Knowing the names of the trees always makes me feel more connected to a place, it’s like making new friends. But knowing the Indigenous names — the original names — of a few common California trees has been groundbreaking for me. I’ll never look or think of them the same way.
We’ll get into our language lesson and introduce our speaker in a minute. Sit tight, you’ll soon be able to practice these tree names on your own. But let’s start with some historical and cultural background to put what you’re about to hear and learn in context.
You won’t be surprised to hear that the Bay Area has always been a popular place to live. In fact, archeological remains dating from before European contact indicate that this landscape was once one of the most densely populated areas in all of North America. The social, political, economic, religious and linguistic heritage of this place is deeply diverse and profound. And Indigenous communities from California remain to varying degrees — holding onto their vibrant, dynamic heritages.
If you’re new to the state’s history, you might not know that all of the Native communities in California today are survivors of more than two centuries of upheaval, oppression and outright genocide. Their traumatic history is a painful reality that continues to reverberate to this day and is something we must all work to better understand. Again, I’m sharing all of this as it’s important to place what you’re about to hear and learn in its rightful context — an ancient language that has been pushed to the very brink of extinction.
While we know that many Indigenous tribes lived throughout our region, today we are familiar with at least four distinct, contemporary Native communities within POST’s working area (San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties): the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, the Tamien Nation, the Ramaytush Ohlone and the Muwekma Ohlone. Of the various languages spoken by these communities, the Mutsun language is considered one of the best documented and preserved. We’ve partnered with the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band to bring you the Mutsun names of several of our favorite California trees. It’s one way to celebrate the rich culture of California’s Native peoples.
Ready to give it a try?
yuukis — (Coast Live Oak)
The acorns from these trees — as well as many other native oak trees — were a staple food for the Indigenous people of California for millennia. Many tribes still collect acorns today as a way of finding continuity with their past and with ancestral territories. Find botanical information here.
sokkochi — (Bay Laurel)
The green, unripe fruit from this native tree resembles a miniature avocado and turns a dark purple once ripened. Tribes across California relish this common fruit, each with their own preferred method of preparation; some like it raw, others boiled, roasted or dried. Find botanical information here.
tcuttus — (Manzanita)
The berries from this hard-wooded native resemble tiny apples (“manzanita” is Spanish for “tiny apple”), which the state’s Indigenous communities would harvest and make into cider. Fire was used to sustain this crop, helping to maintain a good distance between plants and ensure a strong yield. Find botanical information here.
sirak — (Hazelnut)
Another favorite food among California’s Native peoples, hazelnuts were picked by the basketful and eaten raw or roasted. The tree had many other uses such as basketry and fishing as well as rope and arrow making. Find botanical information here.
chatt’a — (Buckeye)
This tree’s bark was used by Native Californians to treat toothaches and as a poultice for snake bites. The large seeds were also harvested for food when acorns weren’t available, though they required extensive leaching of toxins and tannins before they could be safely consumed. Find botanical information here.
yuukun — (Madrone)
Nicknamed the “refrigerator tree” — if you place your hand on the bare trunk, you’ll note how cool this tree feels. Native people used the leaves from this tree to treat burns and stomach ailments, and the berries were eaten in small quantities or steamed, dried and stored for future uses. Find botanical information here.
hop — (Coast Redwood)
The bark and root fibers of this coastal giant made an ideal material for basket-making. The tribes in the northern corners of the state also used this tree to build homes, sweathouses, canoes and furniture. It was and is an integral part of the practical and spiritual lives of many tribes along the coast. Find botanical information here.
We hope you enjoyed learning a few of the Mutsun names for our local trees. We couldn’t have shared this knowledge without our friends at the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, and we look forward to the continued revitalization of their ancestral language.
Want more? Read long-time conservation practitioner Peter Forbes’ recent article “Full Moon Rising: Centering Indigenous Voices for the Regeneration of Conservation.” As he shares, there’s a new conservation movement being born — one we at POST are excited to be a small part of.
Natalie Pineida is a member of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band and one of the longest serving employees of the Amah Mutsun Land Trust’s Native Stewardship Corps, an ecological restoration crew made up exclusively of tribal members. Core to her team’s mission is the conservation and restoration of the land within traditional tribal territories. Her crew is frequently contracted for work within POST-protected San Vicente Redwoods. In addition to these responsibilities, Natalie is also an integral contributor to the revitalization of the Mutsun language.
The land in POST’s working area has been home to many distinct communities of Native people since time immemorial. We work to conserve and care for these lands — the ancestral territory of at least four contemporary Indigenous communities — the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, Muwekma Ohlone, Ramaytush Ohlone and Tamien Nation. These communities have survived centuries of oppression and displacement, and are the past, present and future caretakers of this land.
Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST) protects open space on the Peninsula and in the South Bay for the benefit of all. Since its founding in 1977, POST has been responsible for saving more than 87,000 acres as permanently protected land in San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties. Learn more