Ohlone Key Definitions

by Shirley Drye

Ohlone is the name of the native Californians who lived on the Peninsula, in the East Bay, as far south as Monterey along the coast, and into the interior valley. ("Ohlone" has replaced the Spanish derived "Costanoan".)

BAND - Triblet
Band refers to a size and form of social organization: seasonal migratory hunter-gatherers with base camps, but since the Ohlone lived in semi-permanent villages, and a chief would have governance over several villages, the word "tribelet" has been applied to their social organization. Bands contained from about 30 to 100 individuals, and a headman governed each village.

People organized in bands were primarily hunter-gatherers, or foragers, and they sustained their lives by hunting and gathering all their food and needs. This meant that they were dependent on whatever the land provided naturally, and a bad year might be very hard on them. Our Peninsula, however, was a veritable breadbasket with food and water in great abundance. What they acquired not only fed them but also provided them with all their needs. They were great conservationists in that they not only used all of what they gathered and hunted but had multi-uses for what they secured.

The headman, as leader of a band, enjoyed more wealth and prestige and might have more than one wife. Otherwise, his life was not much different from his fellows. It was the headman's responsibility to see that the band made good decisions about moving, relations with neighbors, trade, punishment, and observing the traditions and rituals of the people. Theirs was an egalitarian society, so if things did not go well, the headman could be replaced.

A shaman was a priest, physician, and adviser all in one. In Central California a shaman was usually a man. He would cure the peoples' ills and perform rituals to insure a good hunt, an abundant acorn harvest, or perhaps to hex enemies. He provided council and advice.

A sweathouse was rather like a sauna bath. Primarily the men used it, but among the Ohlones women also used the sweathouse. A sweathouse was built underground into the bank of a stream. Fires provided the heat for sweating and water for steam. The men prepared for hunting with several days of fasting and sweating in the sweathouse, scraping their bodies and rubbing them with sweet smelling herbs and deer fat, thus ridding themselves of much of their human smell in order to approach their prey unnoticed. The men would alternately sweat and jump into the cold stream. This was ritual preparation for the hunt to invoke the goodwill of the deer for a successful hunt.

Pruristac was the name of the Ohlone village located on the grounds of the Sanchez Adobe Historic Site. There were many other villages in Pacifica and on the Peninsula, but the inhabitants of Pruristac took an active role among the Ohlones at the Mission Dolores in San Francisco, and therefore, their names and the name of their village are well-documented in the Mission records.

Archaeology is the study of past human cultures through fossils, artifacts, refuse, and monuments found in or on the earth.

A midden is a prehistoric refuse pile. It is rich in organic materials, and seasonal growth, from seeds blown or otherwise deposited on it, lays down topsoil. Gradually it forms a mound or small hill. When the archaeologist digs into a midden, it is often like a layer cake, with the most recent material on top and the oldest on the bottom. From this the archaeologist can tell what season people occupied the site, what they ate, what tools they used and many other things about a people's way of life. Indian middens on the California Coast are generally called "shell middens" because of their high shell content.

THE OHLONE PEOPLE were FORAGERS with semi-permanent villages. Their dwellings consisted of willow pole frames thatched with tules. They would spend perhaps the winter or a gathering season at their villages, such as at Pruristac during mussel season or when the salmon were running in San Pedro Creek. The women gathered edible green vegetation, seeds, and berries when they were ripe, as well as nuts and roots. They also gathered shell fish. Men hunted animals and birds and caught fish. Some plants were important to the people and were used in a variety of ways.

Acorns were the subsistence food of the Ohlones. They gathered acorns in the fall and stored them to be used throughout the year. Most coastal Ohlones would likely leave their village sites in the fall to gather acorns where there were large stands of oak trees to which they had access. The women would prepare acorn meal fresh each day. The acorn meal was eaten in the form of mush and cakes. The preparation of acorn meal was time consuming and involved shelling, grinding, and leaching out the bitter tannin with water before it could be cooked and eaten. Hot rocks were placed in cooking baskets and stirred to cook the acorn meal.

Tules grow all over the Peninsula at water's edge, along with cattails, but the tules have a spray of seeds at the top rather than a tail. The Ohlones used the tules to thatch their dwellings, acorn silos, and boats. They made tule mats to sit and sleep on; women's skirts were made of split tules, and string and rope were made from tules; they roasted and ate both the seeds and roots.

SOAP PLANT (Soap root, Amole)
Soap plant grows all over the Bay Area and, as a member of the lily family, is visible during the spring. Its leaves resemble an iris plant with wavy-edged leaves. The root or bulb of this plant was very useful. The bulb is inside a husk of straight fibers. The fibers are used to make whiskbrooms. The bulb is somewhat onion-like in appearance. Boiled, it can be eaten and tastes like a delicate potato. While we can eat it harmlessly, if the bulb is mashed and placed in a stream eddy, it stuns the fish, and the Ohlones could just scoop fish out of the stream with their hands. The mashed bulb does not harm any other creek life.
If water is added to the raw or cooked bulb, it lathers up into an excellent soap with which the Ohlones bathed and washed their hair. Rubbed on their bodies, it acted as an insect repellent. It also makes a strong glue, and if it is placed around the ends of the husk fibers and shaped with the hands, it hardens into a durable handle.

These willow trees grow in abundance all over the Bay Area's hillsides, ravines, gullies, and creeks. The branches provided the framework for dwellings, sunshades, acorn silos, and boats. The bark provided the lashings, which held the frameworks together. The inside of the bark, when the sap is up, contains a fiber for making string. If you chew the bark, it will relieve pain, such as a headache, and reduce fever, since it contains the substance from which aspirin is made. Slender willow branches and twigs were used to make wicker baskets and provided the framework for woven baskets. All baskets were made by the women.

The laurel tree grows in many places in the Bay Area. The Ohlone used its sweet-smelling leaves as a seasoning, for tea, and to rub on their bodies. Leaf-laden branches were laid across the tops of sunshades (ramadas) as a roof, providing a sweet smell to their environment.

OHLONE women were masterful basket makers and made baskets for a variety of uses. The Ohlone people loved to sing and dance which they accompanied with bird bone whistles, wooden clap sticks and deer hoof rattles. They made intricate jewelry from shell and stone and may have used mussel shells as spoons. Mammal bone and deer antler provided materials for tools. Stone mortars and pestles were used for grinding acorns and seeds. The mortars and pestles were at first roughly shaped and then formed and smoothed after long use. Smooth rounded beach cobbles were used for fishnet weights and hammer-stones. Local rock, such as chert and quartz, were flaked to make spear and arrow points as well as other tools, as was obsidian. Obsidian was a desirable trade item imported to the Peninsula from other areas. Last but not least, the Ohlones loved to play games, and their games were like some of the games we play today.