When Peggy headed off to England with her sister in August to visit English gardens, I headed off to the north coast of California for a couple of weeks to see what mischief I could get into. Peggy has promised some guest blogs on her experiences. Here is the first of several blogs on mine.
The small community of Novato lies 20 miles north of San Francisco along Highway 101. The little known California State Park of Olompali is just north of Novato. The staff at the Days Inn where I stayed didn’t even mention the park when I asked about interesting places to explore. “Go to the Marin Museum of the American Indian; explore historic Novato; check out the Marin French Cheese Company,” they told me. And I dutifully complied. My adventure started just outside my door.
As for Olompali, I had to find it on my own. It was a mile up the road from the motel, just past the US headquarters of Birkenstocks. It proved to be a very interesting place, indeed.
Once, the area had been home to the Miwok Indians. They had been living in the region for over 3000 years when Sir Francis Drake landed at nearby Point Reyes. Although he was something of a pirate, and would have been an illegal alien by today’s definition, Drake claimed the land for Queen Elizabeth. The Spanish arrived a few years later and claimed the land for Spain. The Miwoks weren’t invited to participate in either decision.
By 1776, when Americans were fighting for independence from Great Britain, the Spaniards were busy establishing their first missions north of San Francisco, an effort that was a continuation of the work of Junipero Serra. In return for supplying ‘civilization and salvation’ to the Miwoks, the Catholic priests expected the natives to work for nothing in what can best be described as a system of slavery. Going home to visit family without permission, or even going fishing, could earn a whipping and a jail sentence. And, if ‘civilization and salvation’ weren’t enough, the Spaniards brought the European diseases with them that more or less wiped out the native population and opened the area for white settlement. It’s small wonder that California’s remaining Native American population didn’t celebrate the recent canonization of Junipero Serra with enthusiasm.
The Miwok, for the most part, were a gentle people who lived in close harmony with the land. An area of Olompali State Park has been put aside to display the native plants and housing the Miwoks used. The natives practiced house cleaning in the extreme: They burned down their houses once a year to get rid of bugs and vermin that had taken up residence.
While most of the plants on display were suffering from the drought, an attractive Bay Laurel caught my attention. A signpost reported that the Miwok had eaten the fruit raw. Nuts were dried and then pounded into flour that was used for bread. The leaves were used for spice. A tea made from the leaves was used for stomach-aches, colds and sore throats. Fresh leaves were put on the head for headaches and an infusion of the leaves was used for washing sores. Shoots growing from the tree were used as arrow shafts. Visiting the Bay Laurel, it seemed to me, would have been like making a trip to the grocery store. I found several of the plants the Miwoks made use of, such as the California Buckeye and Harvest Brodiaea, were also common to the Central Valley of California and the Sierra Nevada Mountain foothills where I lived for many years.
Wild animals, like native plants, were central to the existence of the Miwok. An informative book by Betty Goerke, Discovering Native People at Point Reyes, notes that the Miwok considered Coyote the creator of their world. As in much Native American lore, Coyote was also a trickster god, often getting into mischief. His god-like status kept him from getting eaten, however. Other animals didn’t fare as well, but even they deserved respect. “It was necessary and a common courtesy to honor an animal when it was killed,” Goerke notes. Beads were thrown into a fire to honor a dead bear. Even a small bird would receive a dance— “so it wouldn’t feel bad.” I’m not sure the dead bird appreciated the dance, given an option, but I like the sentiment behind it.
NEXT BLOG: How Olompali moved from being home territory for the Miwoks to a temporary home for the Grateful Dead and then the site of one of California’s most famous hippie communes.