and the Pit River people were lumped together into one claim and they were forced to accept a meager 47 cents per acre for the lands they lost.

Today, the struggles are far from over. After years of hiding their ancestry and denying tribal ties, the Ohlone are banding together and trying to regain some of what was lost. Because they were robbed of their lands, they do not meet the Bureau of Indian Affairs definition requirement of living as a tribe for the allotted amount of time. Last March, a group of people flew to Washington, D.C. to attend the White House meeting for the nation's unacknowledged tribes and met with delegates in an effort to get their needs met. Legalities today are have not changed greatly from those of years past. Legislation is complex and convoluted. Those officials who are supposed to be helping are often misinformed.

Today's Ohlone face many different challenges. In 1887, there were allotments made for the Indians totaling a mere 7,500 acres (compare that with the millions lost through unscrupulous legislation). Today the government provides them with inadequate funding because the are not federally recognized tribes. They are left with substandard living situations. Many do not have access to wells or piped water, and must rely on local springs that are rapidly diminishing. Locally, the Ohlone who are living in Indian Canyon rely upon a sacred spring. One of the major issues that they are fighting for is their right to the water from this string, as it is in jeopardy of being diverted for use by surrounding wineries.

Problems do not end with water resources. Many of the houses on these allotments are substandard and do not meet building codes. They are frequently riddled with cracked floors, leaky roofs, decrepit sanitation and old, outdated electrical hookups. Due to lack of funding or federal interest, roads leading in and through the allotments are left unpaved and have descended to the condition of rutted dirt tracks strewn with pot holes. Inhabitants living on the land may bequeath it to their heirs, but the heirs must meet laws that force to them to pay for an expensive survey before they are allowed to move onto the land. Most people are unable to afford these costly surveys and as such are denied their legal right to live there.

Many people in today's society still tend to be rather unsympathetic. There is often an attitude that questions the nature of their situation and wonders why the people on the allotments do not pay for the necessary repairs on their own or get an education that will provide them jobs that pay enough for them to make the repairs. Unfortunately because the Ohlone are not recognized by the federal government as a tribe, they are not eligible to take out loans in order to improve their situation because they do not have a legal title to their land on the allotments. They are also excluded from being eligible for scholarships because they are not included on the Code of Federal Register as a recognized tribe. They do all that they can to survive on land that is often unsuitable for agriculture. In Indian Canyon, local Ohlone activist, Ann Marie Sayers raises and sells goats to be able to keep her allotment.

Action needs to be taken by the government to cut some of the red tape surrounding the exclusion of the Ohlone from being federally recognized. During it's entire existence, the Bureau of Acknowledgment and Research of the Bureau of Indian Affairs has not accepted one California tribe "by the book" and it is the agency that helps write the book. The Bureau of Indian Affairs has not acknowledged any tribe since 1978 when changes were made that were supposed to make the acknowledgment process faster and easier. If changes are not made to help the Ohlone gain recognized status, then provisions need to be made to help them improve their situation.

Some of the possible ways to help would be to pay for the drilling of deep wells to provide inhabitants with sufficient water for their needs. The high cost of surveying should be shouldered either wholly or in part by the government. Roads need to be paved and regularly maintained. Houses should be inspected and brought up to code, funded by the government or provisions made to allow residents to take out loans to make improvements on their situation.

The poverty of the living conditions is not voluntary, but was imposed upon the native inhabitants by hundreds of years of abuse, persecution, and neglect in a land that had belonged to them and their ancestors for thousands of years before European exploration. They lived in a bountiful, diverse environment that they made efficient and responsible use of. Their culture was rich, supportive, and tolerant, placing more emphasis on being conscientious of others' needs, moderation, and generosity. The coming of "civilization" issued in a sad new chapter in history for the Ohlone and many other native tribes that lead to near extinction. The battles are far from being over today. They have managed to survive hundreds of years of bloodshed and heartache wrought by an inherent lack of respect and understanding by the very people and governments who should be protecting them and learning from the lessons the Ohlone could teach. The descendants of this grim history have new battles of their own to face in trying to gain their rights as native inhabitants and forcing a reluctant government to make good on promises that have been broken and laws that have blatantly been manipulated again and again against a people who have been rendered nearly defenseless. The fight goes on and some progress is made, but the Ohlone will not stop until they receive the due credit and respect they deserve. It has been a long, hard journey from peace to present for the Ohlone that continues ever onward.

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