Gifts from the Land of Chief Marin Part One

What if you suddenly found yourself wandering around the lovely hills and valleys of Marin…after everyone else on the planet had disappeared along with all signs of previous civilization?  No cars, no highways, no buildings, no pollution…just the natural world as it existed before modern contact.  With first impression, you might find yourself enchanted by the incredible beauty of this pristine environment.  No doubt, you’d be touched with the abundance of wildlife, the rich array of vegetation and the uncontaminated purity of the air, the waters and the landscape. Towering redwood forests, salmon filled streams and majestic hillsides would grace your view.

But in short order you’d begin to feel that familiar rumbling in the belly and start to focus on food, not to speak of shelter, tools, warmth and the myriad of basic survival needs.  In effect, you’d launch into a re-creation of that vast repertoire of sustaining skills and ecological understanding our Coast Miwok evolved over the past eight thousand years.

Secrets of the Land

 Perhaps you were lucky enough to have read some books on the local flora and fauna or participated in native skills classes that introduced indigenous arts and crafts.  Maybe you had experience backpacking in the wilderness.  In this case you’d be slightly ahead of the game with some awareness of possibilities and challenges.  For the most part you’d be faced with a demanding course of exploration, discovery and opportunity to learn the secrets of the land.

The need to quench your thirst could lead to a creek and the opportunity to taste the pure water as it used to be.  If you were already in tune with traditional wisdom you’d remember to give thanks for the gift.  As you offered this little prayer, perhaps you’d observe salmon struggling upstream to their spawning grounds and think, “Now how could I catch one for my dinner?”  (A wicker dam with only one opening in the center worked for countless centuries.)  “But how to cook it?  And what to do to stay warm?  And, how to find fire to protect myself from grizzly bears and provide light in the darkness of the night?”

At some point you’d need to call, as did our ancients, upon little hummingbird to fly to the sun, steal some of his fire, tuck it under her chin, and return to have Coyote permanently embed that spark within the buckeye tree…where one can still coax out his flaming spirit with the spin of a buckeye drill, a softwood plank and a nest of dried grass.  (She still has that mark upon her chin).

Use of Native Materials

This fantasy journey continues down the path to a sampling of the benefits of local plants and animals, the value of natural materials used to craft implements and the blessing of sacred practices that sustained the ecological balance amongst our First People.  Growing alongside those unpolluted waterways and in nearby tidal marshes rose an abundance of tule rushes with their little tassels tossing in the breeze…as still found along a few undisturbed riparian pathways.  This all-purpose plant was mindfully harvested to construct shelters, weave baskets, fashion sturdy boats, make into duck decoys, serve as diapers, create clothing, and serve up as food.

Arrows were selected from creek side willow branches whose flexible shafts were easily straightened.  Hunting bows were shaped from hazel and bay laurel limbs. Like the highly valued obsidian for tool making, some bow materials, such as dogwood and yew, were traded from far and wide across the land for meticulously crafted strings of clamshell beads – now called “Indian gold.”

Bay laurel, more commonly known by native folks as the “sacred pepperwood tree,” held spiritual significance.  Branches were, and still are, used as a healing smudge to cleanse participants before entering into the Roundhouse for ceremonies and rituals at the Miwok Village, called Kule Loklo (“Bear Valley” in Miwok), in the Point Reyes National Seashore.  The peppery tasting nut from the tree can be roasted and eaten or made into bread.  Try collecting a bunch in the fall, peeling away the soft outer flesh and roasting them in the oven for five to ten minutes.  Tasty treat.

Pepperwood branches were burned all day with doors closed in the Roundhouse to create a huge smoke-filled chamber.  Bugs in the earthen roof beat a hasty retreat.  Acorn storage granaries were lined with pepperwood leaves to deter insects.  And of course, today we think of the bay leaf as an essential ingredient in our spaghetti and stew.

How Much More Is There to Learn?

In July, the Miwok Archeological Preserve of Marin ( in partnership with the College of Marin Adult Education Department will begin offering a year-long series of classes entitled “The California Indian Studies Certificate Program.” (Call 415-485-9305 for information and go to for registration.) Completion of five of the nine listed classes leads to an award of the Certificate, but participants can enroll in any one or more of the workshops.  These, mostly weekend offerings, include flint knapping, basket weaving, fire making and ethnographic understandings.  The series kicks off at the annual Kule Loklo Big Time Celebration on Saturday morning, July 21st in the Red Barn at the Point Reyes National Seashore.  Check out the program for a more in-depth appreciation of our First Peoples and their relationship to the land.

(Look for the second half of this essay in the days to come)

See the whole article with illustrations at and scroll down to John’s article.


One thought on “Gifts from the Land of Chief Marin Part One

  1. Hello Mr. Littleton. I am reaching out at the suggestion of Ralph Shanks at MAPOM. My 3rd grade is entering the brand new Lamorinda ShortDocs Film Fest, and has recently decided he would like to make his film about the Miwok, after being inspired about it in school. Ralph suggested you might be a good resource for us, and that you might consider being interviewed for his film. We are working fast, as the deadline is in a couple weeks, and are planning to do as much filming this weekend as possible. We have plans to visit the Marin Museum of the American Indian in Novato, and the director there also suggested visiting Olompali, which is not too far. Please let me know if we might be able to speak, and if you’d have any interest in helping us out. Many thanks for your consideration!

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