"To the Ohlones, [taking care of one another] was part of a way of life that was as absolute and immutable as the course of the sun." Credit: Wikimendia Commons

"To the Ohlones, [taking care of one another] was part of a way of life that was as absolute and immutable as the course of the sun." Credit: San Mateo County Historical Association

Introduction to the book excerpt below is by Zanetta Jones.

On Native American Heritage Day, we pause to reflect on the many contributions Indigenous Americans have made to our society. As a global network of sharers, Native knowledge and practices have long been used to shape our collective understanding of worldview alternatives, environmental stewardship, cooperative economics and more.

An early example of one such community is the Ohlone Tribe, native to land colonially-recognized as the Northern California coast. Before being colonized by the Spanish, the Ohlone lived for millennia in harmony with each other, and the land. Purported below, their way of life centered collectivism, interdependence, community and above all, sharing.

May the following recollection of Ohlone values and traditions inspire you to imagine a brighter future for our current world—one rooted in connectedness, communal resilience, and abundance.

The below recollection is excerpted from “The Ohlone Way,” (c) 1978 by Malcolm Margolin, published by Heyday. You can purchase the book here

After their brief stay with the bride’s family, the Ohlone couple returned to live among the relatives of the groom. Here—among the people the groom had known, and would know, throughout his entire life—the young couple did not (in the manner of many European couples) seek to cast off family ties and acquire their own wealth and property; rather, both partners sought to bind themselves even more strongly to the family and the tribelet community. When a man killed a deer, for example, he did not bring the meat home, dry it, and store it for personal use. Acquisition was not an Ohlone’s idea of wealth or security. Instead the hunter kept very little, perhaps even none of the meat, but rather distributed it along very formal lines to family and community. The people in turn gave him great honor. The women treated him with respect, the men listened to his advice in the sweat-house, and everyone praised him as a good hunter and a generous, proper man.

The honor and the praise made him feel good. But more to the point, by distributing the meat he strengthened his family and his tribelet, and he also strengthened his own position within the network. He gave meat generously, but in the process he gained obligations. Other people would in the course of time bring him fish, fowl, rabbits, acorn mush, roots, and seed cakes. These gifts would come to him even if he broke a leg, became too sick to hunt deer, or if he ran into bad luck. His place in the family and the community was secure, and gifts would continue to come to him even when he grew old. In short, he gained more wealth and security by sharing the deer meat than if he had kept it all for himself.

The Ohlone hunter, then, did not feel that he lived in a highly competitive, every-man-for-himself world. Rather, he saw himself as a working member of a family and a tribelet—organizations which he knew from birth as trustworthy, permanent features of the world, organizations which he felt sure would take care of him when he was sick and weak as well as when he was strong and able.

Generosity was thus a prime virtue among the Ohlones, but it was even more than that. Generosity was a way of life. It was the only way a proper person could conceivably behave—toward a relative especially, but also toward the world at large. As an early missionary noted: “They give all they have. Whoever reaches their dwelling is at once offered the food they possess.”

The way of sharing gave the Ohlones a totally different outlook and character from ours. They were not “stimulated to obtaining consequence among themselves,” as Captain Vancouver put it. Competitiveness was not an Ohlone virtue. In fact, to stand out and place one’s self above the society was considered a serious vice—the mark of a dangerous, grossly unbalanced person. When praise and honor came, they came not to the egotists or the braggarts, but to those who showed the most moderation and restraint, to those who were able to share most generously.

Because of the emphasis on moderation and generosity, the Ohlones had no need for a strong government. They had no powerful chief to give orders, nor any police force to enforce those orders. In these small communities, where the network of family relationships was so dense and complex, public opinion so important, and social virtues so deeply ingrained, a strong and visible government was superfluous. What anthropologist Anna Gayton said of the Yokuts is equally true of the Ohlones: “Families were free to go about their daily pursuits of hunting, fishing, seed gathering, basket and tool making, seeking of supernatural experiences, gambling, or idling without interference from officials. There were none to interfere. The sense of right and wrong, of duty to one’s relatives and neighbors, was instilled in children as they grew up. Truthfulness, industry, a modest opinion of one’s self, and above all generosity were regarded not so much as positive virtues as essential qualities.”

To the early European visitors—for whom a strong government was the cornerstone of civilization—the Ohlones lived in a state of “anarchy.” The Europeans never realized that rather than living in anarchy, the Ohlones lived in a society run by far more subtle and successful lines of control than anything the Europeans could understand—lines of control that bound the people to one another without the obvious, cumbersome, often oppressive mechanism of “strong government.”

To be sure, there were a few people among the Ohlones who did not fit in—people who were felt to be greedy or aggressive. They generally lived on the outskirts of the village or sometimes across the stream, shunned and sneered at by the rest of the people. If a person’s manners were completely unbearable—say, if he was a bully or a murderer—his family might ultimately desert him; and once deserted, the other people of the community might assault him or drive him from the village area entirely to live as an outcast. Such a person would survive as best he could, without friends, without anyone to help him when he was sick or old, without anyone to protect him from evil shamans and malignant spirits who would instantly recognize his vulnerability. He would lead a lonely, impoverished, and frightened life, an object of distaste to the whole tribelet and a lesson in morality to the youngsters.

Such outcasts, however, were rare, and the Ohlone ethic of sharing worked to the satisfaction of almost everyone. The poor, the weak, and the elderly were taken care of. Even lazy or incompetent people were fed and housed—for they too had relatives. In fact, the way of sharing worked so well that, as several early visitors remarked, there was absolutely no robbery among the Ohlones—this despite the fact that, as la Perouse put it, “they have no other door than a truss of straw laid across the entrance when all the family are absent.” Stealing was simply unnecessary in a land so varied and fruitful and among a people so generous.

Sharing was the underlying element in the Ohlones’ economic system. But sharing was much more than just economic. Born into a tribelet of no more than one, two, or three hundred people, the Ohlones felt very close to family and community. They had no choice. To be an Ohlone meant that one could not move away and start afresh somewhere else. To be born into a certain family and bound to certain relatives and to a certain tribelet—these were the major, totally inescapable facts of one’s life.

The ties that bound the people to their families were so deeply felt, so central to the Ohlones’ self-image, that the people scarcely recognized themselves as individuals who existed outside the network of family and tribelet. “What is a man?” a Pomo to the north of the Ohlones once asked rhetorically: “A man is nothing. Without his family he is of less importance than a bug crossing the trail, of less importance than spit or dung.” So complete was a person’s identification with family that if a nephew committed a crime, the victim of the crime might take revenge on the uncle—and everyone would have thought this quite proper. After all, they were of the same family.

The extreme closeness people felt toward their families and tribelets produced a sense of intense loyalty and love. “Brotherly love as a rule pre- vails among these nations,” noted the missionary at Monterey. “It is their great delight to be of mutual help, now bringing each other seeds from the fields, now lending serviceable things.” Father Arroyo de la Cuesta likewise remarked that “filial affection is stronger in these tribes than in any civilized nation on the globe.” Other missionaries and early visitors presented the same picture of love and closeness among the Ohlones—qualities which were their strength, their passion, indeed the major assumption of their lives.

But to say that they were close and that they lived by sharing is not to say that they lived in perfect harmony. The almost claustrophobic conditions of village life put the people under extraordinary tensions, sometimes making even the best-natured people quarrelsome and irritable. Fortunately, there were ways of keeping tension from building up. The wandering life-style certainly helped. Indeed the frequency with which families broke off from the main village to spend a few months with relatives or to camp alone on another part of the tribelet’s territory was often due to social friction as much as to the quest for food or material.

Games provided another important release from tension. Village life was filled with games—dice games, racing games, shinny games, and still other games, all played with total involvement and a fierce sense of competition. Sometimes games were as elaborately staged as dances, with both teams preparing themselves physically and spiritually well in advance and occasionally even hiring a referee who was paid with beads. Other times games were casual, spur-of-the-moment affairs. In either case, the games brought with them a total relief from the necessity to be moderate and to share. In the gambling games a woman could openly crave the necklace of another, and by means of her songs and her power she could court magical forces in order to win it. In shinny, as the sticks smacked the puck and sent it sailing from one end of the field to the other, people otherwise bound by the strongest of ties would push, shove, kick, and tackle each other, while on the sidelines the older people bet heavily on the outcome and cheered their teams onward. Greed and aggression were permissible, even encouraged, but only within the confines of a game. When a game was over, it was completely over. The winner never bragged or vaunted. The loser, no matter how much he or she lost, retained an air of cheerfulness. Once again, moderation and restraint prevailed.

Life on the whole was peaceful and predictable. Every morning the people of the village awoke and bathed in the creek. The men then drifted off for a day of hunting and fishing, perhaps visiting a nearby village to pass the time with other friends and relatives. The women gathered shellfish, seeds, and other plant foods, they made baskets, and they socialized among themselves. Everyone took great pleasure in the many feasts, festivals, ceremonies, trading expeditions, games, and dances that were held throughout the year.

Along with their moderation, generosity, and hospitality the people also developed an attitude of fatalism and acceptance toward life. The married couple raised children and grew old among a people they trusted and in a world they knew intimately—a world that was identical to the one into which they were born. Those who reached old age were generally respected by the rest of the people. They had passed through the dangerous periods of youth and maturity. Old men had avoided grizzly bears and mountain lions, and old women had survived the diseases of childbirth. To be old meant that one had attained a good relationship with the spirit world, and thus one was considered to be holy.

An older person had achieved much in a lifetime. A man had caught many deer, antelope, and elk. A woman had borne many children and made many splendid baskets. The old people had large numbers of ties with other people throughout the tribelet, and perhaps in surrounding tribelets as well. Also, the older people had wisdom. In their memories the entire inventory of Ohlone knowledge was stored: not only a vast fund of technical knowledge, but family relationships, myths, plant and animal lore, the exact cycle of the dances, the names and customs of foreign tribelets, and the location and spiritual power of hundreds of holy places scattered throughout the tribelet’s territory.

In the Ohlone villages the old people were treated with great respect; yet here, as everywhere else in the world, old age was not easy. Old men and women were often blinded by cataracts, pained by rheumatism, suffering from decayed teeth, or crippled by broken bones that never set properly. Old age sometimes made them irritable and impatient. Yet, as the explorers and early missionaries all noted, they were well taken care of. They were cared for because it was owed them, because they were valued for their knowledge, perhaps because they were loved; but more basically they were cared for because in these closed little societies there was simply no other way. To care for the old people was the way of the world. It was the way things had been done since Sacred Time. To the Ohlones, it was part of a way of life that was as absolute and immutable as the course of the sun.

Malcolm Margolin


Malcolm Margolin

Malcolm is an author, publisher, and former executive director of Heyday (formerly Heyday Books), an independent nonprofit publisher and cultural institution in Berkeley, California. Through Heyday, he published hundreds of