The Coast Miwok and Their Neighbors

This is a historial post from Hiking the California Trail, a 1998/2002 book set by Bob Lorentz and Richard Nichols. Where possible an update has been provided.

As we move south along the California coast, the fate of its native cultures grows increasingly harsh. While all native cultures suffered from white settlement, some of the northern tribes like the Tolowa and Yurok discussed earlier were able to maintain sufficient population to retain much of their cultural identity. North of the Russian River, the majority of native cultures along the coast survived at least partially intact, although many smaller groups like the Mattole, Sinkyone, and Coast Yuki had few survivors let alone any surviving cuttural integrity.

Historically, the Pomo people of modern Mendocino, Sonoma, and Lake counties were, after the Chumash of the Santa Barbara area, the second most populous native group along the California coast. The Pomo culture has survived and even prospered despite the unsympathetic modern society. The Coast Miwok people were the Pomo’s immediate neighbors to the south, inhabiting the region from Bodega Bay south to the Golden Gate and east into Sonoma Valley. They visited and traded regularly with their Pomo neighbors. Sadly, the fate of the Coast Miwok culture was far worse than their Pomo neighbors with whom they shared many cultural traits. The Coast Miwok people prospered in their territory for at least 5000 years. Before the Spaniards established missions in the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 18th century, the Coast Miwok population numbered between 2000 and 4000 individuals. Roughly 113 Miwok villages lined the shores of Tomales Bay alone, mostly along the sunnier eastern shore. They fared well in this abundant land of mild climate, subsisting by a combination of marine fishing and gathering, acorn collecting, and game hunting. They a were a peaceful culture, although ritual wars did occur.

The Miwok’s robust society survived the initial encounters with the Spaniards, but was doomed with the coming of the Spanish missionaries in 1776. Sixty years after the Spaniards established a mission at San Rafael, 90 percent of the Miwoks were dead from European diseases and the depredations of slavery in the mission system. The Miwoks were so devastated that they barely survived as a culture. Today a group of descendants have formed an association, holding ceremonies and dances at the reconstructed Miwok village of Kule Loklo near the Point Reyes National Seashore Visitor Center at Olema.

Linguistically the Coast Miwok are closely related to the Ohlone people who inhabited the coast south of the Golden Gate all the way to Point Sur. The Miwok probably traded with the nearby Ohlone by sailing their tule boats across San Francisco Bay.

The even more numerous Ohlone also fared poorly under the mission system with very few surviving. In the last half of the 19th century, surviving Ohlone people began to once again practice their traditional culture, holding dances, building sweathouses, and reviving shamanic practices. However, the Anglo-American population of the Bay Area grew too fast for this cultural renaissance to survive. The last Ohlone sweathouse was torn down in 1900, the last speaker of an Ohlone language died in 1935, and the last full-blooded Ohlone died in the 1970s. Today descendants of the Ohlone Indians still live in the region of their ancestors, but their language and most of their culture has died.

Still, California’s natural landscape sings the heritage of its extinguished native cultures. Many of the place names we use today stem from these cultures. Modern Petaluma and Cotati took the names of nearby Coast Miwok villages, today’s Olema was once Olema-loke and Bolinas was Bauli-n.

Originally Published in Hiking the California Coastal Trail: Guide to Walking the Golden State's Beaches and Bluff from Border to Border - Volume One: Oregon to Monterey (2nd Edition) by Bob Lorentzen and Richard Nichols
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