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Who are the Ohlone Indians?

By Mike Howells
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Ohlone Indians are a group of Native Americans who originally lived along the central coast of what is now the state of California. For most of their history, they did not consider themselves to be a single group, but rather a collection of individual tribes. They are often grouped together as the Ohlone due largely to their geographic proximity.

This tribe has also, historically, been known as Costanoans, though this moniker is the less popular of the two, and is used largely only by linguists. At its height in the late 18th century, the Ohlone population numbered to as many as 20,000 people. By the 2000 United States Census, however, that number was estimated to be only 2,000.

The Ohlone, before their contact with Europeans and subsequent integration into western culture, lived in individual tribes that each averaged a population of about 200 people. They were mainly hunter-gatherers, but also engaged in some basic forms of agriculture. Prior to the influence of Christian missionaries, the Ohlone Indians practiced the kind of shamanism common to Native Americans from the western United States.

Spanish settlers first made contact with Ohlone Indians during the 1770s, as Catholic missionaries reached the Pacific coast of North America. The Mission Era, as it is known, brought great change to virtually all Native American tribes, including the Ohlone Indians. Though the degree to which the Ohlone were forced to accept Christianity remains in question, many were brought to live and work in missions set up throughout their territory.

A strong Spanish-Catholic influence continued to prevail over the Ohlone for decades, and, in addition to the loss of traditional tribal customs, a great human cost was borne, as many Ohlone people died as a result of poor sanitation and lack of medical care in the missions. Though the Mexican government ordered the secularization of formerly Spanish-ruled areas in 1834, for the Ohlone way of life, the damage had already been done.

Most Ohlone Indians went on to work as ranch-hands and manual laborers in the 19th century. By the middle of the 1800s, at which time California had become the 31st U.S. state, the total Ohlone population had been decimated due to European diseases, poverty, and other factors. It is estimated that, at one point in the middle of that century, there were fewer than 1,000 Ohlone Indians alive.

Though there was never a unified Ohlone language, there were a number of distinct dialects spoken by the various in included tribes. Researchers have identified as many as eight regional languages spoken at one time or another by the Ohlone, though the last fluent speaker of any of them died in 1939. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, there has been a grassroots movement to resurrect the teaching of some Ohlone languages, along with a revival of other pre-western Ohlone cultural traditions.

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