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Book Review 273: The Ohlone Way

April 21, 2013 - Harry Eagar
THE OHLONE WAY: Indian Life in the San Francisco-Monterey Bay Area, by Malcolm Margolin. 189 pages, illustrated. Heyday paperback, $16.95

The San Francisco Chronicle once selected “The Ohlone Way” as one of the 100 best non-fiction books about the west in the 20th century. It deserved it.

Malcolm Margolin's book is the most persuasive evocation I have read by a modern westerner of how it was to live as a non-western primitive.

In an epilogue written on the 25th anniversary of publication, Margolin sensitively writes about how naïve he was going into his project. He also rejects “primitive” as a descriptive for the Ohlone, but we can discount that.

The Indians may have known a great deal about their little world, but it was a little world. Forty or so tribelets, as Margolin calls them, lived a most circumscribed hunting and gathering life.

Each group's home ground amounted to about 10 by 10 miles. They could survive in such a small space because the Central California coast was among the most fecund places on earth. On land, elk, deer, bear and smaller animals. In the water, salmon, otter, abalone and cormorants.

Historians of Egypt often marvel about the deep conservatism of old Egypt, which did not change much in 3,000 years (although, as they usually fail to remark, the conservative Egyptians did invent such things as glass). The Ohlone may have lived in their area, Margolin thinks, as long as 4,500 years, and there is little if any evidence of change, certainly not technological, once they adopted the bow.

4,500 years is not long compared to the hundreds of thousands of years without innovation during the Old Stone Age, but it is remarkable for recent times.

Ironically, the Ohlone area includes Silicon Valley. But the elk and bears are gone and the salmon, otters and abalone nearly so.

I am usually skeptical of admirers of primitives who gush over the balance that primitives maintained with their environment. In every case, the primitives managed their environment as much as their technology allowed; the Ohlones burned over their territory, largely to get seeds to set. Margolin is, as elsewhere, clear-eyed about this.

However, that said, the Americans destroyed most of the renewable wealth of Central California in barely more than two generations. The San Francisco-Monterey area is the poster example of the wickedness of unrestrained capitalism.

(Amusingly, Monterey County today produces little of natural wealth, although the exception, artichokes, is sort of a symbol of capitalist silliness, one of the most expensive cultivated vegetables, and by a long way the least edible.)

There is more irony to be enjoyed. At Carmel Mission, the tour, which I took, speaks in self-satisfied terms of the civilizing influence of the friars on the Ohlones. Margolin, clear-eyed again, calls it was it was, slavery, torture, superstition, cruelty, ignorance and genocide. The irony comes in the place I purchased “The Ohlone Way” – the Carmel Mission gift shop.

As Lenin memorably said, when capitalism is hanged, a capitalist will sell the rope. I doubt, despite the claims of the Franciscans and modern-day Catholics (who run a school at the mission, without, however, any Ohlone students) to pursue an educational course, any of them ever read this excellent book.

The Ohlone are not, however, extinct. Like the otters, a few eluded the white men.

 
 

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