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Virtual Exhibit: First Peoples of California

First Peoples of California

People have lived in the Santa Cruz region for more than 10,000 years — since mammoths and mastodons roamed the land. In fact, one of the oldest known village sites in California is in nearby Scotts Valley.

Many Languages and Dialects

Tribes living along the coast between San Francisco and Point Sur, and as far inland as the Central Valley, belong to the “Ohlone” language family — a term coined by anthropologists that includes at least eight languages and many additional dialects. The indigenous people of Santa Cruz spoke the Awaswas language.

Today, many people use the term Ohlone to describe the cultures of the people along the Central Coast of California. Whenever possible, we will attribute artifacts and knowledge to their specific origins, recognizing that indigenous culture is by no means homogeneous.

Santa Cruz was called Aulinta in the Indian tongue. I will give you some words in their language: mancharas, women; ketchkema, boy; ciui, girl; atchsema, wife; housen, husband; maco, knife; chipay, ax; hatis, arrows; temo, bow; liti, come here; hai, sick; ena, dead; esu, hand; coro, feet; uir, head; hein, eyes; ochi, ear; uss, nose; hais, beard; summup, eyebrow; siit, teeth.

Lorenzo Asisara
Born at Mission Santa Cruz, 1819
Map of native people and languages in the San Francisco and Monterey Bays.
Map created by M. Roy Cartography for Bay Nature Magazine, based on data from Tammara Norton and Randall Milliken, and with input from members of the Quiroste tribe

Learn more: Download the Mutsun-English English-Mutsun Dictionary.

To explore the Awaswas language, purchase a copy of A Gathering of Voices: The Native Peoples of the Central Coast, 2002.


California Indians and Baskets

Diverse groups, cultures, and languages have long lived in California. Baskets are important in many of these cultures and show diversity in style, design and function.

Native women were and still are accomplished basket makers. From an early age, girls learned where and when to collect the plants, how to tend the plants, and how to prepare them for weaving into many types of baskets. How do you use baskets?

I’ve been working for several years trying to find out about our baskets — what they looked like, where they are, what materials were used. There are so few Ohlone baskets left that it’s been quite a job learning these things, but little by little, the pieces have been coming together. With the help of friends who helped me learn how to gather and prepare the materials, I was eventually able to begin weaving — the first Ohlone basket to be made in nearly a hundred years!

Linda Yamane, Rumsien Ohlone

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Read more: Exploring our Ohlone basket’s history.


Tending the Landscape

Tending to nature is an important aspect of Native culture. Not only is managing resources vital for survival, but it is also central to spiritual and cultural practices. Before contact with Spaniards, California Natives actively tended the landscape to meet their needs. They also followed the seasonal cycles of the natural world around them.

What times of the year do you think they would gather acorns? Fresh greens? Berries?

Coast live oak, Quercus agrifolia, an important source of acorns
Coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia) an important source of acorns

Making Acorn Mush and Bread
Acorns were used for soups or breads, but required careful processing to remove tannic acid in their pulp. After grinding and sifting, the resulting flour had to be rinsed with water in a leaf-lined sand basin or specialized basket.

Acorns were a staple food for people throughout California, including the Awaswas-speaking people of Santa Cruz. Each fall they were collected and stored for year-round use in granaries that kept them dry and safe from pests.

Autumn Brown of the Kumeyaay Nation (So. California) demonstrates how to make acorn mush.

They had acorns to eat which they ground in stone mortars, called urswan. The pestle was called packshan. To cook the acorn after being ground, the mass was put into large baskets, which were made watertight, being woven with grass roots of a kind very long and tough. Into these were put hot stones, which caused the water to boil, and so the meal was cooked.

Lorenzo Asisara, Born at Mission Santa Cruz, 1819

Read more: Explore the mortars and matates in our collection.


Nature’s Bounty

Consider the things that all humans need to survive. Native people were able to survive and thrive because of the abundance of this region and their expertise in engaging with it. Villages were usually located near fresh water and seasonal food sources, and tribes would often move to different sites throughout the year.

What do you notice in the mural below? What are the people doing? What materials are they using?

Mural of an Ohlone village by artist Ann Thiermann
The People of Santa Cruz by Ann Elizabeth Thiermann

Oral Traditions
Cultural teachings and significant knowledge about flora, fauna, and natural cycles of life along the coast are passed down over generations through oral traditions.

The Right Materials
Native people in this region cultivated and utilized plants with a deep knowledge of their needs and traits. Plants were specifically tended for use in basketry, building, food, medicine, and religious ceremonies.

Learn more: Native Plants and Their Uses Guide


Rich in Resources

Natural resources were used for more than survival – they served a purpose in ceremony, currency, expression, recreation, and daily household needs.

Where do you get the materials and items you need for your own recreation?

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Hunting

Hunting provided the community with many resources in addition to food. These resources were used for clothing, tools, crafting, and ceremony.

What role do animals play in our lives?

Tools 
Tools such as bone and shell hooks, traps, nets, and decoys were used to hunt a variety of game. Resources to create these tools were carefully cultivated or traded for, as in the case of chert, and later obsidian, for arrow and spear points. 

Bows and Arrows 
Bows were made from flexible and strong wood, reinforced by sinew. Several types of trees were carefully tended with fire and pruning to encourage the growth of straight branches for arrows. Hunters used spears, which were later replaced by more accurate bows and arrows.

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The Amah Mutsun Tribal Band

Traditional stewardship of natural and cultural resources was brutally disrupted by the establishment of the Spanish Missions in the late 18th century, followed by Mexican ranchos, and as California became a state in 1850. This was devastating to the Native people and the landscapes they tended.

Today, the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band is comprised of the descendants of the indigenous people taken to missions San Juan Bautista and Santa Cruz.

Despite three continuous periods of colonization, the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band are now committed to restoring traditional knowledge, celebrating their heritage, honoring their Creator and protecting their ancestral homeland. In 2014 the tribe established the Amah Mutsun Land Trust to serve as a vehicle for the tribe’s return to their ancestral land and stewardship.

Amah Mutsun Land Trust crew in Quiroste Valley.
Amah Mutsun Land Trust crew in the Quiroste Valley Cultural Reserve.
Val Lopez

The Amah Mutsun never surrendered or signed away our rights to our land, water, or other resources. In 2006 Tribal Elders reminded Tribal Council that our creation story tells us us we must take care of Mother Earth and all living things. Since that time, our tribe has worked hard to return to the path of our ancestors. It is our responsibility to complete their journey, which was brutally disrupted by colonization. This is necessary because we must honor our ancestors and fulfill our obligation to Creator.

Valentin Lopez, Chairman of Amah Mutsun Tribal Band
Valentin Lopez tells the story of how hummingbird brought fire to the people.

Native California Tools Kit

Content of the Native California Tools kit

Supplement your at-home lessons with this collection of hands-on tools related to indigenous connections to nature. Each kit contains the following items for tactile learning:

-Tule Reed Samples
-A stone point, either jasper or obsidian
-Acorns (5)
-A square of rabbit pelt
-Stave game materials
-Information Booklet

Purchase a kit today in our Online Museum Store.


Resources for Learning More

The following list contains websites and resources that the Museum has found to be useful, accurate, and appropriate. Please note that web content is subject to change and the Museum is not responsible for the information found on the links.

MUSEUM SUPPLEMENTS FOR LEARNING AT HOME:

RECOMMENDED READING:

RECOMMENDED WEBSITES:


Land Acknowledgement
The land on which the Museum exists is the traditional and unceded territory of the Uypi Tribe of the Awaswas Nation. Today these lands are stewarded by the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band. The Amah Mutsun are working hard to fulfill their obligation to Creator to care for and steward Mother Earth and all living things through relearning efforts and the Amah Mutsun Land Trust.

Exhibit Acknowledgements
The Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History gratefully thanks the individuals and organizations who have contributed to the creation of this exhibit:

The Amah Mutsun Tribal Band | The Helen and Will Webster Foundation | Linda Yamane | Doug Petersen | Nikki Silva | Frank Perry | Dave Dye | Mark Techner | Charlie Miksicek | Ann Thiermann | Molly Roy