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While we tend to think of Don Luis Maria Peralta as the first settler in Oakland (in 1772), he was only the first European settler in the area. For thousands of years before Don Peralta was granted land in what is, today, Oakland and surrounding cities, the area was inhabited by Native Americans known as the Huchiun People, later known as the Ohlone People (and also the Costanoan People). The Ohlone (a Miwok word, meaning ‘western people’) lived on or near the coast in Central and Northern California.
The local group of the Ohlone People was known as the Chochenyo People (named for the language they spoke). The Chochenyo lived in what is, today, Alameda County as well as parts of Contra Costa County, from the Berkeley Hills inland and down the western part of the Diablo Range.
Divisions of the Ohlone languages and villages.
The local Chochenyo and the Ohlone People in general tended to be sedentiary, living in fixed villages. Shell mound dating to the north and south of Oakland (i.e., Emeryville, Newark) suggests that villages began to form around 4000 BC and possibly earlier. They lived in dome-shaped huts of woven tule reeds. Where available, they sometimes applied redwood bark to these frames.
Reproduction of an Ohlone tule hut.
The people survived by hunting, fishing, and gathering. Their sources of food included crushed acorns, seeds, nuts, berries, game, fish, mussels, and abalone. To fish and travel, these early people built boats made of tule reeds and they made double-bladed paddles to move around the bay. To catch wildfowl, they used primitive decoys and nets.
A contemporary tule boat and double-bladed paddle.
In the heat of the summer, men did not wear clothes. In winter, they wore animal or feather capes. Women wore items like deerskin aprons, tule skirts, and shredded bark skirts. For ornamentation, men and women are known to have worn necklaces, shells, beads, abalone pendants, and bone earrings with shells and beads. The ornamentation worn may have reflected a person’s position in society.
Culturally, the Ohlone created art in the forms of basket-weaving, dancing, female tattoos, and ear and nose piercings. They practiced a form of religion known as kuksu in which men practiced rituals for good health, good harvest, success in hunting and fertility, and good weather. They believed in an afterlife, often leaving ornaments or other valuables for the good luck of the departed ones. Religious ceremonies included a mourning ceremony, rites of passage, and intervention with the spirit world. An all-male secret society existed, meeting in underground rooms. In public dances, these men would dance in disguise.
A key figure in Ohlone society was the shaman. The shaman used herbs to heal the sick and injured and sometimes contacted the spirit world.
The Ohlone mythology and folklore is surprisingly similar (to me, anyway) to those found in the American Southwest and Northwest. Ohlone stories include the likes of Coyote (a trickster character), Eagle (a leader), and Hummingbird (wise and clever). In the Chochenyo version of the Ohlone creation story, the world was all water, with the exception of Mount Diablo, which was an island in an endless sea. Coyote, Eagle, and Hummingbird lived on this island. All people are descended from Coyote, the father of the human race.
Life for the Ohlone people was probably relatively benign until Europeans arrived in the 18th century. Then, the world as they knew it changed forever. As Spanish explorers moved northward from Mexico into California, they built a chain of missions to bring Christianity to the native people.
Most of the Chochenyo people moved to the missions in San Francisco and Fremont (Missions Delores and San Jose), where they worked and were baptized. But, mission life was hard on the aboriginal people. The Europeans exposed them to smallpox, measles, and other diseases for which they had no immunity. Many native people died of disease, change of diet, and harsh and unsanitary living conditions.
When the California missions were discontinued by the Mexican government in 1834, the Chochenyo people became landless. By 1852, the year Oakland was incorporated, the Bay Area’s Ohlone population, of which the Chochenyo were a part, had dwindled to less than 1,000 people.
Today, the Chochenyo have banded with other area Ohlone people, under the name Muwekma Ohlone Tribe (approximately 500 individuals). They are currently seeking to obtain federal recognition through the US justice system.
Contemporary Muwekma Ohlone ceremony.
So, the next time you hear that Oakland was settled in the 18th century, know that this is akin to saying that Columbus ‘discovered’ America. Aboriginal people made the Oakland area their home thousands of years before European settlers arrived and claimed the area as their own. Our local history goes much farther back in time than the 18th century, it just wasn’t recorded in books.
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