Ohlone Cultural Revival
in San Francisco


Saturday, October 6, 2012

2nd Annual San Francisco Big Time Gathering

In 2008, six Ohlone culture bearers and members of the Ohlone Profiles Project began four cycles of Ohlone Ceremonies in San Francisco. Their intention of this project, which will span many years, is for the ceremonies to heal a painful past, and restore the tribe and their cultural practices to the city.

Last June, during the 33rd Annual San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival, we partnered with Chairman Tony Cerda of the Rumsen Ohlone Tribe to host the first San Francisco Big Time Gathering in nearly two centuries. It was a very joyful day at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and Yerba Buena Gardens, renewing the tribe’s relationship to its ancestors. The Ohlone once again danced and prayed at this ancient site, where ancestral remains were removed during the construction of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and the Moscone Convention Center in the early 1990’s. Although the human remains were reburied elsewhere, the four-day Ohlone healing ceremonies that need to accompany such a gravesite disturbance had yet to be completed. The healing ceremonies were finally completed on June 19, 2011, and thousands of people learned about the ongoing life of the tribe for the first time. We applaud Tony Cerda for all of his healing work and leadership, and we are especially grateful for his commitment to nurturing the music and
dance of his culture.

Tony Cerda’s relationship to the transmission and preservation of Ohlone dance is part of a long story of a broken-apart Native American community. The people called Ohlone, or Costanoan, have lived in western North America for many millennia. They arrived in the Bay Area around 500AD and they intermarried with Bay Area groups who had lived here for around 13,000 years. For tens hundreds of years, the Ohlone lived sustainably in the Bay Area, in villages
from San Francisco in the northwest to Big Sur in the south
and Mt. Diablo in the east.

When the Spanish arrived in the 1600s, the Rumsen were the first Ohlone people they encountered. Over fifty Ohlone villages then thrived in the region. The Ohlone helped the Spanish find food and build Christian missions. The first Ohlone baptisms were recorded at Mission Dolores in San Francisco in 1777. Ohlone who moved to the missions endured crowded conditions, mistreatment, disease, and starvation, and the missionaries strictly prohibited Ohlone ceremonies. Many Ohlone dances and songs were consequently lost, and more than 90% of the Ohlone perished.

Tony Cerda traces his ancestors back to a man named Sumu, and through mission baptismal and marriage records Tony has traced the journey of Sumu’s descendants. Sumu’s baptism was recorded in the record book at the San Francisco mission in 1811. When the missions were secularized in 1834, Sumu’s son Tiburcio joined Native American communities at Mission Carmel, then at Missions Santa Cruz and San Jose. In the 1850s, the family was granted land in the Sierra foothills, but they fled south, to escape brutal deaths at the hands of racist miners. One great-grandfather found work on a vineyard, and another rode south with a cattle drive, and by 1863, a group of Ohlone had settled in Southern California.

In the summer of 1876, Jocefa Silva led the first open Rumsen prayer dance in a field in Duarte, California, which was attended by Indians as far away as San Diego. They built a sweat lodge and participated in a talking circle around a fire before entering the lodge. Jocefa expressed the need to engage in tribal ceremony. Those that gathered shared a dinner and danced around the fire, while some sang and kept rhythm with clapper sticks and rattles. Tony Cerda says, “That’s how we started dancing again. Some of our songs and dances are now mixed with Pomo and Miwok, because we had all intermarried and lived together, and we had already lost some of what we knew. Also, our Rumsen Ohlone dances are different from other Ohlone groups in the north, because we came down here to Southern California in 1863, and have lived 400 miles apart.”

Today, there are nine Ohlone applicants for Federal Recognition, and Tony Cerda’s tribe is one of them. But without major reform to the Federal Government’s recognition process, many think it is unlikely that any Ohlone will ever be recognized. San Francisco could
choose to do so, however, and celebrate the cultural
renewal of its indigenous people.

Ohlone dance traditions are at the heart of Ohlone culture. It is how the Ohlone connect with each other and with the spirit world all around them— including their ancestors. For the Ohlone, as with so many of the dancers that are part of this annual Festival, dance is a form of prayer or, as Malcolm Margolin would say, “prayer made visible.” Malcolm Margolin, who wrote the seminal book The Ohlone Way, has been instrumental in debunking the commonly-held belief that the Ohlone are an extinct people. In 1978, he published accounts of the Ohlone’s dance traditions as reported by early European visitors:

“The dance went on for hours, sometimes for a whole day
or even longer... Dancing for hour after hour they stamped
out the ordinary world, danced themselves past the gates of common perception into the realm of the spirit world, danced themselves toward the profound understanding of the uni-
verse that only a people can feel who have transcended the ordinary human condition and who find themselves moving in total synchronization with everything around them...With dance and song they could restore order and balance.”

For more information about the Ohlone visit ohloneprofiles.org,
the website of the Ohlone Profiles Project, a non-profit organization building support for an ongoing Ohlone cultural presence
in San Francisco. Special thanks to the Christensen Fund for providing the financial support to make this event happen.

Rotunda Dance Series

FREE public performances the first Friday of each month at noon at San Francisco City Hall

Events and Classes

Local listings for upcoming classes and performances throughout the San Francisco Bay Area

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