Everyone writes stories about the Wild West, including California. Not many mention Northern California except in reference to the Gold Rush and the miners. But there were indigenous Native American cultures distinctly different from the Midwest and North East tribes everyone learns about in school. Well before the Gold Rush, Russians built a trading fort along the Sonoma coastline in hopes of cornering the market on seal skins.
San Francisco was a city built on sand and mud – snatched from the elements by its Spanish conquerors. It literally grew from an adobe Mission, military fort and clapboard lean-tos strewn over the beaches. Later there were unpaved streets that would suck boots from feet, buildings with plank floors and canvas roofs. This was all before earthquakes and fires and the things you see in tourist guide books.
The massive redwood and pine forests, the hills broken by sudden toothy outcroppings of rock, the billowy fog that can roll in at a moment’s notice in some places and never be seen in others; none of these things ever appeared in stories I read about the “Wild West”. What a pity.
I suppose as a kid I was slightly disappointed with our “Indians”. Yeah, it was the ‘70s so they were “Indians” then. I apologize to all the Native Americans out there reading this. We were dumb then, me included. When I was a kid, I had seen all the westerns, all the bone breastplates, all the feather headdresses, braids with feather wrappings, fringed buckskin leggings, beaded moccasins, buffalo robes, and on and on. And then we had our assignments in grammar school about American History before European Settlers. Lucky me I was assigned Northern California Indians. Oh boy, when I saw the hand out with the mimeograph line art picture attached. What kind of Indians had round faces, wore sack like dresses made of willow bark and beaded skirts, apparently rode no horses, and lived in tepees made of huge chunks of cedar bark?
There was a lot of stuff written about the baskets the Costal Miwok wove and used for storing food which they made out of acorns, grasshoppers, and mussels. There was a lot about making food out of leached acorns – soup, cakes, bread, less about hunting deer, elk, or black bear as though that didn’t happen often. The acorn staples seemed to be rounded out by fish and small game – jack rabbits and quail. Oh and they gathered a lot of interesting things like buckeye nuts, mushrooms, bulbs, seeds, berries, and seaweed (considered a tribal delicacy). This did not satisfy the romantic image of the Wild West Indian I had seen in movies and TV and children’s books I’d already absorbed at that time.
It would not be until my twenties that I would begin to grasp how our Native American tribes were rich in their own traditions, their own unique characteristics and history. By then I would be grateful for the fact that there were some places in Northern California to still learn about and explore how these people first made their mark on the place I call home.
The Costal Miwok I saw were as dramatically exotic in their own right as any Apache thundering across the plains on his war horse. They had elaborate customs involving facial tatoos. There were ceremonial dances where men wore broad feather headresses over their eyes in flapping swaths. It was something to rival any Star Wars costume design.
The Miwok were only one of the tribes living in Northern California before the Russians or Spaniards came calling. The Pomo ranged into our area. These were also exemplary basket weavers. Some baskets were so tightly woven the stitches could not be seen without a magnifying glass. They used them for cooking, trapping, cradling their babies, dishes for eating, and hats among other things, some of them were even used as boats. They weren’t farmers any more than the Miwok; they gathered and hunted the same roots, wild produce, and game. Their religion though was something that caught my attention in my adult years (as a kid – it was “more baskets and acorns?”). The Pomo participated in shamanism which includes a great many exciting details (elaborate costumes, ceremonies, puberty rites) but most thrilling to me was the concept of shamanistic intervention with the spirit world. What a rich vein to mine for historical fiction! But it turned out they were actually influenced by a much more complex tribal religion.
On the fringes of these two tribes were the Wintu, a tribe that ranged between us and the Sacramento Valley. The Patwin tribe which was closest to our area, were much like the Pomo and Coastal Miwok in many ways, hunter gatherers, basket weavers, ate a lot of acorns. The men wore less clothing as in usually none except for the occasional deerskin kilt. The women wore long grass skirts decorated with beads and shells.
Their religion was deep and stirring. Spirits were present in all things and could be acquired by dreaming, going to a sacred place and engaging in ritualistic behaviors. Prayer, charms and magic could all be used to influence the spirit world which in turn affected the material. Bear shamans could destroy enemies. Their ominous power was derived from arduous 5 day initiation ceremonies conducted by an assembly of master shamans. Their cures included soul capture and sucking out of a disease causing object. Many of their secret societies that performed shamanistic ceremonies were open to high-status women as well as men.
Needless to say, by the time I’d started doing research for my novel I had a fantastic new respect for the Native Americans that first populated Northern California. And there are still places you can go in Northern California to see and learn about these people. The Coast Miwok Village at Point Reyes National Park is wonderful as is the small museum. Follow this link to read and see more with directions included https://www.nps.gov/pore/learn/historyculture/people_coastmiwok.htm
On the Sonoma coast’s Fort Ross is an absolutely worthwhile trip and a gorgeous drive to boot. The fort is part preserved/part reconstructed Russian trading post. It is a fascinating thing to explore. All the bunks the soldiers slept in, the Fort Manager’s house (surprisingly elegant by contrast to the other buildings), the Russian Orthodox Chapel and all the amazing history of Native American involvement. The museum there is comprehensive in its coverage of the Native Americans along the Sonoma coast line, their life before the fort and their lives during and after. To read and see more including directions follow this link https://www.fortross.org/
The Wild North West is a place that is every bit as thrilling as the westerns I grew up with as a kid in the 70’s. In fact it kind of makes those look dusty and faded in comparison. I am more than excited to write something about this time and place. It’s been a blast just learning and touring the sites listed above.
Stay tuned gentle readers. There’s more to come.