Cecilia Interview

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The Ohlone Through the Years

In Search of an Accurate History
By: Cecilia Barrenechea

Felipe GalvanOnly two hundred years ago, the land that I live in and call California was a very different place. Before the coming of European colonists the many Indian Nations of the Monterey Bay area, known as Costenos (Costanoans) or Ohlone Indians, lived in a rich, native environment amongst diverse animal and plant populations. Today there numbers are small. The coming of Spanish missions brought on a sad period to this people’s history. Forced into missions and forbidden to maintain their culture and beliefs, they were removed from their lands and isolated from their culture and people. Felipe Galvan (he prefers to be called Phil), a seventy-four year old Ohlone descendent who works at Mission San Jose in the East Bay, tells us that even within the mission the men and women were segregated at all times and it was very hard to get a group together for a ceremony. Ceremonies were forbidden and anyone caught in the act were severally punished. Not only had they lost their heritage but also ineligible for tribal status as outlined by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. 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 given to other federally recognized tribes. The struggle continues to keep alive a culture that nearly became extinct.
Going back to a time before the European explorers, the area itself would not be recognizable by today’s inhabitants. The area had an abundance of nutritious plants which are now extinct. The Ohlone’s diet included many different kinds of foods from these nutritious plant sources. Grasses, roots, seeds, and especially acorns were an important part of the diverse range of foods eaten. Felipe remembers growing up, the different foods his mother would serve him and his brothers and sisters. These were foods not very common to other children, such as poison oak. This may seem as severe treatment but in actuality it was nutritious and not at all harmful when eaten at certain times of the year. "We would ask my mother what it was and she would tell us to just eat it. After we had eaten it she would tell us it was poison oak and that she didn’t tell us before because then we wouldn’t eat it," Felipe recalls. By doing this his mother would show Felipe and his siblings that, "You can eat anything native to the land at the right time." Other native foods Felipe remembers include green beans, soap plant, cucumbers, acorns, estafiata (similar to rosemary), and figs.
Along with abundant plant life was a great animal population. The land was crawling with all types of animals, from tiny insects to the grizzly bear which we no longer see. The Ohlone ate them all: insects, reptiles, rodents, birds, fish, and larger game animals of all kinds. Foods that aren’t as popular to today’s modern plate, such as grasshoppers and yellow jacket grubs, were enjoyable additions to the native diet. Other stories tell of wildlife so 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.
Contrary to unkind and inaccurate accounts of Native Americans, the Ohlone were an intelligent group of people who made full use of the abundant resources available to them. Very little in their surrounding environment went to waste. They made snares, decoys, and other weapons for hunting, and devised advanced methods of preparing all types of acorns that leached away the bitterness which they could then make into flour, bread, mush, and soup. The gathering and preparing of the food was a social and religious aspect of the Ohlone’s daily lives. The gathering and processing of plants and acorns was done by the women and the hunting by the men. Food preparation served an important role in the religious and social cohesion of the tribe.

The Ohlone moved frequently to different locations through out the year in order to make the most of their territory. Having visited Ohlone land in the East Bay, one can see the movements of the people over time. One can see where the land gets higher and there are shell mounds covered by more land in different places evening out the land on which others had previously lived on. The Ohlone would live in one area for a period of time, as they used up the resources around them and made their own mounds of shells, they would move on to other grounds. The land would later replenish itself and a new group of people would move to the area, make their mounds, and leave as the previous people had. Thus the cycle continues.
The hunt for the men was very ceremonial. They went through intense physical and spiritual preparation to correct behavior from beginning to end. The spirit was prepared with songs and dances; the body with strict dietary provisions and by abstaining from sexual activity; and the mind through meditations and just hanging out in the sweat lodge. The men followed these steps and developed stronger bonds amongst themselves and their spiritual world. When visiting the 2,000 year old Ohlone shell mounds, we saw a replica of an Ohlone village and within it a sweat lodge. Being there I did something that would have been very prohibited in the tribe, entering the sweat lodge. This structure was strictly for the men and women were not to enter.
Felipe tells us about the time when there was an eclipse and the sisters who lived near by asked him if he had seen it. He answered that he had not and explained to them the Ohlone belief. When there is an eclipse there is a doorway taking those who have died to the great beyond. The person who has died is able to go through the passage way as well as take others with them. If a relative of the person who died were to look at the eclipse the spell would be broken and the doorway to the greater beyond would be closed. He then chuckles and says, he didn’t want to be responsible for any one not being let in to the great beyond. Another belief is that after a baby is born it is taken to face the East similar to how a baby is presented to a church. Also the baby is not to be scratched directly by the mother but with a sort of comb made of bone. As we go on I ask Felipe how he deals with religion, what does he believe. He tells me that it isn’t just one way or the other, the beliefs are mixed. His family has been brought up Catholic but still holds Ohlone traditions and spirituality. Felipe explains that the Ohlone religion has to do more with nature and goes on to tell a story about how Earth was created. This story is told in ceremonies along with a ceremonial dance. I am telling this story to the best of my memory and notes keeping as much of the story just as Felipe told us.

The Great Spirit

One day the Great Spirit saw a blue tiny dot far away. He decided that when he had some time he would go check it out. So one day the Great Spirit took the form of an eagle and flew towards the tiny blue dot. As he flew there were many meteors and he was hit but went on. Once he Great Spirit was close enough to the blue dot he plucked a feather and let it go. The feather went down and hit the blue, it was water. The feather started spinning around and created a whirlpool. It spun and spun until it stopped forming crust and that’s how Earth was formed. The Great Spirit than created trees, animals, life. The Great Spirit than realized that he had not given them a form of communication so he called all the animals in and gave each of them a manner of speech. The coyote and dove got there late, the Great Spirit said it was too bad and that he could not punish them but that he would not let them forget this day. So he told coyote that he would never die, he would always be around and gave dove the morning cry. So now the coyote is still around and the dove is heard doing its morning call which sounds like a cry, and that is how that day will never be forgotten.

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