Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Remembering the Ohlone

Less than 250 years ago, the territory from San Francisco's Golden Gate to the Monterey Bay was the home of the Ohlone People. The Ohlone were hunter-gatherers who successfully sustained their way of life for hundreds, if not thousands of years, using only stone- age technology and the skill and intelligence of their own hands and minds. It is thought that their population numbered close to ten thousand, if not more, and was composed of forty or fifty distinct groups spread throughout the Central California Coastal area.

The Ohlone inhabited a fertile ecosystem, teeming with wildlife and edible plant foods which provided them with a diet whose variety far exceeded that of many modern people. Few creatures were considered inedible; birds, land and sea animals, fish, shellfish, reptiles, and insects were hunted, trapped, fished, or collected. (The Coyote and Eagle, Creators of the Universe, were sacred to the Ohlone and were not hunted). Of no less importance, a great number of plant foods were gathered in their season; seeds, nuts, leaves and herbs, roots, tubers, berries and other fruits supplied a rotating array of nutrients governed by the shifting conditions of the ecosystem.

Malcolm Margolin, a Bay Area expert on Ohlone culture, writes the following in his marvelous book "The Ohlone Way": "Living in a land of great plenty, the Ohlone- unlike those who lived in a more hostile environment- did not feel that life was a 'dog-eat-dog' affair, or that each day was a grim test of survival. Not at all. There is no record of starvation anywhere in Central California. Even the myths of this area have no reference to starvation. All around the Ohlones were virtually inexhaustible resources; and for century after century the people went about their life secure in the knowledge that they lived in a generous land, a land that would always support them."*

The acorn was evidence of the generosity of the land; it was the Ohlone staff of life and center of their existence. Highly nutritious and very plentiful, acorns in the form of cereal or cakes were probably eaten at almost every meal. The life cycle of the oak tree was the organizing principle of Ohlone culture; the new year began with the autumn acorn harvest, a time of joy and celebration, and the seasons were all referred to by their relationship to the harvest. Women spent hours every day preparing acorns for cooking, a labor intensive activity which required considerable strength and ingenuity. The acorns were pounded into meal with stone pestles, then soaked in water to remove bitter tannins. The Ohlone did not have pottery vessels for cooking; acorn meal mixed with water was cooked by heating it in expertly woven water tight baskets with hot cooking stones.

Contact with the Europeans who arrived in 1769 quickly proved devastating to Ohlone culture. Having survived all other threats to human existence for countless generations, the challenge presented by the new inhabitants overcame the Ohlone. Today their descendants are known as the Muwekma Ohlone Indian Tribe; although few in number, they are engaged in a determined legal battle to receive restoration of their status as a Federally Recognized Tribe.

Today, as I hike the trails of the Presidio of San Francisco, I catch an occasional glimpse of hawks, foxes, and coyotes. I try to imagine this place as it was a few hundred years ago, and I think of these words in the language of the Miwok people who lived just north of the Golden Gate: "Eyya maya kanni"- "Don't forget me!"

*The Ohlone Way; Indian Life in the San Francisco- Monterey Bay Area by Malcolm Margolin Published by Heyday Books Berkeley, California