Work Past

Contrary to popular presumption that early-day Native lives centered on survival, Ohlones and Miwoks of the past had more free time than we do today, their “work” accomplished at a much more relaxed, unhurried pace than today.

Likewise contrary to popular presumption, individual members of Native society could not survive on their own. Community, gender, and age roles varied. Certain community members excelled at making or doing particular things. Other community members received specialized training in particular aspects of community life, such as leadership, ceremony, tribal history, healing, and the making of certain objects, like fishing nets, that others paid for the right to use or have.

Work: Late 1800s-1940s

“The little ones would sit in apricot boxes or tomato boxes, because we all went to work with my mom. When we used to go and work in the fields, nobody stayed home.”

--Ruth Orta

After colonization, Native people lived on the margins of society as a virtual slave labor force. Following the 1860s outlawing of American-era “Indian Apprenticeship Acts,” Native men continued doing agricultural and ranch work. Native women continued to work as maids, cooks, childcare workers, and in the fields.

Turn-of-the-century industry created other employment opportunities, including railroad track, bridge, and chemical plant work for Ruth’s father and step-father. Ruth’s mother worked as a maid, housekeeper, and cook. She also harvested tomatoes and fruit with her children.

Work: Late 1940s-present

After her marriage at age 16, Ruth worked in hospital food service, a canary, a factory making paper bags, and as a wine and champagne packer. When her children got older, Ruth became a bus driver and dispatcher for a year. She retired at age 70 as a light-rail train operator in San Jose.

Ruth’s children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren have worked as roofers, welders, auto mechanics, warehouse lift operators, electronics assembly workers, food service workers, bus drivers, and dispatchers. Daughter Ramona once worked as the only female forklift operator in a warehouse. Granddaughter Rita works as the only female ATM machine repair person in a large region of the state.

Cultural Work

Several Orta family members, including children and great-grandchildren, participate, or have participated, in ancestral site monitoring. The family wishes this deeply heart-wrenching type of work would someday end, if only developers and agency planners could ever be compelled to create new roads and buildings without digging up ancestors and ancestral sites.

Site monitors literally follow the bulldozers, signaling the operators to stop whenever they bulldoze through or over human remains, or burial and other objects. Site monitors work with Most Likely Descendants to decide how the remains and objects should be handled before construction resumes.