Coast Miwoks – a brief history

If you’ve seen the Ewoks, the furry creatures in Star Wars living in a redwood forest like much of the Coast Miwoks‘ home territory, you’ve seen an insulting caricature of non-Indian perceptions of Coast Miwoks.  The truth is very different.  While the Coast Miwoks seem to have been very welcoming of the newcomers from the sea, they resisted oppression by the newcomers.  Marin County itself, the heart of traditional Coast Miwok territory, is named after a Coast Miwok rebel who was baptized in Mission Dolores as Marino and is known to us today as Chief Marin.   Another rebel, the insurgent leader Pomponio, who terrorized missions up and down the coast, was a Coast Miwok born near today’s village of Bolinas.  He was executed by the Mexicans in 1824.

The Coast Miwoks’ first contact with Europeans came in 1579, when Sir Francis Drake landed in today’s Marin County.  After that, 200 years would pass before they encountered any more Europeans, in the decade after the Spanish established Mission Dolores in today’s San Francisco in 1776.  Like other coastal California Indians, Coast Miwoks underwent three successive ways of colonization.

The first wave was the Spanish.  Franciscan priests, the liberals of the day, wanted to avoid the calamitous treatment of Indian people in South and Central America and created what they believed would be a humane model, in which California Indians would be placed in missions where they would be taught the skills that would make them into virtual Europeans.  The intent was to give them back their land after they had learned to farm it and live like Europeans, but it never worked out that way.

The Mexican overthrow of Spanish colonial rule in the 1820s introduced a second wave of colonization.  Any pretense of giving land back to its original Native occupants was abandoned, but Native people appear to have been at least treated with some respect, though Coast Miwoks experienced the Mexican governor reneging on an agreement to give them title to land in the Nicasio area.

This ended when California became a state.  Mexicans and Indians alike ended up at the bottom of the social and economic scale (joined there by the Chinese a few decades later).  The one Coast Miwok who managed to get a land grant from the Mexicans, Camilo Ynitia in Novato, lost most of it when the newly formed Marin County assessed it at a higher price than he could pay the taxes for.  He came out OK though.  He sold it to the tax assessor for over $5,000.   Part of his land today, including the remains of his adobe home, is Olompali State Park.

Like most California Indians, the next 100 years were a difficult period.  It wasn’t until the last decades of the 20th century that Coast Miwoks began reorganizing and reestablishing their tribal identity.  They achieved success in 2000, and today are a federally recognized tribe, the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria.  The tribe’s website is

About Erik Gordon Bainbridge

Erik Gordon Bainbridge lives in Northern California and writes about virtual worlds under his avatar name Apollo Manga. He is on the board of directors of the Miwok Archeological Preserve of Marin and on the Board of Trustees of
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