The Earliest Environmentalists – Early California Indians
Unlike Californians of today (like myself), the indigenous people of California such as the Ohlone (the tribe that inhabited the area now known as Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties) lived “gently” on the land.
In their Service dedicated to Early California Indians (third grade and up), The Environmental Volunteers help the children of today understand what “gently” means: harvesting acorns so as to adequately feed the tribe while preserving the trees for future generations, creating tools and houses to enhance their existence while remaining respectful of the environs, crafting weapons to aid in the quest for adequate food without wholesale devastation of the sources, and making toys and games that were both fun and instructive for Native American children.
My favorite among the many Kits presented at an Early California Indians Service is the “Games” Kit.
Since the Ohlone didn’t have a Toys R Us in their neighborhood, the Games Kit is filled with toys that have been fashioned from things available to the tribe: tops made from acorns, dolls made of the native grasses and reeds from the marshy edges of the San Francisco Bay, balls made from wood or animal hides stuffed with seed, and hoops made from willow switches through which sticks are thrown as the hoops are set in motion.
The games of the Ohlone were instructional in nature – some translated easily to hunting skills, others were designed to teach cooperation or fairness or politeness. In the Games Kit, we play the games just as the Ohlone would have! The kids participate in these ancient sports with as much enthusiasm as they give to any video game.
One of the games, a guessing game, is constructed as follows: The children (usually 5 or 6 in number) kneel in a circle and place their hands in the center. An animal skin (or sometimes just a cloth) is placed over everyone’s hands and one child is given a small bone or rock to hold. A different child is chosen to stand outside the circle and observe as the kneeling children pass the object around the circle, hidden under the skin. Calling for the participants to stop, the standing child then guesses which child is left holding the object. The children have a great time with this and the other games and beg to continue playing. As each game is concluded, I ask the children what skill they think this particular game was intended to teach the Ohlone children.
Once, after having played the guessing game described above, I asked my usual question. Without hesitation, one girl said: “They would learn to spot animals moving in the grasses, so they could hunt them for food.”
Modern-day children playing ancient games and understanding the intended lessons — what a treat!