The Legacy of the Coast Miwoks

By Maureen Foley

The following is excerpted from a 1998 MarinScope article by staff reporter Maureen Foley:

Marin's coastline defined much of the diet and lifestyle of the Miwok, in the same way that people in this area grow up surfing, wind surfing, sailing or fishing and taking for granted fresh fish, fruits, and vegetables. In Earth is Our Mother, Dolan H. Eargle, Jr. writes that the indigenous tribes that lived along the coast shared more similarities in their lifestyles than with their closer, inland neighbors.

"The coastal hills, marshes, and valleys of the San Francisco-Monterey Bays...were abundant sources of both sea and land plants and animals for food and shelter. Lifestyles of these coastal people tended to be somewhat similar to one another and different from their inland kin," Eargle writes.

A certain coastal mindset, characterized in Marin by a more mellow, laid back way of life, was also established by the Miwok, although not with the same features or for the same reasons. In The Coast Miwok People, by Ruth. Leseohier, Governor of Russian California F.P. Von Wrangell writes in the 1800s of a possible reason for this variance in attitude.

"The [primarily] vegetarian diet, the mild climate, their mode of life itself, have molded the temperament of these Indians into an easy-going one," wrote Von Wrangell.

While living near the water may have changed certain attitudes for the Coast Miwok, it certainly affected what foods they ate and that differentiated them from tribes without coastal access. California sea lions and several types of whales were among numerous types of sea creatures eaten by the Miwok, along with various plants that thrived in the milder, coastal climes.

The Coast Miwok had numerous sites across Marin County, including villages near modern day Sausalito, San Rafael, Bolinas, and Tomales. Both Bolinas and Tomales are names that are thought to be variations on Miwok words. Marin was the name of great Indian chief, but Marin is not actually a Miwok word.

According to a 1941 article in the Mill Valley Record written by Jeanne 0. Potter, Marin was a shortening of the name El Marinero that was given to Chief Marin by Spaniards because of his skill as a sailor.

Miwoks lived in houses like this recreation at the Bear Valley Visitor Center in Point Reyes National Seashore. 

Miwoks lived in houses like this recreation at the Bear Valley Visitor Center in Point Reyes National Seashore. 

The Miwok had an oral language and tradition, and because of this many details of their past, religion, and myths are obscure. Accounts by early explorers differ in their description of what the villages were like, but artifacts have survived to fill in the holes. In A History of the Coast Miwok, Beverly Ortiz briefly describes a few aspects of a Miwok tribe.

"Each tribe had at least 200 people and each had two leaders, one male and one female, both of whom were chosen based upon personal characteristics rather than heredity. Tribal members spoke dialects of at least two closely related languages – Marin and Bodega Miwok,” Ortiz wrote.

One of the few remaining myths that have survived is the story of where souls would go after someone had died. In a teacher's resource packet from the Marin Museum of the Modern Indian called The Coast Miwok Indians, the story is outlined.

"The Coast Miwok believed that the dead would leap into the ocean at Point Reyes. From there they went out through the surf, following a string which took them west to a road leading to the setting sun. There, Coyote greeted them in the afterworld and they stayed there forever," explains the resource guide.

For a variety of reasons, the Coast Miwok were decimated when the Spaniards and Pioneers invaded the land. Foreign diseases, inhumane treatment, and prejudice persisted from the first days of the Mission in 1769 through the time of Ranchos and settlement by the U.S. in the late 1800s. The effect of the numerous hardships inflicted upon the Coast Miwok cannot be underestimated, as Tomales Miwok Greg Sarris points out in Ortiz's A History of the Coast Miwok.

"We're all feeling the effects of attempted genocide, even if we don't realize it. It's like a song that lives for generations, and you don't know where it comes from. A lot of our insecurities come from generations of prejudice and mistreatment by invaders. You don't have to be affected by it directly. It can be passed down," Sarris said.

Jeanne Billy spoke about the problem rediscovering a lost past in Ortiz's book of Miwok history. "Grandmother kept the language silent. The older children were told not to speak the Indian language. The younger ones were not taught it. My mother did not know enough of the language to speak it and would not let father speak it either. They did not want to appear different from the community where they lived...." Billy said.

Regardless of their unofficial status, some Coast Miwoks continue to feel connected to Marin, their ancient home.

In A History by Ortiz, Bodega Miwok Kathleen Smith said, "My people have lived on the coast for at least 8,000 years. To live in spiritual and physical balance in the same small area for thousands of years without feeling the need to go somewhere else requires restraint, respect, knowledge and assurance of one's place in the world." The same mystic pull that kept Smith's ancestors in Marin for thousands of years, binds its modern residents to this paradise.