Skip to content

Indians in mountain’s shadow believed it to be a sacred place

Written by Beverly Lane in the Valley Pioneer as a “Valley Vignette” on July 29, 1987


FOR hundreds of years, well before the Spanish arrived, Mount Diablo was sacred to the Indians of Northern California, whether they lived next to it or saw it from afar.

To understand the Indian views of the Mountain, requires some understanding of the Indian’s culture, especially their religious relationship to the land.  The Indians whose territory included parts of the mountain were, of course, most intimately connected to it.

When the Spanish arrived, there were at least a thousand Indians living around the mountain, most of them Volvons who lived to the north and east in the Marsh Creek watershed.  Yokuts lived to the southeast in the delta and beyond.

In the San Ramon Valley the Saclan, Tatcan and Seunen lived in small native tribes around their watersheds to the west and south of the mountain.

The Indians walked and hunted in the valleys on all sides of the mountain, meeting with other tribes at periodic ceremonies which sometimes lasted for days.  One location for these ceremonies may have been Rock City at the western side of the mountain.  There they told stories, arranged marriages, traded, feasted and danced.

While later settlers found coal, copper and quicksilver on the mountain, the mineral cinnabar, which was found on the mountain’s eastern flank, was important to the Indians.  It was valued for its red color and was used by the Indians as a face and body paint in their important ceremonies of adolescence, marriage and mourning.

The Indian ceremonies just mentioned were but one part of what Theodora Kroeber has called the “gossamer curtain of religion” which hung over all Indian activities.  The Indians were animistic, believing that every object and animal on earth had life, with a continuity and kinship among all things.

There were legendary or magical qualities to objects all around them Certain rocks, certain places were held as holy by each tribe and prescribed rituals were appropriate in relationship to each of them.

If a rock or tree held special magic to a tribe, how much more magic would the mountain embody!  From its summit enormous ranges of land could be seen and it, in turn, rose in solitary splendor and was visible from long distances.  It dominated the landscape and was sacred to every tribe within sight.  One tribe called the mountain “the sacred birthplace of the world.”

Here is one authentic Indian creation myth which tells about the mountain would have been one of many Indian tales.  They had extensive oral traditions and, especially at night or in the winter, storytelling brought them great pleasure.

Just picture them gathered at night in their chief’s dwelling or an assembly lodge.  The raconteur speaks, repeating a tale they know by heart and holding their attention by his voice, cadence and acting skills:

At that period the entire face of the country was covered with water, except two islands, one being Mount Diablo and the other Reed Point on the north.  There was a coyote on the peak, the only living thing there.

“One day the coyote saw a feather floating on the water.  As it reached the island it turned into on eagle, which flew upon the mountain.  The coyote was pleased with his new companion; dwelling in harmony together, they made occasional excursions to the other island, the coyote swimming and the eagle flying.

“After some time they counseled together and concluded to make Indians, and as the Indians increased the water decreased, until where the water had been there was now dry land.”

Their stories and the names they gave to the mountain are extremely difficult to trace at this point because of the incredible diversity of languages which existed in California.

We do know the mountain was named by each Indian tribe in its own language and ethnohistorian Beverly Ortiz has identified several of them. The physical position of the mountain and the creation accounts surrounding it affirm that it was sacred to the Indians.  When the Spanish came, they named it themselves, with no knowledge of the traditional Indian names.

Next time Valley Vignettes will examine the battle which brought the Spanish to call it Monte Diablo.


Resources: Beverly Ortiz, East Bay Regional Park District Naturalist; see Randy Milliken, A Time of Little Choice, 1995, Heizer, R. F, “Indians of the Bay Arrea” in Geologic Guidebook of the SF Bay Counties, 1951, Rawls, James J., Indians of California  The Changing Image, Norman: U. of Oklahoma Press, 1984, Wallace, William J., “Speakers in the Night: California Indian Storytellers,” The Journal of California Anthropology, Summer 1975, pp. 84-89.