Elders of the Land

Our ancestors say that a long time ago all the animals were men. Morning star fell from the sky and everything was able to talk to one another including the Sun, Moon and the Stars. Eagle was the originator of all things, Sun had to wait for Coyote to finish making arrows in his path and Sta'yokale (Santa Lucia Peak) was the only place that stayed above water during the flood. Eagle crafted the first Humans from elderberry branches and breathed life into them. (1)

Linguist evidence suggests the Salinan as the oldest lived population on the south-central coast of California (2). Since the mid-1800's, a variety of researchers and scholars have come to our ancestral homeland seeking information. Alfred Kroeber, C. Hart Merriam, Henry Henshaw and John P. Harrington were among those interested travelers. Throughout Harrington's field notes, the level of knowledge demonstrated by his Salinan consultants makes it clear that our traditional language and culture survived the mission period and flourished into the 20th century. "These individuals were not living in the past; rather the past was more a part of their lives than had been believed (3)."

There is a mistaken belief that native people in California, prior to European contact, roamed about at will with little or no sense of boundaries. In fact, early researchers discovered that California natives knew precisely where their area ended and where their neighbors began (5). The cultural knowledge that Harrington obtained indicates that when Europeans first entered what is now known as California, Salinans occupied its central coast from Morro Rock northward to Dolan Rock. Inland, Salinan villages were found throughout the Salinas Valley from near the city of Salinas southward to the Cuesta Grade summit. The Diablo Range, Temblor Range and the Carrizo Plains marked the eastern boundaries of the Salinans (6). Today, the majority of identifiable Salinan descendants continue to live within the boundaries of our ancestral homeland.

Apparently, some Salinans never did enter the missions while others attempted to keep the traditions alive within the adobe walls of the missions. In 1910, Alfred L. Kroeber sent J. Alden Mason to Jolon, California to study the Salinan people. A justice of the peace named J. Alonzo Forbes served as consultant and interpreter for Mason. Forbes was a skilled interpreter who understood English, Spanish, and some Salinan. Mason reports that Forbes "was told by elder natives that the Indians who held their ceremonies in this place [Devil's Canyon] belonged to the Bear totem and that they furnished the renegades of the mission, resisted the padres and never became entirely converted (7)."

In 1994, Betty Rivers authored a study entitled Many Others Dancing: An Ethnography of Obispeno Chumash. In her report, Ms. Rivers presents information from the field notes of John P. Harrington. One important finding referred to a Salinan village that had been established on the Villa ranch near Cayucos after Mission San Miguel was secularized in 1834. Raphael Villa, owner of the ranch, was Salinan. The people in the village seem to have blended traditional ways with new practices that had been learned in the mission. So, while they worked as cowboys and cooks, they spoke Salinan, held dances, maintained sweathouses and continued other cultural practices. The village on the Villa Ranch was active until at least 1870.

In the early 1900's, Salinan elder Juan Solano told Harrington that he was aware of at least two additional Salinan villages that existed in the late 1800's. One was on the Estrada ranch near Cambria and the other was on the Pujol ranch at San Simeon. Rivers also states in her 1994 report that "It is possible that there were other Salinans living at the Rancho Pecho Y Islay, near Los Osos (9)."

There are also reports of congregations of Salinans living on the large ranches surrounding Mission San Antonio and became Mexican land grants after 1834. These would have included the ranches of San Miguelito, El Pleyto, Las Milpitas, Los Ojitos and (10).

The ethnographic and historical records reveal an important fact. While our ancestors learned to speak Spanish and to practice a new form of agriculture, they maintained the strength and vigor of our centuries-old language and culture. This is why Salinan elders who were alive in the early 1900's spoke our first language with fluency and remembered the traditional songs, dances, stories and practices.

What exactly did our ancestors tell visitors about traditional Salinan culture?

They told of the time when clusters of dome-shaped houses, with grass thatching (11), marked the sites of permanent villages along the major rivers and streams of our land. This is when Salmon left the sanctuary of the ocean every year to journey inland through the Salinas, the San Antonio and the Nacimiento rivers to create new life.

Elders gather by the old mission in San Antonio Valley

Being born into the People occurred in the quiet, private space of the Birthing House. One or more female helpers were probably present to assist with the birth. The mother was bathed with black sage during and after childbirth. (12)

Infancy among the People was probably spent gazing in wonder at the world from the safety of a portable cradle, lined with soft tule, strapped firmly to mom. Early childhood ushered in a time of strenuous play, keen observation and preparation for adulthood. Some of the games children played included Foot Ball Racing, the Hoop and Pole game and Shinny. Foot Ball Racing was similar to soccer and involved teams who raced each other from a starting point to and around a distant marker and back. From start to finish, the players used their feet to advance a wooden ball, slightly larger than a baseball, along the course. The first team to return the starting point and pass the ball between two markers won. It is said that some of these courses were up to fifteen miles in length. (13)

Shinny was similar to contemporary field hockey and was generally played with specially designed shinny sticks, a wooden ball and a large open field with paired posts for goals at each end. The goal was to advance the ball through the opposing team. Wrestling was allowed. Sometimes whole villages would compete against each other. The Hoop and Pole game challenged team players to throw a spear through a rolling, wooden hoop that measured a foot or so in diameter. (14)

Food would have included a diverse diet of berries, seeds, bulbs, shellfish, freshwater fish, ocean fish, waterfowl, fresh greens, and meat from deer, antelope and elk. Acorn became an important staple about 4,000 or 5,000 years ago. The routine activities of pounding, leaching and acorn bubbling in cooking baskets were undoubtedly familiar and comforting for countless generations of children.

Boys and girls of the People learned, by observation and practice, the skills they needed to become functioning adults. Girls probably helped mom make brushes from the fibrous roots of soap-root. Different forms of these brushes would have been used to groom hair or to clean excess acorn meal from the side of the pounding mortars.

Girls also watched mom make the all-important baskets of tule, willow, sedge, juncus and probably deer grass. Baskets were essential for cooking acorn, carrying materials from one place to another, storing food and preventing pounded acorn from scattering during the pounding process. They were also necessary for winnowing and sifting seeds, for making gambling trays and, for the caps worn by women. (15)

Women provided vegetable foods. To do their work, they needed to develop relationships with the plant world. The older women and the plants themselves guided the girls as they developed their skills.

The older men taught boys how to relate to the power of the animal world. This was necessary for their work of providing meat. They learned to make the short, powerful sinew-backed bows that were an essential part of their work. Arrows and points varied in shape, size and the kind of material used depending upon their use. Smaller points, for example, were designed specifically for birds while larger ones were needed for Deer. They learned the ways of hunting, which included running down Deer or, approaching with a disguise made out of Deer's head. They also learned about dressing the skins with animal brains, ashes, grease and rubbing posts or stones. (16)

When a girl had her first menstruation, older female relatives escorted her to the Menstrual House (17). There she was initiated into the responsibilities and the practicalities of womanhood. She probably continued to learn about marriage, sex, birth and other matters. She learned that women are respected, protected and cherished as females and valued for the essential contributions they make to society.

Upon reaching puberty, boys were initiated into manhood by older males through ancient rituals in special places. In the larger communal sweathouse of the men, they probably began to learn the meaning of the stories that guided us into responsible adulthood. They learned to dance and sing. And, they learned about containing and focusing the power of men to protect and provide. An important quality for "the old ones" was the ability to see far and clear. (18)

Initiation resulted in the introduction of boys and girls into adulthood. At that time, they were probably also acknowledged as full members of one of the two social divisions (Moieties) of the People. Membership in the moiety was based on the lineage of their father. If the father was Deer, the child went to the Deer. If he was Bear, the boy or girl was Bear. Although the Bear and Deer moieties were separate from each other, they nevertheless maintained relations with each other through the exchange of services. Members could not marry someone from the same moiety as themselves. Bears could marry Deer and, Deer could marry Bears. But, Bears could not marry Bears and Deer could not marry Deer. There were probably clans within the moieties. (19)

Dances were likely held every fall and spring. They were also held for special occasions such as the completion of a communal dwelling house, and probably when visitors came. Dances included the Lole (Women's Dance), the H'we' (Men's Dance), Bear, Deer, Condor, Coyote, Antelope, Rabbit, Frog, the Kuksu', Owl Dance, Swordfish and many others. Music was provided by a variety of instruments including whistles made from the bones of birds, rattles, musical rasps and elderberry clappers. Dancers wore long flowing headbands made from flicker feathers. They also wore feathered skirts. Faces, and probably bodies, were painted with red, white and black. (20)

The People have no stories about migration. Everything started here. Someday it will all end here. Eagle made one Woman and two Men out of sticks of elderberry. Eagle asked Coyote to bring some wood for the sweat. He did not bring what Eagle wanted. Eagle, Coyote and the three People sweated but the People were still sticks. After sweating, Eagle blew on them and made them People. This probably happened near Sta'yokale (Santa Lucia Peak) which was the only mountain peak that stayed above water during the great flood. (21)

Social order in our ancestral villages was maintained through the families, clans and tribal leaders. Tribal government probably consisted of leaders, usually men, who were responsible for ensuring that the ordinary and extraordinary functions of daily life were carried out. Leadership was inherited through the father's line but a new leader needed to be approved by the entire village. Total and complete authority never rested solely with one person. Consensus was the norm in decision making and individuals were usually leaders for specific purposes such as war, ceremonies, hunting and so on. These people were leaders only in those situations and their positions were often inherited although ability was important. (22)

Our traditional justice system was based on the making of reparations, or restoring things back to their original state or as near as possible. For example, if someone stole something, that item or something of equal value needed to be given back. Offenders needed to accept culpability for the wrong they had done, acknowledge responsibility, and make reparations to the victim. Clan members, members of the offender's family, and members of the victim's family were probably active participants in fact finding, problem solving, fixing of responsibility and punishment, reparations and rehabilitation of the offender. The more serious crimes could involve implications for the offender's clan since clans were responsible for the behavior of their members. (23)

Growing from childhood into adulthood normally included marriage and family. Brides to be were treated with marriage feasts that may have included gifts for their new household. Newly-weds set up home in the village of the son's father. (24)

A growing family's house most likely bulged with a variety of household implements, tools, dried plants, meat, fish, berries and seeds, twine, baskets and mats or bearskins for bedding. Household implements and tools might have included portable stone mortars and pestles, metates, paddles for stirring cooking food, shell spoons, wooden bowls, hafted knives, antlers for flint flaking, wedges from deer horn, bone awls, bone scrapers cobble mauls, minerals and charcoal for paints, and woven rabbit skins for the winter. A man's bow and arrows may have been kept separately in either the communal sweathouse or some other place. (25)

An important, and probably ancient tradition of the People, included the guessing game. These games often served to reduce tension, to settle disputes, to redistribute wealth and to receive recognition for "their ability to restrain their personal desires, since success at gambling demanded the adherence to special rules in order to acquire and ensure a person's luck (26)." They were also great fun. Guessing games were often played with two opposing teams. The object was for players to guess the position of gambling sticks or bones held in the closed hand by a player of the opposing team. Women played a gambling game with dice made out of walnut (probably black walnut) shell halves that were filled with tar and inlaid with abalone shell. (27)

Traditional doctors, who were generally men, treated illnesses and injuries. Tools of their craft included herbs, sucking and singing. Death of a tribal member marked the final stage of one's life in this world. After a tribal member died, their house was burnt and their name was never spoken again. A mourning ceremony was held annually for all who had died the previous year. Our ancestors said that when the Earth is red at sunset, it is because the dead are dancing. (28)

Today, Salinan descendants are working together on many fronts. In our work we strive to honor our ancestors, protect living tribal members, and prepare the way for those who are yet to come. We actively promote the tribal way of life. One of our most important responsibilities is the protection of our ancestors' remains, cultural sites, ancestral land and those that live upon it. We also work to preserve and continue our ancestral language, culture and traditional ways to ensure that they are available to the present generations as well as those who are yet to come. Finally, we actively support projects and services necessary to ensure that the basic health, educational, social and economic needs of the Tribe are met, and to promote the economic independence of the Tribe and its members.

Because we live in the world of the 21st century, we wonder about the value and the meaning of our traditional stories in today's world. There are those who say that we must live in the world today and forget the past. Some, however, suggest that understanding the past enables us live more completely in the present and prepares us for the future. They say that important cultural knowledge is imbedded in the heart of our stories. This knowledge teaches us how to be People. It is available and meaningful from one generation to the next, if we stop and listen. Some say that one needs to listen to the stories over and over again, to sit in quiet places and to pay attention to the dreams before meaning begins to emerge. Ultimately, each individual must do their own thinking.

Hawk and Raven heard about the Snake who ate People. They asked each other where their powers were located. Hawk's power was at Me:neka and Raven's was at Morro Rock. They decided to go see the Snake. On the way, Snake awoke and began to chase Hawk and Raven. They flew away with Snake close behind. Raven faltered and said he was going to cry. Hawk encouraged him to remember his power. They arrived at Morro Rock as Snake was winding himself around it. Hawk and Raven landed on top as Snake wound himself around and around the Rock. Hawk jumped and grabbed his cha'hal and killed Snake cutting him into four pieces. (29)

Yaxap' (that's all
Eduardo Jose (Joe) Freeman, Salinan descendant

This paper is the result of research work sponsored by the Salinan Tribal Council.
Assistance was provided by Dr. "Dotty" Theodoratus and Dr. Kathy Turner.


Mason, J. Alden, Ethnology of the Salinan Indians, University of California Publications, American Archaeology and Ethnology, December 14, 1912, page 192. See "The Destruction of the Evil Monsters" ("A long time ago all the animals were men").

Mason, J. Alden, The Language of the Salinan Indians, University of California Publications, American Archaeology and Ethnology, January 10, 1918, page 193. See "The Murderers" ("Morning star fell from the sky)."

Mason, 1918 ibid. Page 1. See "The Sun and The Moon" ("Everything was able to talk to one another including the Sun, Moon and the Stars").

Mason, 1912 op cit. Page 195. See general ethnographical information for "Eagle was the originator of all things."

Mason, 1918 op cit. Page 90. See "Coyote and The Sun" ("Sun had to wait for Coyote to finish making arrows").

Mason, ibid. Page 81. See "The Beginning of the World" (Santa Lucia Peak was the only place that stayed above water during the flood).

Mason, ibid. Page 104. See "The Beginning of the World" (People were made from elderberry branches and, Eagle breathed life into us).

Turner, Katherine, Areal and Genetic Affiliations of the Salinan, Kansas Working Papers in Linguistics, volume 8, 1983, number 2, page 231.

Rivers, Betty and Jones, Terry, Walking Along Deer Trails: A Contribution to Salinan Ethnogeography Based on the Field Notes of John Peabody Harrington. Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology, Vol. 15, No. 2, pp. 146-175, 1993, page 158.

Dr. William Jacobsen recorded the Salinan language in 1954. The Tribe has copies of the sound recordings as well as a copy of Jacobsen's Field Notes on Salinan.

Salinan elders who were interviewed for federal recognition told of acorns being gathered, processed and cooked into the 1930s' and perhaps the 1940's.

Alfred E. Kroeber, Handbook of The Indians of California, Dover Publications, New York, New York, 1976. This was originally published in 1925 by the Government Printing Office as Bulletin 78 of the Bureau of American Ethnology of the Smithsonian Institution.

Heizer, R. F. and Whipple, M. A., The California Indians: A Source Book, compiled and edited by University of California Press, 1971.

Powers, Stephen, Tribes of California, University of California Press, 1976. This was originally published in 1877 in the Contributions to North America Ethnology, Volume III, Department of the Interior, U. S. Geographical and Geological Survey of the Rocky Mountain Region.

Henshaw, Henry H., Vocabulary Collected at San Miguel & San Antonio, 1880 & 1884, page 228. Henshaw obtained information about cultural sites from a Salinan man named Anesmo. Henshaw reports in his findings that the Migueleno branch of Salinans came from Tcholame near Mission San Miguel. He mentions three additional Salinan villages. One was called Tcr'-a-lam-tram at the town of Cholam, another was located in the upper part of Cholam canyon and was called Ti'-cau-mis-tram. The third was Tro-lo-le'tram which was located near the Santa Margarita Ranch in San Luis Obispo County. Henshaw concludes his description with the statement that 'Anesmo thinks there were formerly about 10 of these villages.'

Merriam, C. Hart, Journals [California] of C. Hart Merriam, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D. C., 1898-1938, Vol. 1, 1906, page 41. Merriam states the following from two Indian women who were native to Big Sur. "they say their language is wholly different from that of the En-ne-sen of Salinas, near where present town of Salinas now stands, and from that of the Es-se-len who lived in the mountains north or northwest of Tassajera, or near Jamestown." Ennesen was the name that Merriam called Salinans.

Harrington, John P., John Peabody Harrington Papers, microfilm edition, reels 084-088. National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., 1912, 1913, 1915, 1922, 1930-32. In 1912, Juan Solano, a Salinan elder, told John Harrington that "Migueleno [Salinan] was spoken as far south as Arroyo Grande and as far north on the coast as San Carpoforo; after that was Antonianos [Salinan]. Lesa'mo' is what Miguelenos called El Morro Rock" (Reel 084, frame 0003 and 0005). Solano also told Harrington that 'The Miguelenos went in Salinas Valley as far as and including Soledad Mission. Miguelenos extended east as far Carrizo and La Panza. To east were Tularenos Miguelenos at Huer Huero. Tularenos 45 or 50 miles east" (Reel 084, frame 0005).

Solano also told Harrington 'The dividing line between Migueleno and SLO [Chumash] was S. Margarita grade summitî [a. k. a. Cuesta Grade]. Reel 084, frame 0004.

In the spring of 1932, a Salinan elder named Maria de los Angeles told Harrington about the existence of a third Salinan dialect on the coast. Both Harrington and Maria referred to the dialect as coastal Migueleno. This information from Maria de los Angeles corroborates the report from the padres in 1812 that a third group of Salinan speakers came to the missions from the coast. The priests called them 'playanos' which translates to beach-people. See reel 087, frame 0815 and conversation recorded February 26, 1932 in copies of loose Harrington field notes obtained by Tribe from Robert O. Gibson.

Jones and Rivers, 1993 op cit. Page 162. In the fall of 1932, Harrington went on a horseback trip with several Salinans including Tito Encinales and his brother Felipe. East of Dolan Rock, the Salinan guides showed Harrington a Salinan cultural site called Tríakhten which is now known as Lower Bee.

Executive Summary Report, commissioned by the United States of the Interior on the Carrizo Plains, 1995. It states in part, on page 1, that "The Carrizo Plain Natural Area (CNPA) lying adjacent to the southwest edge of the San Joaquin Valley, is the largest remaining tract of the San Joaquin valley. Ethnographic information for this region of California is not well defined but research indicates that the Carrizo Plain is near the interface of three different cultural affiliations, the Chumash, the Southern Valley Yokuts, and the Salinan."

Mason, 1912 op cit. Page 189.

Rivers, Betty Toward A Prehistory of Morro Bay: Phase II Archeological Investigations for the Highway 41 Widening Project, San Luis Obispo County, California, 1994, page 24.

Rivers, 1994 ibid. Page 24.

Harrington, John P., Cultural Element Distributions: XIX: Central California Coast,

University of California Press, March 6, 1942, pages 1, 9 & 10.

See Harrington Microfilm, Reel 084, frame 0315 & Reel 086, frame 0426).

Harrington, 1942 op cit. Pages 25-27.

News from Native California: An Inside View of the California World, Heyday Books, Berkeley, California, Volume 8, Number 1, Spring/Summer 1994, pages 18-23, article by Brian Bibby.

News from Native California, 1994 ibid. Pages 18-23.

Harrington, 1942 op cit. Pages 20-23.

Harrington, 1942 ibid. Pages 6 & 13-15.

Harrington, 1942 ibid. Page 11.

General commentary also provided by anthropologist Dr. Dorothea "Dotty" Theodoratus based on common knowledge of Central California Indians. Dotty is professor emeritus, California Sate University, Sacramento. She has over 40 years of experience in the studies of Central California Indians.

JP Harrington Microfilm, Reel 084, frame 0235 & Reel 086, frame 0428.

General commentary provided by anthropologist Dr. Dorothea Theodoratus. See reference (16).

Mason, 1912 op cit. Pages 178-179.

Harrington, 1942 op cit. Pages 17-18 & 28-29.

Harrington Microfilm Reel 087, frames 0585-0601.

See Reference (1).

Mason, 1912 op cit. Pages 173-175.

General commentary provided by Dr. Theodoratus. See reference 16 for source's background.

Mason, 1912. Pages 173-175.

General commentary provided by Dr. Theodoratus. See reference 16 for source background.

Harrington, 1942 op cit. Page 32.

Harrington, 1942 ibid. Pages12-15.

Harrington, 1942 ibid. Pages 25-27.

News from Native California: An Inside View of the California World, Heyday Books, California, Volume 8, Number 1, Spring/Summer 1994, pages 39-41, article by David W. Peri.

Harrington, 1942 op cit. Pages 25-27.

Harrington, Microfilm Reel 087, frame 0580.

Mason, 1918 op cit. Page 112. Re-transcribed and re-translated by Dr, Kathy Turner in 2001 pending publication.


© Copyrighted by Jose Freeman, May 10, 2001. This material is meant only for educational purposes and to provide factual information regarding Salinan cultural history. Any uses contrary to those purposes are prohibited.



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