© 2024 KALW 91.7 FM Bay Area
KALW Public Media / 91.7 FM Bay Area
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Exploring Sausal Creek: Ancient Redwoods And Ohlone Roots

Cinque Mubarak
Muwekma Ohlone Vincent Medina holding digging sticks.

Every time you pass through East Oakland and head towards downtown, you cross over Sausal Creek. But chances are you haven’t seen it because it’s been largely fenced off, paved over, or piped underground But starting at Dimond Park you can follow Sausal Creek undisturbed all the way up to Highway 13. 

KALW listener Jason Wallach wanted to know, what are the origins of the hiking trail that runs along Sausal Creek, and did it exist in pre-contact times, before Europeans arrived?

I’m a 20-year-resident of the Laurel District and one of the folks who drives Stan Dodson crazy. Dodson is founder and director of Oakland Trails. 

Dodson wants to get Oakland residents like me off their butts and onto the 500 miles of trails that wind through the East Bay hills.

Our organization Is an all volunteer nonprofit,” says Dodson. “Our mission is to promote, maintain, enhance Oakland’s parks and trails.”

Dodson is lightly bearded and wears a beanie, cargo shorts, and a daypack. His well worn boots mark a hiker who really does tread these trails daily. He has hiked or biked every single day, rain or shine, for the past 10 years. Even though his morning began at 3 a.m. as manager of a nearby bakery, he’s still full of life this afternoon. 

When our group meets up at the El Centro Avenue trailhead, Dodson tells us, “Dimond Park is 14 acres of kind of regular city park — picnic areas, playground and a rec center and a swimming pool and tennis courts, all those things. But as soon as you cross the street and set foot here in Dimond Canyon, it’s pure open space.”

Dodson leads hikes for school kids, seniors, and anyone else who’s interested. He works with hikers, bikers, community groups, and city officials to improve the Sausal Creek watershed and encourage its use.

Dodson keeps a brisk pace as we begin our walk, pointing out examples of Oakland Trails’ work, like the blue-tiled mosaic markers set in the ground at the canyon’s trailheads and intersections. “All the mosaics got a big arrow and nameplate,” he says. “So this one Dimond Canyon Trail, and it’s pointing straight up the trail here into the woods.

He points to a bed of rock recently laid to beat back erosion, next to a bank of native plant seedlings.

We walk over a simple wooden footbridge he helped build to span a small seasonal stream. We have the trail largely to ourselves, as we fade further and further away from the sounds of the city. 

Suddenly, Dodson veers off the path, shouting out, “We’re going to have to do a little rock hopping. Are you guys OK with that?” 

Splashing to the other side of Sausal Creek, we follow Old Canyon Trail which once brought San Francisco weekenders by horse and buggy into the hills to hunt and fish in the late 1800’s. Now houses in the Oakmore neighborhood peek over tree tops and the Leimert Bridge. Below is a deep ravine carved out by the twists and turns of Sausal Creek over the centuries. 

The forest is a mix of native oak, bay and buckeye trees, alongside nonnative monterey, cypress, and eucalyptus until we approach Highway 13. “Here’s kind of our first glimpse of redwoods,” Dodson says with reverence. “Oakland has an ancient redwood forest.”

The ancestors of these redwoods fueled gold rush era construction, much of which built the sleepy settlement of Yerba Buena into boomtown San Francisco. “Literally they cut down all the redwoods in the Oakland hills,” he tells us, “except Old Survivor which still stands in Leona Heights Park.”

Ships in San Francisco Bay set their bearings by the giant redwoods that once covered the Oakland hills. 

We pass under Hwy 13 and walk a short distance to where the trails fan out through the Oakland hills and examine a large map of the Sausal Creek watershed at the kiosk just off the paved road. As Dodson explains, “This is a really popular trailhead to Joaquin Miller Park, we’re at the lowest part of Joaquin Miller at Palos Colorados trail.”

The Palos Colorados marks the end of my hike with Stan Dodson. It’s also a juncture for this story because - as I learned later from an Ohlone Indian tribal council member at a cafe near the University of California in Berkeley — it was near the Palos Colorados that some of the East Bay’s first people made their homes for centuries. 

Vincent Medina introduces himself in Chochenyo, the ancient language of his ancestors: “I’m Vincent Medina and I’m a member and I’m a council member for the Muwekma tribe of the San Francisco Bay Area.”

Medina, along with many descendants of Chochenyo-speaking Ohlone in the East and South Bay, re-established themselves as the Muwekma Ohlone tribe about 30 years ago

By the early 1800’s, as Medina explains,“The Spanish recorded when they forced our people into the missions that those old villages were in the Palos Colorados, the redwoods of the Oakland hills. Some of those redwoods were some of the largest in the entire world before they were cut down. Those redwoods aren’t too far from Sausal Creek where many of our villages were in those old days.”

Medina describes the pre-colonized East Bay as a series of independent sovereign nations which settled seasonally along the creeks that flowed into the Bay. “The area of Sausal Creek,” he says, “is most likely a tribe called Huchiun — spelled Xuc, with a little wedge over the c, there’s a ‘ch’ sound — yun that’s how we spell it in our language.”

The Huchiun Ohlone stretched along the East Bay hills to the bay shore, from around El Cerrito to near Sausal Creek. According to Medina, “It’s likely that Sausal Creek could be right there in the Huchiun area. It’s also likely it could be in the Jalquin area as it’s kind of in a transitional space. Either way the villages are Chochenyo speaking villages.

Medina walks me back along Sausal Creek as it might have looked 250 years ago: “I’m sure people saw that creek as being alive because creeks are living entities,” he says. “They move around, they’re not stagnant, they have life.” 

He describes living in the oak forest below: “You’re going up during gathering times, to get those seed plants, chia, red maid seeds, tarweed. You’re gonna go and gather acorns there, hunt venison, be able to have those controlled burns so that you’re being able to manage the environment in a way that’s respectful.”

Medina explains that villages are settled but move fluidly with the seasons. Upstream, people fish for salmon and steelhead. The waters flow by groves of willow — ‘sausal’ in Spanish — and meander through marshes filled with tules, waterfowl, and sea lions.

“People would have sailed down on tule boats to the bayshore,” he says. “That’s how a lot of our villages were connected, through creeks and people on our tule boats going down to those other villages along those waterways or into the bayshore.”

This time of abundance ended shortly after the Spanish built Mission San Jose near Fremont in 1797, according to local historian Dennis Evanosky who has written several books on East Bay history. We met on a breezy morning at the confluence of Shepherd and Palo Seco creeks which forms Sausal Creek.

“In 1810,” he tells me, “they wrote down in their paperwork, the Native Americans, the heathen, the heathen they called them … ‘the heathen’ were gone. Three things happened to ‘the heathen’ — they were either pulled in by the Spanish and christianized or they died of disease or they fled.” 

Such statements about the alleged disappearance of the area’s first people visibly rankle Vincent Medina who responded later, “That’s a dangerous myth that existed and still continues to exist that’s very harmful and still has real life repercussions.”

Although many were killed or converted, the East Bay Ohlone survived the violent waves of European settlers for over a century. By the 1860’s, the remaining Ohlone had secured a land base and, by 1913, achieved tribal recognition for their rancheria near Sunol.

“Close to Sausal Creek is where my grandparents were married,” Medina explains further. “Over on MacArthur where they had their first house. Not too far from where my grandfather was born over at Highland Hospital. There’s all these overlapping connections that are rooted in the ancient but are modern as well, contemporary also and it’s because no generation of our folks have ever left this space. Everybody, everybody in my family has been here in the East Bay since those ancient times to today. There’s been no break.”

Back in the 1920’s, an influential professor named Alfred Kroeber made a determination that greatly impacted the Ohlone people. Vincent Medina cites Kroeber’s statement almost verbatim when he tells me, “he’s this anthropologist at UC Berkeley — he wrote down in “The Handbook of California Indians” that the Ohlone people, called Costanoans during that time, for all practical purposes, are extinct.”

Within two years of Kroeber’s declaration, the Ohlone had lost tribal recognition from the federal government. As a result, they not only lost their land, but the right to the remains of their ancestors. 

Bones of Ohlone people are among the thousands currently in storage at UC Berkeley. 

Almost a century later, Medina hasn’t forgotten about those bones. He’s set up shop right across the street from the university, and is rebuilding culture and traditions at Cafe Ohlone.

As we begin our interview on a rainy spring evening, I get to sample a cup of Ohlone tea and a taste of chia pudding with berries. “This is a nettle tea with bergamat and agave,” says the server, fellow cafe proprieter and Rumsen Ohlone, Louis Trevino.

The Cafe works with elders to revive ancient recipes. They’ve also scoured thousands of pages drawn from archival recordings made on wax cylinders in the 1930’. 

As Medina tells me, They literally give us recipes for how to make these foods. They give us the language for the food, how to pronounce the words, how to revive our languages. How to be able to have all these things back in the world a second time. What we’re doing right now is we see ourselves doing this work but doing what our people have always done.”

The cafe is, first, a place for Ohlone to gather, a place to retrieve language, stories, songs, dances and foods. But it’s also for the rest of us.

“We want to be able to tell our story,” says Medina. “When people can eat our food and sit down and see our culture, they see how much we have and it helps them understand what the true identity of this space really is. We hope these messages leave the table and go into the streets around us, where people stand up for our community, stand up against those misconceptions when they hear them, and work for a better future that includes Ohlone people, central here in our home.

Under the redwoods again, back on the Dimond Canyon trail — this time by myself — I notice colorful flags where native plants are taking root near Sausal Creek. I think of the work of Oakland Trails and like-minded, largely volunteer efforts to keep these sanctuaries from the city alive for everyone to enjoy. 

Returning to listener Jason Wallach’s original question, local historian Dennis Evanosky, lacking hard evidence, is hesitant to conclude there were settlements right along Sausal Creek. But he admits: “The answer is probably, it makes sense … they were living, establishing themselves in places they consider important. You gotta find out from current Native Americans, what does their tradition say?”

Ohlone tradition says that these trails existed from the time the first people lived and moved along Sausal Creek, a time when people belonged to the land rather than owning it, when Sausal Creek itself was a living, breathing being. 

For the Muwekma Ohlone it will always be home. In the words of Vincent Medina: “Our people still live right here where we’ve always lived. We’ve never given up our obligations to this land. We love this place more than words can ever describe.”

This story was made as a collaboration between Oakland Voices and KALW as part of our projects Hey Area and Sights & Sounds of East Oakland.

Crosscurrents HistoryOaklandHey Area