Mount Diablo: A Sacred Mountain

 

This information about Indians of the East Bay came from the Summit Visitor Center exhibit at Mount. Diablo State Park in 2003

 

ONE MOUNTAIN, MANY NAMES

Although we know this place as Mt. Diablo today, the mountain has had many Indian names.  They include:

Tuyshtak                      (Ohlone/Costanoan)

Oj.ompil.e                   (Northern Miwok)

Supremenenu              (Southern Miwok)

SukkuJaman                (Nisenan)

Kawukum                    (group of origin is unknown)

 

An early Spanish name for the peak was “Cerro Alto de los Bolbones,” or “High Point of the Volvon Indians.”  At one time, most of the mountain lay within the homeland of the Volvon, a Bay Miwok group.

 

 MAJOR LANGUAGE GROUPS

 

Coast Miwok                           Ohlone (Costanoan)

Patwin                                     Yokuts

Plains Miwok                           Bay Miwok

 

Mt. Diablo

ANOTHER WAY OF SEEING

 To thousands of bay area residents, Mt. Diablo is a familiar shape on the skyline.  To many state park visitors, it’s a favorite spot to sightsee, hike, or picnic.  But to the Indians who once lived in the surrounding valleys, this was a place of greater richness and significance than can easily be imagined.  In fact, there are those who continue to view it so today.

Little is known of how the Volvon, Tatcan, and other Bay Miwok people in particular regarded their surroundings.  Generally speaking, though, California Indians not only lived intimately with nature but felt themselves to be an integral part of it.  Individual trees, rocks, and other features of the land were often known well enough to be given proper names.  Each type of animal had unique attributes that were recognized and respected.  In this world view, every object had its own history, life, and spirit.

 Think if you can, of certain places being endowed with special power; of rocks possessing the memory of past events; of animal-people having taken part in a grand creation.  Spend a little time exploring Mt. Diablo with your mind and senses...considering a landscape that you’ve just begun to see.

 

 BIRTHPLACE OF THE WORLD

 Mt. Diablo figured prominently in the spoken traditions of various Indian groups within its view.  At least two groups considered the mountain to be the birthplace of the world.  Another knew it as the place from which a formerly dark world was lit.

Native creation accounts, told during fire lit winter evenings, describe how people were made.  They relate the heroic acts of the “First People,” supernatural beings with both human and animal attributes.  After establishing the ways in which people would live, the First People transformed themselves into the animals of today.

Only fragments remain of these once epic dramas.

 

 ~~THE CREATION OF PEOPLE ~~

             A story of unknown native origin

 Mt. Diablo and Reed’s Peak were once islands surrounded by water.  Coyote, the first living being, saw a feather floating ashore at Mt. Diablo.  It became Eagle.  Together Coyote and Eagle created people - and the water decreased, exposing dry land

 

 ~~ WORLD MAKING ~~

             A Julpun Creation Story

 Molluk (Condor) lived on Mt. Diablo, where his son, Wekwek (Falcon) was born.  Wekwek flew east to buy a branch of the elderberry tree from the Star Women.  Wekwek and his grandfather Olette (Coyote) planted elderberry trees to provide music, food, and medicine for the people they were going to make.

 

~~ HOW PEOPLE CAME TO BE ~~

            A Julpun Creation Story Continued

 To create people, Wekwek and Olette captured three bird beings and plucked their feathers.  They traveled to places where they wanted villages and stuck three feathers in the ground.  The feathers came to life and became people.  Olette turned himself into a coyote and Wekwek changed into a falcon.

  

A SPECIAL AND SACRED PEAK

Because it was sacred to them, Native Americans reserved the upper part of Mt. Diablo for special, religious purposes.  Some people came individually to pray here; others apparently gathered to participate in ceremonies, about which little is known.

Miles away in the Sierra Nevada, the Central Miwok featured this mountain in one of their most elaborate and highly spiritual dances, a re-creation of the beginning of the world - of “Sacred Time.”

Local people who took part in a native religious revival during the 1870s regarded Mt. Diablo as a home of spirits.  In the 1920s Maria Colos, an East Bay Ohlone (Costanoan) woman, stated that spirits still danced and whistled at cemetery sites on its lower slopes.

Today the mountain remains an important and meaningful place for many Indians, a visible reminder of Sacred Time.  Laime Hayem, a Wintun elder, expressed in 1985 that “Mt. Diablo was our (sacred) mountain at one time and still is in my heart.”

 

SOURCES OF SUSTENANCE

 For untold generations, this region’s ample natural resources sustained the local Indians.  Mt. Diablo’s lower slopes were visited regularly by Bay Miwok people whose main villages were in the valleys below.  They took no more than they needed, and gave back for what was taken with prayers and offerings.

Archeologists have found evidence of Indian activity at many sites.  In one spot, rock chips mark where pieces of chert were quarried; in another, aligned stones may have functioned as a hunting blind.  Bedrock mortars and cupule petroglyphs near Rock City indicate that the area was used as a seasonal camp.  There, trees still stand that might have echoed with the rhythmic thump of seed or acorn poundings, and songs of harvest.

Local Indians crafted sharp points for their arrows and spears from stones:  Franciscan chert and especially obsidian - a glass-like volcanic stone.  Local groups traded with other Indians from the north and east in order to obtain obsidian, which is not found in the Mt. Diablo area.  Indians from this region may have traded clamshell disks, mineral paint, abalone shell pendants, and more.

Bay Miwok hunters used bows and arrows for hunting big game such as deer, elk, or antelope.

Before hunting, men would often purify themselves in a sweathouse as a spiritual ritual which also reduced human odor.  In central California, a hunter sometimes wore a deerskin as camouflage while approaching a herd of deer.  He mimicked the behavior of the deer until he could move close enough to shoot one with an arrow.  At other times, groups of hunters built blinds, then chased the deer toward a hunter hidden in the blind.

 From plants that had nourished their ancestors for generations local Indians gathered nuts and seeds.  The annual cycle of useful plants set the rhythm for Indian life, with the fall acorn harvest marking a special time of celebration.

Nuts and seeds provided staple, nutritious foods that could be easily stored for years.  Central California Indians shelled and winnowed acorns, then pounded the nut meats in a stone mortar.  They rinsed the meal with water to leach out the bitter tannic acid.  Central California Indians used acorn meal - with its delicate, nutty flavor - to make soup, mush, bread, and biscuits.

Indians ate meal from buckeye seeds which were boiled, then mashed and leached with running water.

Out of respect for the deer, resourceful east bay Indians used as much of the animal they’d killed as possible.  Deer meat provided a food source that could be eaten fresh (cooked) or dried for storage and eaten later.  Sinew or tendons made a tough string-like material used for many purposes, including making bowstrings and tying projectile points to arrows.  Deer hides, stretched and tanned with deer brains, provided clothing and bedding.  Indians used the bones and antlers for a variety of tools, including flintnappers for making projectile points and awls primarily used in basketry.  Deer bones were also crafted into gambling pieces.

 

Map source:  Randall Milliken’s book Time of Little Choice, p. 25.

Compiled for Bay Miwok Readings, 2003