Point Reyes Ecosystem Field Trip

CULTURE:Coast Miwok Indians

Animated gif of dairy farm and Miwok hutArcheologists hypothesize that the Coast Miwok Indians inhabited the Peninsula for at least 5,000 years until the late 18th century when they were enslaved by Spain and forced to work in Spanish missions. Since then, the Peninsula has been dominated by dairy and beef cattle ranching, and, more recently, tourism (Evens 1993; National Park Service 1994).

The First People

The Coast Miwok Indians' territory stretched as far north as Bodega Bay, as far east as the town of Sonoma and included all of present day Marin County. Over 600 village sites have been uncovered and identified in the Miwok territory and, of those, more than 100 have been discovered on the Peninsula (Thalman 1993).

Archeological evidence indicates that the Miwok people chose to inhabit areas near small bays, lagoons and streams. The Peninsula had an abundance of food and the Miwok's daily activities included large game and bird hunting, fishing, and acorn gathering and processing. The Miwoks had a rich cultural heritage that included basket-making, dances and ceremonies, and a complex and intricate language. This is evidenced by the fragments of their culture that have been discovered and still remain on the Peninsula, including hunting, fishing and cooking tools and remnants used in basket and bead making (Evens 1993; Thalman 1993).


The Coast Miwok Indians ate most of their food fresh, although some fish and eggs were dried. In addition, each season brought an opportunity for expanding the variety of foods available to them. In spring, the Miwok diet consisted of harvested buckeye nuts that were boiled, mashed and leached; fresh, native clover; the sweet sap of the black or white oaks; and the honey of wild bees. In the summer, they harvested kelp at low tide and dried or roasted it. In the fall, hazelnuts and peppernuts were gathered and prepared into a spicy relish. These staples were supplemented by other game and seafood found in the surrounding area. The Miwok constructed bows and arrows for hunting the larger game, large nets for harvesting fish and other seafood, and basket traps for capturing quail and other birds (Thalman 1993).


In general, the roles of men and women were clearly defined. Men predominantly hunted and held positions of power and leadership; women harvested, gathered and prepared the food; and the grandparents cared for the younger children. Boys and girls gathered wood and hauled water. The boys also hunted for small game and birds, and the girls cleaned the house and surrounding area. Other important positions in the Miwok community included the headmen, headwomen and doctors. The headmen (called 'hoypu') mediated disagreements, provided advice and was the representative and leader when encountering outsiders. The headwomen (known as 'maayen') were responsible for choosing the appropriate time for dances and ceremonies, as well as heading the women's dancehouse. Both men and women could become doctors and were charged with curing the ills of the mind and body suffered by tribal members. Miwok doctors used ritual songs, prayer, ceremonies and herbal remedies as part of their practice. They also developed a hollow bone-like device that was used to extract foreign objects from the body. (Thalman 1993).


The Miwok community lived in dome and conical shaped homes. Theses structures were then covered with redwood boards (called 'kotcha') or grass or tule (called 'kaawul kotcha'). The grass houses had a willow frame covered with bundled grass and a tule mat or animal hide was used for the flap door leading into the house. The redwood houses were built by first harvesting the bark of redwood trees, and then the redwood slabs were laid against a frame of Douglas fir. Every family also had a conical shaped, grass covered granary for storing and protecting acorns from the rain, birds, insects and other wildlife (Thalman 1993).

Other structures common to the Miwok people included sweathouses and roundhouses that were used for ceremonies and purification rituals. Men and women had separate sweathouses--men's were large enough to sleep in and the women's were smaller. The roundhouse was a place to have communal gatherings and celebrations and usually existed in larger villages. Both structures were partially built into the ground and the walls and roof were made from grass (Thalman 1993).

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