Through Games and Role Playing Students Learn About Ohlone Life

Nine-year-old Lily Hernandez held up a deer antler as she listened to a presentation about the Ohlone people of long ago. Nearby, her friend AnMei Dasbach-Prisk examined a replica of an Ohlone arrow. The girls and their fourth grade class from Mount Madonna School were visiting Chitactac-Adams County Heritage Park in Gilroy to learn about California history and Native American culture. Chitactac-Adams Park is an authentic site of a former Ohlone village.

“I wanted my students to gain some insight and hands-on experience on what it might have been like to live the traditional Ohlone lifestyle,” explains Linda Pope, Mount Madonna fourth grade teacher, “and to understand how Spanish mission life changed the lives of the Ohlone people.”

Santa Clara County Parks Interpreter Lynda Will welcomed the students, and began by reviewing with the group their previous knowledge of the Ohlones, before moving into an array of hands-on activities designed to give students a sense of the daily life of a villager.

“My goal is to teach them by engaging as many of their senses as possible,” Will explains. “By looking, listening, touching and doing, people absorb and remember more. I feel the best way to do this is to immerse them in the Ohlone traditional ways during the morning and then strip it all away before discussing the Mission Period.”

Students were able to see and handle some of the many natural resources utilized by the Ohlone for their daily lives, including: various plants and nuts; tule woven into mats, boats, and duck decoys; handmade cooking utensils, some made from rocks; and tools, spears, and musical instruments made from deer.

They also played two traditional games, the stave game, which used sticks, and hoop and pole, a spear throwing game. During the games, some students were invited over to a nearby area where they were given a new name (a geometric shape), new clothing (a trash bag), and some fancy, colorful beads.

This activity was part of a simulation designed to help students experience what it might have been like for Native Americans entering into mission life. The students were spoken to and allowed to reply only in Pig Latin, not their native language. They were given beads and candy for assimilating; while beads were taken away or “time outs” given for using their old language or refusing to cooperate.

Afterwards students discussed what it might be like to have all that was normal taken away, and to be forced into a new life and routine.

Cast as an Ohlone being shepherded toward mission life, fourth grader Noah Tervalon didn’t like the forced changes. “It made me feel like no one cared about me,” he says. Classmate Sarah Babcock agrees: “It made me feel strange and like an outsider.”

Fourth grader Addysen Abmont adds “It felt good whenever I got a bead because it felt like I was making some progress in learning a new language and getting used to a totally new life.”

Will explained to the students that the Ohlone would have been punished severely with whippings when they resisted assimilation, and rewarded with better jobs and status in the Missions when they conformed. The students began to understand why the Ohlone had assimilated almost completely and left their traditional ways behind.

“Learning the truth of how the Ohlone assimilated into the Missions and the price to their culture is not an easy truth,” says Will. “Yet, it is an important one. By role playing at an authentic Ohlone site, my hope is that when faced with real life decisions the children will remember this lesson with every sense of their being, and choose to honor diversity rather than force conformity. In my job I have the children for only a moment, but I hope it’s enough to light a spark that they’ll carry with them and use to kindle more life lessons.”


Contact: Leigh Ann Clifton, Marketing & Communications,

Nestled among the redwoods on 355 mountaintop acres, Mount Madonna is a safe and nurturing college-preparatory school that supports students in becoming caring, self-aware and articulate critical thinkers, who are prepared to meet challenges with perseverance, creativity and integrity. The CAIS and WASC accredited program emphasizes academic excellence, creative self-expression and positive character development. Located on Summit Road between Gilroy and Watsonville.