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The Ohlone Indians

The People of the Coast

Enormous herds of antelope and hurricane-like flocks of birds painted the region from Point Sur to the San Francisco bay thousands of years ago. Along with these majestic creatures, tens of thousands of proud native people also resided. These natives which were referred to as the Costenos-"people of the coast"- by the first Spanish missionaries of California. To the English explorers they were known as Costanoan, eventually the name was simplified to "Ohlone".
Throughout history, the Ohlone, like many indigenous cultures, has nearly disappeared due to the expansion of European empires. Today, there are only a few hundred living descendants in the Bay Area. We were fortunate to meet two of these descendants, Felipe Galvan (1/4 Ohlone) and his son Andrew. I choose to interview Felipe Galvan so that I could get a glimpse of changes from the Ohlone past to the Ohlone present.


Felipe led four of my classmates down the cherry-red path of tiles, past the life- size statue of Father Junipero Serra, to the area surrounding the fountain at Mission San Jose. I couldn’t help but notice how young he looked for a seventy-four year old. As we sat down, he began to rub his eyes. He had just finished mowing his lawn at his home a few blocks down the street from the Mission. His hands, working man’s hands, looked as tough as leather. Phil, which he preferred to be called, was a very warm man with a great sense of humor. He was the type of man whose smile made me smile and whose words drew me closer. Right away we began to question Phil about his life, especially about his Ohlone connection.
"Unimaginable" would be used to describe what the Bay Area landscape must have looked like thousands of years ago. The land, in which we now see endless cities and remnants of orchards, once contained hundreds of acres of grassland, Savannah’s, salt or freshwater marshes, and forests teaming with wildlife. Now we find residential homes, shopping malls, and the monstrous industries of Silicon Valley. It was once said by captains of ships that, "Flocks of geese, ducks, and seabirds were so enormous that when alarmed by a rifle shot, they were said to rise in a dense cloud with the noise of a hurricane." All of this was depleted once the Europeans arrived with rifles;some species were completely exterminated. The Europeans described that the hunting was so easy, "as to lessen the desire of pursuit."
Phil told us that the land around Mission San Jose during the time of the Ohlone would not be recognizable to us today. As Phil reminisced of his childhood, his face lit up with animated joy. With his hands, he described that when he was growing up in the area now known as the East Bay. He spoke of how there was so much more open land there during his youth. Phil also spoke of Highway 680 and how it used to be the entrance into the valley. With his bright face, he reminded us of the beautiful wild flowers, plants, and trees that grew along the hills of the valley. From the knowledge of his ancestors, Phil knows more about the land and the animals than most books. This wisdom that he majestically carried, was due to the passing of vast knowledge form generation to generation.


A Ohlone village or "tribelet," was a community of about two-hundred and fifty people. Those villages were usually based along areas with fresh water creeks. There the Ohlone could get drinking water and bathe. Just about everything the Ohlone had were made of tule, which is a type of grass that grows tall along creeks and marshes in the bay. Their homes and boats were constructed of this material.
Typically villages consisted of fifteen dome-shaped tule homes arranged around a plaza-like clearing. Baskets were set on stilts which kept the yearly acorn supply high off the ground. The sweathouse, probably the most important building to the men, was a room dug into the ground with a dome of sticks as a roof. A fire always burned in the sweathouse because the Ohlone believed that a daily sweat was important for their health. This building was where all the men socialized or cleansed before a hunt. By contrast, the women socialized under the "ramada," or shade hut, there they stayed cool and did their daily chores. Each village had a head man who usually was wealthier than the others. This meant that he could afford more then one wife, and could either have them in the same village or in separate villages. Phil told us that his grandfather was the head man of a Tribelet. "So if you think about it, I’m part royalty, " Phil said laughingly.
One tradition which had many restrictions in the Ohlone culture was childbirth. Childbirth was not only tough on the mother, but also on the father. Both of them have to follow certain restrictions, such as not eating salt, meat, or fish. During this period, the couple also were expected to be kind to any living creature that they encountered. By doing this, it was thought that the child would be born healthy. Phil told us that his mom followed another Ohlone tradition, it was using a scratching stick to relieve her itches.
Another tradition that was very important to the Ohlone was dancing. Dancing was a passion, it was seen as a natural form of expression. It also held meaning as a religious experience. Today some Ohlone still gather to dance.
In looking back over his 74 years, Felipe Galvan said he had a very normal childhood. Felipe Galvan was the 18th of 21 pregnancies his a Catholic family. Eight children lived, the others died at birth or a very young age. Four of Felipe’s siblings are still alive, 2 women and 2 men. Even though the family followed the Catholic religion, they still kept many Ohlone traditions alive.
Not only did Dolores Galvan, Felipe’s mother, follow all the traditions associated with pregnancy, she also passed on tradition to her daughters such as basket weaving and how to live off the land. Sometimes she used a very unorthodox way of teaching. Felipe told us that when he was young his mother fed his brothers and sisters poison oak, which grows in a large abundance in California. She wanted to teach them that they could eat most native plant at certain times of the year. Of course she didn’t tell them it was poison oak till after they had eaten it.
She also fed them many other types of wild plants that grew in the area such as miniature artichokes, thistle, watercress, and a broad-leafed plant that the settlers called Miner’s Lettuce. The medicine person also used Jimson weed, a type of mind-altering drug. This was only used every two years.
I asked Phil what his relatives had told him about Ohlone life. He said that his grandfather, who lived to be 115, had told him many things about the Mission. From these conversations, Felipe concluded that the Missions used the Ohlone as slaves . He said that the Ohlone had to dig the trenches for the huge wall that surrounded Mission San Jose. Later in an ironic turn of events, the wall was used to keep the Ohlone in. In the missions the men and women were separated and were being held there against their will. Felipe said the disease, which in part was brought by the European missionaries, killed many of his people while they were held in the Missions.
The Ohlone’s beliefs never blended with those of the Catholic religion. Ohlone religion was based on nature and animals, not deities in the image of men. A legend that Felipe told me that related to him was the story of his mothers death. An eclipse of the sun, to the Ohlone, means a passage-way to the great beyond. At the time when Dolores passed away, there was an eclipse at the time of her funeral. When a family member passes away and there is an eclipse, you aren’t suppose to look at the eclipse. This is so the family member can make the trip to the great beyond. Even though Catholic, Mr.Galvan still has an enormous fascination and respect for his ancestors beliefs. His son Michael, a priest, was the first Ohlone to get ordained into the church. His other son Andrew is a historian who specializes in Ohlone history. The whole family is keeping the religion alive in some form.

Today Felipe is an advisor to Mission San Jose and has created and maintained its Ohlone Indian exhibit. He is still involved in Ohlone affairs and is active in the protest against the construction of commercial buildings on Ohlone burial ground. Thanks to him and his great stories of his life, this oral history project was possible. For this, I am grateful to him.

Constructed with the assistance of Learning Community student Alana Salom
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