Turning Stones - George McKale


On the Ohlone trail

This week I discuss our Native neighbors to the south, the Ohlone. Ohlone peoples inhabited portions of the central and northern California coast from San Francisco and Monterey bays including the lower Salinas Valley.  Anthropologists initially used the name “Costanoan” referring to a variety of Ohlone languages; however, today most refer to the people and language as Ohlone.  The Ohlone belong to a variety of geographically distinct groups including the Muwekma, Rumsen, Ohlone/Costanoan Esselen Nation and Amah-Mutsen.

I have written about the great shellmounds found around the San Francisco Bay, many of which were constructed in Ohlone territory.  The shellmounds were prehistoric archaeological sites.  Because of the abundance of mussel and oyster found along the shore, shellmound cultures collected tons of these bivalves for food.  The primary constituents of the mounds are shell and ash, however, since these are interpreted as habitation sites, a large variety of artifacts can be found within them.

A number of years ago I was excavating a large shellmound in San Mateo.  Much of the mound had been pushed and shoved over the years, so our primary concern was the disturbance of human remains.  One of the hallmark characteristics of the shellmounds is that they contain the ancestors of modern day Ohlone.  Interesting when you think about it, as these sites tend to be both habitation locales and cemeteries.   The excavation was a large endeavor, and as is required, we hired six Ohlone monitors to oversee our archaeological pursuits.

An incredible story began to unfold as we uncovered more and more artifacts from the ancient midden.  People often wonder what Ohlone ate in prehistoric times.  We identified a variety of fish bones including salmon, trout and sturgeon.  Elk, deer and rabbit were abundant as well as 10 species of birds.  We collected dozens of obsidian projectile points and razor sharp knives.  Shell beads, made by the thousands were found as well as mortars and pestles.  We too found human remains, and for the Ohlone, the site became sacred.

The Ohlone are not officially recognized by our federal government.  They have been fighting for recognition, but dysfunction within both the Ohlone and Bureau of Indian Affairs, has kept them off the list. Only in 1998, did the federal government officially recognize our own Coast Miwok.

Recognized or not, the Ohlone played an important role in the development of Sonoma’s mission.  When our mission was established in 1823, neophytes from Mission Delores were transported from San Francisco to Sonoma to help construct and run the mission.  Want to learn more?

I am very excited about an up and coming lecture series that will focus on indigenous contributions to Mission San Francisco Solano and the nearby metropolis of San Francisco to our south.  Here’s the lowdown.  On January 17, Breck Parkman, Senior State Archaeologist, will present “Native Peoples, Foreign Ideas: The Creation of Sonoma Mission.”  Parkman will address Native life in the area prior to the founding of the Mission and explore how it’s establishment affected Sonoma’s original locals, and succeeding generations.

The second lecture, “Coast Miwok Connections: Past, Present and Future,” will be presented by Nick Tipon, a southern Pomo with the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria. Because he is a friend, I encourage the public to attend and come prepared with really tough questions!  “Old Mission Delores, San Francisco: A Return to Original Indian Management,” will be presented by Andrew Galvan and Vincent Medina on February 7.  Both Galvan and Medina, the curator and assistant curator of Mission Delores, respectively, will undoubtedly present a unique perspective regarding the management of the mission, as both are Ohlone.

Lectures begin at 7pm at the Mission and admission is $10 at the door, $5 for Sonoma-Petaluma State Historic Parks Association members and California State Parks volunteers.  Refreshments will be served at 6:30.  See you there.

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