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Preserving Nature and Culture at Morro Rock

A research paper by Angela Howard Dillon angela1224@[remove]earthlink.net
For Woodbury University – Burbank, CA – Revised Monday, February 18, 2008 10:53:51 PM

On February 7, 2002, an article entitled “Messy Affair Plays Out Atop Famed Rock” ran in the Los Angeles Times’ Living Section.  Next to it was an aerial shot of Morro Rock in Morro Bay.  Rising out of the ocean next to the rolling breakers in the outer bay and miles of rugged, picturesque shoreline extending as far as the eye can see, Morro Rock is truly a spectacular sight.

No matter how many other spectacular landscapes I may see in my lifetime, none will surpass this one, because it holds such special significance for me.  It is where nearly every family vacation in my childhood was spent, and where my son and I have spent every 4th of July weekend since he was four.            

Over the 30-plus years I’ve been coming here, I’ve watched Morro Bay evolve from a quiet fishing village into a popular tourist destination.  I remember the town before there were sidewalks on the Embarcadero, before the motels outnumbered the private residences and before new housing developments and shopping centers dotted the landscape.  And I remember the last trip I took there with my mother and father in August 1977.  Mom had just been diagnosed with a brain tumor, and she wanted to see her favorite place once more in case it turned out to be the last time, which fortunately, it didn’t.

As I read the article, I found out that my special ownership of this place had competition.  Apparently, a few hundred years before I laid claim to Morro Rock’s historical significance to my family, a group of Indians and a predatory bird beat me to it.  Furthermore, it seems there is an ongoing controversy as to whose needs are paramount – those of the bird to exist without interruption, or those of a Native American to reclaim his lost heritage.

For centuries, Morro Rock has been a nesting site for the peregrine falcon and, according to Salinan Indian legend, Morro Rock is where hawk and raven destroyed the serpent-monster Taliyekatapelta (Brusa, 55).  Salinan descendent John Burch claims that, when he was a boy, his grandmothers took him to the top of Morro Rock to carry out ancient religious rituals of their tribe.  Now, many years later, he wanted to once again climb the rock to repeat those ancient rituals.  Since being declared State Historical Landmark No. 821 in February 1968, Morro Rock has been off limits to climbers, but in 1999 Burch received a special permit from the Department of Fish and Game, giving him permission to do so on certain specific dates for religious purposes.  He made a couple climbs without incident, until being spotted by local peregrine watchers during one descent.  They, along with members of the San Luis Obispo Chumash Tribe, brought political pressure to have Burch’s permit revoked, citing the need to protect the peregrines (Ferrell, B2).  What had initially sounded like a nostalgic tribute to one Native American’s heritage had become far more complicated than that.  There was apparently much more to this story than space in the short newspaper column allowed.  What was the story behind the serpent legend?  What were the ancient rituals the Salinan practiced on Morro Rock?  And why, if they and the peregrines had apparently co-existed for centuries without a problem, could they not do so now?

My search for information began on the Internet, where I located a web page devoted to the history of the peregrine at Morro Rock that included a link to an e-mail group dedicated to discussions about the Morro Rock peregrines.  I joined the group and posted a message saying that I was planning a trip to Morro Bay to do research for a paper I was writing on the peregrines and the John Burch issue, and asked if anyone could point me in the direction of information regarding either.  I received in reply an invitation to watch the peregrines at Morro Rock, and to attend a class about them at San Luis Obispo’s Cuesta College.

On my way up Highway 101, I stopped at Pismo State Park and asked a docent at the nature center if she knew where I might find information about the Salinan Indians.  She suggested I visit the mission in San Antonio Valley, which had once been living quarters for many of the Salinan.  Highway 41 through Atascadero led me to Jolon Road near Bradley, where I turned off and drove until I reached the mission, on the grounds of Hunter-Liggett military base, just inside the Monterey county line.  It stood against the hills in the middle of the lush, oak woodland that comprises the San Antonio Valley.  Inside a book in the mission’s gift shop, I found the story of the Salinan legend of Taliyekatapelta.  Although I have since located two additional versions of the story, each slightly different, this one is the most complete:  Hawk (or falcon, depending on the version you favor) and Raven decided to seek out and destroy a terrible two-headed snake called Taliyekatapelta.  They found the serpent somewhere east of Morro Bay, but it began chasing them.  Hawk and Raven flew to Morro Rock, where Raven’s powers came from, but the snake came swiftly after them and, with its huge body, encircled Morro Rock and began to wind its way upward.  As Taliyekatapelta approached, Hawk and Raven took out their knives and began to hack away at it, until it fell into pieces (Brusa, 55).  As I left the mission and headed back towards Morro Bay, I thought about the irony of my discovering an Indian legend in the very place where Salinan heritage had all but been destroyed.  Nonetheless elated with my find, I drove back toward San Luis Obispo, where the following morning I would attend Steve Schubert’s class on Morro Rock’s peregrine falcons.

Steve Schubert holds an MS in biology from Cal Poly and in the 1970s he was a peregrine falcon nest guard in the Santa Lucia Mountains.  The first half of his class consisted of a very informative lecture and spectacular slide show (he had close-ups of the falcons in mid-flight).  Notes from this lecture helped me to understand why the local residents had such a concern for the well-being of this regal bird.  Diurnal birds of prey, the peregrines are part of the raptor family, characterized by a hooked beak, sharp talons and excellent eyesight.  They have narrow, pointed wings, a long, narrow tail and are built for speed, with the amazing ability to attack at speeds of up to 200 miles per hour.  Shortly, I was to see firsthand how captivating they are to watch in flight.  Peregrines prefer to nest on vertical faces of cliffs near a body of water, making Morro Rock an ideal spot.  As far as anyone can remember, only one pair of falcons has nested at Morro Rock but as of last year, two pairs have taken up residence, a rare occurrence.  The newcomers, who currently occupy the north side of Morro Rock, have been named Zephyr and Xena by the locals.  The south side peregrines are Rudy and Judy; Rudy has enjoyed several seasons at Morro Rock, but Judy is a fairly new arrival.  Rudy’s prior mate, Millie, did not return this year and it is believed that she died.  The peregrine will mate for life, but will readily replace a mate that has died.  “Floaters” live alone until a “vacancy” comes up, and it is this floating population that has helped the peregrine survive.

During March, female peregrines lay three to four eggs on a flat ledge or in a pothole.  The female and male peregrines take turns incubating the nest, but once the eggs hatch, the male flies off to hunt for food.  Returning with the prey, he gives a food exchange call to alert the female of his arrival.  The female leaves the nest and flies out to meet him.  She then flips upside down, takes the prey from the male and carries it back to the nest.  During nesting season the peregrines become extremely aggressive towards any intruders, and have been known to “thump” gulls that get too close.  They will attack people, vultures, condors, anything that comes too close to the nesting site, known as the eyre.  From this description, it did not seem to me that the peregrines had much to fear from John Burch, but rather it was he who might need protecting from them.

What has made local citizens so protective toward the Morro Rock peregrines has been due to a series of tragedies, one of which nearly caused the bird’s extinction.  DDT, which remains in the soil for decades, was used extensively in the Salinas Valley during the 1960s.  Insects ate the soil, birds ate the insects, and the peregrines ate the birds.  Passing through the food chain, the DDT caused the eggs laid by the female peregrine to have abnormally thin shells that broke when the parents tried to incubate them.

The Morro Rock peregrines have faced several other threats as well, including feral cats and poachers.  Since the early 1967, there has been a volunteer monitoring program (Wieman, 55).  Once, after a male peregrine was shot, a volunteer named Merlin took up residence atop Morro Rock for the duration of the nesting season.  Learning to imitate the male peregrine’s food exchange call, he would drop food for the hatchlings to the female peregrine when she flew out of the eyrie.

During the 1970s, the Peregrine Fund was established at Cornell University in New York and a captive-breeding program was initiated.  Cornell staff traveled to Morro Rock and removed peregrine eggs from their nests, replacing them with “dummy” eggs made of plastic or wood.  Sometimes the nests would be left empty in the hopes that a “double clutch” would result (the laying of another set of eggs in one breeding season).  When it was time for the eggs to hatch, volunteers replaced the dummy eggs with either prairie falcon or red-tailed hawk hatchlings.  The peregrine hatchlings were too scarce to take chances with.  Only if the peregrines accepted the babies and began to nurture them were these “foster” chicks then replaced with the original peregrine hatchlings.  In 1999, with over 175 active nests in California, the peregrine was finally removed from the Endangered Species.  Captive breeding is no longer conducted at Morro Rock, but chicks continue to be banded, prey remains are removed for identification and empty eggshells are removed to test for DDT thinning by the Santa Cruz Predatory Bird Research Group at UC Santa Cruz.

To conclude our class, we drove out to Morro Rock, hoping to spot at least one peregrine.  We were not disappointed.  There was the female, perched just below the heart-shaped rock at the summit of the south slope.  Several local peregrine watchers were in attendance, with an array of expensive telescopes.  The male appeared, and we had the rare opportunity to witness their mating ritual.  Afterward, he put on quite an impressive show for us, gliding out over the bay and then contracting his wings to plummet towards the waterline.  Talking later with some of the peregrine volunteers, I learned their concern with the Burch issue was not over just one man being allowed to climb the rock, but fear that it might open the door to a parade of climbers.  After all, if one person could obtain a permit to climb for religious purposes, how could others who might make similar claims be turned away?  I sympathized with their reasoning, yet I wanted to know more of the Salinan side of the story.

Like the peregrine, the Salinan Indians had nearly faced extinction following European contact.  These indigenous people of southern Monterey and northern San Luis Obispo counties have a history in the area that stretches back over 10,000 years, and may be the oldest population in this area of California.  Sadly, their heritage was decimated by the entry of Europeans who founded five missions on the lands of the Chumash and three on the lands of the Salinans.  Today, the Salinan Nation descendants number just over 700 (Alger, 1).

John Burch has a sister, Patti, who is a well-respected docent at the Morro Bay Natural History Museum.  After the peregrine class, my next stop was the museum and, while there, I was fortunate enough to speak with Patti by phone.  When I asked her about the Salinan’s history with Morro Rock, she stated (as did the legend of Taliyekatapelta) that it was believed to be the place from which the falcon derived his power, and that it was also believed to be a place of power for the Salinans.  On the summer solstice, when the sun was at its furthest point north, the Salinans climbed Morro Rock to pray for the sun to return.  They feared that, without their prayers, the sun would disappear in the distance and might never return.  They also prayed for safe passage to the next world for loved ones that had passed on.  Patti mentioned that the rocks (referring to the series of nine volcanic plugs that stretch from San Luis Obispo into the Pacific) were “magnetic” but was “not sure if that plays into anything.”  When Patti’s mother was a girl, Morro Rock was completely surrounded by water.  Kids used to take rowboats out to the rock but they were unable to land because of hundreds of little black rattlesnakes that inhabited it.  The Salinans believed that all rattlesnakes originated from those on Morro Rock.  Perhaps this is where the story of the serpent originated – the early native Indians might have believed that the many small rattlesnakes emerged as a result of the serpent being cut up into pieces.  Patti claimed that John had been climbing Morro Rock since he was a teenager, and had hoped to continue to do so “legally” by obtaining the permit.  Her words were sincere, and I felt sympathy and a sense of regret at what seemed an impossible situation.

Yet why now, at this particular point in time, was it suddenly so important for John Burch to be able to climb Morro Rock in order to practice long forgotten rituals of his tribe?  Coincidentally, it seems Burch showed up at the Rock right around the time that Duke Energy announced they would be tearing down the old PG&E power plant adjacent to Morro Rock and building a new one.  By law, the excavation for such a project would require members of an Indian tribe to oversee the work in the event that Indian artifacts or burial grounds are uncovered.  Since the Chumash were believed to have been the exclusive inhabitants of this area, it was assumed that the work would go to members of their tribe.  But now John Burch had arrived on the scene, claiming Morro Rock to be of great religious significance to him due to his ancestry and, because of the timing, both the local Chumash leaders and peregrine volunteers questioned his motivation.  Speculation was made that Burch had applied with Duke Energy for the position of monitoring their construction project.  Perhaps he did, but an article in the local Sun Bulletin dated November 8, 2000, stated that the SLO County Chumash Council and Duke Energy had signed an agreement allowing Chumash observers to oversee the new power plant construction.  Time may bear out Burch’s sincerity.  Since the opportunity for financial gain in the Duke matter has been decided, if Burch continues his quest for a permit to climb Morro Rock, I would be more inclined to believe that his intention was sincere.

As science and technology have become the practical gods of the modern age, what place do ancient rituals atop a 20-million-year-old volcanic plug have in 21st  century society?  Perhaps Salinan descendant Joe Freeman best summarizes the answer by writing, “There are those who say that we must live in the world today and forget the past.  Some, however, suggest that understanding the past enables us to live more completely in the present and prepares us for the future.  They say that important cultural knowledge is imbedded in the heart of our stories.  This knowledge teaches us how to be People.  It is available and meaningful from one generation to the next, if we stop and listen.  Some say that one needs to listen to the stories over and over again, to sit in quiet places and to pay attention to the dreams before meaning begins to emerge.  Ultimately, each individual must do their own thinking” (7).

Scientific advancement nearly extinguished the peregrine falcon, yet massive recovery efforts that sought to restore its number have been quite successful.  Efforts to restore Native American heritage have not been as diligent.  How could we have eagerly rushed in to help undo the harm we enacted upon one species, yet been so indifferent to the damage done to one of our own?

Since the late 1970s there has been a gradual movement among California Natives to rebuild and celebrate their cultural heritages.  In dense groves of ancient sequoias, in lush valleys and forbidding deserts, and atop sacred peaks such as Morro Rock, California Indians have revived age-old ceremonies, hoping to return balance to their lives and to their relationship with the land (Krol, 1).   Whether or not John Burch is sincere in his motives does not change the fact that he is reviving cultural knowledge for the Salinans.  Yet many tribes have adapted their ancient rituals so as not to conflict with current environmental issues.  The Chumash, who also claim their ancestors practiced tribal rituals atop Morro Rock, now say they are content to recreate these ceremonies at the base of the Rock (Ferrell, B2).  And, despite their treaty right, Makah Indians, whose whale hunts date back archaeologically at least 2000 years, abandoned their hunts for nearly 30 years after commercial whaling operations severely depleted North Pacific whale populations (Perry, 2).

On the last night of my visit, I drove out to Morro Rock.  From a distance, it was impossible to see in the darkness but, as I approached, the giant monolith’s black silhouette emerged against the night sky.  There was nothing but the sound of powerful wind and waves, with countless stars overhead.  I thought about John Burch and his grandmothers, and about my own family’s connection to this place.  Somewhere overhead, no doubt, the peregrines were nestled in their eyrie, completely oblivious to their own historical claim to this place and the controversy that has erupted as a result.

Morro Rock


Mission San Antonio – San Antonio Valley, CA

Peregrine Falcon


Morro Rock Summit                                    Peregrine Watchers at Morro Rock

For discussion and news exchange of Peregrine Falcons and other bird of prey throughout the world, please visit http://groups.yahoo.com/group/peregrinefalcon/.  “The Morro Rock, Morro Bay, CA Peregrine Falcons are of particular interest here.”

“An excursion up Morro Rock May 14, 2001, for banding Peregrine Falcon chicks” is detailed at  http://morro-bay.com/outdoor/morro-rock/5-14-01-climb/SCPBRG.htm.

Works Cited

Alger, Doug.  Press Release.  Salinan National Tribal Council.  11 Apr., 2000.

Brusa, Betty War.  Salinan Indians of California and their Neighbors.  Happy Camp, CA: Naturegraph, 1975.

"Patti," Telephone Interview: Morro Bay, 16 Mar. 2002.

Farrell, Neil. “Duke, Chumash sigh pact on plant project.” The Sun Bulletin 8 Nov., 2000, A10.

Ferrell, David. “Messy Affair Plays Out Atop Famed Rock.” Los Angeles Times 7 Feb. 2002, California ed.: B2.

Freeman, Joe. “Salinan Elders of the Land.” Pelicannetwork. 2001.  Salinan Tribal Council.  2 Feb. 2002  http://www.pelicannetwork.net/salinan.eldersoftheland.htm.

“History of Morro Bay.” Morro Bay Online. 1997. Morro Bay Chamber of Commerce.  24 Feb. 2002. http://www.morrobay.com/History/index.asp.

“History of Morro Rock and the Nine Sisters.” Morro Bay Online. 1995. Morro Bay Chamber of Commerce. 11 Feb. 2002. http://www.morrobay.com/rock.htm.

Krol, Debra Utacia. “California Indians: out of the shadows to reclaim lost heritage.”  Native Peoples Sept./Oct. 2001: 12. OCLC FirstSearch. Wilson SelectPlus.  Woodbury University Library, Burbank. 27 Feb. 2002  http://firstsearch.oclc.org/.

Mason, J. Alden. “The Language of the Salinan Indians.” UC Berkeley Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnography 14 (1918): 1-154.

Perry, Paul. “The History of the Makah Whale Hunt.” Alamut. 1999.   27 Feb., 2002  http://www.alamut.com/subj/the_other/misc/makahWhaling.html.

Schubert, Steve. “Los Angeles Times article.” E-mail s_schub@[remove]webtv.net or Peregrinefalcon@[remove]yahoogroups.com.  9 Feb. 2002.

Schubert, Steve. Lecture: “The Peregrine Falcons of Morro Rock.” Cuesta College,  San Luis Obispo, 16 Mar., 2002.

Sullivan, Joan. “MB Natural History Museum Docents Trained in Chumash and Salinan Cultures.” Beach Gazette 13 Sept. 2000, B3.

Sullivan, Judy. “John Burch (Los Angeles Times article).” E-mail to allthatrazz@[remove]earthlink.net or  peregrinefalcon@[remove]yahoogroups.com 10 Feb. 2002.

Sullivan, Judy. “The Peregrine Falcons of Morro Rock.”  Santa Cruz Predatory Bird Research Group. 24 Feb. 2002.   http://www.angelfire.com/ca2/peregrinefalcon/index.html.

Wieman, Harold. Morro Bay Meanderings. San Luis Obispo: Padre Productions, 1984.