Coming to California: An Essay in Seven Parts on the History of this Land, Part 1
Diana Gadaldi is an international spouse of a postdoc at UC Berkeley. Since her professional background is in the arts, she decided to conduct an interview with Louise Pubols, Senior Curator of History at the Oakland Museum of California.
On April 3th, 2013, I had the opportunity to visit the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA) and the honor to interview Louise Pubols, Senior Curator of History, and René de Guzman, Senior Curator of Art. While my article on the Gallery of California Art is still in progress, the meeting with curator Louise Pubols already resulted in an essay in six parts, as it was a novel in six episodes. From today on, and during the next 5 weeks, I’ll be pleasured to tell you the history of the gorgeous state we’re temporarily living in–California–each time through the unique, exciting story of someone who once moved to this area seeking new opportunities, just like we did.
At OMCA, visitors are used to look at California’s social, artistic and environmental heritage from an ever-changing and many-sided perspective, that is, through the eyes of the people who came here over time, from the Native Americans to nowadays’ immigrants, expats, and globe trotters. This curatorial approach to history documentation and presentation was so groundbreaking to me that I decided to adopt it as a framework for my essay. The way I’ll tell you about California history will be telling you about the transition story of its ever coming and going visitors, and how they finally integrated in the local social and cultural environment.
Let’s start by those who first lived in California, before all the other people came…
1. The Ohlone People
According to most archeologists, the Ohlone people arrived in present-day California about 1,500 years ago. These Native American people inhabited the area along the coast from the San Francisco Bay through the Monterey Bay to the lower Salinas Valley. They lived by hunting, fishing, and gathering.
What distinguished the Ohlone from all the other peoples who lived in Northern America at that time was their unique and sophisticated basket-weaving tradition. Made out of sedge, a base material that was very abundant in this area, these baskets had such a fine weave that they could be used even for transporting water and cooking. Unfortunately, very few of them have survived to our day, due to the impact of the missionaries and of the Ohlone tradition of burning the possessions of the deceased. While most of the remaining pieces are preserved in European museums, OMCA today displays a contemporary and original Ohlone woven basket made by Linda Yamane, an acclaimed artist and living descendant of the Rumsien Ohlone, the Ohlone people who inhabited what is today the Monterey Bay Area.
Linda Yamane spent over 20 years of her life studying the history of her ancestors and researching the few remaining Ohlone baskets. The colorful and highly decorated basket that she made for OMCA most likely resembles the kind of basket that was used during ritual ceremonies rather than a common storage container. This fully handcrafted artwork is made from 20,000 stitches, several thousand feathers, and 1,200 Olivella shell beads. It took her about two years to prepare the materials and to create it. Today, this basket is featured in OMCA’s first section, called “Before The Other People Came”, which highlights the history of California’s Native peoples before the Spanish arrival in the 16th century. Beside other ancient and contemporary objects, the collection includes video interviews with contemporary Native Californians, just like Linda Yamane, whose oral accounts were the primary source of information and inspiration for this section.
Being involved in this continuous dialog between the past and the present–which reveals OMCA’s recognition for human sensitivity and intuition, rather than only for hard historical evidence–was for me a unique experience and a very exciting way to learn more about what is probably the most mysterious period of California history.
In the next episode: The arrival of the Spanish and the unusual encounter of the European and the Native American civilization on the southeast shore of the Monterey Bay.