Recognizing Ohlone culture can heal San Francisco

Zachary Ippoliti told me he died in the Presidio. Every July for four years, Ippoliti and other Costanoan Rumsen Ohlone young men — a Native American tribe with local ties — spend four days fasting, sweating and praying alone. During this ritual, they are gifted with a vision. Now, Ippoliti is a bear, one of the tribe’s healers of the people and planet.

“We’re like the tule plant that filters water in the marsh,” Ippoliti told me. “All the negative sicknesses and bad things people have filter through us to the fire, and all that goes up to the creator to begin the healing process.”

Last month, the tribe’s new bears were publicly honored at the sixth annual Big Time Gathering in the Presidio. Barefooted boys in feathered regalia danced around a fire to the beat of Ohlone clapper sticks and songs about acorns, trees, the ocean and hummingbirds. Despite the cry of the fog horn and din of cars nearby, it felt like a peek into the past. The smell of firewood, shade of the willow arbor and cry of the Red-tailed hawk above only heightened the feeling.

The purpose of the Gathering wasn’t to honor San Francisco’s history; it was a public reminder that the Ohlone are still here, and recognizing their culture can heal San Francisco.

Before European colonization, the Costanoan Rumsen and other Ohlone tribes sustained an intimate and respectful relationship with nature. But when the Spanish arrived in the San Francisco Bay in 1776, members were enslaved in places like Mission Dolores and forced to change their customs. When California joined the United States, the brutality, enslavement and injustices against Native Americans worsened.

To escape violent persecution, San Francisco’s original inhabitants relocated and hid their identities. Members of the Costanoan Rumsen tribe moved to Southern California, where they still primarily live. They never received federal recognition. Now, when they return to their ancestral land to gather shells or conduct ceremonies, they’re often met with surprise and suspicion.

“There is no Ohlone land that is for Ohlone people, so we have to ask permission everywhere we go,” Carla Marie Muñoz, the coordinator of the Big Time Gathering, told me.

Zachary Ippoliti, left, and Sam Rodriguez stand outside the camp’s sweat lodge. (Robyn Purchia/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Ippoliti told me about an incident with a police officer during the fasting ritual one year. He remembers seeing the officer’s hand on his gun and his eyes on Ippoliti’s tool-making machete. According to Ippoliti, the officer thought he was homeless and sleeping in the park. It took at least an hour to resolve the situation, but Ippoliti was happy the officer was willing to talk to the chief instead of arrest him … or worse.

“He didn’t know what the heck he was getting into,” Ippoliti said. “It could’ve ended way different.”

Events like the Big Time Gathering are a way for the Costanoan Rumsen to show San Franciscans they’re still here — and hopefully avoid future incidents with law enforcement.

But they’re also a way of healing oppression and environmental degradation. In the late 19th century, military personnel from the Presidio were sent to wage war against the Modoc people of Northern California and southern Oregon. Now, the Presidio is making it easy for the Costanoan Rumsen to practice their traditions on their ancestral land.

This desire to atone for the past extends beyond the Big Time Gathering. Butterflies, hummingbirds, coyotes, foxes and frogs are coming back to the former military base. Native plants that biologists thought developers had bulldozed to extinction — like The City’s unique Franciscan and Raven’s manzanitas — are growing again. El Polin Spring, a natural water source in the Presidio that was cemented over, is flowing free.

As stories of climate change, plastic pollution and mass extinctions dominate the news, it’s a relief to see regrowth in this small corner of the planet. It’s as if the return of the Ohlone bears to the Presidio is transforming the park into a place where modern urbanites and wild nature co-exist.

“There’s evidence around here that we’re helping the land,” Sam Rodriguez, another new bear, told me. “Every time I come up here, I hear people saying the coyotes are coming back, the indigenous plants are thriving and invasive species are disappearing.”

San Franciscans are fortunate Ippoliti and Rodriguez chose to die in the Presidio. As healers, they are reminding us a healthy people and planet go hand-in-hand.

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. Check her out at

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