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The First BASKers
by Storm Steiger
Ohlone with boat


The first BASKers rose before dawn and greeted the sun. They believed the sun had a nature very much like their own. They talked to the sun, giving it advice and telling it what kind of weather they wanted. The men were naked year-round and the women were naked or wore skirts made of tule reeds and deer skin. On cold mornings the men covered themselves with mud.

The Bay Area Ohlones were described as "almost amphibious." "They are always splashing in the water" noted Stephen Powers (19th cent. ethnologist). They were so water oriented that they had no shoes or sandals of any type.

They built their kayaks out of tule rushes. They were about 10 feet long and three feet wide in the middle. The Ohlones collected a large quantity of tules and tied them into three cigar shaped bundles. They then joined the bundles together so that the fattest of them formed the deck and the other two bundles formed the sides of the kayak. This kayak held four people, each with an Eskimo style double-bladed paddle. These kayaks were extremely light and floated on the water like a feather. One of the early Europeans noted that the men paddled with "great facility and lightness of touch", while the Spanish were amazed that these early kayaks could outrun their longboats.

On calm days the Ohlones would venture into any part of the bay with these little kayaks. Some stories even had them using these kayaks to reach the Faralones,which are 26 miles offshore, they probably made these trips in very calm conditions. They also used their tule kayaks to reach the islands in the bay where countless seabirds had their rookeries. In the early spring the Ohlones paddled out and filled their kayaks with eggs. Cormorant eggs, which have a strong fishy smell, were highly sought after. Later in the season they raided the islands for young chicks. They would also paddle out to the islands and club baby seals and sea lions for their meat, blubber, and skins.

They used their kayaks for hunting waterfowl. During the great migrations which would darken the sky, they would paddle out to a quiet body of water. Here they would erect two poles and attach a net to one pole and loosely threaded it through a crotch in the other, leaving the middle slack and under water. Then they would set a few decoy geese or ducks filled with straw to float near the net while they hid in the tule reeds. When a flock of birds came to the decoys, they would pull hard on the rope and jerk the net into the air and stretched it taut and catch the flock mid-flight. They would then smoke and dry the birds for later use.

The Ohlones fished all the time using dip nets, seine nets, harpoons, weirs, basketry traps, hooks and even fish poisons. To catch salmon, the Ohlones plunged two poles into the river bottom, stretched a seine net between them, and anchored their tule kayaks against the poles. When they felt the fish thrashing in the net, they lifted one of the poles, twisting the "purse" shut and bringing the net close to the surface where the fish could be clubbed. The Ohlones would also venture up a creek and dump chopped soaproot bulbs or mashed buckeyes in the water to stun the fish, which floated to the surface for easy gathering.

Along streams, they used weirs set into the streambed and interwoven with willow branches and tule. They arranged the weir to funnel fish to a basket trap or to an Ohlone waiting with a harpoon. During the night they used bonfires to lure the fish closer to shore. They also hung charmstones, which were long, smooth rocks, over the river as magic to draw the fish closer.

Disposable kayaks The Ohlones would build and use their kayaks for one season at a time. I'm going to try and build one this summer and enter it in the Sea Trek Regatta in October. If anyone has a blueprint or knowledge of how to build these kayaks any information would be appreciated!

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