Creation myth of northern Ohlone (Coastonoan) Indians

I’m still working on stories for liberal religious kids, and I wanted a creation myth that comes from this region, the San Francisco Bay area. After some research (thank goodness for Google Books), I found a creation myth that mentions landscape features that we can see, if not from the church, at least from here in Palo Alto. As usual, this is a rough draft, and your comments are welcomed.

Once upon a time, there were no human beings, but there were two spirits, one good and one evil. The two spirits made war upon each other, and at least the good spirit overcame the evil spirit. At that time, the entire world was covered with water, except for two islands, one of which was Mount Diablo and the other of which was Reed Peak [i.e., Mt. Tamalpais].

There was a Coyote on Mt. Tamalpais. He was the only living thing there. One day Coyote saw a feather floating on the water, and, as it reached the island, is suddenly turned into an Eagle. Spreading its broad wings, the Eagle flew up onto the mountain.

Coyote was much pleased with his new companion, and they lived together in great harmony. Sometimes they would make excursions to the other island, Coyote swimming while Eagle flew overhead. This went on for some time. Then they consulted with each other, and decided to make human beings.

Together they made the first human beings. Soon the first human beings had children, and the level of the water went down so that there was more land for the human beings. Soon the children of the first human beings had children, and the level of the water went down some more. Then the grandchildren of the first human beings had children, and so on, and the more human beings there were, the more the waters decreased, until at last where there was dry land where there once had been water.

At that time, what is now known as the Golden Gate was a chain of mountains, and you could walk from one side to the other side without getting your feet wet. The water that came down from the east had to go out through some other rivers somewhere. But then a great earthquake struck, and chain of mountains was cut in two, forming what we now call the Golden Gate. Then the waters of the Great Ocean and the Bay could at last come together, and the land became as we now know it.

The above tale is adapted from “Tradition of the California Indians,” by H. B. D., in Hesperian Magazine, vol. 2-3, (ed. F. H. Day, San Francisco, vol. III, no. 1, September, 1859), p. 326. H. D. B. says this tale came “from the lips of one of our most venerable pioneers, and I give it as I heard it.” This tale is cited by Hubert Howe Bancroft in his Native Races, vol. 3, (History Company: San Francisco, 1886), p. 88; and by Alfred Louis Kroeber in his “Myths of South Central California” American archaeology and ethnology Shoshonean Dialects of California, vol. 4, no. 3 (Berkeley: University of California, 1907), pp. 188-189. I have made a few changes based on Kroeber. It is impossible to say now exactly which Ohlone people this story came from, but it would be a people who knew Monte Diablo and Reed Peak, a.k.a. Mount Tampalpais.


A related creation story was collected by Alfred Kroeber from two Rumien Ohlone women, Jacinta Gonzalez and Maria Viviena Soto, in Monterey c. 1900, and which is partially based on “a Rumsien text.” Note that in this version, the mountains are ones in the Monterey region. (From Kroeber, op. cit., pp. 199-200.)

Rumsien Ohlone (Coastanoan) version of a creation myth:

When this world was finished, the eagle, the humming-bird, and Coyote were standing on the top of Pico Blanco. When the water rose to their feet, the eagle, carrying the humming-bird and Coyote, flew to the Sierra de Gabilan. There they stood until the water went down. Then the eagle sent Coyote down the mountain to see if the world were dry.

Coyote came back and said: “The whole world is dry.”

The eagle said to him: “Go and look in the river. See what there is there.”

Coyote came back and said: “There is a beautiful girl.”

The eagle said: “She will be your wife in order that people may be raised again.” He gave Coyote a digging implement of abalone shell and a digging stick.

Coyote asked: “How will I have children?”

The eagle would not say. He wanted to see if Coyote was wise enough to know.

Coyote asked him again how these new people were to be raised from the girl. Then he said: “Well, I will make them right here in the knee.”

The eagle said: “No, that is not good.”

Then Coyote said: “Well then, here in the elbow.”

“No, that is not good.”

“In the eyebrow.”

“No, that is not good.”

“In the back of the neck.”

“No, that is not good either,” said Eagle. “None of these will be good.”

Then the humming-bird cried: “Yes, my brother, they are not good. This place will be good, here in the belly.”

Then Coyote was angry. He wanted to kill the humming-bird. The eagle raised his wings and the humming-bird flew in his armpit. Coyote looked for him in vain.

Then the girl said: “What shall I do? How will I make my children?”

The eagle said to Coyote: “Go and marry her. She will be your wife.”

Then Coyote went off with this girl. He said to her: “Groom me, and pick the insects off me.”

Then the girl found a woodtick on him. She was afraid and threw it away.

Then Coyote seized her. He said: “Look for it, look for it! Take it! Eat it! Eat my woodtick!”

Then the girl put it in her mouth.

“Swallow it, swallow it!” he said.

Then she swallowed it and became pregnant. Then she was afraid. She ran away. She ran through thorns.

Coyote ran after her. He called to her, “Do not run through that brush.” He made a good road for her.

But she said, “I do not like this road.”

Then Coyote made a road with flowers on each side. Perhaps the girl would stop to take a flower.

She said, “I am not used to going between flowers.”

Then Coyote said, “There is no help for it. I cannot stop her.”

So she ran to the ocean. Coyote was close to her. Just as he was going to take hold of her, she threw herself into the water and the waves came up between them as she turned to a sand flea.

Coyote, diving after her, struck only the sand. He said, “I wanted to clasp my wife but took hold of the sand. My wife is gone.”

This is the end of the story, and while this is a longer story with more action, it is not a very satisfying myth because we never really find out how people were made.

3 thoughts on “Creation myth of northern Ohlone (Coastonoan) Indians

  1. Jean

    Just on the level of language, I wonder if it is possible to make this more welcoming, as a story. It seems quite formal, unnecessarily so, and more idea driven than character driven. Maybve that’s the point, but I wonder if kids might be more drawn into a story if the characters felt more fully realized. Something like this:

    Coyote loved his new friend, Eagle. And Eagle loved Coyote back. They played together like best friends do, sharing everything Coyote would run along the trails of the island, while Eagle flew in the warm air overhead. A long time passed this way, and the two never grew tired of being together and learning, and exploring. One day, while they were resting, they had an idea: let’s make new friends. …

    Or, something like that. Just a thought…

  2. Dan

    Jean: Most of what you read above is directly quoted from public domain sources. Yes, I could make the story more welcoming — how much of the original cultural character will I lose by so doing? The example you give would make a lovely children’s book, but it would not be a story of the northern Ohlone Indians.

    An example of what I want to avoid are the English-language retellings of the Buddhist Jataka tales, some of which have become widespread in our culture (e.g., the tale of the frightened rabbit is available in several children’s books) — but English-lanugage retellings of the Jataka tales almost always leave out the framing narrative in which Gotama Buddha tells the story to address concerns or problems among his followers; plus the framing narratives make the point that each Jataka tale (there are over 500 of them) tells the story of one of Buddha’s past lives. It’s as if the Enlighs-language versions want to pretend these are not stories about Buddha, nor about reincarnation. It’s perfectly fine to retell the Jataka tales with one’s own cultural matrix imposed on the original story — but then it becomes a quite different story.

  3. Jean

    Hmm. I suppose. I would like to know, however, how the northern Ohlone Indians actually *tell* the story. And do they tell it to their children? If they do, is there another layer or more added? Music, interaction, movement, etc.

    I do think it is possible to “translate” a story without stripping it of its central intent, framing narratives, etc. From my perspective, as a writer, it’s the lyrical nature, and the inviting quality, of the translation — as well as accuracy — that I’m thinking about.

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