Peoples of the past | August 21, 2009 | Danville Express | |

Danville Express

Cover Story - August 21, 2009

Peoples of the past

Recently unearthed Native American remains send us searching for our past

by Geoff Gillette

The discovery of human remains during the construction of the new gymnasium at San Ramon Valley High School has sparked a great deal of conversation about the site, as well as about the history of the area.

Most know the story of the brothers who put down roots in the verdant San Ramon Valley and began the process that resulted in the settlement of Danville. But what about those remains? What stories do they tell, of a time before the European incursion and the eventual decimation of the tribes inhabiting the valley?

Andy Galvan, curator of Mission Dolores, has been named the Most Likely Descendant of those found buried at the school site. He stood above the oval hole containing the remains of a long dead ancestor, looked around, and said he wonders about those long ago people who buried their loved ones here.

"What were they feeling?" he queried. "What did they see when they looked around this valley?"

Prior to the arrival of the Spanish and the construction of the presidios and the missions, the Bay Area was home to dozens of Native American tribes. The tribes were relatively small, consisting of 50-400 members. Those who lived in the East Bay were known as the Bay Miwok tribes.

The tribe that dwelled in the San Ramon Valley, where Danville is located, was called the Tatcan. They controlled the western face of Mount Diablo and much of the area where the town stands now.

Villages consisted of groups of tule houses, where extended family groups would live together. They would be located near running water, one of the many tributaries that ran from the western hills down to the San Ramon Creek or by the creek itself.

"There was no EBMUD, no pipeline. Whatever water you needed, you went and got it, Galvan explained. So it made the most sense for a village to be located near water."

That is also why many times remains will be found near a watercourse, he added.

"They didn't have shovels. A stone age tool might be an elk horn, so you want to dig where the ground is soft," he said.

Galvan described the Indians as a healthy people. "The average height of the natives in the Bay region was about 5 feet 4 inches," he stated. "If you're working in a hunter-gatherer society, you generally are pretty healthy."

Life consisted of the men of the tribe going out searching for game such as deer, elk, rabbits and birds. The women would tend to the village, harvesting fruits, nuts and vegetables, making baskets for cooking and storage, and tending to the young.

Acorns were a staple of the tribe's diet. The nuts would be collected, then pounded in a stone mortar and pestle. Bread would be made from the mash and sweetened with honey. Galvan noted that the tribes utilized a cooking style considered to be one of the most healthy.

"They steamed their food," he said. "Most of the food was cooked in baskets. You can't set a basket in the fire, so what they would do is heat up a rock, then drop the rock in the basket to steam the food."

"It was stone age living, but stone age doesn't mean inferior," he added. "It was successful in the San Ramon Valley for 4,000 years. They managed the land."

"They were the first environmentalists," agreed Michelle Lasagna, an instructor in the fourth-grade program at the Museum of the San Ramon Valley. She said that the Native Americans were incredibly resourceful in how they utilized everything nature provided.

"When they killed a deer, every single part of the deer was used. Bones were sharpened and made into needles. The intestines would be taken out, dried and cut into thin strips to make a kind of string," she said.

Members of the tribe were careful in what they took from the land. Lasagna said that when harvesting berries or other items, they would leave some behind.

"They never destroyed the land and the plants. They knew that if they took everything it might not come back the next year," she stated.

The tribe would harvest its food in a seasonal rotation and, if necessary, would move the village in order to utilize their resources more fully. Still, Galvan said, most tribe members lived their entire lives without ever seeing land outside their tribal boundaries.

"You generally didn't go more than 12 miles from the place you were born," he pointed out. "You lived your whole life within that area."

That is not to say that forays into another tribe's lands never occurred or that the tribes lived a peaceful co-existence with their neighbors. "This was not the garden of Eden," Galvan noted. "We can see in the skeletal remains, pathologies that might indicate violent death. We've seen some evidence of blunt trauma."

Conflicts could arise over territory, resources or women. In Randall Milliken's book, "A Time of Little Choice," he described how most inter-tribal conflicts would take place when one tribe would ambush another, or at times a battle would be waged between combatants at an agreed upon time.

But neither this nor the lack of a common language stopped the flow of trade among the groups. Today, arrowheads made of obsidian can be found in the San Ramon Valley, although Mount Diablo is not volcanic in origin. Galvan said the volcanic glass was a trade item that worked its way down into the Bay Area from tribes in the Napa Valley.

So if the tribes lived a stable existence, with plentiful food and water, what happened to them?

The answer lies in the arrival in 1769 of the Spanish expedition of Gaspar de Portola. Ships from Spain, Britain and Russia were known to have plied the California coast prior to this time, but the Portola expedition is widely believed to be the beginning of the Spanish incursion into California and the establishment of the Northern California missions.

Diaries and journals from the expeditions that explored the Bay Area paint a picture of a welcoming people, as the tribes discovered these newcomers in their lands. Milliken's book reprinted entries from Spanish diarist Juan Crespi's writings on their first meeting with the native people.

"They were with us almost all the time we spent here, very happy and friendly, bringing a new lot of tamales again at every meal time," he wrote.

The tribes helped the soldiers to survive and make it back to their ship. This led to further expeditions and the decision by Spain to establish military bases (presidios) throughout the Bay Area as well as missions to help indoctrinate the native peoples into Spanish culture.

Galvan said that having the Spanish be the first to arrive in the Bay Area probably saved the tribes from being wiped out initially.

"It was the lesser of three evils," he quipped. "Wherever the French and the British went, within 10 years the Indians were gone. The Spanish attitude was that they saw the people who were there as valuable and worked with them. Where when the French and English came in they just, to use the term, 'Rubbed them out.'"

The Spanish methodology was to conquer the existing culture by absorbing and replacing it with their own. According to Galvan, they accomplished that through the missions.

"There were manuals created in Spain because missionization was already 250 years old when they came to California," he explained.

The Franciscan padres established the missions in Northern California and worked on converting the Indians to Christianity. Many young Indians were attracted by the Spanish clothing and items, which brought them into the missions. The padres would talk to them of the Christian faith and baptize them.

Over the years, the missions grew, with the Indians leaving their tribal lands behind to live with the missionaries. Milliken's book states that the majority of the members of the Tatcan tribe forsook the San Ramon Valley for Mission San Francisco in January 1804.

By this time, though, many Indians had run away from the missions, due to the strict lifestyle of the Spanish missionaries, as well as the sickness so prevalent in the crowded spaces.

Galvan said that the Indians continued to go the missions because the incursion of the Spanish had brought changes that slowly infected the area and brought about the destruction of their lifestyle.

"One of the things the Spanish brought to California was lamb, sheep, goats, pigs, horses and cows," he stated. "The grass was over-grazed, destroying the native environment."

The loss of grassland created a chain reaction, affecting the availability of acorns, seeds and other staples of the Indian diet, which in turn kept grazing animals like deer and elk from coming down into the valley, depriving the tribe of another food source.

"If you're the native person and you see your environment slowly dying out, you think maybe it's time to move," Galvan said.

The average lifespan of a native living at the mission was three years, due to overcrowding and poor sanitation. Children, especially, fell victim to the many illnesses running through the mission.

Milliken offers a stark commentary on the effect of the Spanish arrival on the native population. "By the year 1810, only 40 years later, the tribal territories in all but the most northerly reaches of the San Francisco Bay region were empty," he wrote.

While some native peoples survived and continue to live on today, much of their culture and experience is relegated to history. Finding the remains at the high school serves as a reminder of that shared past for those in Danville.

Residents can learn more about the lives of the Tatcan and their impact on the local area at the Museum of the San Ramon Valley. Each October the museum puts on an exhibit of the First People, featuring artifacts recovered from those early days. Fourth-graders from throughout the School District come to the museum at that time for a 90-minute presentation on the Indians who lived in Danville over thousands of years, seeing how they lived, how they survived, even how they played.

Michelle Lasagna said they try to teach the students about the Tatcan and the other tribes, to respect their way of life, and to understand how they co-existed with the land around them.

Galvan said he hopes that seeing the lessons from the past will show that despite being hundreds of years apart, the early people were not so very different from those living in Danville now.

"They live, they love, they die, they pray," Galvan said. "They eat, they hunt. You can draw correlations between the two."

He laughed as he added, "We are still hunter-gatherers. Someone asked me if I hunt. I said I hunt down at Lunardi's with a grocery cart."