By Samantha Larrick
There have been protests in Vallejo, Santa Cruz, Santa Clara, and San Jose over public land that is considered sacred to the Ohlone people. New parks and building construction sites threaten to demolish the land, but Ohlone tribes continue to protest for protection of the natural habitats and ancestral lands.
Some anthropologists and archeologists think that the people of the Ohlone tribes arrived in San Francisco from the San Joaquin area in about the 6th century CE. The Ohlone people did not view themselves as one distinct group, but lived in over 50 different tribes (or triblets, as historians tend to call them). These tribes were located all over northern California: San Francisco, Santa Clara Valley, Santa Cruz, Monterey Bay, and the East Bay. These tribes were as distinct from each other as countries are now, with a variety of different languages and distinct leaders, only interacting occasionally for trade and intermarriages.
The tribe known as the Karkin tribe was located in the Martinez/ Concord area. Their language, the Karkin language, was gone by the time settlers came, but the scraps of vocab that remained show a language that has similar origins to other languages of the Ohlone tribes, but was also very distinctive. Historian Randall Milliken compared it to the difference between Dutch and English; two very different languages, but linguists can see elements of similarities. Historians say that the Karkin tribe was extinct before anthropologists settled which is why there is so little information on the tribe. However, historians have begun to speculate differences between the Karkin tribe and Ohlone villages.
The Ohlones lived completely off the land, through hunting, fishing, and gathering. The Karkins, a village of no more than 300 people, were no different. They did not have a Safeway or Lucky’s to go to when they needed some fish or game; they had to hunt like everyone else, and they had to hunt in the Carquinez Strait. Anthropologists studied the area around Martinez and believe that the Karkins must have been very skilled to survive. The Carquinez Strait is a unique area, as is the terrain around it, and to survive, they must have had to adapt to the conditions.
The arrival of the Spanish missionaries in the mid-1700s was something to which they couldn’t adapt. When the Spanish missionaries reached what is now Monterey, they established missions, introducing the Spanish religion and culture to the Ohlones. As the Spanish built a chain of missions and recruited the Ohlone people to live and work there, their way of life was disrupted. Other Native Americans were also brought into these missions and many, including those from the Ohlone tribes, died soon after from European diseases and drastic diet and lifestyle changes. Because of these deaths, the Ohlones lost a lot of their population.
The Ohlone population continued to decline. The Ohlone living today belong to a few distinct groups in the San Francisco Bay Area, Monterey, and Southern California. These groups are not the 50 distinct Ohlone tribes they once were, but have melded together, though they still recognizing the tribe where their ancestors came from. Those with a tie to their Ohlone heritage are now fighting to be a federally recognized group. Right now, members of the Ohlone Natives are non-federally recognized. This means they have no legal standing as California Indians with the government. They are denied healthcare, education, housing, and religious freedom until they can prove their authenticity. Many people with Ohlone ancestors focus on gaining this legal standing and protecting the Ohlone heritage, culture, and sacred grounds.