Tribal history

Coast Miwok traditional territory

Native Americans have called Marin County home for more than 10,000 years before the arrival of European colonists. Marin County is within the traditional territory of the Coast Miwok. This area is along the coast:

  • Inland between Duncan’s Point (north of Bodega Bay) southward to San Pablo Bay (in Marin and Sonoma counties)
  • Extending as far inland as the Napa River (in Napa and Solano counties)

Territorial boundaries were based on the presence of multi-village regional communities. Coast Miwok villages were mainly located near watercourses. They were not only along the coast or bay shore, but also near perennial rivers, creeks, and springs as well.

Coast Miwok political organization revolved around village life. Villages were composed of various structures, including:

  • Residential dwellings
  • Sweathouses
  • Dance houses

Residential dwellings were conical structures. They were framed with willow or driftwood and thatched with bunches of grass, tule reeds, or rushes. Each house held from six to 10 people. It had a central stone hearth and a smoke hole in the roof.

Sweat lodges and dance houses were round semi-subterranean structures. They were recessed 4 to 5 feet into the earth. A framework of poles supported a brush, grass, and earth covering.

Coast Miwok resource management

Coast Miwok harvested and managed the terrestrial and aquatic resources of their local environments for:

  • Daily subsistence
  • Social and ceremonial purposes

They used management techniques to mimic natural disturbances, such as flooding and lightning fire. These were done in controlled ways to achieve specific ecological effects.

Tule reeds were managed through a combination of:

  • Stem cutting
  • Rhizome digging
  • Burning

These techniques allowed the tule reed’s perennial rootstock to put off succulent shoots for harvesting year after year. Clearing out older, dying growth benefitted wildlife habitat and long-term human use.

Similarly, California Native Americans managed trees such as willows for human use. Their management techniques promoted flexibility and straight growth with minimal lateral branching. These practices:

  • Improved forest structural complexity
  • Promoted healthy nutrient cycling
  • Stimulated seed germination rates
  • Promoted biodiversity

They also controlled diseases and harmful insects, which we see devastating many of our native tree species today.

They conducted periodic managed burns to encourage the growth of:

  • Native annual grasses (now mostly absent in California)
  • Herbaceous perennials

This created a healthy understory with:

  • Permeable and fertile soils
  • Limited surface erosion
  • High rates of nutrient cycling
  • Food and habitat provision for animal species

California Native Americans’ ecological management encouraged straight, smooth, and flexible plant growth in streams. This minimized the hydraulic impacts plant growth had on the flood carrying capacity of creeks.

When Europeans first saw the bountiful natural resources of California, they did not understand the critical and active role Native peoples played in maintaining that abundance and high level of ecological function.

European colonization

European explorers first visited the Bay Area between the late sixteenth and late eighteenth centuries. The Spanish began to establish missions in San Francisco in 1776, San Jose in 1796, and San Rafael in 1817. The Coast Miwok people and their lifeways became severely disrupted by European colonists.

Between 1783 and 1834, Spanish mission records state that 2,828 Coast Miwok people were baptized. Some came to the missions on their own free will, but many were forcibly brought to them. They were used by the Spanish for labor to construct mission buildings and farm their fields.

By 1817, Mission San Rafael was established. Many Native American people, particularly in Marin County, were moved to this mission until it was closed in 1822.

California missions were secularized in 1833. Many Coast Miwok people were conscripted for labor on rancherias by Mexican land grant owners.

At this time, much of Coast Miwok territory was left depopulated except for a few groups of unbaptized Coast Miwok people. They were able to travel northwest to Tomales or Bodega Bay or to join other communities outside of Coast Miwok territory.

Despite coming from very different areas across the greater Bay Area, many Coast Miwok people in the missions created new relationships with one another. They also created relationships with people from these neighboring tribes:

  • Ohlone
  • Pomo
  • Patwin
  • Wappo

Together they navigated the settler colonial politics and institutions around them.

Coast Miwok and Marin County today

Today, Coast Miwok communities persist in modern Marin County. One of these communities is the state and federally recognized tribe of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria (FIGR). They formed as a federation between Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo tribal members.

The federal government signed legislation restoring federal recognition to FIGR in 2000. This also provided for the restoration of land to the Tribe.

Members of FIGR are active in preserving:

  • Native plant landscapes
  • Plant and animal resources
  • Archaeological resources
  • Places of important tribal significance to their heritage throughout Marin County and southern Sonoma County


Anderson, M. Kat.  2005. Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources.

Barrett, Samuel.  1908.  The Ethnography of the Pomo and Neighboring Indians. University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology 6(1):1-332.

Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria (FIGR).  2022.  “History.” Last accessed July 19, 2022.

Kelly, I.  1978.  “Coast Miwok.” in Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 8: California, edited by Heizer (vol. ed.) and W.C. Sturtevant (gen. ed.), 414-425, Smithsonian Institution Washington D.C.

Milliken, R.  2009.  Ethnohistory and Ethnography of the Coast Miwok and their Neighbors, 1783-1840. Prepared by Archaeological/Historical Consultants. On file at the Northwest Information Center, Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park, California.

Nelson, Peter.  2016.  Tolay Cultural Affiliation and Interpretive Document. Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria and University of California, Berkley, Department of Anthropology.

Close window