Kehoe Beach, Point Reyes, https://commons.wikimedia.org, NPS Natural Resources--Debra Miller
Standing on the rugged cliffs at Point Reyes, California at sunset, you may catch the brief and legendary green flash of the sun as it sinks below the distant horizon. A line of sea foam laces away from the point across the top of the waters, illuminated in the sunset’s fire. A green light may slowly wrap itself around you there.
The spirits of Miwok dead, Indigenous to these Northern California places, wait there for the moon to rise. They leave the land at Point Reyes, fly out over the ocean toward Coyote’s home at the distant Farallon Islands. “The Miwok people believed that the dead walked into the afterlife along a path of light thrown by the moon onto water.”1
Coyote and the Miwok path of the dead
You are waiting there with them, standing on the left ear of Coyote. He is here, too. Hummingbird is whispering to you in the wind.
The earth is sacred, and so are her places. These are very sacred places, Point Reyes and the Farallon Islands. And they are intimately connected with each other and to the Ohlone's West Berkeley Shellmound, also very sacred.
Point Reyes has been a sacred place to the Coast Miwok for thousands of years. There are hundreds of Miwok sites there. Memories of the past are woven into the landscape.
Greg Sarris, chairman of Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, who are Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo, has also said, “Everything is sacred for us.”2 Vine Deloria, Jr., Standing Rock Sioux, made the distinction that the sacred nature of places is but a specific (and experiential) instance and different expression of the sacredness of land within tribal traditions.3
Point Reyes participates in an ancient mortuary complex and contains pathways for the spirits of the dead. It contains man-made mounds, megaliths, a celestial calendar, and buried circles.4
It is also an immense geomorphic theophany, the presence of great spirit beings in and as places there. Well-known and colossal examples of geomorphic theophany, spirit in and as place, would be Mother Earth and Turtle Island.
The left side of the body of Coyote, the Creator and Trickster God, extends, from his nose at the Golden Gate, north up the Pacific Coast to his tail's end, and then inland, to Lake County. Coyote’s forepaw rests at San Pablo Bay. His eye is Bolinas, his ear is Point Reyes.
The Coast Miwok share Coyote’s presence and expanse with their neighboring cousins, the Ohlone of the San Francisco Bay Area, who also know Coyote lives here.5
The right side of Coyote is “off the coast where the sun sets,”6 at the Farallon Islands.
Both Miwok and Ohlone dead migrate to the Farallon Islands, their Islands of the Dead and Coyote’s home, where the sun goes down.
Miwok and Ohlone migration paths of the spirits of the dead. Source: Google Earth
Hummingbird, a messenger who brought fire to the Miwoks,7 is also alive at Point Reyes, perhaps now whispering in Coyote’s ear, too. Hummingbird Coast, kalupi-tamal, is the elongated Tomales Point,8 the beak of Hummingbird, where the paths of the dead and living cross.
The dead travel on a “cloud path”9 over land from Mt. St. Helena and elsewhere, to get to this destination; they travel on an úte-mugu, dead people’s road.10
In many Indigenous traditions, spirits are known to travel in a straight line, from point to point. The Miwok and Ohlone can learn the route of the úte-mugu before they die, be guided along the way, or have it mapped and managed for them, so they are not lost.
Across the width of Tomales Point are two straight pathways of granitic rock slabs, with a space between them. They are bisected at the ridge line by Tomales Point Trail, with one end pointing to the northeast, and the other to the southwest. There are different estimates of the divergent angle of the shorter line, from 6 to 10 degrees. The two lines total about 846 feet long, end to end.
Granite lines at Tamales Point are crossed by trail. Source: Google Earth
While a research project about the site admits, “An oral tradition says that it was built during prehistoric times by the Coast Miwok,” researchers concluded, “historical and circumstantial evidence associates it with nearby ranches.”11
However, the lines are older than most local American settlement. “The rock line is man-made and appears on an 1862 Coast Survey map.”12 It was noted to be on an 1854 survey map13 and acknowledged by historians that it “may have been constructed by ‘paleo-Indians.’”14 Janes reported, “the stone metrics data set [from Wing, et als., 2015] reveals several features that do not suggest a wall or property line.”15
They were built with care and walked by ancestors of Coast Miwok. The rock paths function much like airport runways for the spirit world.
The northeastern path plots a straight line to Mt. St. Helena, a sacred place and a portal for the dead, from where the spirits of the dead can depart on their journey to the other world.
The dead could be met on Mt. St. Helena, perhaps elsewhere, by dead relatives come to meet them.
Miwok James Knight narrated stories about the journey to the Land of the Dead:
A brother grieves over the death of his sister, watches at her grave until she rises on the fourth night, and follows her to the top of Mount St. Helena, where her dead relatives greet her and accompany her to the Land of the Dead in the middle of the lake (or ocean). Her brother slips past the chief . . . but is forced to go back, following a brief visit. He returns . . . after stopping again on Mount St. Helena, becoming a powerful person.16
The western path on Tomales Point is aimed southwest toward the Spirit Jumping-Off Rock, where the dead are directed down into the ocean. The Spirit Jumping-Off Rock was described by medicine man Tom Smith: “A place of rock about 2 feet long marks the spot where the dead jump into the ocean. They go down there. There is a road back of the breakers.”17
Sighting toward Point Reyes, the spirits follow a straight line behind the breaking surf along Point Reyes Beach. The road leads past lands end at Point Reyes, where a trail of milky foam then leads them to the Farallons. Thalman wrote, “the dead followed a line of foam from Point Reyes, out to the Creator.”18
The path to the Land of the Dead can apparently be two way, with some spirits going and returning.
When a person dies his Wal'-le or Ghost goes to Hel'-wah the West, crossing the great ocean to Oo-tā-yo’-me, the Village of the Dead. In making this long journey it follows hinnan mooka, the path of the Wind. Sometimes Ghosts come back and dance in the roundhouse; sometimes people hear them dancing inside but never see them.19
The Coast Miwok present when Sir Francis Drake arrived in 1579 in what is now regarded as Drake's Bay at Point Reyes may have thought Drake and his company were returned dead and treated them ritually:
Kroeber, Heizer, and others have suggested that the Tamal perceived the English as returned spirits or ghosts of dead ancestors . . . Kroeber wrote . . . "The simplest explanation is that the Indians regarded the whites as the returned dead."20
Heizer also suggested this was partially due to the "Tamal association of Point Reyes with the realm of the dead."21
The rock lines are surrounded by an area with other stones and mounds, where Janes observed celestial markers and constellar mapping. In particular, he noted the pattern of the constellation known as Cassiopeia and its adjacent stars.22
Ground figure of Cassiopeia. Source: MIAMO Archaeology, http://www.ancientlines.com/tomales-point/
Sky map of constellation Cassiopeia. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org
In geomorphic theophanies, ground figures on the earth are often direct or mirror images of the spirit beings in the night sky, copying the pattern of stars seen in the constellation or mirroring them.
The coordination between earth and sky was believed among the Lakota Sioux to provide for a connection and an energetic exchange with the constellations.23 This is very likely true for the ground figure at Tomales Point among the Miwok.
Mt. St. Helena has five peaks arranged in an M pattern.24 The M pattern of the five peaks represents this same constellation.
A topographic map of Mt. St. Helena, with red circles at peaks.
Mt. St. Helena was known as chitch’-ahpiɁs, evidently “obsidian-blade mountain,"25 and also as omótok lúpu, "big rock."26 The mountain was a source of obsidian for the Coast Miwok and other tribes.
There is a Coast Miwok legend that Coyote arranged the killing of Mt. St. Helena through the killing of Obsidian Old Man, by Coyote’s grandsons, the Elk brothers.27 Ironically, the tule elk walk Tomales Point and the ground figure there now.
Many cosmologies around the world regard this constellation as a female, a mother goddess from whose breasts the "milk" of the Milky Way appears to flow. Schedar, one of its stars, means "breast" in Arabic.28
The Milky Way is a known path of the dead in many Native American cultures.29
Cassiopeia is a circumpolar constellation, visible in most of the Northern Hemisphere year round,30 so available to those standing at Tomales Point on a clear night.
At lands end at Point Reyes, with the moonlight on the foam and the Milky Way overhead, the path was clear. The Coast Miwok dead had an ocean of stars beneath their feet and an ocean of stars above them.
There are also indications that the Coast Miwok were separated from traditional territories—now in Napa County—in the past,31 and thus also separated from Mt. St. Helena. The “death” of the mountain in their cosmology may have recorded historical events where the Miwok moved away and surrendered access.
The 6-to-10-degree difference in angle of the eastern rock line on Tomales Point may reflect another separation--Tomales Point is on the western side of the San Andreas fault line, on the Pacific Plate, which is slipping slowly northwest like the bow of a ship. The Farallons are also on the Pacific Plate, moving northwest as well. That slippage would change the angle of the path from Mt. St. Helena to Tomales Point over a long period of time. It is possible that the two lines were originally one, joined without an angle. In order to correct the path for the spirits, the eastern line could subsequently have been moved.
Like the Ohlone West Berkeley/Farallon Islands mortuary complex, the details of the Point Reyes/Farallon Islands mortuary complex hold great depths of traditional knowledge and understanding of their world.
They must be protected for future generations.
Point Reyes, West Berkeley Shellmound, and the Farallon Islands are all presently threatened with damage and destruction.
The Farallons are facing a proposal by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for a 1.5 ton poison drop to kill rodents that can cause irreparable harm to marine sanctuary areas, affecting fish, birds, and other wildlife. Many more California tribes, beyond the Ohlone and Coast Miwok, will be affected by the proposed poison drop at the Farallon Islands as the rodenticide will migrate into food chains up and down the coast.
Point Reyes is facing continued archaeological site degradation and environmental damage from commercial grazing leases. The restored tule elk population there are facing extermination. The National Park Service has not followed through on their 2008 nomination of an Indigenous Archaeological District there to the National Register of Historic Places. Instead, in 2013, they nominated the Drakes Bay Historic and Archaeological District, which was approved. In 2015, they withdrew the Indigenous Archaeological District and replaced it with an Historic Dairy Ranching District, also approved.
The West Berkeley Shellmound was declared a historic landmark by the City of Berkeley in 2000. It is currently slated for destruction by excavation and construction of a commercial and residential building, following a court decision in favor of developers, now under appeal. In 2020, the National Trust for Historic Preservation nominated the site as one of the most endangered historic places in the U.S. on their annual list.
Consultation with tribes is required at the state and federal levels with the government agencies involved, including U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, and the California Coastal Commission. It should take place with all tribes impacted by their actions.
Our Mother Earth is incalculably old. These sacred American places are thousands upon thousands of years old, peers to places like Stonehenge, reminders of ancient Amaruka. They are all worthy of respect and preservation.
1. Greg Sarris, in Brennan 2015, 205-214.
2. Kimmey 2014.
3. Deloria 1998, 251.
4. MIAMO Archaeology
6. Tom Smith, in Collier and Thalman 2003, 432-433.
7. Kelly 1978, 30-31.
8. Merriam 1920.
9. Maria Copa, in Collier and Thalman 2003, 450.
10. Tom Smith, in Collier and Thalman 2003, 453.
11. Wing, Iida, and Wearing 2015, Abstract.
12. DeRooy and Livingston 2008, 12.
13. Kimmey 2014.
14. Janes, citing Gardner 2007.
15. Janes, citing Wing, et als., 2015.
16. Callaghan 2000, 335.
17. Tom Smith, in Collier and Thalman 2003, 450.
19. Merriam 1910, 217, in Russell 2011, 53.
20. Russell 2011, 59-60
21. Ibid., 60.
22. Janes, n.d.
23. Goodman 1992, 17.
25. Collier and Thalman 2003, 6.
26. Kelly 1978, 32.
27. Ibid., 32-33.
29. Gibbon 1972, 237.
31. Johnson 2006.
Find out more:
Brennan, Summer. 2015. The Oyster War: The True Story of a Small Farm, Big Politics, and the Future of Wilderness in America. Berkeley, California: Counterpoint.
Callaghan, Catherine, introduction, and James Knight, narrator. “The Dead People’s Home.” In Luthin, Herbert W., ed. 2000. Surviving through the Days: Translations of Native California Stories and Songs. Berkeley, California: University of California Press. Accessed June 19, 2021. http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/kt1r29q2ct/
Collier, Mary E. T., and Sylvia B. Thalman, comps. and eds. 2003. Interviews with Tom Smith & Maria Copa: Isabel Kelly’s Ethnographic Notes on the Coast Miwok Indians of Marin and Southern Sonoma Counties, California. San Rafael, California: Miwok Archeological Preserve of Marin.
Deloria, Jr., Vine. 1998. “Comfortable Fictions and the Struggle for Turf: An Essay Review of The Invented Indian: Cultural Fictions and Government Policies.” In Mihesuah, Devon A., ed., 1998. Natives and Academics: Researching and Writing about American Indians. Lincoln, Nebraska: Univ. of Nebraska Press.
DeRooy, Carola, and Dewey Livingston. 2008. Images of America, Point Reyes Peninsula: Olema, Point Reyes Station, and Inverness. Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing.
Gardner, Gavin. 2007. A Cultural Resources Study of the Spirit Jumping Off Rocks Site, Point Reyes National Seashore California. Rohnert Park, California: Anthropological Studies Center, Sonoma State University.
Gibbon, William B. "Asiatic Parallels in North American Star Lore: Milky Way, Pleiades, Orion." The Journal of American Folklore 85, no. 337 (1972): 236-47. Accessed June 26, 2021. https://www.jstor.org/stable/539498
Goodman, Ronald. 1992. Lakota Star Knowledge: Studies in Lakota Stellar Theology. Mission, South Dakota: Sinte Gleska University.
Janes, Stephen D. “A New Hypothesis for the Origin and Function of the Stone Lines Known as the Spirit Jumping-Off Rocks, Tomales Point, Marin County, California.” MIAMO Archaeology. Accessed June 19, 2021. http://www.ancientlines.com/tomales-point/
Johnson, John R. 2006. “On the Ethnolinguistic Identity of the Napa Tribe: The Implications of Chief Constancio Occaye’s Narratives as Recorded by Lorenzo G. Yates.” Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology 26, no. 2: 193-204: 2. Accessed June 23, 2021. https://escholarship.org/uc/item/3k52g07t
Kelly, Isabel. 1978. “Some Coast Miwok Tales.” The Journal of California Anthropology 5, no. 1: 21-41. Accessed June 21, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25748366
Kimmey, Samantha. 2014. “Mystery Rocks Draw Scholarly Investigation.” Point Reyes Light. July 24. Accessed June 21, 2021. https://www.ptreyeslight.com/article/mystery-rocks-draw-scholarly-investigation
Merriam, C. Hart. 1920. “Indian Names in the Tamalpais Region,” Mill Valley Record, 21, no. 52: 1. 28 February. Accessed June 24, 2021. https://cdnc.ucr.edu/?a=d&d=MVR19200188.8.131.52&e=-------en--20--1--txt-txIN--------1
MIAMO Archaeology. “Tomales Mounds a Message from Alpha Centari.” Accessed June 24, 2021. http://www.ancientlines.com/tomales-point/
Russell, Matthew Alan. 2011. Encounters at tamál-húye: An Archaeology of Intercultural Engagement in Sixteenth-Century Northern California. Ph.D. diss., University of California, Berkeley. https://digitalassets.lib.berkeley.edu/etd/ucb/text/Russell_berkeley_0028E_11555.pdf
Thalman, Sylvia B. 2006. “The Marshall Coast Miwok Cemetery.” Rancho Bodega Historical Society. Bodega Bay, California. Accessed June 19, 2021. http://www.ranchobodega.org/Miwok_Cemetery.pdf
Wing, Michael R., Kate Iida, and Emily Wearing. 2015. “Stone-by-Stone Metrics Shed New Light on a Unique Stone Alignment at the Point Reyes National Seashore, Marin County, Alta California.” Accessed June 19, 2021. California Archaeology 7, no. 2, 245-264. https:// doi.org/10.1080/1947461X.2015.1108565