More than 200 years ago, Santa Cruz was inhabited by peoples who had lived here for millennia. They spoke a different language, called Awaswas, and they called the place Aulinta. The coming of Mission Santa Cruz in 1791 nearly destroyed them. In an excerpt from his forthcoming book, “Santa Cruz Is in the Heart—Volume II,” Geoffrey Dunn explores their culture, their near genocide, and the tenacity of their human spirit.
It was in 1890 that an aging and articulate gentleman—identified as “a Mission Indian” from Santa Cruz named Lorenzo Asisara—consented to an interview for Edward Sanford Harrison’s “History of Santa Cruz County,” scheduled to be published in 1892, just in time for the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ “discovery” of America. Asisara’s interview was something of an anomaly in Harrison’s expensively gilded and leather-bound volume that generally celebrated the “prominent” rung of Santa Cruz County society and culture.
The interview itself was conducted not by Harrison, but by a fascinating figure in Santa Cruz history, Edward Laurence Williams. A native of Pennsylvania who had first arrived in Monterey in 1849, Williams variously served as a merchant, attorney, notary public, undersheriff, revenue collector, and as a researcher for California historian Hubert Howe Bancroft.
Williams eventually contributed an extensive chapter to Harrison’s book chronicling early 19th-century Santa Cruz history, based on his vast research of Spanish-language records. As a result, his interview with Asisara was deeply informed by his knowledge of historical documents dating back to the time of Spanish colonization in the Americas.
Williams’ wife, Narcisa, was the daughter of the prominent Watson family of Monterey, with Spanish roots in California that extended back to the DeAnza expedition of the 1790s, a lineage that certainly added to Williams’ understanding of the arc of Asisara’s life and a sensitivity to his narrative.
Lorenzo Asisara was believed to be in his early seventies at the time of his interview with Williams, who conducted their conversation in Spanish. According to baptismal records, Asisara had been born at Mission Santa Cruz on Aug. 10, 1820, (he gave dates as early as 1813 and as late as 1819, and his last name was variously reported as Livarez and Olivara). His father, Venancio Llenco, had been raised in a native community north of Davenport called “Cotoni.” His mother, Manuela Liuhatme, was believed to have been raised in a village called “Chalahua.”
Lorenzo was a full-blooded native of the region, and his interview with Williams added to two earlier accounts that he had given in the 1870s to a researcher for Bancroft’s “History of California.” The three interviews combine for one of the most significant—and extensive—19th-century oral histories with a full-blooded native Californian in the entirety of the state.
Asisara, who had learned to speak the dialect of the region’s native peoples as a child, informed Williams that he had been taught to read and write in Spanish by a controversial Franciscan missionary named José María Refugio Suárez del Real. He recalled singing in the mission choir and being sent to Monterey to learn to play the clarinet. He also played the flute.
Later, as an adult in his thirties, Asisara was forced to serve in the militia at the Presidio of San Francisco and was there in 1846 when the Mexican government surrendered its Alta California lands to the United States. When he returned to Santa Cruz afterwards, he served as a sacristan at the secularized Catholic Church, charged with caring for the religious artifacts of the parish.
Asisara presented Williams with an in-depth description of the social structure at the mission. The native peoples, who were called neophytes by the missionaries, were crammed into dormitories, separated by gender, extending down Mission Hill. They were assigned various daily tasks—blanket weaving, carpentry, blacksmithing, tanning hides, and preparing wool for the weavers—but the vast majority were required to work in the fields covering what is now considered to be Westside Santa Cruz, and in which their labors produced vast amounts of economic surplus for the mission economy.
Asisara’s account provided a sharp contrast to the highly romanticized vision of the missions popular during the late 19th century. Although Williams was clearly in a position of racial and class privilege in respect to Asisara (the Williams family had Chinese servants named Ah Mow and Sam Lee living with them in their comfortable home on Lincoln Street), their conversation reveals an ease between the two men.
Asisara openly recounted what must have been difficult memories for him—the brutalities and indignities that were forced upon the region’s native peoples by the Franciscan padres at the Santa Cruz Mission: lashings and sexual humiliation, forced labor and incarceration. “Indians at the mission were severely treated by the padres, often punished by 50 lashes on the bare back,” Asisara recalled. “The lash was made of rawhide. It came without mercy, the women the same as the men.”
Perhaps most importantly, Asisara provided us with important details of so-called Ohlone culture prior to the arrival of the missions that would have otherwise been lost. He told of “a tribe of Indians living up the coast called Jaraum.” He identified other tribes living on the North Coast, the “Esuans” and “Joali.”
Lorenzo Asisara’s interview provided a fascinating, if indeed fragmentary, glimpse into the way of life that dominated the area now known as Santa Cruz County before the first overland expedition of Spanish explorers arrived here in the late 1700s.
Through similar accounts by a handful of other native peoples, the diaries, journals and drawings of early explorers and missionaries, archaeological evidence, and even by intuition and speculation, we can today piece together a partial, if undoubtedly limited and ethnocentric mosaic of what that world was like. In many respects, we can only imagine.
The very term “Ohlone”—in popular usage for the past four decades—is itself something of a fiction. Contrary to a widespread perception in the region that persists to this day, there actually was no Ohlone “tribe” or “nation” in the same sense that there were Cherokee, Iroquois or Hopi tribes in other regions of North America.
It is a shorthand, or an adopted rubric, for the more than 50 small communities (or “tribelets”)—numbering anywhere from 40 to 400 people—that inhabited the coastal region of present-day California stretching from the San Francisco Bay to the Monterey Peninsula and down the Salinas Valley. The land that they inhabited usually was anywhere from six to a dozen miles in diameter, their boundaries established by ecosystems including watersheds, marsh lands, mountain ranges and the ocean.
In Santa Cruz County, the language that was spoken in native communities was known as Awaswas, a dialect that extended from present-day Año Nuevo south to the Pajaro River. Asisara told Williams that “the tribes nearest to the mission, such as up the coast a way, and as far south as Aptos, could understand each other, but those from a few miles farther off did not.”
The early Spanish explorers called them Costeños—a term later anglicized by Yankee settlers as Costanoans. In the 1960s and ‘70s, the term Ohlone (adopted from the name of a small village on the San Mateo County coast) became the term commonly used to describe the region’s native peoples.
Today, however, the term’s popularity—and acceptability—is changing once again. The appellation “Muwekma” is now being used by Chochenyo and Tamyen speakers in the northern part of the region, while “Amah” is being used by Mutsun speakers in the south. In each instance, the names are derived from words in their own languages describing their communities.
This corresponds, once again, to information provided by Asisara. “The names of the Indian tribes were given them from the names of the lands they occupied,” he noted. “Santa Cruz was called Aulinta in the Indian tongue.”
It’s uncertain precisely how long ago the first peoples arrived in the region. Archaeologist Robert Cartier has asserted evidence of “paleo-Indian” hunters in Scotts Valley dating back as far as 11,000 years. Radiocarbon dating of other archaeological sites throughout the county confirms human habitation in the region stretching back more than 5,000 years.
Some anthropologists believe that these early inhabitants were direct predecessors of the Ohlone, while others speculate that the first inhabitants were later driven out by people from the interior—probably Miwok—sometime around the year 500 A.D.
Ethnohistorian Randall Milliken has identified at least eight distinct Ohlone communities in present-day Santa Cruz County: the Cotoni, on the North Coast; the Achiasta, in the upper San Lorenzo River basin; the Uypi, in the area around Santa Cruz; the Sayanta, in the Zayante Creek watershed; the Chalocata, on the slopes of Loma Prieta and the watershed of upper-Soquel Creek; the Aptos, in the area now given their name; the Cajastac, along Corralitos Creek; and the Calendaruc or Tiuvta, at the mouth of the Pajaro River.
The total estimated population of native peoples in the region at the time of European contact was roughly 1,500-2,000—the size of a large, contemporary high school. It was a series of extended communities living in a delicate balance with its environment.
The native people of the region sustained their lives by hunting wild game, fishing, gathering shellfish, and, as the seasons permitted, by harvesting and gathering native plants and seeds—clover, wild onion, soap plant root, grass seeds, manzanita berries, hazelnuts, blackberries, and, most importantly, acorns.
As Cabrillo College history instructor Allan Lönnberg has written, “It is fairly safe to say that the native people of Santa Cruz ate some form of acorns every day, unless the crop failed, became spoiled, or ran out in late winter or early spring.”
The racist stereotype of California natives as “digger Indians”—fueled in large part by late 19th-century and early 20th-century historians—has distorted and, indeed, minimized the richness and complexity of California native culture. One of the great mission apologists, the German-born Catholic priest Zephyrin Engelhardt, described native Californians as “among the most stupid, brutish, filthy, lazy and improvident of the aborigines of [the] Americas.”
It is one of the great lies of modern history.
By the time that California was admitted to the Union in 1850—and vast numbers of Euro-American settlers began arriving in the region—California’s native communities had been all but decimated and horribly mutilated by generations of genocidal onslaught. “Nothing in their aboriginal life,” noted former UCSC professor Edward D. Castillo, “prepared these happy and robust people for the cataclysmic nightmare triggered by the arrival of Spanish soldiers and priests.”
Earlier—and probably more accurate—images of native peoples and their communities were rendered by artists that accompanied early explorers on their journeys to California prior to the advent of the camera. While they, too, have their limitations, they provide a striking contrast to later sepia-toned photographs of native peoples—often sold as souvenirs with the title “Digger Indians” on them—that had been devastated to the point of an overriding communal depression and poverty.
The native people of the region, prior to the arrival of Spanish missionaries and colonists, lived in domed-shaped structures made with thatched tule or cattail attached to a framework of bent willow. They housed anywhere from four to twenty-four nuclear or extended family members.
It is believed that menstrual huts for women were constructed in these villages, where they were prohibited from eating certain foods and touching their bodies, while men congregated in “sweat houses” dug into earth.
As the pictorial renderings of expedition artists indicate, the native peoples of the region were colorfully attired. Men often pierced their ears and noses, wearing ornaments made of wood, bone, stone or shell. They usually wore no other clothing. The women wore tattoos and painted themselves in intricate patterns. They donned skirts made of shredded plant fibers or deerskin.
A reverence for nature was central to their way of life. Regional natives, as Malcolm Margolin, author of “The Ohlone Way,” has noted, “like hunting peoples everywhere, worshipped animal spirits as gods, imitated animal motions in their dances, sought animal powers in their dreams, and even saw themselves as belonging to clans with animals as their ancestors.” A fragment of one regional native song declared:
I dream of you.
I dream of you jumping.
Shamans—both men and women—played critical roles in the life of a native community. They were bestowed with great powers of healing and magic. Storytellers passed down creation myths—tales of Eagle, Coyote and Hummingbird.
Dance was a passion for these peoples. Not only was it a means of ritual and celebration, it was a way of communicating—with each other, with strangers, and with the universe. Another remnant from an Ohlone song contains the poignant and haunting line: Dancing on the brink of the world.
The advent of the Franciscan missions at Carmel, Santa Cruz, Santa Clara, and San Juan Bautista brought a swift and sudden end to the traditional native way of life in the region.
Contrary to the romantic view of the missions promulgated by 19th century-historians, real estate boosters and artists, they were a brutal and unforgiving institution that differed little, in practical terms, from slavery in the American South. Once a native individual was baptized, even if as a child, they were never allowed to leave the jurisdiction of the mission. Those who tried to leave were tracked and captured by Spanish soldiers, and then whipped and shackled into submission.
In his earlier interviews with Bancroft historian Thomas Savage, conducted near Whiskey Hill near Watsonville in 1877, Lorenzo Asisara provided even more gruesome details of mission life for his peoples.
Contrary to yet another historical myth, local native peoples did not take colonization by the Franciscan padres passively. Their resistance took many forms as depicted in the stories told by Asisara.
As early as 1791, the same year that Mission Santa Cruz was founded, Charquin, the leader of the tribe known as the Quiroste located in the region of Point Año Nuevo, began harboring native peoples escaping the brutalities of the region’s missions. Following the capture of Charquin by Spanish soldiers, the Quiroste waged an attack on Mission Santa Cruz in December of 1793, in which they wounded a guard and set fire to a mission barn.
Two decades later, in 1812, mission priest Andres Quintana, who reputedly beat those under his command with a whip made of horsehair and iron, was assassinated by native peoples living at the mission who were outraged by his treatment. Following a complicated plot involving up to 15 participants—including Lorenzo Asisara’s father—Quintana was strangled in a local orchard and his testicles were crushed.
The symbolism attendant to the assassination was likely no coincidence. It has become a common understanding among anthropologists that many Indian tribes of North America had so-called “two-spirit people”—androgynous males and females representing third and fourth genders—who were held in high respect by native communities. A Spanish soldier and later California governor under Spain, Pedro Fages complained of “Indian men” near Santa Barbara who were “observed in the dress, clothing and character of women” who practiced “the execrable, unnatural abuse of their bodies.” He deemed it an “abominable vice.”
In spite of his horror at the discovery, Fages noted that they were referred to as “joyas” (jewels) and that the native peoples held them “in great esteem.” But their presence—and their practices—were violently prohibited in the missions, where the Franciscans and their soldiers conducted a sexual reign of terror on native peoples.
The mission years had a devastating effect on the region’s native population. By the time the missions were disbanded in the 1830s, nearly 90 percent of the original native population had been decimated. Birth rates—and survival rates for young native children—declined precipitously. In 1838, a smallpox epidemic all but wiped out the remaining native peoples in Santa Cruz.
By 1925, Alfred Kroeber, the University of California anthropologist who would be remembered by later generations for his association with the Yahi Indian known as “Ishi,” declared the native people of the region—and their cultures—“extinct.” That, too, was a lie.
Ironically, it was a former student of Kroeber’s, Joseph Peabody Harrington, an eccentric and, eventually, controversial anthropologist, who helped provide a bridge between the ravaged native cultures of the previous millennium with the present one.
It was in July of 1929, while employed as at the Bureau of American Ethnology (BAE) in Washington, D.C., that Harrington first began work in the central California region, beginning with octogenarian Ascensión Solorsano de Cervantes, a Mutsun Ohlone who had been born and raised near San Juan Bautista.
Three years later, in March of 1932, Harrington initiated an extensive research project in Monterey with 85-year-old Isabel Meadows, the last known fluent speaker of Rumsen Ohlone, who had been born in the Carmel Valley in 1846 to Loretta Onesimo, born at Mission Carmel of both Rumsen and Esselen ancestry, and James Meadow, a British-born whaler.
Through his collaborative work with both Solarsano de Cervantes and Meadows, Harrington was able to participate in the preservation of significant remnants of the region’s native language, culture and history.
Meadows, in particular, proved an incredibly rich resource. She provided detailed accounts of the Rumsen language and also recounted tales that were likely told to her by her mother. Although living on opposite sides of Monterey Bay, her reminiscences corroborated those of Lorenzo Asisara. Some of the same mission characters appear in both of their narratives.
One story that Meadows recounted was the rape of Vincenta Gutierrez by José María Refugio Suárez del Real, the same Franciscan missionary who Asisara recalled teaching him to read and write in Spanish. According to Harrington’s notes, Meadows recalled that sometime during the Lenten season (probably in the mid-1830s), Gutierrez had gone to visit the priest for confession, when del Real “grabbed the girl and screwed her.”
Interestingly enough, Asisara, in his narrative, described del Real as “prone to vices, especially women.” Historian Deborah A. Miranda, author of the recently published “Bad Indian: A Tribal Memoir” (Heyday) and herself of regional native lineage, has described Meadows’ recounting of the rape as “an example of storytelling as indigenous survival strategy.” Vincenta had recounted the tale to others—including Isabel Meadows’ mother—and Isabel Meadows made sure that history included a record of the assault.
By the 1970s, descendants of the region’s first peoples began the slow and difficult process of reclaiming and “restoring” their history. In 1975, Native Americans and their supporters staged an armed resistance in Watsonville to prevent the desecration of a native burial ground—an action that led to the formation of the Pajaro Valley Ohlone Indian Council.
Since then, several individuals with native lineage in the region, including Linda Yamane, Patrick Orosco and Miranda, have reclaimed—and revitalized— many their people’s cultural practices and traditions.
Yamane, who traces her family’s genealogy to the Rumsen Ohlone of the Monterey Peninsula and Carmel Valley, has dedicated much of her adult life to retrieving Rumsen language, folk tales, songs and the traditional art of basket weaving.
Yamane—who edited the superb anthology “A Gathering of Voices,” published by the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (2002), and is the author of several other works addressing native history and culture in the region—says that she was brought up with the same stereotypes of her ancestors as were other schoolchildren in California during the 1950s and ‘60s. “I always knew about my heritage,” she says. “I knew where my ancestors came from. I just wasn’t allowed to think that that was me.”
Yamane hopes that her efforts to revitalize Ohlone culture and history will help dispel many of the old, derogatory myths about her people. “Weaving a basket, singing the songs, speaking the language—I want people today to be touched by the human qualities of these things,” she declares. “I want them to be impressed by the skill and the beauty of these traditions. And I want them to realize that these were people like us.”
And what of Lorenzo Asisara? He made one final recorded curtain call in Santa Cruz County history and then departed from the stage. On Sept. 25, 1891, a massive celebration and procession was held at Holy Cross Church to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the founding of La Misión de la Exaltación de la Santa Cruz.
The centerpiece of the festivities was the unveiling of an ornate Gothic archway—composed of local granite and which still stands in front of the church to this day—constructed in honor of the mission’s centennial. Many of the city’s oldest and wealthiest “pioneers” were in attendance, including land magnate Frederick Augustus Hihn and developer and politician Elihu Anthony, the latter of whom was asked to deliver a speech at the event marking four decades of Santa Cruz “remembrances.” Anthony had been a leader of the virulent anti-Chinese movement in Santa Cruz County a decade earlier.
If the mood of the event was commemorative, the language was one of conquest and subjugation, fully reflecting the ethnocentric—and thoroughly racist—perspective of the times. In what is certainly one of the most revelatory works in the early annals of Santa Cruz journalism—a nearly 4,000-word account of the proceedings in the Santa Cruz Weekly Surf (more than likely written by the Surf’s combative editor Arthur A. Taylor)—the remarks of the event’s two principal speakers sought to frame the historical morality of Manifest Destiny and reify the legitimacy of Yankee rule in California.
What people were really commemorating that day was “the commencement of civilization” in their community. The Franciscan padres who had overseen the missions, it was declared, had been forced to perform their duties “amid a company of savages, a state worse than solitude.” They “had in view the same mighty object as had Christ himself when he became incarnate—to bring to man knowledge of God and to show him the way to eternal happiness.”
There was no mention of the various insurrections at the mission, the whippings, the forced servitude, the sexual abuse, or, heaven truly forbid, the assassination of Father Quintana, although one speaker did acknowledge the “great sacrifices” of the Franciscans, “even their very blood.” The many deceits of local history were reified that afternoon, set in granite, as it were, for generations to come.
As it turned out, Lorenzo Asisara was seated among the dignitaries in a temporary grandstand that afternoon. The Surf account noted his presence (his last name was listed as Livarez and his age was listed as 77), describing him as “the only surviving member of the last Indian choir of the church”—conveniently forgetting to mention that he was among the last of many things.
Asisara, of course, was not invited to speak that afternoon. He spoke little to no English, so it’s uncertain whether he fully grasped the narrative being uttered by the roster of speakers, but by then he had already had his say in his interview with Williams that would be published the following year.
Ironically, a century later, it would be from his perspective—based on his own life experiences—that we would now frame our understanding of the life of his people, as they were all but decimated by the onslaught of Spanish colonialism under the mission system. His voice is no longer silent.
One can only imagine what Lorenzo Asisara thought about the proceedings as they unfolded that late September afternoon in 1891. The account in The Surf grasped none of the ironies of his presence and captured none of the memories that undoubtedly swirled through his mind. Instead, the newspaper felt compelled to impose a certain affirmation and equanimity to Asisara’s appearance. It was reported that “the only surviving member of the last Indian choir” was possessed of “a very friendly feeling for his fellow citizens.”•
Excerpted from the forthcoming “Santa Cruz Is in the Heart: Volume II,” by Geoffrey Dunn, to be published by the Capitola Book Company this fall. An exhibition based on both volumes of Dunn’s writings will be held at the Museum of Art & History from Aug. 30 through Dec. 1.