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Those Who Came Before

Long before the Stanfords built their farm, the Muwekma-Ohlone called this land their own. Now the University is striving to preserve 5,000 years of history.

By Theresa Johnston

Stanford golfers know the spot well. Just to the left of the ninth tee on the campus course, on a gentle rise overlooking Junipero Serra Boulevard, lies a curiously shaped rock with a circular depression on top. A plaque informs waiting players that the outcropping is an Indian grinding stone, once used by the Muwekma-Ohlone people to crush acorns into flour.

Stanford has an impressive scorecard when it comes to such artifacts. The 8,100-acre campus features more than 60 archeological sites dating before the arrival of Spanish explorers. Of those, only about a third have been excavated. "It's quite unusual for one property to have this many sites, and it's also unusual in that they're essentially untouched," says Laura Jones, MA '84, PhD '91, the campus archeologist. "That makes them incredibly valuable for research and teaching."

When the first Spaniards arrived in the late 1700s, an estimated 10,000 Muwekma-Ohlone Indians were living throughout the Bay Area, from San Francisco to Big Sur, clustered into 40 tribelets of 50 to 500 members. Most traces of these people were long gone from the Palo Alto area by the time Leland Stanford purchased his stock farm in 1876. But the Governor's son, Leland Stanford Jr., took a special interest in collecting arrowheads, mortars and pestles from the property around the Stanford home on San Francisquito Creek. After the University was founded, his mother, Jane, hired one of Stanford's first authorities on Native Americans -- a professor named Mary Sheldon Barnes, who led undergraduates on some of the area's first digs in the 1890s.

Barnes was the first of a number of Stanford archeologists who unearthed a detailed picture of the Muwekma-Ohlones and their culture. They discovered the remains of two year-round Muwekma-Ohlone villages on the newly established Stanford campus. One, in the Jasper Ridge area, dates back 2,000 years. Another, on the banks of San Francisquito Creek near the present-day shopping center, originated some 5,000 years ago. Both were continuously inhabited until the early 1800s.

Artifacts found at the campus sites tell the story of a people who were expert at processing the region's abundant natural resources. Although most of the items could be classified as kitchen refuse (burned acorns, snail shells and the bones of bear and elk long gone from the Peninsula), archeologists also have found some fine examples of Indian craftsmanship, including stone tools, abalone beads, bird bone whistles, soapstone ear spools and combs intricately fashioned out of deer shoulder blades. The archeologists also have found a number of tools made from obsidian, or black volcanic glass, showing that the tribe must have traded with others at least as far away as the Napa Valley and the Sierra Nevada.

Unfortunately, the Muwekma-Ohlones' most splendid artifacts, such as watertight baskets, dance skirts and feather capes, were made from perishable materials, which were unable to withstand centuries in the ground. Nor has it been possible to resurrect their songs, stories and dances. "You can't excavate those things," Jones says ruefully, "so most of our studies focus on the economic and ecological aspects of their lives."

Compared to many hunter-gatherer societies, the Muwekma-Ohlone people led a relatively stable and peaceful life, collecting shellfish from the Bay in reed boats, hunting the area's abundant game and gathering seasonal berries, acorns, roots and greens in the foothills. Like the Pomo to the north, they built semipermanent shelters of willow-pole frames covered with mats woven from reeds or bundles of dried grass. Ohlone men often wore no clothes at all, while the women wore skirts of tule reeds and tanned deerskin.

The arrival of Spanish soldiers and missionaries in the late 18th century forever changed the old Muwekma-Ohlone way of life, and the closing of mission properties after the U.S. annexation of California in 1846 scattered the remaining descendants still further. Some ended up as ranch hands and domestic servants at local rancherias; many intermarried with the settlers and acquired Spanish surnames.

Though the native civilization had disappeared, many clues of the Ohlone presence were uncovered as the pace of land development at Stanford accelerated over the next century. From the 1950s to the 1970s, Stanford anthropology Professor Bert Gerow organized digs in connection with many campus building projects, such as the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. He and his students excavated some 600 Muwekma-Ohlone graves, storing the remains and artifacts in boxes at the Stanford Museum.

The need for more formal protection of Stanford's archeological heritage became evident in 1981, after an environmental impact report showed still more Native American sites on the proposed Stanford West building site near Sand Hill Road. Stanford decided not to build on 11 of the 46 acres set aside for that project (a projected loss of $9 million to $12 million in land value) and to locate future buildings or landscaping projects in nonsensitive areas whenever possible.

The University also began to solicit input from the thousand or so modern descendants of the Ohlones living throughout the Bay Area on the handling of campus burial sites and artifacts. In 1988, a University committee agreed to respect the tribe's spiritual beliefs and rebury the bones already stored at the Stanford Museum. They were interred during a ceremony at Coyote Hills Regional Park. (The site was chosen because most of the boxed bones were from sites Gerow had excavated in the East Bay.) That highly publicized decision brought the hitherto little-known Muwekma-Ohlone people to national prominence. It also helped them forge a new alliance with Stanford students, who in 1989 renamed the Native American theme house on the Row. It's now called Muwekma-tah-ruk ("House of the People") in honor of the tribe.

Now, whenever an Indian skeleton is found in the process of a dig, it is left in place. "Stanford calls us without hesitation," says tribal chairwoman Rosemary Cambra, a frequent visitor to campus digs. "There's an immediate protocol in place."

If the skeleton must be moved to accommodate building construction, it is reburied in a safe place. Until now, that meant a landscaped area near the building site. But in the future, remains will probably be buried at a more secure and dignified location on Jasper Ridge.

In research efforts, too, the Muwekma-Ohlone presence is much more visible than it used to be. Campus archeologist Jones now regularly hires experienced tribal members to work side by side with Stanford students in the trenches, and the collaboration has been fruitful. "After a while," she says, "the tribal members develop respect for how hard Stanford students work and for the new scientific insights they can bring. And the students come to realize that Muwekma-Ohlone tribal members, even if they don't have PhDs, have an extremely high level of field experience and sensitivity to archeological finds."

Indeed, Jones believes that Stanford would be remiss if it weren't providing its budding archeologists with this kind of cross-cultural exchange. "You can't do archeology in North America any more without collaborating with Native Americans; it's completely changed from the way it was 30 years ago," she explains. "Cooperation and collaboration are required to dig at Native American sites, and our students are getting that from the very beginning."

As for the artifacts, the University plans to mount exhibitions of the more interesting finds at Green Library and the Jasper Ridge visitors center. That way, everyone -- not just golfers -- will have a chance to glimpse the old Ohlone way of life.


Theresa Johnston, '83, is a Palo Alto freelance writer and frequent contributor to Stanford.

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