The Ohlone people of the past did more than just survive off the land—they thrived on it. Their way of life was a complex blend of the natural and spiritual worlds. The natural environment held everything the Ohlone people needed to prepare meals, build houses, travel, and make music and art. They provided for their everyday living needs and also created things of great beauty, such as personal adornment and graceful baskets.
Making a tool out of obsidian - Illustration by David Hjul
Drawing of obsidian tools – Illustration by Tom Origer
Tools and Baskets
Many of the tools the Ohlone used every day were made from rocks and minerals. Spear points, knives, and arrow heads were chipped from chert and obsidian (a natural glass). Slabs of granite and basalt were used to make mortars and pestles to grind nuts, seeds, and meat. Sinkers for fishing nets and anchors for boats were also made of stone. Creating these tools required a great deal of skill and care. One wrong move and the entire piece would be ruined.
Ohlone people used baskets in a variety of sizes and shapes to collect and prepare food. Each had its own purpose, just as today’s modern kitchens are full of different size and shaped pots, pans, bottles, and bowls. Women made the baskets, using willow, tule, and sedge to twine or coil them into shape. Baskets were made according to Ohlone cultural rules, but each woman worked in her own patterns.
A fish trap basket used in a shallow stream with a dam made of willow branches - Illustration by David Hjul
A basket-woven cradle made by Pomo people who live in northern California - Illustration by David Hjul
Some baskets were woven so tightly they could hold water. Others were shaped into trays and used to roast nuts or seeds by tossing the food with live coals. Some loosely woven baskets were put under water as fish traps. Baskets were used for many other purposes: Small baskets held sewing kits and other small items.
Even babies’ cradles were of basketry. Special baskets were made as gifts or to use in ceremonies. Gift and ceremonial baskets were decorated with abalone pendants, feather plumes, or hundreds of olivella shell beads, and could take months or even years to complete. Today, these baskets are recognized as important works of art by some of the world’s greatest museums.
You needed skill and patience to prepare a meal in the traditional Ohlone way. Acorn flour was an important food, but tannins give some species a naturally bitter taste that had to be removed. To prepare acorns for eating, they were ground into meal or flour using a mortar and pestle and then rinsed several times with cool water to wash away the bitterness. After that they were cooked into porridge or baked into a kind of bread.
|Grinding acorns with a stone and mortar and pestle.
Rinsing ground acorns in cool water from a flowing stream.
Cooking acorn porrridge using hot stones. - Illustrations by David Hjul
To make acorn porridge, an Ohlone woman would begin by heating rocks in a fire. The rocks were chosen carefully because some types exploded when they got hot and would spoil the food. Using tongs made from specially-shaped sticks, the hot rocks were taken from the fire, rinsed in water to remove the ash and dropped into a watertight basket filled with water and acorn meal or other foods. The hot rocks would quickly heat the contents of the basket – then dinner was served!
Villages and Homes
Ohlone houses were usually made by covering a dome-shaped framework of wood poles covered with tule, grass, or ferns. Each house had a rectangular doorway and a fireplace at its center. Especially along the coast, Ohlone houses were constructed from redwood planks or sections of bark arranged in a cone shape. Many villages had a dance plaza or an assembly hall (called a “round house”) near the center of the village and big enough for community gatherings. Some places had a sweathouse that sat on the bank of a stream near the village.
Most Ohlone people lived in villages of 60 to 90 people, though some settlements had as many as 200 residents. People travelled on foot or in tule boats to other villages for festivals, ceremonies, visits with family and friends, and trade. Ohlone living in the San Andreas Valley may have traded with people of different groups who lived over 100 miles away, such as Plains Miwok near Sacramento, Sierra Miwok in the Sierra Foothills, and Yokuts near Stockton and Fresno.
Pomo whistle made from two bones. - Illustration by David Hjul
Dance and Ceremonies
Ceremonies and festivals have always been important to the Ohlone people, and these traditional activities are a part of life for many contemporary Ohlone. In the past, ceremonies involved singing and dancing. Dancers wore clothing of animal hides, fringed with feathers, olivella and clam shell beads, and abalone pendants. They decorated their bodies with paints made from minerals. Ohlone musical instruments included whistles made from bird bones and flutes of elderberry wood. A clapper was used to keep time with singing. A clapper is made of a stick split down the center that makes a clapping sound when struck against the palm of the hand. Ceremonies—and everyday life—included both music and storytelling.
Clapper rattle made of a stick split down the middle. - Illustration by David Hjul
Today, modern Ohlone people are relearning the languages of their ancestors, and traditional songs are being sung once again.