Ohlone Indians Celebrate Heritage

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Before protests on Sproul Plaza, before football games at Memorial Stadium, a people who never dreamed of UC Berkeley students inhabited the lowlands, the highlands, and the surrounding areas of Berkeley.

The Ohlone, a tribe of between 45 and 50 Native American tribelets, inhabited the San Francisco and Monterey Bay Areas, according to historical records, for thousands of years. Ohlone descendants continue to live in this area.

This Sunday, many Ohlone descendants will be celebrating their tribal history and culture at the "Gathering of Ohlone People," which will take place at the Coyote Hills Regional Park in Fremont, the site of an Ohlone village that goes back 2,000 years.

The activities at the gathering this Sunday will range from playing games and feasting on a traditional Ohlone corn soup to watching demonstrations of soaproot brush making and basket-weaving.

"We would like the general public to know that the Ohlone are still around and that they are human beings," says Beverly Ortiz, a coordinator of the event and a park naturalist. "When people have the opportunity to meet the Ohlone, they can break the stereotypes."

Ohlone descendants attending the event say they hope to educate others about their culture.

"I go there to make sure that the past is properly taught," says Andrew Galvan, an Ohlone descendant and trained historian, who makes his living through archeology.

Because many non-Ohlone scholars, in addition to Ohlone descendants, have all studied the history of the Ohlone, the tribe is interpreted in many different ways, and the subject is a very sensitive one.

"It's a difficult situation today to be of Ohlone Indian descent and to interpret my own culture while anthropologists, historians, and archeologists have their own interpretations and want their interpretations to be passed on, to the outrage of Indians," Galvan says. "I'm here to make sure my interpretation is not forgotten."

The Shellmound in West Berkeley, the subject of much debate at City Council meetings over its landmark status, is accredited as being an Ohlone burial ground.

The word "Ohlone" translates as "people of the West." The Ohlone are often referred to as Costanoan, from the Spanish word "costenos," meaning "coast-dwellers." Costanoan is a term that the Spanish gave the Ohlone, according to Ken Lightfoot, a UC Berkeley anthropology professor. However, many Ohlone descendants, including Galvan, see the term as an ethnic slur and are offended when people use the term.

Ramona Garibay says she is not bothered by the word, but that learning about Ohlone history is very important.

"We grew up not knowing our culture," she says. "When I found out about the program at Coyote Hills, it was like a dream come true."

The Ohlone's approximately 45 to 50 triblets, each with about 200 people, shared many commonalities but differed socio-politically, Ortiz says.

Until recently, many anthropologists believed that the Ohlone spoke at least eight different dialects, including Karkin, Chochenyo, Ramaytush, Awaswas, Mutsun, Rumsen, Chalon and Tamyen. Historian Ricard Levy agreed with this in his article, published in the Handbook of North American Indians. However, Galvan suggests that there were 13 dialects, not languages.

Recent research, proposes Ortiz, has suggested theories different than both Galvan's and Levy's.

"The language spoken from North to South from various tribes gradually shifted across geographical space so that at Northern and Southern extremes, the languages spoken were as similar as modern Portuguese and modern Italian," Ortiz says. She notes that her comments contradict current history books.

An Archeological record concerning exactly how long the Ohlone have inhabited the San Francisco Bay Area has changed over time and varies among historians. Levy writes that the Ohlone moved into the area around 500 A.D. and thus settled here approximately 1,500 years ago.

Galvan makes an important distinction about how long the Ohlone have inhabited the Bay Area.

"Human occupation of the San Francisco Bay region goes back 10,000 years," he says. "The Ohlone culture that the Europeans founded was in place at about 400 A.D."

According to Ortiz, however, sacred Ohlone narratives report that the tribal family was created in the Bay Area and consequently has been here since the beginning of time.

There indeed exists historical proof that the Ohlone have been here for thousands of years, says Ortiz. One example is a native village site in West Berkeley that dates back 5,600 years. Archeologists have also been able to date a cordage sample at a site on the border of Marin and Sonoma counties back 8,000 years.

Galvan says the Ohlone lived from the tip of San Francisco on the northern side, down to Big Sur, south of Carmel. The eastern border was Martinez to Salinez at the tip of San Pablo Bay, and the Pacific Ocean on the West. Their territory included Alcatraz, Angel and Brooks islands.

According to Ortiz, the Saclan lived from the present day East Bay Hills to east Oakland while the Huchiun occupied what is now the lowlands and highlands of Berkeley. Galvan also says the Karkin tribelet lived in the vicinity of Berkeley.


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