Abalone Tales: Collaborative Explorations of Sovereignty and Identity in Native California
Abalone Tales: Collaborative Explorations of Sovereignty and Identity in Native California

Abalone Tales: Collaborative Explorations of Sovereignty and Identity in Native California

Hardcover(First Edition, Abridged, bb)


Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822342168
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 08/29/2008
Series: Narrating Native Histories Series
Edition description: First Edition, Abridged, bb
Pages: 208
Product dimensions: 6.13(w) x 8.75(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Les W. Field is Professor of Anthropology at the University of New Mexico. He is the author of The Grimace of Macho Ratón: Artisans, Identity, and Nation in Late-Twentieth-Century Western Nicaragua, also published by Duke University Press, and a co-editor of Anthropology Put to Work.

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Abalone Tales

Collaborative Explorations of Sovereignty and Identity in Native California

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2008 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4233-5

Chapter One

The Old Abalone Necklaces and the Possibility of a Muwekma Ohlone Cultural Patrimony

In this chapter, I discuss the identity of the Muwekma Ohlone, an unrecognized tribe, from the perspective of the erasure of the tribe's cultural patrimony. I begin the chapter by elaborating two events that permit me to unfold current conditions among the Muwekma and the kind of work I have done with them. First, I describe an Abalone Feast that took place in 2000, the first of its kind in decades, which created an opportunity to consider the Ohlone relationship with abalone. Next, I describe an archaeological excavation that took place in 1992, in which many abalone artifacts were uncovered, stimulating my involvement and interest in the importance of such artifacts in Ohlone cultural history and identity. This leads to the heart of the chapter, an extensive discussion of several nineteenth-century abalone necklaces I went to European museums to inspect and an analysis of how to understand the putative relationship between these artifacts and Ohlone cultural history. I then explore the conceptual limits bounding any discussion of such artifacts, using materials from research elsewhere in California. The argument guiding these explorations is that research about Ohlone cultural patrimony-indeed, about Ohlone identity-hinges on the reestablishment of Ohlone sovereignty. This is significant because the process of achieving federal recognition actually assumes the reverse.

An Ohlone Abalone Feast

Alfred Kroeber, central figure in the establishment of the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, and the anthropologist whose life intertwined so deeply and importantly with the life of the man called Ishi, published the Handbook of the Indians of California in 1925. This massive and encyclopedic summation of California Indian societies and cultures casts a long, long shadow over the identities of tribes and individuals in this state's Indian country. There are no Indian people for whom this is more true than the peoples Kroeber declared extinct in the tome. In addition to suffering the onus of an anthropological extinction sentence, such peoples have also suffered from official erasure, since none of them were accorded federal or state recognition. Between the work of anthropologists and the machinery of the state, California's unrecognized tribes have endured many decades of collective social and cultural invisibility. Among the peoples declared extinct by Kroeber and lacking federal acknowledgment are the Ohlonean-speaking peoples. The contemporary reorganized tribal entity of these peoples is called the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe.

The Muwekma Ohlone Tribe are members of multiple lineages whose ancestors inhabited the five county region on the San Francisco peninsula and the South and East Bay, as well as interior regions around modern-day Stockton and farther inland. Most of these ancestors spoke mutually unintelligible languages in the Ohlonean sub-family of the Penutian family, although the inland ancestors also spoke Yokutsan and Miwokan languages. The ancestral peoples were all incorporated into the mission-presidio system instituted by the Spanish Empire in the late 1700s, a system that maintained control over the area until Mexican independence in 1821. That system incarcerated Native peoples in barracks-style living, instituted massive changes in diet and daily life, and initiated ecological transformations in floral and faunal communities across the landscape. The result for missionized Native peoples like the ancestors of the Muwekma Ohlone was a demographic collapse and profound hemorrhaging of their cultural, linguistic, social, and economic structures and systems. That hemorrhaging is also evident in the dearth of surviving material culture and knowledge about daily lifeways, including, diet among Ohlonean-speaking peoples during the initial contact period and in the decades immediately following missionization.

The older people among the Muwekma remember eating abalone until the 1970s, and so do older members of the of the Ohlone Costanoan Esselen Nation, the contemporary reorganized entity of the Esselen-speaking people of the Monterey region, another Native people declared extinct by Kroeber. Rudy Rosales, Esselen chair during the late 1990s, on several occasions reminisced with me about eating abalone. "When there was nothing in the house, Mama would tell us to go down to the pier [at Pacific Grove] and get some abalone." Rudy and his brother would use crowbars to pry the abalone o the big wood pylons of the pier. There was no need to get nostalgic about it, he told me. "It was poor people's food, not some delicacy like now." But Rudy did miss eating abalone: It was a taste from childhood.

I asked Rosemary Cambra, the Muwekma chair, whether the tribe would want to have an Abalone Feast. She was in favor and arranged to hold such a feast at the completion of the third of three leadership-training seminars the tribe was holding at Alameda in the East Bay. As part of their efforts to become a federally recognized tribe-a Herculean and tremendously expensive process that had already been going on for two decades-the tribal council had been holding events to bring about increased interaction among the members and especially between the elders and the younger generations. The leadership seminars alternated oral-history projects with information-sharing sessions that had all been very well attended. Over the years, so many tribal members had uncovered artifacts made of abalone that several members had also put together a weekend workshop to learn how to fashion abalone into ornamental objects. Rosemary intended the Abalone Feast to crown the year-long intensive series of such workshops and projects.

On December 2, 2000, the Muwekma Ohlone held an Abalone Feast on the shores of San Francisco Bay. Among the forty or so members of the tribe who gathered to shell, clean, slice, pound, fry, and eat abalone, some had not eaten this food for decades-or ever. The California Department of Fish and game donated twenty-three large (more than eight-inch) abalone that had been seized from poachers and used as evidence in trials and were sitting in freezers in Sonoma County. Using some of my grant money set aside especially for this event, I purchased fifty four-to five-inch "domesticated" abalone from a local abalone farm. The East Bay Regional Park District had provided the site at Alameda, just east of Berkeley, located right on the shoreline, equipped with kitchen and outdoor facilities.

Several of the elders immediately took charge of shelling the big wild abalone, trimming o the viscera and other organs, cleaning, slicing, and pounding the resulting chunks of meat. The younger generations did not hesitate to join in. Women wearing diamond rings and designer clothing were suddenly coated up to their elbows in puce green, half-digested kelp from abalone intestines. Children were entirely covered. Everyone wanted to use the mallets to pound the strips of abalone so they could be dipped into egg and bread crumbs. Soon the tenderized abalone was frying.

On a nearby bench, Hank Alvarez, an Ohlone elder with whom I have worked for almost a decade, chewed on a morsel of abalone and told me this: "Back, must have been in the '20s, we lived in Santa Cruz, real near the beach. There was a cliff over the ocean. My mom used to get up sometimes, real early, walk over to the cliff. She'd be looking down, lookin' at 'em. Abalones. She'd go there, she told me, 'cause she liked to look 'em, and see they was still there." I suspect that Hank was thinking that the Abalone Feast showed the world that the Ohlone were still here, too.

Archaeology and Abalone

Among the strategies the Muwekma Ohlone have employed to confront and rectify the widely accepted verdict of extinction that had been passed on to them, the tribe formed its own cultural-resource-management firm in the 1980s. This firm-Ohlone Families Consulting Services (OFCS)-responded to the vast quantity of archaeological remains unearthed as a result of the Bay Area's accelerating post-1970s economic-development boom and has been the vehicle for several social, political and economic processes. First, the OFCS, as a minority-owned and -operated enterprise, was able to secure a number of contracts from the city of San Jose, Santa Clara County, and the State of California that generated income for individual tribal members and tribal operations. Second, active involvement in cultural-resource-management work was a public manifestation of the real and continuous existence of Ohlone people and Ohlone sociality that directly challenged and undermined the extinction narrative that had been accepted by the public, anthropologists, government officials, schoolteachers, and others for decades. In this way, the OFCS both financed and provided data for the Ohlones' ultimate goal: federal acknowledgment. Finally, in a broader sense, the OFCS provided a means for Ohlones to actually take control over their own past by both excavating it and interpreting it in the reports written for each excavation. Parts of these reports were then expanded and published in a number of different widely disseminated journals (see Field and Muwekma Ohlone Tribe 2003; Field and Leventhal 2003; Field et al. 1992; Leventhal et al. 1994).

In 1992, the OFCS excavated a major site just south of San Jose where Highway 101 was connected to Route 82 adjacent to Coyote Creek. The Army Corps of Engineers mandated that a catchment basin be dug at the intersection of these two roads in the event that Coyote Creek were to flood. In the summer of 1992, the idea of a flood seemed ludicrous, as northern California was suffering from its fourth year of a severe drought. But the very next winter, it rained torrentially, and the basin filled up (see Field and Leventhal 2003).

Alan Leventhal, the tribe's staff archaeologist, and several members of the tribe, including Susie Rodriguez and Arnold Galvan, showed me how to mark out a burial, document the strata, and use excavation tools. It was very hot work in the summer sun. Members of the tribe unearthed the skeletal and artifactual remains of their ancestors, which were buried in a cemetery featuring two line of burials, one dated to 1,500 years B.P. and one to 3,000 years B.P. The Muwekma called the site (Ca-SCl 732) Kaphan Unux, the Chochenyo Ohlone term for Three Wolves, because the remains of three wolves, in addition to a number of other animal remains, were ritually interred among the human burials. I personally unearthed a number of both human and animal skeletons in the three-thousand-year-old cemetery, many of which had been buried with olivella-bead necklaces and bracelets. Large round abalone ornaments circled the torsos and waists of several individuals. The abalone may have been thousands of years old, but its iridescence had not dimmed.

The beauty of these artifacts moved me to wonder about the meaning of abalone for the Muwekmas' ancestors and the manner in which abalone has maintained its role in California Indian regalia to the present day. I knew that it would be difficult to document the material culture of the post-mission Ohlone area, because early post-contact, nineteenth-century, and modern Ohlone material culture are all very difficult to find in California museums (see Shanks 2006 for a very recent and thorough photographic assemblage of Ohlone basketry). After many discussions with Tribal Chair Rosemary Cambra, I decided in the late 1990s to pursue research on the tribe's behalf about the material culture of Muwekma ancestors at the time of contact with Europeans and whether, in particular, abalone artifacts had been collected by early European explorers. If such artifacts existed, where were they now? Could Ohlone people lay claim to a cultural patrimony anywhere? If they could not, how did and would that affect their struggle to achieve federal acknowledgment? These queries themselves derived from my dawning realization that unrecognized tribes such as the Muwekma had no cultural patrimony to speak of-that, in fact, being an unrecognized tribe went hand in hand with losing the substantive historical depth embodied by material culture.

The many questions I ask about Ohlone material culture focus on objects that were observed and collected by one early European visitor to the Bay Area, Georg Heinrich von Langsdor. But these questions are complicated by the diverse ways such inquiries bear on the Ohlone petition for federal acknowledgment. To elaborate those complications, I describe the manner in which the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) has interpreted data about Ohlone history in its recent dealings with the tribe. Then I discuss possibilities for interpreting old abalone necklaces collected by an early European visitor in light of the erasure of a specifically Ohlone patrimony. These interpretations, meant to support the ongoing Ohlone social and cultural revitalization, hinge on two points. First, recognizing the shared material-culture heritage of a broad region of central and northern California signals the possibility that the idea of patrimony-that each assemblage of artifacts can be thought of as pertaining to one particular cultural group-might have to be reconfigured. Second, I acknowledge the inadequacy of non-Native interpretation of the meaning of patrimonial objects, as exemplified by my attempt to understand abalone necklaces. By contrast, the development of Native epistemologies around issues of repatriation constitutes a centrally important strand in the reinterpretation of Native objects. For the Ohlone, I conclude, such reinterpretations of material culture and patrimony depend on the restoration of their recognized status and of the sovereignty over their cultural identities that this would mean.

Early European Collectors and Ohlone Material Culture

Spain may have sent the priests, soldiers, and settlers that formed the first European communities in the territories of Ohlonean-speaking peoples in what is now the San Francisco Bay Area, but it was the actions taken by other early-nineteenth-century Europeans that preserved the little that remains of the material culture of the peoples of the Bay Area. The Spaniards may not have cared to collect such objects, and in cases where they did do such collecting, those who became responsible for the objects did not see fit to preserve them. Thus, the vast majority of the very few objects that are now attributed to Ohlonean-speaking peoples are found in museums in Germany and in St. Petersburg, Russia, with several objects in England, because of the visits to the Bay Area by a number of German, Russian, and English seafaring explorers whose ethnographic collections were sent back home.


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Table of Contents

About the Series vii

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction: Why Abalone? The Making of a Collaborative Research Project 1

I. Artifact, Narrative, Genocide

1. The Old Abalone Necklaces and the Possibility of a Muwekma Ohlone Cultural Patrimony 9

2. Abalone Woman Attends the Wiyot Reawakening 50

II. The "Meaning" of Abalone: Two Different Abalone Projects

3. Florence Silvia and the Legacy of John Boston: Responsibility at the Intersection of Friendship and Ethnography 62

4. Reflections on the Iridescent One 84

III. Cultural Revivification and the Species Extinction

5. Cultural Revivification in the Hoopa Valley 109

6. Extinction Narratives and Pristine Moments: Evaluating the Decline of Abalone 137

Conclusion: Horizons of Collaborative Research 161

Notes 173

Bibliography 179

Index 193

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