From The Ohlone Way
by Malcolm Margolin.
(c)1978 Heyday Books
For the Ohlones one harvest followed another in a great yearly cycle. There
were trips to the seashore for shellfish, to the rivers for salmon, to the
marshes for seeds, roots, and greens. There were also trips for milkweed fiber,
hemp, basket materials, tobacco. and medicine.
Thus Ohlone life was a series of treks from one harvest to another. As one food or material ripened or came into season--and the season was often quite brief--the people worked hard to collect it and in some cases to dry, smoke, or otherwise preserve it. Then, after a small respite, there would be another harvest, another event, another episode in the year.
The series of ripenings and harvestsings divided the year into different periods, and gave Ohlone life its characteristic rhythm. Moving from one harvest to the next, the Ohlone led what early observers called "a wandering live." Each triblet had a major village site, but they did not live there throughout the year. "They moved their village from place to place," comment Father Francisco Palou. Sometimes the whole group traveled together. Other times it split up into separate families. But always the Ohlones were on the move, wandering about their land in pursuit of still another ripening crop.
The wandering life set the Ohlones apart from many other Indians in North America. The Pueblo people of the Southwest, for example--who cultivated corn, squash, and beans--built cities and lived settled lives. Closer to home, the Hupas and Yuroks in Northern California depended mainly on salmon and lived alongside the salmon rivers in permanent villages with Wood-slab houses and large ceremonial halls. Not the Ohlones. They followed a more ancient way: the way of the hunter-gatherer. "Like the Arabs and other wandering tribes," wrote Captain Frederick Beechey, "these people moved about the country and pitch their tents wherever they find a convenient place."
In some respects the Ohlone way of live was similar to that of other hunter- gatherers throughout the world. But there was one important difference. Other people, living in less favorable environments, needed expansive territories over which they could range in pursuit of game, nuts, or (in some areas) watering holes. But in Central California, where the land was so fertile, so packed with wildlife and edible plants, the people mostly confined their wanderings to their own Lilliputian territories, generally not more than about a hundred square miles. Stephen Powers' characterization of a Maidu people to the northeast of the Bay Area might just as accurately have described the Ohlones: "They shift their lodges perpetually: yet it is very seldom that a Nishinam, after all his infinite little migrations, dies a mile from the place of his birth. They are thoroughly home-loving and home-keeping, like all California Indians."
Thus we can picture an Ohlone family on one of its "infinite little migrations." They number perhaps a dozen people. The old and infirm have been left behind in the main village where they will be visited regularly by other family members who make certain they are well-fed and comfortable. The women of the group are weighted down with burden baskets and digging sticks. Sets of cooking baskets and a variety of skins and pouches are heaped on top of the burden baskets. Some of he women have babies in cradles lashed to the top of everything else.
The older children carry small baskets full of seeds, acorns, and dried meats and fish. The men have quivers of bows and arrows tucked under their arms: over their shoulders are slung carrying nets filled with skins, knives, fire- making tools, beads, cordage, and perhaps ceremonial regalia. Some of the men and women's also carry medicine bundles hidden within their baskets or nets.
They stop frequently along the trail to eat, nap or simply rest. The children romp about, excited by the sight of new or seldom-visited meadows. The men poke among the bushes, wandering off to revisit an old quarry site, a bear den, an eagle's nest, or some other point of interest. The women rest at the side of the trail: they are tired, for a fully-loaded burden basked weighs up to 200 pounds.
Later in the day the people arrive as their destination. The children gather firewood, the women unpack their baskets and cook dinner, and the men set about constructing shelters as a sweat-house. Within a day or two everyone is settled, the encampment is complete, and the people are thoroughly "at home."
The wandering life-style of the Ohlones explains a good deal about their personal habits. Traveler after traveler, for example, complained (or joked) about their "gluttony." "They gorge themselves," noted one missionary. "It is futile to exhort them to moderation, for their principle is "'If there is much to eat, let eat much.' " To the Spanish and early Anglo settlers-prudent, frugal agricultural people--gorging was a sin. But in a situation were certain foods such as duck eggs, cormorant chicks, berries, whales, or greens become suddenly abundant for only a few weeks each year, gorging is perfectly appropriate. The episodic character of the harvesting also helps explain another much noted Ohlone characteristic: their so-called 'laziness." For them hard work came only in spurts. Deer hunting, for example, was an arduous pursuit that demanded fasting, abstinence, great physical strength, and single-mindedness of purpose. The acorn harvest, the seed harvest, and the salmon harvest also involved considerable work for short periods of time. But when the word was over, there was little else to do. Unlike agricultural people, the Ohlones had no fields to plow, seeds to plant, corps to cultivate, weeds to pull, domestic animals to care foe, or irrigation ditches to dig or maintain. So as the end of a harvest they often gave themselves over to "entire indolence," as one visitor described it--a habit that infuriated the Europeans who assumed that laziness was sinful and that hard work was not just a virtue but a God-given condition of human life.
Like other people who are always on the move, the Ohlones tended not to build permanent structures. Their houses were neither of wood nor adobe (although both these materials were readily available throughout the Bay Area), but were made of tules. Tule houses were suitable for the moderate Bay Area climate, and they were skillfully made. (In fact only recently, with the interest in geodesic domes, have people in our own culture come to appreciate domed dwellings for their efficient use of material, their superior ability to retain warmth, and the comfortable and aesthetically pleasing living space they create.) But tule tends to rot rather quickly; and for the early Europeans who valued permanent, well-crafted houses--structures that could be passed on from one generation to the next--tule was not an acceptable building material. For a wandering people like the Ohlones, however, the temporary nature of their tule houses was an advantage; such dwellings could be built up in a few house-- especially if a framework of willow poles was left in place--and could later be deserted with little loss.
For the same reason, the Ohlone boats were neither the elaborate dugouts of the people a few hundred miles to the north, nor were they the plank boats of the Chumas of the Santa Barbara Channel, the Ohlones built tule boats which lasted no more than a season, but which--when it came time to move on--could be left behind without an afterthought.
Needless to say, for a people who moved around a great deal and had to carry their possessions on their backs, great stores of wealth and collections of art objects were considerably less attractive than for other people who lived more settled lives. To be sure, the Ohlones loved fine beadwork, featherwork, and basketry; yet they were not accumulators. Status was not to be gained by hoarding shells, jewels, and other such things. Instead of wealth, it was prerogative--where one sat in the sweat-house, how often one's family was consulted by the chief, whether one was asked to sweep the plaza before a dance, and a thousand other such distinctions-that defined a person's place in the village pecking order.
Rather than valuing possessions, the Ohlones valued generosity. Instead of having inheritance, which is a way of perpetuating wealth within a family, the Ohlones generally destroyed a person's goods after his or her death. Not that the Ohlones were totally indifferent to the wealth and its class distinction: rather they measured wealth and judged good breeding by how generous a person was, not by how many material goods he or she accumulated. Thus a wealthy man was expected to contribute generously to the group's many feasts and festivities, and he was expected to throw the most precious gift baskets and other offerings onto the funeral pyre of a deceased friend or relative. To be wealthy was not to have; to be wealthy was to give.
To the early explorers the Ohlones' lack of accumulated wealth was a grave disappointment. The Spaniards would much rather have found another Aztec or Inca empire with cities, monuments, treasure houses, priests dressed in finery, and kings exacting tribute in gold, silver, and gems. Likewise the early archaeologists (considerably less sophisticated than those of today) hoped to unearth splendid objects of great rarity and beauty which would grace the major museums of the world. Instead, the shellmounds of the Bay Area Indians as a "backward" people, a people who never attained a rich material culture, never learned agriculture, never built cities, monuments, or even totem poles--a people who lacked all the accepted trappings of "civilization." In the eyes of the Europeans the Ohlones were poor, and to them poverty was a great failing. But the Ohlones had not failed. They were a hunting and gathering people, and if we compare them with other hunting-gathering people, we find that they were among the most successful in the entire world. In short, the Ohlones did not practice agriculture or develop a rich material culture, not because they failed, but rather because they succeeded so well in the most ancient of all the ways of life.