Examining Acalanes’ Ahala-n Story

By Connor Faust, Helen O’ Neal, and Kylie Choi, Print Feature Editor, Online Shadow Editor, and Staff Writer

// Acalanes is an American high school, in a town with a French name, with a Spanish-Mexican mascot. California is the epitome of a mixed bucket with influences from cultures across the world. However, one often forgotten culture is the influence of the first inhabitants of Lafayette: the Saclan tribe.

   In observance of Native American Month in November, the Acalanes community celebrated the local Saclan tribe’s culture and focused on acknowledging their history on the land.

   Though people from all walks of life and cultures currently settle in Lafayette, the Saclan Tribe was once the lands’ only inhabitants. In the current day, although their culture remains less widespread, the Saclan tribe’s influence remains in the form of names and history. 

   The Saclan tribe, located in Lafayette and Walnut Creek, is one subset of the larger Bay Miwok geographic group. The Miwok territory extended from the north to Pittsburg, south to San Ramon, west to Orinda, and east to the San Joaquin River. The Miwok label also included the Tatcan, Chupcan, Julpun, Ompin, and Volcon tribes, who were located all over the Bay Area. These topographical differences impacted the development of individual tribes and unique cultures, such as that of the Saclan.

   The unique geography of Lafayette, a combination of woodlands, hills, and inland bodies of water led the Saclan tribe to make use of available resources. Foods such as acorns and fish were in abundance, and water plants provided strong water-resistant baskets.

   “[The Saclan] were hunter-gatherers… so they had a lot of animals…They used a lot of plants in their daily lives, not necessarily to eat. [They] would dry out [buckeye], they chipped little pieces off the Buckeye or they’d mash up the root nut and throw them into pools of water to stun the fish, and the fish would float to the top because there were salmon and steelhead in the creeks,” Lafayette Historical Society President Mary McCosker said.

Photo of Saclan grinding stones in Lafayette.
Courtesy Emily Haas

   Language further differentiated individual tribes within the Miwok geographic group. Although linguistically the Bay Miwok tribes originally had a common “Proto-Miwok” language, different dialects evolved within each tribe. This resulted in separate languages over time, according to the Museum of the San Ramon Valley (MSRV). 

   The Saclan language leaves traces of itself in names around the Bay Area, exemplified in the name of Acalanes High School. As one story goes, the Spanish misinterpreted ‘Acalanes’ the name of a local Saclan settlement, “Ahala-n”, according to the Lafayette Historical Society. Another story suggests the name originated directly from the Saclan tribe name, with the Spanish calling the tribe “Los Sacalanes”, which then developed into Acalanes.
  “Here’s how I know it. The tribe that lived in this area was a sub-tribe of the Miwok. And they were called the Saclan. And so when the Spanish explorers and the Spanish came …. [they called the Natives] de Los Sacalan-es… it became our Acalanes,” McCosker said.

   The Saclan tribe first made contact with Europeans when the Spaniards arrived in the Bay Area in 1794. Several different accounts exist for the same events surrounding the Spanish and the Saclan, but MSRV and the Contra Costa Historical Society both note that overall, once a combination of disease and drought struck, the Saclan tribe took refuge in Mission Dolores in present-day San Francisco. With gifts and weapons, the Spanish lured the Native Americans in and forced them to convert to Catholicism. However, the Saclan tribe reportedly also led the resistance against the Spanish in the East Bay once an epidemic struck the mission because the Spanish attempted to keep the Native Americans restricted to the Mission.

   In the years following numerous skirmishes with settlers and epidemics, the tribe gradually fell apart.

   “[The Bay Miwok] tribe really dissolved as a result of colonization and trauma,” Ethnic Studies teacher Katherine Walton said.

   Complicit in the decimation of the Saclan population was the founder of Lafayette, Elam Brown. After buying Rancho Acalanes, a plot of land broken off from a larger rancho, Brown won a representative seat in the California state legislature for two sessions, or eight years, during which he was part of the development of anti-Native American laws.

   “Brown, who was the founder of Lafayette… was in the first legislature in California after he became a senator. And he and another man, named John Bidwell, who founded Chico, passed legislation where they could indenture young Native men that can become indentured servants,” McCosker said.

Photo of Saclan grinding stone in Lafayette.
Courtesy Emily Haas

   Acalanes students are no stranger to Native American history. Curriculums in some mandatory courses at Acalanes, such as the junior year U.S. History course, require teachers to explain how certain events affected Native Americans such as America’s expansion, industrialization, and civil rights movements. These curriculums allow for some leniency, meaning there is a range in the content on Native Americans in history between different schools.

   “I teach [curriculum] that is aligned with the College Board’s [Advanced Placement (AP)] curriculum. I say that we cover Native American history more heavily than maybe other schools do,” AP U.S. History and World History teacher Bruno Morlan said.

   The leniency in requirements can bring trouble, as the range can result in a perspective in history textbooks that portrays a colonized point of view over that of the Native Americans, rather than a combination. In this case, a colonized narrative can present Native Americans incorrectly through stereotypes or a one-sided perspective of an event.

  “I think that [the representation of Native Americans has] been colonized… Part of the role of educators, but also students, is to think about, ‘How do you decolonize the narrative?’ and ‘How do you make sure that their stories are front and center?’ because often I find they’re not [front and center] or not present at all,” Walton said.

   The lack of recognition towards Lafayette’s historical inhabitants is notably different from those who live in other parts of California. Morlan currently lives in Berkeley, Calif, which offers a more specific reference to the Native American tribe that formerly lived in the area.

   “In Albany [and] in Berkeley…the Ohlone tribe is front and center [in] all of the street names and park names, and more visible there. I can’t say that in the time that I’ve been around Lafayette that it’s been super clear the native groups that once inhabited here and still inhabit this area,” Morlan said.

   In an effort to educate students about Native American historical perspectives, some elementary schools teach specific units on local Native American culture. McCosker teaches third graders about the history of Lafayette, including a unit on local Native Americans. 

   “I think [education on Native Americans is] better now than it was five years ago. I think there’s more awareness. I know that teachers in the third grade have made a big effort to talk not about the native people in relation to our lives, but to appreciate the culture for what it was,” McCosker said. 

   Working for better local education, many Bay Area tribes have taken part in a greater fight for representation. Furthermore, they look to land preservation efforts and federal acknowledgment. According to the University of California, Berkeley Native American Resources, the Muwekma Ohlone tribe represents the present-day tribe of the Bay Miwok even though the Ohlone and Miwok were originally separate tribes. While the federal government does not yet recognize the Muwekma Ohlone tribe, the group actively works to foster and reinvigorate the Bay Miwok culture and subcultures within local communities of Native Americans and to educate the public.

   “We’re starting to be able to educate in the schools about the accurate ‘His-story’…I just did a presentation on what Thanksgiving really means to 28 classrooms of third graders and their teachers… School curriculum should be taught by us Elders of the community,” California Valley Miwok Elder and Spiritual Leader Sister Who Walks With Bears said. 

   Educational work done by Native Americans, like Sister Who Walks With Bears, helps Native American students see more of their own history in their courses. Students like senior Diane Saali, a Sou descendant, note how courses often poorly reflect the Native American perspective of history. 

   “I would say a lot of schools do a really bad job of Native American studies because they make Thanksgiving sound good. We didn’t break bread together. We were killed by the colonizers. [Students] think that Thanksgiving is a great time to have time away from school and break. But to Native Americans, it is totally the opposite… I definitely think kids should be, and all students, educated about Native Americans instead of seeing the romanticism of Thanksgiving,” Saali said.

   In an effort to better represent Native Americans’ importance in Acalanes history, Acalanes posted a land acknowledgment on the front door of the Acalanes High School office during the November remembrance of Native American culture. For many, it represented a beginning to a greater conversation about how history treats Native Americans.

   “To be able to put out a land acknowledgment and say that we’re done wrong, to put out a land acknowledgment and being able to get to a place where I can at least even acknowledge that this is land that was owned and should be still owned by others is a start because then that allows you to start thinking about how do we talk about [Native American land] in our everyday culture,” Acalanes Director of Student Support Equity and Inclusion Dr. Lynnā McPhatter-Harris said.

   The long history and expansive culture of the Saclan tribe remains an important part of the Lafayette identity, not only through the tribe’s influence over the city nor their part in its history but also as a part of the current Lafayette community.

   “I do think you have people living in our very own community who are part of the native tribe, but that’s not something that we also think about very often because I think our culture has a tendency to think of them as forgotten. But really, they’re present and they’re here,” Walton said.

Leave a Reply