Women in Ohlone Lifeways

By Shirley Reusch Drye

As always, my choice of references is Volumne 8, California, of the Handbook of North American Indians published by the Smithsonian.

Under the heading, Sexual Status and Role Differences, author Edith Wallace states that social differentiations among California Indians were not restricted to status and role but extended to dress and decorations, names, seating postures, manner of carrying burdens, eituqette, and recreation. She says that there is a remarkable similarity from one end of the state to the other.

Most household duties were performed by women. They played the principal role of raising children. It should be noted that men often helped their wives, particularly in special circumstances such as illness.

Thus, among the Ohlone, wild plant foods formed the mainstay of their diet with the women obtaining the bulk of these. Acorns, seeds, berries, roots, pine nuts, hazel nuts, walnuts, and greens were collected. When acorns were harvested in the fall, men helped the women. Women sometimes fished, and shellfish and crustaceans were procured by women and girls. They also collected insects, larvae and grubs. Women were barred from hunting. Wood was routinely gathered by women, and water was fetched unless it was at a great distance.

Acorns were the primary staple of the Ohlone people. Gathering was a community effort in the fall since a great quantity had to be gathered to last throughout the year. Women sorted the acorns for quality. An acorn with slightest bug infestation was discarded since good acorns could be stored safely for many months as evidenced by the storage silos built by all acorn processing peoples in California.

Acorns were prepared each and every day for the family's consumption. As with any nut, the first step was cracking the acorn and extracting the meat. The nuts were then "pounded" in a mortar with a pestle often using the bottomless hopper baskets to prevent loss of meal during pounding. The meal was ground or pounded to a proper consistency prior to leaching and cooking.

Leaching the bitter tanin from the acorn meal was the next step. A shallow leaching pit was dug in soil and was lined with leaves. The meal was placed in this basin and water washed over it continuously until the bitterness was abated. A special shallow basket was also used as a leaching basin. If the basin was sand, the top most layer of perhaps an inch thickness would be wet sand. When the meal no longer tasted of tanin, it was removed from the basin and placed in a cooking basket. If the basin was sand, the bottom layer of meal was removed separately and placed in a basket of water. The sand sunk to the bottom and the residual meal would float on top. Thus, no waste.

A fire was prepared into which basaltic rocks were placed. These rocks were termed "cooking rocks." Basaltic rocks will not explode when brought to high temperatures.

The acorn meal was deposited into a cooking basket which had been soaked in water to allow the fibres to swell and make the basket water tight. Water was then added until a hand dipped into the mixture came out lightly coated with the meal. The heated rocks were then extracted from the fire with either a pair of long poles or a sturdy willow pole bent into a shape that allowed the rocks to be lifted from the fire. The rocks were then lowered into a basket of water to wash ash away and promptly deposited into the acorn meal mixture. Once into the acorn meal, the rocks were continually stirred to prevent burning the basket. The rocks release their heat quickly resulting in a bubbling boiling gruel within three to five rocks, a duration of less than ten minutes. A spent rock was again dipped into water where the meal would wash off and float to the top allowing it to be recovered. The rocks were then returned to the fire or put aside until needed.

The resulting meal was either thin and soup like, fairly thick and eaten with pieces of meat and vegetables, or very thick and shaped into cakes. The taste was not unlike the cooked cereal Malto-Meal without added salt. It is quite bland.

Women made the clothing. Men wore nothing, but women wore a skirt of split tule grass with a deer hide wrapped from the rear open in front and held on with a rope belt. Both men and women wore capes of animal fur. Exquisitely beautiful jewelry was made from shells (based on author's archaeological excavations), soapstone and seeds. Jewelry was worn as ear bobs, necklaces, and as skirt and regalia ornamentation. Fancy baskets were also adorned with shell beads.

Women were the weavers of the indispensable baskets. Wallace notes that the California Indians left this most advanced of their handicrafts to females. The gathering and preparation of basketry materials was time consuming and tedious. The creek willow and sandbar willow were the preferred materials. These trees were cultivated by the Ohlone to produce quality withes--Iong, slender and supple.

Once gathered, the withes were stripped of outer and inner bark, and split. They were kept moist prior to basket manufacture to retain suppleness. The withes provided all the materials for producing wicker work, that is the withes were used for both warp and weft. Other withes provided the framework for twined and coiled baskets with the binding or weaving (weft) material consisting of a variety of fibres: brake fern (bracken?), sedge, slew grass (tule and cattails), chamisonis (lupin). These materials were gathered, processed and stowed during the growth periods for basket production during the fall and winter. Ohlone basketry was predominantly twined rather than coiled.

Ohlone baskets were made for carrying (burden baskets), for boiling (cooking baskets), seed gathering, open-bottom hopper baskets for acorn grinding, leaching vessels, seed beaters, round or globular baskets with shell and feather ornamentation called "fancy" or "treasure" baskets, shallow winnowing baskets, sieves, and even water bottles made with pitch to seal them.

Wallace states that collaboration of the sexes did occur. The building of family dwellings regularly involved joint effort, but a division of labor held true here also with men doing the heavier jobs of digging house pits and post holes, and cutting and preparing the frame poles. It was Ohlone women, however, who gathered and thatched the tules onto the frame. Tule gathering took place from spring through July. The volume of tules to thatch a house entails an enourmous investment of labor and time. Once collected, the tules needed to be put to use quickly. Once the framework is up, thatching a house about 12 feet in diameter would take approximately 12 to 18 hours (based on author's participation in building a tule house). The thatching is sufficiently thick to be water proof.

Women actively treated illnesses and administered herbal medicines and other home remedies. This was usually accompanied with the recitation of healing formulas. Women were also always midwives.

Marriages were often contractual, but the wishes of young people were recognized and none were forced into an unhappy match.

Tatoos were common, and women in particular wore chin tatoos designating moiety or tribelet identity.

Unlike some California Indian groups, among the Ohlone nonmenstruating women sweated in the sweathouse, but children were excluded.

The basic social unit of the Ohlone consisted of tribelets* with one or more villages per tribelet and a number of camps within the territory. A tribal chief might be either a man or a woman. This would occur when there were no male heirs.

Wallace concludes saying that though the two sexes had different roles to fill in social, political and religious life, the position of the California Indian woman in the family and community was a respected one and she enjoyed a large measure of freedom and independence.

"Tribe" is a form of social organization with a chieftan and council of elders. The Ohlone did have a chief but not a council. However, their social organization was more complex then that of seasonal migratory hunter-gatherer bands, in that they had a chief rather than a "headman" and they had semi-permanent villages. This difference was recognized by the early investigators of the California native peoples and, hence, the term, "tribelet", was coined to describe their social or political unit.

Edith Wallace, Sexual Status and Role Differences, HANDBOOK OF NORTH AMERICAN INDIANS, CALIFORNIA, Volume 8.