Ohlone, Coastanoan or Awaswas: Correcting History’s Misnomers

The modern-day descendants of the Santa Cruz Awaswas are members of the Amah-Mutsun Tribal Band. Photo courtesy of Molly Lautamo.
The modern-day descendants of the Santa Cruz Awaswas are members of the Amah-Mutsun Tribal Band. Photo courtesy of Molly Lautamo.

Many people have heard the name Ohlone or Costanoan used to describe the native people who lived in Santa Cruz, California and the surrounding Bay Area. Costanoan was a Spanish name given to all the tribes who lived in the region from San Francisco to Monterey Bay. It is not an accurate reflection of the many diverse tribes, each with a distinct language and traditions. The blanket name “Ohlone” refers to many groups of native peoples who spoke the eight “Costanoan” languages. One of these eight languages was Awaswas.

The geographic distribution of different tribes around Santa Cruz County and Monterey. Courtesy of Vivienne Orgel.
The geographic distribution of different tribes around Santa Cruz County and Monterey. Courtesy of Vivienne Orgel. 

Awaswas was spoken by the group of people living in western Santa Cruz County, along the coast from slightly north of Davenport to Rio del Mar. The Awaswas speakers numbered fewer than a thousand and the language is now extinct, but some of their tribelet names are still remembered today. Well-known place names in Santa Cruz County like “Soquel”, “Aptos,” and “Zayante” are all Awaswas names.

Today, the descendants of the Mutsun (peoples “missionized” at San Juan Bautista) and Awaswas (peoples “missionized” at Santa Cruz) tribes do not call themselves the Ohlone. Instead, they have come together as the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band to preserve their history and culture. Learn more here.

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About The Author

Molly Lautamo is a content strategist and writer in Santa Cruz, California. She loves exploring and researching her surroundings and then writing about her discoveries to inspire others to get out and explore too. You can check out more of Molly's writing at mollylautamo.com.

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24 Comments

    1. Ranger Gaudinski

      Hi Hal, Sorry about the error message/duplicates. I am trying to fix that. According to our research the Ohlone is not really a term descendants of the native peoples of this region like to use for themselves or their ancestors. As for getting into specific groups in the region like the Quiroste (near Ano Nuevo), the author chose to focus more to the south near there home area of expertise.

      Reply
  1. Joni Martin

    I’m interested in how this relates to the family that has participated many times in the annual Ohlone Days events at Henry Cowell Park. I’m pretty sure they referred to themselves as Ohlone or descendants of Ohlone.

    Reply
    1. Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History

      There is another group in the Carmel Valley who refer to themselves as Costanoan Rumsen, and it’s possible Henry Cowell has partnered with them for their program. One member of their group is Linda Yamane (in the above picture) who is a renowned basket maker. The Museum of Natural History has partnered with her several times in the past for programs and exhbits.

      Rumsen site: http://www.costanoanrumsen.org/about.html

      Article about Linda: http://www.montereycountyweekly.com/news/cover/seaside-artist-resurrects-a-long-lost-native-craft/article_8b5eea0f-89b2-50df-b96e-fb66dc4b833f.html

      Reply
  2. Mobile Ranger

    Hi Joni Martin. Thanks for bringing this up. I do not know the family you refer to but here is what I do know. When I wrote an article for Mobile Rangeron the native Ohlone people in 2012 I consulted with Jim Keller, then Director of the Conservation and Land Initiative for the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band. He had people within the Amuh Matsun Tribal band read what I wrote. They edited extinsively and this is the exact verbage they gave me back “The native peoples of the Santa Cruz area of California, refer to the region as Cotoni and call themselves the Awaswas. Most folks today think of them as the “Ohlone” people but this is a misnomer and not how they identify themselves. Today the descendants of the area’s indigenous forbearers who were “missionized” at Santa Cruz and San Juan Bautista, are organized as the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band. The Cotoni-Awaswas nourished themselves from the sea and tidal zone as well as harvesting, gathering and taking game from the coastal uplands. Though not “agricultural” as we tend to think of it, California Indians thrived by actively managing the environment for productivity.” Additionally, on the Amuh Matsun Tribal Band website (http://amahmutsun.org/history) the only reference on their history page to Ohlone is “the Costanoan/Ohlone language”. According to a 1978 source on Wikipedia, ethnographers and some descendant groups started using Ohlone over Costanoan in the 1970s. But I decided to go with what the Amuh Matsun Tribal Band wrote for me in 2012. I would love to hear any more information on this topic.

    Reply
  3. Joni Martin

    Might be interesting to ask the organizers of Henry Cowell’s Ohlone Festival to put you in touch with the family they’ve had do dances and other cultural presentations there. I wonder if they are from a different descendent group. If memory serves me right, I’m pretty sure the SC Natural History Museum also has a connection with someone descended from a local tribe…at least I know they had someone create samples of the local crafts and tools. Pretty sure in their presentation they referred to them as Ohlone also. Have you talked to museum staff about that? I’m sure they’d want to have as accurate information as possible since they make presentations to school groups about the topic on a regular basis.

    Reply
    1. Mobile Ranger

      I will check with the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History about the family. The SCMNH in fact wrote this piece as part of their Pilkington Creek self-guided mobile tour. I chose to break out the part on the terms and highlight the naming issue as I know folks are really interested in that.

      Reply
      1. Liz Broughton

        There is another group in the Carmel Valley who refer to themselves as Costanoan Rumsen, and it’s possible Henry Cowell has partnered with them for their program. One member of their group is Linda Yamane (in the above picture) who is a renowned basket maker. The Museum of Natural History has partnered with her several times in the past for programs and exhbits.

        Rumsen site: http://www.costanoanrumsen.org/about.html

        Article about Linda: http://www.montereycountyweekly.com/news/cover/seaside-artist-resurrects-a-long-lost-native-craft/article_8b5eea0f-89b2-50df-b96e-fb66dc4b833f.html

        Reply
    2. Joni Martin

      Looks like the Natural History Museum replied to my earlier comment and they worked with someone in the Carmel Valley area from a group that calls themselves Costanoan Rumsen. I thought that on a field trip they’d used the term Ohlone, but that was a few years ago so my memory may be wrong or their terminology may have changed.

      Reply
    1. Hilde Dehuvyne

      They are mentioned in the article. To quote: “The Awaswas speakers numbered fewer than a thousand and the language is now extinct, but some of their tribelet names are still remembered today. Well-known place names in Santa Cruz County like “Soquel”, “Aptos,” and “Zayante” are all Awaswas names.”
      There is some more information on Zayante on the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band website.

      Reply
  4. Martin Rizzo

    Hi Mobile Ranger, good work on this. Thought I’d offer some thoughts…

    Awaswas speaking groups included the following (listing them from south to north), coastal groups: Aptos, Uypi, Cotoni, Quiroste, and the mountain groups: Sayanta (where modern Zayante comes from), Chaloctaca, & Achistaca.

    The name Soquel comes from the leader of the Uypi tribe (Uypi lived in modern downtown Santa Cruz, believed to be near to the village site Aulintak), whose name variously appears in Spanish sources as Suquel, Sugert, Suquer, & Suquex. His wife’s name was Rosuem. Some later sources claim Soquel to be a village name, but it shows up as an alternative tribal name (written as Zoquel most frequently) for the Uypi (his people) in baptismal documents starting by 1810, some five years after the leader’s death.

    The name Ohlone, which began being used in the 1850s to refer to the group of some fifty autonomous tribal nations throughout the bay area called ‘Costanoan’ by the Spanish, appears to come from two possible sources: 1) the Oljon tribe which lived just north of the Quiroste territory (Año Nuevo point). The argument for this relates to the name coming from an interview of a survivor at Mission Dolores (San Francisco), who said to identify as Oljon, or 2) it is possible that the word Ohlone is a variant to the Sierra Miwok word for the direction west, “O’lo’no wit.” These thoughts on the origins of the word Ohlone come from the work of Randall Milliken, Laurence Shoup, & Beverly R. Ortiz (see “Ohlone/Costanoan Indians of the San Francisco Peninsula and Their Neighbors, Yesterday and Today” (National Park Service, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, San Francisco, CA, June 2009), 42-3.

    As for the Awaswas language itself, there are a few sources that have some words (along with the distinct possibility that descendants may have kept some of the language within their families):

    1) Lorenzo Asisara (his father Llencó, was a Cotoni) shared some words in his 1890 interview with E.L. Williams (published in Edward S. Harrison’s “History of Santa Cruz,” (1892) pp 45-48).
    2) The French ethnographer, Alphonse Pinart travelled through Santa Cruz in August, 1878. He interviewed and collected words from two Awaswas speaking informants, including Rustico, the son of the Uypi Quiheuimen (baptised as Quiricio, one of the two surviving convicts of the Quintana assassination). See the California Indian Linguistic Records: The Mission Indian Vocabularies of Alphonse Pinart, published by Robert F. Heizer in 1952.

    Reply
    1. Ranger Gaudinski

      Martin, thanks so much for all this extra information/research on the Awaswas speaking groups and the Awaswas language itself. I also appreciate hearing possible explanations for when and where the name Ohlone comes from. Thank you too for citing your sources!

      Reply
  5. Quirina Luna Geary

    I am Mutsun, Rumsen, and Tamien, but enrolled in the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band. I come from many villages (not tribelets) within those tribes mentioned. I am a living Indian, not a “descendant of.” My family still hold traditional ceremonies, prepare traditional foods, and speaks our language. (I am also a coauthor of the Mutsun-English dictionary that was published in 2016; my qualifications for answering some of these questions).

    Rumsien is from Carmel Valley, not Santa Clara (Tamien).

    We are not extinct, we are still here. We are not “descendants of.” We are Mutsun, Rumsen, Tamien, Chochenyo. Karkin, Chalon, and Ramaytush.

    My tribe traditionally referred to ourselves as the “Mutsun Nation.” In the 1990’s, the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band of Ohlone Costanoan Indians was created to include Awaswas (or Akwaswas) for the Federal Recognition process. “Amah” (“ama” in our orthography) literally means a body, a single person, or people.

    Ohlone/Costanoan is used to help outsiders to identify who we are (since anthropologists, etc referred to us as so). We never referred to ourselves as Ohlone or Costanoan (this is a very common misconception throughout Indian Country).

    The best people to answer questions like these are the people themselves, not academics. Also, you will not learn anything about us from reading a book (there is not a single accurate book published about any “Ohone” Tribe). We are still here and not just a people to be studied from archival material. Many of us live the Indian way everyday, but you won’t see us dancing at public events or wearing our regalia for speaking engagements because it is ceremony. it’s our religion, not entertainment.

    I guess the most important take-away is that we are not Costanoan nor Ohlone (unless a person is from the village of Oholon).

    Thanks for reading.

    Reply

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