Miwok History

MiwoksBefore Westerners arrived, the Miwok enjoyed thousands of peaceful years of pristine beauty on Angel Island.  Native American use of the island began when people first came to live in the San Francisco Bay Area. The Coast Miwok Indians, who lived in what is now Marin County, reached the island with boats made from tule reeds. Some of these boats could carry eight to ten people. Though they tended to become waterlogged after prolonged use, these boats were adequate for short trips because their lightness made them fast and maneuverable. Long poles were used to propel the boats in shallow water; double ended paddles were used in deep water.

Miwok Indians established camps at what we know today as Ayala Cove, Camp Reynolds, Fort McDowell, and the Immigration Station. The Indians using the island were experts at fishing. They also hunted deer, seals, sea lions, and sea otter. Several kinds of fish and shellfish were available year-round, and salmon and other highly prized fish were seasonally plentiful. The annual spawning runs were made though Raccoon Strait, just offshore from Angel Island. The Indians also hunted duck and other sea fowl, and gathered acorns, buckeyes, and other seed crops, as well as certain roots and leaves, in order to round out their varied diet.



The Miwok had an animistic philosophy:  they wanted no walls and trod lightly on the land, leaving no footsteps, always apologizing to the spirits in animals or nature whenever they disturbed them in whatever fashion.  Their oral history was transmitted through the stories of the elders and shamans.  Tribal boundaries were taught to children by rote.


Social Organization

Miwok tribelets preferred to live in villages of about one hundred persons.  They kept their villages small in order to enjoy living at the peak of the environment around them without the need to destroy. There was a male elder in each village with a woman who was responsible for organizing the ceremonies.  The Shamans provided both negative and positive rituals.  They used local plants to create trances.  It was accepted that the Shaman had the power to cure, kill, predict the future, and start the rains.


Living Conditions

Only temporary houses were built on Angel Island: they did not live there permanently.  Houses were made of branches covered with mats of tule.  Each house had a small acorn house constructed on legs in order to store the acorns they would collect and protect from deer and insects.

The Miwoks had no pottery, made no fabric, and planted no seeds.  They kept no domestic animals.  Instead, they were gatherers, fisherman, hunters, and basket makers.

Several middens on Angel Island have produced bones, shell money from clams, abalone jewelry, skins, snail shell beads, mortars and pestles, wreckage from ships, and redwood driftwood from crematoriums.  Obsidian points used in arrows were common.



Men and women had special roles, but equal standing.  In the winter, men would make foot drums, rattles, reed flutes, and bone whistles.  They would work on their boats, and hunted and fished all year long, the prey depending on the season.  Women would make tule mats, baskets, collect beads, feathers, and shells, and prepare skins to make both ceremonial clothing and capes for wear during the cool season.  Women also made tule skirts, which was generally the only clothing they wore, along with their jewelry.

In the spring, women would collect greens such as lettuce, clover, and nettle, to supplement their winter diet.  Miner’s lettuce would be collected and placed near a red ant hill.  The ants walked on the leaves and exuded a vinegar-like substance, which became the Miwok’s salad dressing.  In the summer, they collected seeds from wildflowers to make pinole, the basic ingredient for their bread.  Autumn brought intensive labor for the whole family, as many hundreds of pounds of acorns had to be collected from the oak trees, sorted, prepared, and stored for the year ahead.  Angel Island provided excellent nutrition for the Miwok.  Plants and wildlife provided everything they needed.

The Miwok did not appear to differentiate between work and play.  Everyone down to the smallest child was productive.


Hunting and Cooking

Hunting required extensive preparation, building the sweat lodge so that the  hunters could get rid of the human smell.  They made deer heads to wear, pulled bows and arrows through the smoke to take away the human odor, and rubbed their bodies with angelica and mugwort.  The philosophy of the hunt was retreat and lure, rather than chase and flee.  They caught birds using baskets, put plant bulbs in the water to stun the fish, and prepared various types of nets to catch salmon, geese, seagulls, and other wildlife.

Food preparation required intensive labor.  Cooking was mainly done in water-proof baskets.  Rocks were heated, mush and water were placed in the basket and rocks added carefully, being replaced as they grew cold.  Meat, fowl, and fish were broiled over fires.


Other Plant Uses

Many plants on Angel Island were also used for health care.  Galls from oak trees were chewed as their toothpaste, tea from iris bulbs was used for kidney stones, acorn mush was set aside to age and the mildew-like substance that resulted was scraped off and used like penicillin.  Ceanothus leaves were used like tobacco.


Western Encounters and Influence

In 1579, Chaplain Fletcher with the Sir Francis Drake wrote:  “They are of a free and loving nature, without guile or treachery.”   In 1775, Father Vincente with Captain Ayala said, “I found the Indians very humorous, with courteous manner, mimicking my prayers with chuckles — they acted like tender lambs, had fine stature, clean and of good color, very elegant of figure — about four hundred naked men appeared.”

There were major differences in how various western groups treated the Miwok.

A letter from a Russian colonel to the lieutenant he is sending out to trade with the people: “Strictly forbid and punish the slightest rudeness toward the local inhabitants by your men. Seek to win their friendship and love in every way, by various favorable enticements stemming from the courtesy and love of mankind.   Strictly forbid anyone to accept the smallest trifle as a gift, not even a morsel of food, but pay for everything with whatever seems appreciable to them. Train them to consider the Russians as benevolent friends.”

The Spanish needed labor for cattle lands, they enslaved the Miwok, changing their nutrition to western ways, thereby weakening their immune systems and making them vulnerable to diseases, which killed many of them.

The Americans started boarding schools and brought children from the villages with the intent of taking the Indian out of the Indian.  Several still alive today have stories from their boarding school days.


Recommended Reading

Miwoks to Missiles

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