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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


November 1, 2003 - Issue 99


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Acorns: Native Staff of Life

by Mark Hedges The Ukiah Daily Journal
credits: Amy Wellnitz/The Daily Journal Evidence of acorn processing by Native Americans can still be viewed in Mendocino County (with rock mortar in foreground and an additional mortar in the middle left foreground) far back in the Coastal Range, as well as along the Eel and Russian rivers.

"And you women, strike out, gather wild onions, wild potatoes!

Gather all you can! Gather all you can!

Pound acorns, pound acorns, pound acorns!

Cook, Cook!

Make some bread, make some bread!

So we can eat, so we can eat, so we can eat...

Make acorn soup so that the people will eat it!...

Don't talk about starvation, because we never have much!

Eat acorns!

There is nothing to it."

-- Song of Chief Yanapayak, Miwok, from "The Way We Lived," edited with commentary by Malcolm Margolin, copyright 1981.

Amy Wellnitz/The Daily Journal Evidence of acorn processing by Native Americans can still be viewed in Mendocino County (with rock mortar in foreground and an additional mortar in the middle left foreground) far back in the Coastal Range, as well as along the Eel and Russian rivers. Many of us may think of acorns as annoying, crunchy things that are hard to walk on in your bare feet.

But the acorn was, and still is, a central staple of the indigenous peoples of California, revered by them, and, in a local vein, the Ukiah Valley and its environs are obviously rich with oak groves while the recollections of the Pomos figure prominently in literature and ethnographic material dealing with oak trees, acorns and their main by-products of acorn soup and acorn bread.

Though authors Bruce M. Pavlik, Pamela C. Muick, Sharon G. Johnson and Marjorie Popper note in their book "Oaks of California" (copyright 1991) that tribes in the southern sections of the state used stone mortars and pestles to pound acorns to make acorn meal (leaving behind literally thousands of deep bedrock mortars wherever water flowed) the Pomo practice of using strong baskets with a hole in the bottom placed over a mortar stone still has left behind traces -- if one looks hard enough -- of acorn processing in local areas where rock and water is plentiful.

Malcolm Margolin describes pounding acorns as "a woman's daily task -- tedious and mundane" ("The Way We Lived," pg. 134), while Cahuilla Indians felt that the tannins in acorns were a curse from the creator and that, "because of the bitterness of the acorns, women would forever have to spend much of their lives pounding the nuts with mortars and leaching the meal with water" ("Oaks of California," pg. 99).

Anyone inspired to try cooking with acorns in the ancient manner may be less enthusiastic when they learn it took a full day's work to prepare a good amount of leached meal.

But although the processing of acorns was essentially a domestic aspect of indigenous life, in other ways the acorn and its role in enabling survival made it perhaps one of the most central symbols for our state's original peoples.

William Ralganal Benson, a Pomo, includes the acorn in his description of the creation of the world by the brothers Marumda and Kuksu.

During the creation process, Marumda states: "According to this plan, people are going to be. There are going to be people on this earth. On this earth there will be plenty of food for the people! According to this plan there will be many different kinds of food for the people! Clover in plenty will grow, grain, acorns, nuts!" ("The Way We Lived," pg. 128).

Autumn was acorn-gathering time, a time of celebration for people like the Pomo. The acorn, which can contain up to 18 percent fat, 6 percent protein and 68 percent carbohydrate (as well as high levels of vitamins A and C and numerous amino acids), was a welcome sight hanging from oak boughs at a time when most other herbs and seeds were becoming scarce. ("Oaks of California," pg. 96).

Kashia Pomo Julia Parker explained that "When the acorn does come, there's dances and songs. We take from the earth, we give back to the earth, and we say thank you." ("Oaks of California," pg. 116).

Parker said she was even told by Paiute/Miwok elders that, when acorns arrive, one should "get out and pick and gather even if it's one basketful, so the acorn spirit will know you're happy for the acorn, and next year the acorn will come."

In fact, native tribes were quite particular about acorn-gathering areas, and there is even a historical record of an "acorn war" in 1830 between Pomos in the present Healdsburg area and nearby Wappo villagers.

The Wappos had gathered acorns from a disputed area, and the Pomos stole their acorn caches (elevated basket contraptions). The Wappo warriors actually wiped out several Pomo villages, killing everyone. ("Oaks of California," pg. 97).

But even aside from such dramatic occurrences, Lucy Thompson, a Yurok, explained that her people "were careful to preserve" oak timber "as the oak tree furnished them with the staff of life.

"All the oak timber was owned by the well-to-do families and was divided off by lines and boundaries as carefully as the whites have got it surveyed today," she said. ("The Way We Lived," pg. 54).

Jeff Jones, a Nomlaki, said the chief of his tribe "owned one big oak tree of a special kind. It was a singular tree called nuis.' There was a village nearby, but (he) owned that tree and got all the acorns from it...In those days the families owned (the trees). They own trees in the mountains, too. They maintain border lines, but if you are friendly with them they may give you a tree in time of need." ("The Way We Lived," pg. 51).

Though today acorn soup or bread is not typical fare for the masses, Malcolm Margolin said this traditional, sacred food is being slowly revived. "Much of Native California culture has been lost," he wrote, "yet despite the savagery of the dominant society, Indian life is far from extinguished. Even today, dances are still performed, new roundhouses are being built, shamans still practice healing, baskets are being made, and teachings are being passed on. It is not unusual to find in the freezers of even the most acculturated -- along with the frozen peas and ice cream, a bag of acorn meal, saved for special occasions."

Please remember that eating acorns without the proper, specific preparation can make a person sick.

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