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Campus Heritage: Temporary Travels to Tribelets


(Figure 1)

At the time when Spanish Europeans first made contact with Native American groups in California in 1769, the Ohlone occupied the San Francisco Peninsula, the east bay south to the Delta, and the Santa Clara Valley down to Monterey and inland south to San Juan Bautista. This region encompassed a mosaic of different ecological communities, from grasslands, woodlands, and chaparral to redwood forests and seacoasts as well as bay estuary and tidal marsh.

Estimates of total Ohlone population during the time of European contact vary from 7,000-11,000. The Ohlone lived in approximately 50 autonomous villages that anthropologist Alfred Kroeber called “tribelets.”The tribelet defined the basic unit of Ohlone political organization. Each tribelet occupied a permanent primary habitation site, in addition to many smaller resource procurement camps. Each village within the tribelet was probably occupied for several months each year, with groups of families moving between different locations as food resources became seasonally available. Groups of families coalesced during winter, in part to make use of shared food stores but also to engage in annual ceremonial activities.


(Figure 2)

In the Santa Clara area, the Mission period (1777-1836) saw the disruption of traditional Ohlone culture and lifeways. As the Ohlone were gradually brought into the mission system and placed under the protection and tutelage of the Mission fathers, they lost much of their formerly autonomous existence. They were required to work hard at tasks they were not familiar with, live closely together with other tribal groups that they would not have normally have had regular interactions with, and had a completely foreign ethos and religious system thrust upon them.

However, the social worlds of native people in Spanish California extended beyond the mission walls. As part of the widespread economic and social connections linking the missions and autonomous communities (not all native groups were inducted into the mission system), native people used a system of temporary leaves, called paseo. These permitted journeys created opportunities for some native people to return to home villages for short durations to attend ceremonies, procure traditional resources, reestablish relationships, give birth, or die. Despite oft-occurring fugitivism, most of these people returned to the missions, bringing back with them trade items, traditional foodstuffs and other supplies, and a renewed sense of connection to their former way of life.

Traditional practices continued within the mission walls too. Recent archaeological excavations at the Indian village at Mission Santa Clara (at the new parking structure and the Edward M. Dowd Art & Art History building) have produced several pairs of gaming tubes (Figure 1). These ground and polished animal bones were used in pairs, one marked, the other plain, as a form of hand-held guessing game. These games could go on for hours with specialized songs and rituals. A painting by Louis Choris, circa 1805, at Mission San Francisco, depicts groups of natives immersed in this pastime (Figure 2). There are no such images of Mission Santa Clara, but doubtless, the scene would have been very similar.

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