Santa Cruz County History - Religion & Spirituality

Santa Cruz Spirituality: Ohlone People
by Paul Tutwiler

When Mission Santa Cruz was founded in 1791 it was in the land of the Ohlone, who were also known as Costanoans. The Ohlone were the peoples of the area from Carmel on the south to San Francisco Bay on the north, and from the ocean shore to the mountains on the western edge of the great interior valley. The Ohlone local communities were small (none, it seems, larger than 500 persons in number) and independent of one another. They have been grouped by anthropologists according to their languages. Awaswas was the language of the immediate Santa Cruz area, Rumsen was that of the Monterey-Carmel zone, and Mutsun was spoken by the people around San Juan Bautista. Each language had many dialects.

Replica Santa Cruz Mission Church
Replica of the Santa Cruz Mission Church
located near the original Mission site
From Santa Cruz Public Libraries' Photograph Collection.

The Ohlone were quickly resettled in the missions; those who were destined for Mission Santa Cruz were there by 1795. By 1808 these were being joined by displaced Yokuts from the California interior valley, who then intermarried with them. In 1825, "At Mission Santa Cruz approximately 31% of 429 Indian people were tribally-born Ohlone speakers, another 50% were tribally-born Yokuts speakers, and 18% were mission-born children of both groups."

After California entered the American Union there was very little record keeping that would link the Ohlone survivers of the Mission period with the present. (The information in the three preceding paragraphs is from ethnohistorian and research archeologist Randall Milliken's article, "The Spanish Contact & Mission Period Indians of the Santa Cruz-Monterey Bay Region," pp. 26-36 of Yamane, A Gathering of Voices. The reference to Awaswas, however, is taken from William Shipley's article, "The Awaswas Language," in the same book, pp. 173-182.)

What do Americans, even Californians, even Santa Cruzans know about the spiritual life of the Ohlone before the Spaniards came? In general the religion of Native Americans in California and elsewhere when the Europeans came upon them was Shamanism. The traditional religion of North Central Asia, Shamanism had fanned out in the course of millennia in an arc over northern Eurasia and North America, extending as far as Australia and South America. It rested upon belief in “cosmic animism,” in which the whole universe, and not just the earth, is alive, and the universe is structured in layers, the sky, the underground, and, between them, the earth, which is inhabited by living humans. The layers, Shamanism explains, are connected by the Tree of Life, which shamans, and, among humans, only shamans, are capable of ascending and descending spiritually so that they can go to all parts of the universe. As they travel about they can acquire power for themselves, or they find powerful helpers so that they can heal the sick and bring rain and other benefits to the people. (There is now an abundance of information on Shamanism available to the general public. A prime reference for Shamanism and its place in spirituality is Mircea Eliade, Shamanism; archaic techniques of ecstasy, London: Routledge & Kegan, 1964 (English translation).)

The spirituality of the Native Americans in particular has been studied by many scholars. To a great extent what we know about it has been handed down in myths, that is, stories, about heavenly people of old, about the clever coyote, about happiness after death in a far-off land, and so on. This does not mean that Navaho beliefs were exactly the same as the beliefs of the Mohawk, the Illinois, or the Seminole. Different environments, different terrains, different climates, different local animals were represented in the stories. There is a trove of information about the customs and beliefs of many California native peoples, because numbers of these peoples' descendants survived to tell about them. This is unfortunately less true of the peoples of the central coast of California. Nevertheless researchers do document prayers, offerings, dancing, singing, and interpretation of dreams as manifestations of the spirituality of Monterey Bay Ohlone, as well as a belief that upon death they would go to a land beyond the sea. (The best sources available on this topic are L. J. Bean, The Ohlone Past and Present, pp. 99-163; Richard Levy, "Costanoan," pp. 485-495 of Volume 8, Handbook of North American Indians; Robert Heizer, The Costanoan Indians; and Lauren S. Teixeira, The Costanoan/Ohlone Indians of the San Francisco and Monterey Bay Area.)

Firsthand accounts

I have come upon two early nineteenth century accounts of the beliefs and religious practices of the Ohlone, and I am presenting them here because the reading of the original texts brings us closer to insight into the spirituality of the peoples. Both nevertheless have to be read with the caution that the Europeans had inadequate understanding of what they were seeing.

One is a graphic description by Frederick William Beechey, an English naval officer and geographer who visited California in 1826. In his Narrative of a Voyage to the Pacific, published in 1828, he wrote, "principally from the information of the priests, and from the journals of the officers who went overland to Monterey,"

The religion of all the tribes is idolatrous. The Olchone [sic], who inhabit the seacoast between San Francisco and Monterey, worship the sun, and believe in the existence of a beneficent and an evil spirit, whom they occasionally attempt to propitiate. Their ideas of a future state are very confined: when a person dies they adorn the corpse with feathers, flowers and beads, and place with it a bow and arrows; they then extend it upon a pile of wood, and burn it amidst the shouts of the spectators, who wish the soul a pleasant journey to its new abode, which they suppose to be a country in the direction of the setting sun. Like most other nations, these people have a tradition of the deluge; they believe also that their tribes originally came from the north. (Quoted on pp. 427-429 of van Coenen Torchiana, Story of the Mission Santa Cruz. Randall Milliken, in his doctoral dissertation, An Ethnohistory of the Indian People of the San Francisco Bay Area from 1770 to 1810, University of California, 1991, cited in Bean, The Ohlone Past and Present, p. 134, proposes that the “Olchone” here are the “Oljon,” who lived north of Santa Cruz, in what is now San Mateo County.)

The other source consists of the responses of eighteen Alta California Missions to a survey sent to the Spanish Colonies in America in 1812 by Don Ciríaco González Carvajal, Secretary of the Department of Overseas Colonies. (Maynard Geiger O.F.M., As The Padres Saw Them.) The thirty-six questions asked were intended to elicit information about the native peoples of the New World: who were they, where did they come from, what were their customs, and what were their religious beliefs and practices? (1)

The value of this survey as a first hand source of information on the California Peoples' spirituality in particular cannot be overestimated. Deficient as the mission padres' notion of indigenous spirituality was, they knew more about it than anyone else did and they were asked specifically about it. The questions focused on the pre-Spanish conquest beliefs and practices which had not been extirpated by 1812, and so the answers indicated only some aspects of the peoples' previous spirituality. For the most part, however, these were the aspects so firmly rooted that they had resisted the missionaries' efforts to put an end to them. Some of the responses, in fact, did describe religious practices which no longer existed.

Six questions were explicitly about aspects of the people's religion, and a seventh question, number 15, about health care, also brought out answers pertinent to spirituality. (2)

The length and tenor of the responses varied greatly. Some respondents, answering at length, described precisely and objectively the traditional beliefs and actions of the people; others wrote at length about the contemporary practices of the Christianized residents rather than about their former selves; still others replied in a mere sentence or two, although some of the brief statements are quite revealing. Unfortunately for modern researchers, however, no set of responses provides a complete description of the original local spirituality.

The responses from Mission Santa Cruz, signed by Fray Marcelino Manríquez and Fray Jayme Escudé, are relatively complete and informative. Nevertheless, they yield mere glimpses into the religion of the people. At the suggestion of Randall Milliken, I add to the Santa Cruz responses additional observations made by the respondents from the nearby missions, San Carlos (Carmel), San Juan Bautista, Santa Clara, and San Jose (Fremont). These missions were close enough to Santa Cruz that what can be said about their spirituality is at least pertinent to Santa Cruz. If some characteristic shows generally throughout the California missions I mention it, too, even if it does not appear in the Santa Cruz report.

Question 10. "Do they retain any superstitions? Which ones? What means can be used to destroy these superstitions?"

[Santa Cruz] These Indians do not have superstitions, not even omens which are believed even by the gente de razón in other parts. Nevertheless, there are among them some ill-intentioned old persons who inject a dreadful fear into them concerning the devil whom they look upon as the author of all evil. These oldsters make the rest believe that in order to prevent the devil from harming them they should offer him a little flour, which they eat, in a definite tree trunk, in this or that place. With the same purpose in mind, they hold at times secret, nocturnal dances always avoiding detection by the fathers. We are informed that at night, only the men gather together in the field or the forest. In their midst they raise a long stick crowned by a bundle of tobacco leaves or branches of trees or some other plant. At the base of this they place their food and even their colored beads. Then they prepare for the dance bedaubing their bodies and faces. When all the men are together the old man whom they respect as their teacher or soothsayer goes forth to listen to and to receive the orders from the devil. The old man returns after a short interval to make known to the miserable and innocent listeners not what he heard from the father of lies but what his own perversity and malice dictated. After this they proceed with the dance and continue with it till daybreak. In order to dissuade them from such harmful deception there is no better remedy than preaching and punishment. This is what we missionaries do and with good results.

The Santa Cruz response to question 10 clearly refers to the role of the shamans and to offerings made to placate unseen beings. These two religious characteristics are general in the responses of the eighteen missions. The use of the term "devil" for the unseen beings who have power to harm people reflects the Spanish and generally European habit of imposing Christian concepts on the animistic worldview of Native Americans in California and elsewhere.

Question 12. "Is there still noticeable among them any tendency toward idolatry? Explain the nature of the idolatry and unfurl [sic] the means that can be employed to root it out."

(To understand the question it is necessary to realize that the Padres thought the Pagans of old actually worshipped the images of wood or stone, "false gods," that they used in their religious ceremonies.)

[Santa Cruz] The California Indians are and have been pure pagans, that is, they do not have, nor have they adored false gods. Thus it has not been necessary to devise means to make them desist from a sin they have not committed.

The Santa Cruz reply to this question goes on at length about the wonderful work the missionaries are doing. Mission San Carlos, however, adds

[San Carlos] These natives practiced the following type of idolatry: at times they blew smoke to the sun, moon, and to some beings whom they fancied lived in the dwelling of the sky. At the same time they would say: "Ah, this wisp of smoke is blown that you may give us a favorable day tomorrow." In like manner they took pinole or flour of the seeds they gathered and throwing a handful to the sun, moon or sky, they said: "I send you this that you may give me greater abundance next year."

Question 15. "Not having physicians in their villages what curative methods do they use in time of sickness?" The question went on to ask for medical details, such as the use of herbs, but some of the responses included the functions of shamans.

The response from Santa Cruz is strictly about thermal baths and sweat houses. Mission San Juan Bautista's reply is more typical of the generality of responses:

[San Juan Bautista] There are among the Indians many healers and wizards who obtain many beads for curing others, but at other times, they get nothing. These have deceived the greater number of their people. They cure by chanting and by gestures and shouts they attempt to effect their superstitious cures.

Question 19. "In their pagan state in many places they adored the sun and the moon. You are to state if they still have any memory of this or any hankering or tendency toward it."

[Santa Cruz] Question 19 is satisfactorily answered by what we stated in Number 12. If the Indians admire the sun they never adore it.

Question 28. "Do you notice among them any inclination to immolate human victims to their gods in cases of idolatry into which they fall and of which there are examples?"

Question 29. "If among the untamed Indians these sacrifices to their gods are still observed and if they offer human victims, what ceremonies do they observe in regard to the corpses they bury? Do they in some parts place food with the interred or do they burn the corpses entirely?"

The padres in Santa Cruz seem to have limited patience in regard to this line of questioning:

[Santa Cruz] Already in Answers 12 and 19 we have stated that these California Indians are not idolators so they do not offer up victims either irrational or human. With what has been stated in the aforementioned answers and in the answer to question 21 [about burial customs] we deem questions 28 and 29 sufficiently taken care of.

Significant in this statement is the reference to irrational sacrificial victims. Some of the southern missions reported the ritual sacrifice of large birds, including eagles, but none of the Santa Cruz group mentioned this. No California mission stated that its peoples had practiced human sacrifice.

Question 35. "What are their ideas of eternity, reward and punishment, final judgment, glory, purgatory and hell?"

[Santa Cruz] "The California Indians have no idea of heaven or the final judgment but they do have plenteous ideas of the punishments the devils administer in hell. For this reason the Indians try to placate them."

Missions neighboring Santa Cruz had more extensive answers to question 35:

[San Juan Bautista] They have hardly any idea of the soul or of immortality. Nevertheless they have stated that when an Indian dies his soul would remain in their sacred places which the sorceress had (and still has) for the purpose of asking pardon from the devil. This accounts for the fear that possessed them when they passed near the place of worship. It was nothing more than a stick painted red, white and black with some arrows attached or hanging jars and other things. Other arrows they place at the foot of another stick which they call chochon and there they also placed pinole, beads and a pouch of tobacco. Others have stated that the souls of the deceased go west but that they did not know what they did there. For these reasons they never again mentioned the dead man by name. It was a source of great sorrow and pain even to mention their names.

In the responses of Santa Clara and San Jose, this place to the west was explicitly said to be a land of happiness.

The rest of the Santa Cruz reply to question 35 concerned "the tradition that in some former time an alien woman came to this region." The writers identify her as the Venerable María de Jesús de Agreda, a Spanish nun who was reputed to have aided the evangelization of American Indians in the Southwest between 1620 and 1631 by appearing there while being bodily in her Spanish convent. (Venerable María de Jesús de Agreda was the author of The Mystical City of God. More detail about the tradition that she appeared in Santa Cruz is found in an alternate version of the Santa Cruz responses to the Spanish questionnaire. The alternate text is found in Alexander S. Taylor, "Santa Cruz County Indians," Number 4 in the series "The Indianology of California," in the California Farmer, a Sacramento weekly newspaper, April 5, 1860. The Indianology series ran from 1860 to 1863. Curiously, although the elements of the text are clearly the same in both versions, Taylor states that the responses were made to inquiries made by the Council of Regency in 1810.)

Two characteristics of the peoples' spirituality which are not mentioned in the Santa Cruz report, but which are found in those of the generality of the missions are reverence toward the game they hunted, and belief in the reality of dreams.

Characteristics which were reported for at least some of the peoples, but not for the people of the five missions of the Santa Cruz area were:

  • The world was created in some fashion.
  • Large birds, including eagles, were sacrificed ritually (mentioned above).
  • There were fixed prayer poles (not temporary ones, as in the case of Santa Cruz).
  • Talismans were used (thus the response to question 10 from San Fernando: "In order not to become tired climbing hills they carry a stick or stone.")
  • Dead humans returned as animals.

One would like to suppose that some of these traits were found among the peoples of the Santa Cruz area, and the silence of the questionnaire responses in their regard is striking. This silence is especially noteworthy in regard to the origin (creation, in some fashion) of the world. Is it farfetched to guess that the Ohlone People were reluctant to share their myths with the padres, or, if they did share them, the padres were not inclined to repeat?

Representation of the Original Mission Santa Cruz
A representation of the original Mission Santa Cruz.
From Santa Cruz Public Libraries' Postcard Collection.

One last item of interest from the survey was the difficulty of communication among the peoples even locally. Question 13 was, "Let them state what languages these people generally speak and if they understand any Spanish." The responses for most of the missions indicated that there was a single local language, or, at the most, three or four native languages in the area. Exceptions were 1. San Buenaventura, where "Within fifteen, ten, or even fewer leagues in distance, they speak a distinct language so that they scarcely understand one another," 2. San Luis Obispo, where there were fifteen languages in the area, 3. San Jose, where "the dialects vary to such an extent that the Indians living fifteen or twenty leagues from the others cannot understand each other," and 4. Santa Cruz, where "The Indians of this mission speak as many dialects as the number of the villages of their origin. It is, indeed, a matter of surprise that although one village is only two leagues or less away from another, the Indians of the said villages not being allies yet the dialects are so distinct that generally not a great deal can be understood of one by the other." Of all the missions, therefore, Santa Cruz was the least likely to possess internal religious homogeneity by internal communication.

Ohlone tales

Fortunately some Ohlone stories have come down to us. Nine that I know of are to be found in two slender volumes edited by contemporary Rumsen story teller Linda Yamane. These stories were preserved in the family memory of some Ohlone and were collected by the ethnographer John P. Harrington from interviews with aged descendants in the 1920s and 30s. (Linda Yamane, When the World Ended; How Hummingbird Got Fire; How People Were Made, and The snake that lived in the Santa Cruz Mountains and other Ohlone Stories.)

In the world of the stories the most wise and powerful figure is Eagle, the "Captain," who presides over a council of Hummingbird, Crow, Raven, and Hawk. Although Hawk is the strongest of the birds, he saves the world through the magic of Eagle. Crow is the most imaginative thinker of the five, but he gives advice when asked for it by Eagle. The most daring of the group is Hummngbird, who, acting upon instructions by Eagle, has an achievement out of proportion to his small size.

Led by Eagle, these birds drain the earth of the worldwide flood. Then they restore fire to it (because they are hungry and want to cook) and populate it with people and animals "so we won’t be alone." In attempting to make people out of clay they discover that the people have to be dark haired. The Badger People, who live under the earth, help the birds in one instance and hinder them in another.

The (Ohlone) people themselves can possess magical powers over nature for good and can change into powerful figures, such as thunder. Their greatest feat in the stories is to kill with knives a huge, man-eating snake. This is, moreover, the only action in the stories that takes place in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

The only bad humans in the stories are fishermen, who are punished by their fear at the thunder which they themselves brought about. Good humans at a dance are rewarded by having a bottomless vessel of food.

Some of the tales explain the origin of natural phenomena: the sound of waters in a river is really the sound of two bears talking about their journeys, thunder is a noise made by two boys who escaped into the sky, and there are white people because a whale swallowed a person and then cast him up, bleached white. Taken together, these tales present a world in which intelligence and power are not at all restricted to humans. None of this collection of stories explains the origin of the world; none of them hints at the ultimate destiny of that rather inferior creature, the human being. ( A tenth story, preserved in the memory of an Ohlone family, is about the cleverness of Coyote. It can be read in Beverly R. Ortiz, "Chochenyo and Rumsen narratives: a comparison," in Bean, The Ohlone Past and Present p. 132.)

Indian Canyon, a place of the People's own

Efforts are now being made by known Ohlone descendants of the south end of Monterey Bay and of the inland parts of the Pajaro River basin to document sufficient descendants to establish recognition as an Indian Nation. Working toward this end is the Pajaro Valley Ohlone Indian Council, headquartered in Watsonville. With about 100 members plus several hundred affiliate members elsewhere in California, the Council organizes informational activities for the general public. (Lois Robin with Patrick Orozco, "The Pajaro Valley Ohlone Indian Council," in Yamane, A Gathering of Voices, pp. 216-217.)

Traditions, practical and spiritual, of the Ohlone, especially the Rumsen, are maintained in "Indian Canyon," 15 miles southwest of Hollister. This settlement is "Indian Country," a place which has special status under federal law, although it is not a reservation. ( 2011.) Indian Canyon is not in Santa Cruz County, but it is a place where the present day descendants of the Ohlone can achieve a sense of oneness with the land and with their ancestors. To a great extent this is accomplished through the ceremonies which are held there:

Ceremony holds a crucial place in the life of Native peoples. It is the expression and continuation of their relationship to the Earth and their own history. Ceremony is an anchor for identity for tribes, families and individuals.

Indian Canyon has always welcomed tribal people in need of a place to perform their traditional ceremonies. This is sacred ground, blessed by the elders and the ancestors for the purpose of carrying on the living tradition of ceremony for Native people throughout California and beyond. Sweat lodge frames, fire circles, arbor and dancing grounds are clustered throughout the canyon. Tribal members and others come for vision quest, sweat lodge, coming-of-age rituals, naming ceremonies, and other rituals.

The Bear Dance is an ancient traditional healing ceremony taking place annually in Indian Canyon. Native Americans dance as bears, become bears, circling around the sacred fire giving blessings for all those present in the circle as well as for the entire world. Other ceremonies include the Moon Festival, and the Story Telling Festival...." ( 2011.)

Although further information about Ohlone history and spirituality is disappointingly hard to find, and scholars have had little to add for years, some of the Ohlone descendants themselves are working at it. Since 2009, in particular, a new organization, the Confederation of Ohlone Peoples, headquartered in the San Francisco Bay area, has been serving Ohlone people and supporters.

The Confederation is an educational organization. Although the organization has plans to develop a genealogical archive, and members may share their own genealogical process, we are not an organization dedicated to genealogy, federal recognition or judging people based on their level of engagement as either a Supporter of Ohlone people or Descendent[sic] of Ohlone people. Since the group’s creation, we are now being called to support issues around the preservation of sacred sites and the creation of new Native cultural centers on behalf of the Ohlone. ( 2011)

In 2011 the largest convenient collection of information about the Ohlone is the website This website lists activities, especially around San Francisco, it has information about several leaders in the promoting of Ohlone interests, and it lists Ohlone groups that have applied for federal recognition. With about 100 members plus several hundred affiliate members elsewhere in California, the Council organizes informational activities for the general public.


  1. Inspection of the thirty-six questions suggests the following working categorization of them:
    Demographic information 1, 2, 3, 7, 8, 20, 30, 34
    Social customs 4, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 21, 25, 26, 31, 32, 36
    Character traits 9, 22, 23, 24, 27, 33
    Religion 10, 12, 19, 28, 29, 35
    Effect of Spanish rule 5, 6, 11, 13
  2. The traits of spirituality revealed in the responses can be grouped under four headings:
    Cosmogony (very little about this)
    All-pervading animism (much about this)
    Control of non-human powers (very much about this)
    Ultimate human destiny (a little about this)


Bean, Lowell John. The Ohlone Past and Present. Menlo Park, California: Ballena Press, 1994.

Geiger, Maynard. As The Padres Saw Them: California Indian Life and Customs as Reported by The Franciscan Missionaries 1813 - 1815. Santa Barbara, California: Santa Barbara Mission Archive Library, 1976. The responses had been preserved in the archives of the Santa Barbara Mission. The first edition, which consisted of only 500 copies, until now (2011) has not been republished or reprinted.

Heizer, Robert F. The Costanoan Indians. Cupertino, California: California History Center, De Anza College: Local History Studies, Volume 18, 1974.

Margolin, Malcolm. The Ohlone Way. Berkeley, California: Heyday Press, 1978. This is the most widely diffused, although not the most scholarly, book on the Ohlone.

Sturtevant, William C., ed. Handbook of North American Indians. Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1978.

Teixeira, Lauren S. The Costanoan/Ohlone Indians of the San Francisco and Monterey Bay area. Menlo Park, California: Ballena Press, 1997.

Torchiana, H. A. van Coenen. Story of the Mission Santa Cruz. San Francisco: Paul Elder and Co., 1933.

Yamane, Linda, ed. A Gathering of Voices: The Native Peoples of the Central California Coast. Santa Cruz County History Journal, Issue Number 5. Santa Cruz, California: Museum of Art and History, 2002.

---. When the World Ended; How Hummingbird Got Fire; How People Were Made. Berkeley: Oyate, 1995.

---. The snake that lived in the Santa Cruz Mountains and other Ohlone Stories. Berkeley: Oyate, 1998.


Costanoan-Ohlone Indian Canyon. Costanoan-Ohlone Indian Canyon Resource. 2011.

Indian Canyon Village. Indian Canyon. 2011.

Indian Lands. College of Natural Resources, University of California, Berkeley. 2011.

The Ohlone Nation: Here Then. Here Now. The Confederation of Ohlone People. 2011.

Ohlone Profiles: Media by and about San Francisco's Original People. The Ohlone Profiles Project. 2011.

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