Kehoe Beach, Point Reyes, Wikimedia Commons, 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 their shining path across the waters. They will 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. So is Hummingbird, who 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 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.
Tomales Point at 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 a buried circle.2
It is also situated in 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.3
The right side of Coyote is “off the coast where the sun sets,”4 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
The migration west was documented for the Coast Miwok and other tribes:
The view that the Coast Miwok-speaking deceased went west was also documented during the historic period. In 1814, Duran and Fortuny wrote: “[t]hey [Coast Miwok] relate that their departed relatives live in other lands or on the other side of the sea “ . . . The widespread central California belief in the land of the dead being located toward the west, across the ocean, makes it probable the Tamal shared this belief, particularly because Point Reyes, the stepping-off place for the dead, was within their tribal territory.5
Hummingbird, a messenger who brought fire to the Miwoks,6 is also alive at Point Reyes, perhaps whispering in Coyote’s ear, too. Hummingbird Coast, kalupi-tamal, is the elongated Tomales Point,7 the beak of Hummingbird, where the paths of the dead and living cross.
The dead travel on a “cloud path”8 over land from Mt. St. Helena and elsewhere, to get to this destination; they travel on an úte-mugu, dead people’s road.9
The Miwok and Ohlone can learn the route of the úte-mugu before they die, be guided along the way, and/or have it mapped and managed for them, so they are not lost.
In many spiritual traditions, spirits are known to travel in a straight line, from point to point. Crossroads and other barriers can interrupt their paths.
Across the width of Tomales Point are two straight pathways of granitic stones, with a short distance between them. They are separated at the ridge line by the Tomales Point Trail, with the shorter line aimed to the northeast, to Mt. St. Helena, and the longer to the southwest, to the Farallon Islands. The angle of the shorter line diverges, estimated at 6 to 10 degrees, from the longer. The two lines total about 846 feet long.
The Tomales Point Trail forms a crossroads at the rock lines, potentially interrupting the spirits’ path.
Granite rock lines are crossed by Tomales Point Trail. Source: Google Earth
While Wing et al. admitted, “An oral tradition says that it was built during prehistoric times by the Coast Miwok,” they concluded, “historical and circumstantial evidence associates it with nearby ranches.”10
They argued for the rock-lines’ similarity to “New-England style stone wall construction”11 but admitted the line has "little resemblance to a New England-style stone wall.”12
They reported a claim by geologist Daniel Karner that the southwest extension of the longer rock line did not point to the Farallons, contrary to reports. However, Karner admitted, "It does point directly at Fanny Shoal and Noonday Rock, a shallow although invisible spot to the north of the Farallones.”13 In actuality, Fanny Shoal and Noonday Rock, part of Fanny Shoal, are considered part of the Farallons.14 These landmarks would also have been visible as peaks before the sea level rise between 12,000 to 7,000 years ago, not submerged.
Tomales Point rancher Mervin McDonald reported to Wing:
“I was always told the Chinese people built that wall.” We asked if he meant 19th century laborers working for hire, and he affirmed that. He said he didn’t see what use the line could have been to an early rancher. He remarked that it was “a lot of work” to build it.15
Wing et al. dismissed Miwok tradition as “not unambiguous,” and endorsed McDonald, a fifth-generation rancher with tenuous oral connections to much earlier, first-generation rancher Solomon Pierce, as contradictive:
The Miwok oral tradition is the main reason to believe the line is prehistoric, but this tradition is not unambiguous. It is also contradicted by Rancher Mervin McDonald’s oral tradition. Mr. McDonald took possession of the point only a little more than a century after Solomon Pierce did. McDonald is a fifth generation rancher. It is very likely he knew people whose grandparents had worked for Solomon Pierce.16
The Miwok oral tradition in this regard is much more substantial as evidence and should be considered.
The lines are older than most local American settlement. “The rock line is man-made and appears on an 1862 Coast Survey map.”17 It was noted to be on an 1854 survey map18 and acknowledged by historians that it “may have been constructed by ‘paleo-Indians.’”19
Janes reported, “the stone metrics data set [from Wing, et als., 2015] reveals several features that do not suggest a wall or property line.”20
There is substantial evidence that this is a mortuary site. This site also includes man-made mounds, megaliths, a celestial calendar, and a buried circle. It is very improbable that ranchers and/or Chinese laborers working for them21 would have constructed these as well as the stone lines. These paths were built and cared for by ancestors of Coast Miwok and perhaps others.
The rock paths function much like airport runways for the spirit world. It is plausible that the two lines were originally one, straight line, joined without an angle.
The current 6-to-10-degree difference in angle of the more northeastern rock line on Tomales Point may reflect fault-line slippage. Tomales Point is on the western side of the San Andreas fault, on the Pacific Plate, which is slipping slowly northwest. The Farallons are also on the Pacific Plate, moving northwest at the same rate. Over a long period of time, that slippage could have changed the angle of a straight path from Mt. St. Helena through Tomales Point and Point Reyes to the Farallon Islands. In order to correct the path for the spirits, the eastern line could subsequently have been moved.
An initial estimate range of the time lapse involved in fault slippage requiring an angle adjustment is from 104,000 to 253,000 years. A measurement of the current angle of the shorter line being off the peak at Mt. St. Helena could reveal an estimated date that the angle was adjusted.
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.22
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.”23
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.”24
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.25
The roundhouse referred to here could also refer to the buried stone circle at Tomales Point, below, likely constructed as a roundhouse.
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."26
Heizer also suggested this was partially due to the "Tamal association of Point Reyes with the realm of the dead."27
The rock lines are surrounded by an area with other stones and mounds, where there are celestial markers and constellar mapping. In particular, the pattern of the constellation known as Cassiopeia and its adjacent stars is a ground figure there, likely a topomorphic theophany.28 The ground figure of Cassiopeia has five stars in a M pattern, like the constellation.
Ground figure of Cassiopeia. Source: MIAMO Archaeology, http://www.ancientlines.com/tomales-point/
Sky map of constellation Cassiopeia. Source: Wikimedia Commons
In geomorphic and topomorphic 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 difference between geomorphic and topomorphic is scale, whether it is land or place.
The coordination between earth and sky was believed among the Lakota Sioux to provide for a connection and an energetic exchange with the constellations.29 This is very likely true for the ground figure at Tomales Point.
Among the Kumeyaay, a California tribe, Cassiopeia is seen as a racer snake, llykuushirra.30 This may hint at its representation among the Coast Miwok, where it also leans toward being an obsidian blade.
Obsidian was sourced at Mt. St. Helena by the Coast Miwok and other tribes.
The mountain has five peaks arranged in an M pattern.31 The M pattern of the five peaks also is patterned like the constellation Cassiopeia.
The mountain was known as chitch’-ahpiɁs, evidently “obsidian-blade mountain,"32 and also as omótok lúpu, "big rock."33
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.34 Ironically, the tule elk walk Tomales Point and the ground figure there now.
There are also indications that the Coast Miwok were separated from traditional territories—now in Napa County—in the past,35 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.
Many cosmologies around the world regard the constellation of Cassiopeia 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.36
The Milky Way is a known path of the dead in many Native American cultures.37
Cassiopeia is a circumpolar constellation, visible in most of the Northern Hemisphere year round,38 so it would have been visible on a clear night at Tomales Point.
At lands end at Point Reyes, with the moonlight on the foam and the Milky Way overhead, the path is clear. The dead have an ocean of stars beneath their feet and an ocean of stars above them.
There is a buried circle at the site, 30 feet in diameter, that appears to be quarried out about three feet into the bedrock, per Stephen Janes.39 It is likely a roundhouse; it is surrounded by scattered rocks that may have been supporting wall for a roof.
The megalith that Janes has named Goliath stands nine feet tall and sits on a foundation of supporting stones over a chamber beneath it. The stone’s deeply incised surface contains a petroglyph, a star formation, that capitalizes on natural fissues in the rock. The petroglyph on Goliath faces west, toward the land of the dead and the spirit world, like similar petroglyphs observed on territory of the Klamath tribe.40
The design of the petroglyph is in the style of the axis mundi found in shamanic cultures. The axis mundi represents the center of the world, a representation of the known universe around this one point, encoding the infinity of space. The axis mundi pattern has also been observed among the Chumash, a coastal tribe in California with a similar mortuary complex on the Pacific coast.41
The mortuary site at Tomales Point may have also included a grotto with an eternal fire. The Ashochimi/Wappo, a neighboring tribe to the east, related their traditions about Point Reyes as well:
In case of death the body is immediately incinerated, and the ashes flung into the air. They believe that the spirit is thus borne aloft and flies away to a grotto hard by the sea at Punta de los Reyes. In this grotto is a fire which burns without ceasing, and which no living being may behold without being instantly stricken blind. The disembodied spirit enters, hovers over and around this fire for a season, then flutters forth again and wings its flight over the ocean to the Happy Western Land.42
There are grottoes at Point Reyes. The San Andreas fault line has methane/gas vents along it that could have been lit as an eternal flame within them. It was perhaps concentrated enough to precipitate blindness, as liquified methane gas can cause blindness. (https://www.ccohs.ca/oshanswers/chemicals/chem_profiles/methane.html).
It is apparent that Tomales Point was a stopover for the dead en route to the west and that ceremonies took place there.
This place may also have something to do with the story about how Hummingbird stole fire, since Tomales Point is known to be Hummingbird’s beak. Tom Smith said, “Hummingbird went up the coast from Tomales to fetch fire. He got it right there where his breast is red";43 “kulupi [hummingbird] wanted it on his throat so that everybody would see it as he flew around. They made this fire at San Lucas.”44
San Lucas was the home of Coyote: “San Lucas, over here in Tomales, was old Coyote’s first rancheria."45 Coyote “lived at San Lucas. Wore a feather jacket; no shoes.”46 “Had a big sweathouse or dance house of his own down there.”47
I have found comparable complexes with similar details among the Chumash Indians in California, the Klamath Basin Indians, the Blackfoot/Blackfeet in Montana and Canada, and places elsewhere in North America. They are a culturally important phenomenon. These mortuary complexes are ancient traditional cultural places and sacred to Indigenous peoples.
There is well-established presence of human habitation in North and South America before 11,200 years ago. Paulette Steeves listed 111 archaeological sites in North America that are older than 11,200 years and 58 in South America.48
The 4th and 5th oldest sites on Dr. Steeves’ North American list are the Cerutti site and Calico sites in Southern California, with evidence of human activity, that date back to minimally 130,700 years and 200,000 +/- 20,000 years respectively.49 There was extensive testing to establish those dates. It is likely that more northern locations along the coast were also suitable for habitation during this extended time period. The complex at Point Reyes may be a part of those early habitation patterns in California.
The Pacific Ocean level rose and flooded the Continental Shelf, where the Farallones are situated, between 18,000 to 6,000 years ago.50 Even a conservative research estimate admits that Indigenous humans could have been in North America, along the Pacific Coast, at least 20,000 years ago,51 well before the ocean level rose. That means that during that period of time, large areas of the Continental Shelf were above water, the Farallones were more accessible, and coastal habitation was probable there, as coastal peoples stay close to ocean food sources. Evidence of habitation thus may still exist and be found there.
So it is plausible that the Point Reyes/Farallon Islands complex stands among the most ancient traditional cultural places in North America that have been identified to date, and that megalithic remains could continue to be found at the Farallones and on the Continental Shelf.
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 at least partial extermination. The National Park Service did not follow 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. 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.
Ritual costume, Kukshuy, California Coast. Kunstkamera, Russia.
1. Greg Sarris, in Brennan 2015, 205-214.
2. MIAMO Archaeology.
4. Tom Smith, in Collier and Thalman 2003, 432-433.
5. Russell 2011, 53.
6. Kelly 1978, 30-31.
7. Merriam 1920.
8. Maria Copa, in Collier and Thalman 2003, 450.
9. Tom Smith, in Collier and Thalman 2003, 453.
10. Wing, Iida, and Wearing 2015.
12. Ibid., 4.
13. Ibid., 8.
15. Wing et al., 9.
16. Ibid., 22.
17. DeRooy and Livingston 2008, 12.
18. Kimmey 2014.
19. Janes, citing Gardner 2007.
20. Janes, citing Wing et al. 2015.
21. Wing et al. 2015
22. Callaghan and Knight 2000, 335.
23. Tom Smith, in Collier and Thalman 2003, 450.
24. Thalman 2006.
25. Merriam 1910, 217, in Russell 2011, 53.
26. Russell 2011, 59-60.
27. Heizer 1947, 263, 271, 277, cited in Russell 2011, 60.
28. Janes, n.d.
29. Goodman 1992, 17.
30. Richard Pettinger Heller, “Kumeyaay Star Lore,” citing J. P. Harrington. https://richard-pettinger-heller.org/2016/08/03/kumeyaay-star-lore/
32. Collier and Thalman 2003, 6.
33. Kelly 1978, 32.
34. Ibid., 32-33
35. Johnson 2006.
37. Gibbon 1972, 237.
39. Personal communication, 2021.
40. See David 2012, 62, citing Spier 1930, 102, in a discussion about Klamath rock art: “The west-facing tendency of the rock art suggests that its creation was related to the land of the dead, since it was located in the west.” The Klamath language has been grouped with Miwok in the Penutian language family, so they may share similar cultural beliefs as well.
41. Anderson 1993, 39.
42. Powers 1877, 200.
43. Collier and Thalman 2003, 423.
44. Ibid., 435.
45. Ibid., 12.
46. Ibid., 325.
48. Steeves 2021.
49. Ibid., 200.
Find out more:
Anderson, John M. 1993. A Circle Within the Abyss. Center for Indigenous Arts and Cultures Press, n.p.i.
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.
David, Robert James. 2012. The Landscape of Klamath Basin Rock Art. Ph.D. Diss. University of California, Berkeley.
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.
Heizer, Robert F. "Francis Drake and the California Indians, 1579." University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology 42, no. 3 (1947): 251-302.
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=MVR1920018.104.22.168&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/
Powers, Stephen. 1877. Tribes of California. In Contributions to North American Ethnology, Vol. III. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.
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
Steeves, Paulette F. C. 2021.The Indigenous Paleolithic of the Western Hemisphere. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press.
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://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/1947461X.2015.1108565