The Coast Miwok inhabited Marin County for some forty centuries, harvesting plants and animals from the woodlands and tidelands as if the place were a garden that was perpetually planted. Village and camp remnants have been discovered throughout Marin. But the Miwok were particularly fond of the northern valleys that were sheltered from extremes of weather, were close to both game and the fruits of the sea, and were located to allow passage to both the ocean and bay coasts without arduous travel through the steep valleys of Tamalpais.
MIWOK WOODLANDS OLOMPALI MAP SAN FRANCISCO Photo Gallery
With lands nearly surrounded by water the bay and ocean on three sides, and rivers cutting nearly across the northern boundary of the peninsula it is not surprising that these people sustained their culture in a way similar to the
island cultures of other native peoples. With knowledge passed on through storytelling and dance from generation to generation, the Miwok developed an intimate knowledge of the plants, animals, and all other aspects of their geographic surroundings. They were able to prosper. They were expert weavers, making baskets that could hold water and, on a larger scale, constructing bark-and-branch roofs that kept Pacific rainstorms at bay. Their houses were partially dug into the earth, providing coolness in the summer and insulation in the winter. Miwok culture achieved a state of balance with nature that was designed to last forever.
But sixty years after the Spanish arrival in Marin and San Francisco, ninety percent of the Coast Miwok had died from diseases, such as smallpox and measles, and from emotional bankruptcy resulting from slavelike conditions of the missionary and ranchero systems. The last full-blooded Miwok, Tom Smith, died in 1932.
Miwok Park in Novato is a good place to start to learn the details of the Miwok way of life. Walking the hills of north Marin which range from pleasant strolls just above suburban neighborhoods, to full-fledged hikes to ridges largely unchanged since antiquity is a way to get a more subjective grasp on the culture. These hills have an appeal that many hikers will find most alluring of all Golden Gate scenery. Spring green in the winter and golden blond in the summer, the hills roll and mound sensually together inviting a hiker to roam without care. Up close, the downy carpet reveals its stickers, poison oak, scrabbled outcrops, and steep faces scorched by the sun.