Ohlone: The First Alamedans, “Were Not a ‘Branch of Miwok Indians’”

When “The Spanish” came to the San Francisco Bay Area, they called all of the people who lived here “Costanoans”; and promptly killed, and corralled them into the California Missions; then began to colonize the land by bringing cows, catfish, eucalyptus, and other foreign plants and animals.

The primary language for the Mission San Jose was Miwok.

Miwok was a common language for most missions in the San Francisco Bay Area. But, Coast Miwok is the name of just one Tribal Group in the Northern Bay Area. In fact, Coast Miwok and Miwok consider themselves as distinct Tribal Groups of their own; and should not be confused with one another.

Richard Levy’s 1978 essay, entitled “Costanoan”, and featured in the California Volume of the Handbook of North American Indians, edited by Robert F. Heizer… has been widely relied upon since its publication. Despite its obvious errors, and out-dated nature. [For instance, the term “Costanoan” was already beginning to fall out of style. It was recognized as a blunt umbrella term for an entire region, which is actually diverse af.]

Before Richard Levy’s 1978 “Costanoan” Essay was published, J.P. Harrington had already come through the Bay Area–in 1921–to document and study California Native American Languages. This is where Harrington documented the existence of a language called “Chochenyo”; and recorded it separately from the known Miwok Language.

In fact, it was Harrington, in 1921, who first recorded the phrase, “Yo soy lisjanes.” Words spoken by Jose Guzman, the last Chochenyo speaker, and “Captain” of what was then known as the “Verona Band of Indians” by white people.

But the Verona Band was just a small part of a larger group known collectively today as Ohlone People.

It was noted, then–in 1921–that these languages (Chochenyo and Miwok) somehow fit into the “Penutian” Language Tree; and that a completely different group of people from the South-West of the Delta Area around Byron (ostensibly, the “other side” of Mount Diablo) spoke a Yokutian dialect.

In fact, from the work leading up to Richard Levy’s 1978 “Costanoan” Essay, the following facts were already established, peer-reviewed, and easily discoverable by scholars such as Levy, and Alameda’s Imelda Merlin–who was a UC Berkeley student herself, and within easy counsel of Kroeber, now infamous (and former) head of the UC Berkeley Anthropology Department, and Phoebe A. Hearst Museum….

Anyway, these established facts were:

  • There is a group of Yokutian-speaking people who live on the East Side of Mount Diablo, up to at least the “Byron Delta Area”, probably spanning farther east toward the Sierra Foothills–joining the rest of the Yokutian-speaking area;
  • Neither Miwok, nor Chochenyo languages were related to the Yokutian-speaking Tribal Group in language, and diverged in custom;
  • The aforementioned group of people were errantly included under the term “Costanoan”, despite the obvious differences in language, religion, and culture;
  • Miwok is a language, and also a Tribal Group;
  • Coast Miwok and Miwok are two different Tribal Groups;
  • Chochenyo is a separate and distinct language from Miwok, spoken by at least one East Bay Tribal Group that has called themselves the “Lisjanes”–and been called the “Verona Band”, among other names;
  • Both Miwok and Chochenyo are linguistically related to each other, as branches, not as derivatives of one or the other.

The detrimental effects of Richard Levy’s work have undermined the fundamental understanding of the Indigenous Bay Area landscape, reducing it to something uniform, monolithic. The historical narrative Levy pushes in this work is out-dated; even for the time it was published.

It should also be noted that Levy’s work presented several claims, conclusions, and information that simply wasn’t corroborated or supported by citations, or other evidence.

In spite of these facts, the “Costanoan” essay is still relied upon by Park Services, City Governments, Developers, (and more,) today.

Levy’s work has been heavily relied upon for a number of reasons:

  1. It was published in what is still considered to be one of the most authoritative volumes to this day: The Handbook of North American Indians;
  2. It’s short;
  3. It has pictures.

The map included with Levy’s essay was heavily relied upon up until the seemingly arbitrary placement of markers, and borders were pointed out.

But let’s be clear. The difference in time between when these papers were published in academic journals, and when they get published in books, like “The Indians of California: A Source Book” is notable enough for me to point out that the public side, and the interior, academic, research side of the the anthropology/archaeology/ethnology department are completely different. They move at completely different speeds.

And students/student-researchers are privy to material that just isn’t available to anyone outside of that institution.

So let’s shift gears to look at yet another scholar.

This one probably shouldn’t even be cited as a reference for Alameda Native History, anymore–given lack of credible citations and research regarding what she termed as “Aboriginal Settlement”.

Her name is Imelda Merlin, and her thesis was published as a book in 1977 as “Alameda: A Geographical History”.

This book has been referred to as the Alameda “historical bible“.

However, Merlin’s thesis is actually dated in 1964–thirteen years before publication of her book. The thesis was submitted for partial satisfaction of the requirements for a Master’s Degree in Geology.

Should I point out that Geology is not archaeology, anthropology, linguistics, or “ethnology” in any recognizable form? Because Geology is the study of the Earth. You know, like rocks, and how mountains were formed.

In the second chapter, “Aboriginal Settlement” [p. 16], Merlin presents a brief history of “man’s” occupation of the area now known as Alameda.

Here, Merlin refers to Ohlone People (known then, at least, as the Lisyan, Costanoan, and Verona) as a “branch of the Miwok tribe”. The citation for this claim refers to the unpublished, personal correspondence of Robert F. Heizer. It is unknown whether Merlin claims Robert F. Heizer shared this information during the interview, listed the bibliography; or whether there is a letter in Robert Fleming Heizer’s correspondence file that says this.

But, remember the name Robert F. Heizer (aka “R. F. Heizer”) because he’s all over this.

Merlin did not cite any academic research paper, archaeological or ethnographical reports to support her assertion that Heizer said this; in spite of his own work–contrary to the preponderance of academic papers that Heizer compiled and published, himself.

If the interview in the bibliography was performed by Merlin, as the interviewer, how come she didn’t include the transcript? If the interview wasn’t performed by Merlin, who was it performed by? What was the date of the interview?

Is the Heizer interview in the bibliography the ‘(Heizer, Personal correspondence)’ that Imelda Merlin refers to?

[Please, don’t get me started on the maps.]”

Me, This Article
Yes, I honestly expected Imelda Merlin, in the 13 years between submitting her thesis, and publishing it as a book, to fix some of these issues. I expect anyone who has that much time between writing and printing, to have edited the […] out of their manuscript.

This is troubling for a number of reasons; not the least of which is that Heizer (most probably) didn’t say that.

Merlin’s assertion that the unnamed tribe of Alameda, and its adjacent lands was “now thought to be”, a “branch of miwok” really flies in the face of what Archaeologists, Anthropologists, and Ethnologists actually believed.

J.P. Harrington’s 1921 Linguistic Survey of the Niles/Pleasanton area was well-known, and continues to be the authoritative reference concerning Ohlone People from Mission San Jose, and descendants, and family of Jose Guzman. Harrington’s work (as already mentioned in length) makes a clear distinction between the Chochenyo, and Miwok language; as well as Miwok and the “Lisjanes”.

In 1955, Alfred Kroeber, and Robert F. Heizer, had already written “Continuity of Indian Population in California From 1770/1848 to 1955”. This work specifically distinguishes between “Miwok” and “Costanoan” people who appear in the Mission Rolls.

This was, of course, after publication of Robert Heizer’s 1951, “Indians of the San Francisco Bay Area”, in the Geologic Guidebook of the San Francisco Bay Counties (Bulletin #154); which made it clear:

The San Francisco peninsula, western Contra Costa County, and Alameda and Santa Clara Counties were the home of the Costanoan tribes.”

First paragraph of the Preface to the “Indians of the San Francisco Bay Area”, Geologic Guidebook of the San Francisco Bay Counties. Bulletin 154, Division of Mines, Ferry Building, San Francisco, 1951.

Mind you, “Costanoan” territory started out as the whole of the San Francisco Bay Area, and then kept getting smaller, and more defined, until it became the area we now associate with Ohlone Territory.

Ohlone Territory is the area from Yelamu, to Huchiun Aguasto, from below Ssalson, to way far down, past Carmel, and well into the Santa Cruz Mountains.

In Merlin’s second Heizer citation, “The California Indians”, we are brought to what was considered the sequel of….

The undisputed authority on the California Indians, A.L. Kroeber, heads the list of outstanding anthropologists whose writings have been selected to appear in this book.

Here, then, for the first time since the appearance, many years ago, of A.L. Kroeber’s Handbook of the Indians of California (Smithsonian Institution, 1925) is a book which covers the material and social cultures, the archaeological findings, and a wealth of other materials on the Indians of California.

Dust cover of “The Indians of California: A Source Book”, Compiled and Edited by R. F. Heizer and M. A. Whipple, Fourth Printing, 1962, Cambridge University Press, London, England

The Handbook of the Indians of California, mentioned above, was also edited by Robert Heizer (aka “Robert F. Heizer”, aka “Robert Fleming Heizer”.)

So, Heizer is all over this stuff. As an editor, and a contributing author.

Of all the works bearing Heizer’s name, the “Indians of California” took pains to specify, exactly, the relationships of the Tribal Groups of California with each other.

This came out in the form of maps, data tables, and hundreds of pages of narrative.

Despite some of the most “authorative”, widely publicized, even celebrated source material on the “Indians of California” at her finger-tips.

In her own citations.


Merlin writes:

Man was present on the shores of San Francisco Bay at least 3500 years ago according to Carbon-14 tests made of shellmound material (Gifford, pp. 1-29). Since at least one mound has revealed a layer of skeletal material below the present ground level, in much the same way as did the Emeryville mound, presumably Indians now thought to have been a branch of Miwok Indians, (Heizer, personal correspondence) occupied the Encinal as early as they did the adjacent areas.”

“Alameda: A Geographical History”, Imelda Merlin, 1977, Friends of the Alameda Library, Alameda Musuem, Alameda, California, [p.16]

The most important fact here is that the word “Costanoan” isn’t mentioned at all.

Well, that’s what people thought in 1964.” Was one reply, when I brought up this in recent conversation with Valerie Turpin, VP of the Alameda Museum Board.

But it isn’t the Miwok who people thought occupied the Encinal as early as they did the adjacent areas.

In 1964, people thought Native Americans from the San Francisco Bay Area were called “Costanoans”. People already knew that Costanoans were different, and distinct from Miwok, Pomo, Delta Yokuts, and all the rest of the “Indians of California”.

I expressed my confusion as to why Imelda Merlin would be so wrong. I shared with Turpin the breakdown of Merlin’s sources, including the “most authoritative” sources by A.L. Kroeber, and Robert F. Heizer.

I also mentioned other work, which was published, just one year after Imelda Merlin’s book was published. It’s called “The Ohlone Way”.

Malcom Margolin wrote, or contributed, to three of the most famous books about Native Americans in the San Francisco Bay Area:

  • The Ohlone Way
  • The Way We Lived
  • Life in a California Mission (Introduction)
These are non-fiction narrative books; collections of stories, and songs; not academic research papers, or post-graduate theses.

Even though they’re made by a white man, for a white audience, Margolin’s work was the kind of stuff that brought solace, as I pined for home. Oh yeah, and the references to Margolin’s work can be found in Park Service Project Plans, CEQA filings, Berkeley City Council Briefs, etc.–right next to the references to Levy, and Heizer we’ve already covered, above.

Certainly, Margolin would be a fine resource to consult, when curating an exhibit on the First Alamedans, and the way they lived.

More recent events have brought the fact that Alameda is Ohlone land into the forefront of the conscious of almost every person who lives here.

Those, of course, were the visible protest actions against housing development in West Berkeley [which isn’t where the shellmound actually is]; and, before that, the takeover of Wintun/Patwin land, in Vallejo, by an activist who was the self-proclaimed “chairwoman” of the corporation known as the Confederated Villages of the Lisjan, INC, which claimed to be a forgotten Ohlone Tribe.

In reality, Corrina Gould was a rogue “fallen member” of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe of the San Francisco Bay Area; who refused to go back home, even though Muwekma offered her enrollment in the tribe.

Despite the bad optics, and the confusion, we now know that, “Ohlone People are The Native American People From the San Francisco Bay Area”.

Because of all of this “awareness”, a City of Alameda park was renamed to “Chochenyo Park”, in recognition of the Ohlone language spoken in the Alameda area.

The City of Alameda even voted to donate city funds to the Sogorea Te Land Trust, a purportedly Ohlone Land Trust, using the Wintun name for Glen Cove, in Vallejo… and has no affiliation to any Tribal Government, whatsoever. [FYI: Nonprofit corporations cannot be Tribal Governments because the exercise of Tribal Sovereignty is not a “Charitable Purpose”.]

The City stopped short of issuing a Land Acknowledgement, though.

But this seems like enough for the Alameda Museum to take notice, and update their website, and exhibits.

But the issue still lingers:

Why didn’t the Alameda Museum vet Imelda Merlin’s book?

Why didn’t they check the citations?

When asked why the Alameda Museum only relied upon this one resource for their information (Imelda Merlin’s book), I was told that they are simply sharing the information the Museum was given when the Native American Grave Goods from the Alameda Shellmounds were transferred from the possession of the Alameda Free Library, to the Alameda Museum, sometime in the 1970’s.

But what about the ethical, and legal duties behind possessing, and curating, Native American Grave Goods?

What about:

  1. Proper identification of the Native American Grave Goods, and Native American Artifacts in the Alameda Museum’s possession?
  2. Proper attribution of Native American Grave Goods, and Native American Artifacts to the correct Tribal Group?
  3. Asking the Native American Tribes for permission to possess the Native American goods and objects already in their possession?

I mentioned the prosecution of David van Horne, and how he was ordered to return the Native American Grave goods as a function of law. And how pursuant suits have ended in order to return the goods to the tribe’s possession “just because that’s the law.”

I let Valerie Turpin know that simply possessing the Native American Grave Goods without permission put them in violation of the NAGPRA laws.

She told me that the Museum had reached out to a few groups, and was working on that. I asked her if the Confederated Villages of the Lisjan, INC. was one of the groups, and informed her that I’m now the CEO of that corporation; as of January 2022.

I told Valerie that the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe of the San Francisco Bay Area is the actual Ohlone Tribe of this area: Named In Treaty.

But that the California Native American Heritage Commission is the proper authority to contact, to determine who the Most Likely Descendants are, for the things in the Alameda Museum’s possession.

When it came to discussing “help”; voluminous reminders that the Alameda Museum is entirely run by volunteers, I just have to get this out of the way:

  1. Museums are supposed to be an authority on their subject.
  2. We expect museums to verify the authenticity and provenance of their exhibits before curating them.
  3. Being “volunteer run” should not be an excuse for why the Alameda Museum’s exhibits are less credible than a 4th Grade Science Fair Project.

What did I want to do to help?

When the Alameda Museum and I first met: I offered to scan the entire card catalog with our production scanner that scans at 130 Pages Per Minute. This was just because I wanted to find what I was looking for; and scanning the entire catalog seemed like a win for both of us. I specifically mentioned that it would be a good time, then, because of the COVID-19 Lockdown, and this extended period of free time.

I never heard back on that offer. [I didn’t think the Alameda Museum took me seriously.]

But, I remembered. And, when I brought it up, I learned that the Alameda Museum Card Catalog had been entirely scanned, and was now in a database. That database, while not public (and still being worked on), was available to be searched only in the Alameda Museum.

So I basically asked how come the Alameda Museum didn’t just search its own database. Turpin asked me if I would help research.

I responded that the Alameda Museum has the only holdings on this subject that I haven’t seen. They (the museum) probably have the only remaining primary sources regarding this subject. And, that, once they locate their materials, that I (of course) would be able to cross-reference that with everything that I already have, and have put together.

Then she asked if I made that map of the shellmounds in Alameda.


Valerie mentioned the problem. The problem that these artifacts could be taken and locked away from the world’s view forever. And I really understand that fear. Because I feel it, too. As a lover of history. As an inquiry-based, tactile, experience-seeking, life-long learner.

I told her the California Indian Museum had the same problem. But they solved it. By “inviting contemporary Native Americans to come and make some contemporary Native American stuff.” The whole museum is filled with it. It’s in Sacramento, California. And it’s beautiful.

We left it there.

But here is the link to the California State Indian Museum.

Stay tuned to find out what happens next.

NOTE: This article was amended to include a brief mention of the California State Indian Museum’s solution to the idea that Native American Grave Good, Artifacts, Objects, Resources, and Other Things could simply be “locked up” and “no one could see them.” Because these Native American Artifact Laws do have a chilling effect on the activities of Museums.