Olompali: Miwoks, the Grateful Dead, and a Hippie Commune… The North Coast Tour

I photographed this picturesque oak tree at Olompali State Park. Later I discovered the same tree was featured on the cover of the Park's brochure. Acorns from oaks were a major source of food for the Miwok Indians.

I photographed this picturesque oak tree at Olompali State Park. Later I discovered the same tree was featured on the cover of the Park’s brochure. Acorns from oaks were a major source of food for the Miwok Indians.

 

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.

To me, the coastal ranges of California provide some of the most scenic views in the world. This was behind the Days Inn where I stayed in Novato. I love the contrast between the gold of the grass and the green of the oaks.

To me, the coastal ranges of California provide some of the most scenic views in the world. This view was behind the Days Inn where I stayed in Novato. I love the contrast between the golden brown of the grass and the dark green of the oaks.

One evening I went out and captured the same shot as the sun went down.

One evening I went out and captured the same shot as the sun went down.

It is a good thing that the Marin Cheese Factory isn't located near my home. I'd end up weighing 300 pounds. Its brie cheese is to die for.

It is a good thing that the Marin French Cheese Factory isn’t located near my home. I’d end up weighing 300 pounds. Its brie cheese is to die for.

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.

These distinctive cliffs at Drakes Bay in Point Reyes National Seashore were used to help identify where Sir Francis Drake landed in

These distinctive cliffs at Drakes Bay in Point Reyes National Seashore were used to help identify where Sir Francis Drake landed in the late 1500s. The tracks in the foreground speak to how popular this beach is in the summer. I had a difficult time capturing a photo that wasn’t packed with people.

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.

The Miwoks built some of their homes with redwood siding, or at least redwood bark. This example of a Miwok shelter is located at Olompali.

The Miwoks built some of their homes with redwood siding, or at least redwood bark. This example of a Miwok shelter is located at Olompali.

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.

The drought that has California in such a tight grip, didn't seem to impact this Bay Laurel that was growing in the garden of native plants important to the Miwok.

The drought that has California in such a tight grip, didn’t seem to impact this Bay Laurel that was growing in the garden of native plants important to the Miwok.

Buckeye trees in bloom along the American River Parkway in Sacramento. Buckeyes, well leeched to remove poison, served as back up food when acorns were scare.

Buckeye trees in bloom along the American River Parkway in Sacramento. Buckeyes, well leached to remove poison, served as back up food for the Miwoks when acorns were scarce.

A close up I took of buckeye flowers while hiking along the American River Parkway. The fruit of the buckeye was also crushed by the Miwok and thrown into streams to knockout fish that were then gathered for food.

A close up I took of buckeye flowers while hiking along the American River Parkway. The unleached fruit of the buckeye was crushed by the Miwok and thrown into streams to poison fish that were then gathered for food.

Bulbs of Harvest Brodiaea were baked, boiled or eaten raw by the Miwok. This is another photo I took along the American River Parkway.

Bulbs of Harvest Brodiaea were baked, boiled or eaten raw by the Miwok.

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.

 

36 comments on “Olompali: Miwoks, the Grateful Dead, and a Hippie Commune… The North Coast Tour

  1. The drought is the second wave of change for this park. The first was a blight on the native oaks that has devastated the landscape. Oddly, the drought may be slowing the pace of oak deaths, which at first threatened to denude the state of its venerable oak habitats. I lived just north of there, in Two Rock, for seven years–loving every minute of the landscape. Even though I’ve been back in Michigan for two years, I haven’t yet had the heart to change my cover photo–my view in Two Rock. Thank you for reminding me about this jewel of a park that is so often overlooked.

    • I love Two Rocks! I’ve been through there ever so many times over the years on my way to the coast. And I always slow down to contemplate how much fun it was that the original inhabitants named the area Two Rocks. Michigan seems like a long ways off. California would definitely be much poorer were it to lose its beautiful oaks. Peggy and I call our property White Oaks because over a hundred grow on our five acres in Southern Oregon.Thanks so much for your comments.—Curt

      • Actually, though I cannot explain it, it is Two Rock. I guess there being only two, they decided to forego the plural. I could see them from my back deck–and soon learned the history–that they initially served as beacons and navigation points for Native Americans, and later were the corner point of two large spreads doled out by the early Spanish. (Not that the Native Americans had anything to say about that.)

        And yeah, Michigan seems like a dream to me now….

      • I am sure my mind added the s. (grin) I like to believe I always noted the two rock(s) when passing through.Should have asked a local to be sure. Thanks for the added information.–Curt

  2. What an informative post! You’ve taught me much about Miwoks, Bay Laurels (evidently drought tolerant), buckeye flowers, and where to buy brie! We’ve been to Point Reyes, but after the long drive to see the lighthouse, we saw only a dense fog. Thank goodness for your pictures — I’m catching up on what we missed. And, by the way, that shot of sundown in Novato shows me how even ordinary grasses can look extraordinary.

    • My first time at Point Reyes was in the early 70s. And I have returned again and again over the years. The ocean, mountains, beaches, wildlife and small towns keep calling me back. Its close proximity to the Bay Area can make it crowded at times (people can be there in an hour), but often it almost seems like it was back in the times when the Miwoks roamed the area. I grew up in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, which has a similar golden grass look in the summer. It is part of my soul. –Curt

  3. I loved the contrast between the golden grasses and the trees, too. It’s one of my favorite memories of the landscape there, even though there are other, more dramatic settings.

    I confess I didn’t pay much attention to the recent visit of the Holy Father, but I did hear that someone was canonized. Now that you mention it, I do remember the name of Junipero Serra. I didn’t know much about him, but I’ve just done the Google quick search of a variety of sources, and can see why there was some muttering. It’s also interesting to see the parallels between the mission system in California and that in Texas. Of course it makes sense, especially since the Franciscans were involved both places.

    A great post, and very informative.

    • Back when I was in elementary school, admittedly a while ago, Serra was quite the hero. We studied missions and their ‘civilizing’ influence, Linda. Today’s history is more reflective of what actually happened. I am sure the same is true in Texas. I recently did some research on where I grew up in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Things weren’t much different in the 1850s and 60s with California part of the US. One thing I learned was that Native Americans weren’t allowed to testify against ‘white people.’ Pretty hard to achieve justice under those circumstances. –Curt

  4. Some great history on the Native peoples in the area along with fantastic photos. I especially like the oaks. That sign at the Cheese Factory says ‘visitors welcome’ – I’d end up homesteading the place!!!

  5. An excellent description of the North Bay that’s hidden in plain sight of the crush and grind of the freeway. We can count on you to show us something different. I was once swarmed by gazillions of bugs – big ones – at Olompali.

    • Tell me about the bugs, Bruce. 🙂 Fortunately, I saw none. I did think about you when I thought about the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver getting together there and playing music all day, just for the fun of it. –Curt

      • It was so long ago, I can’t exactly remember all the details. The lasting impression is there, however. I’m not a bug-loving guy. Lots of big black flying grasshoppers or something of the sort, I think. They were as big as dinner plates. Some as big as hubcaps. Some day I’ll tip toe back in to see if they are gone.

      • No Henry David Thoreau here. There was a time, I’d hike Mt. Tam any time possible. I absolutely love that little spot in the world. I just don’t get over there much anymore. Maybe that can be the old new me again someday.

    • Thank you, Timi. The story of migrants and refugees is as old as history. And yet we continue to stumble with how to handle it. Man’s inhumanity to man seems to keep pace. –Curt

  6. What an amazing post, Curt. It’s so sad what we and the rest of the world did to the true natives of this country. Your post was so interesting; especially the way you described the pictures and their relation to the Miwoks. My fav pic the beautiful tree taken in the direction- looking up. Lovely job. Can’t wait to hear about Peggy’s adventures in England!!! 😉 Sharing this now!! xo

    • Thanks so much Inion. We had another branch of the Miwoks where I grew up in the Sierra foothills, so I have always been interested in them as a tribe. The treatment of America’s indigeneous people is indeed a tragic chapter in our history. –Curt

  7. Curt, I’m just catching up on this series. I love your description of “house cleaning in the extreme” – there have been times in life when I think that would have been the easiest approach. 🙂 And I wasn’t aware that buckeyes could be leached to remove poison. Fascinating. ~Yerri

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