Educator Resources

California Indian Acorn Culture-Background


By 15,000 years ago, the ancestors of modern Native Americans were living throughout the American continents. At the present time, the best estimates of Indian population in what is now California in the 18th century (before the first Europeans arrived) range between 275,000 and 500,000 people. California's abundant natural food resources provided ready access to a high protein diet of fish, acorns, small game, berries, insects, edible plants and roots, making it easy to sustain a subsistence economy in which starvation was virtually unknown. Trade between Indian groups enabled them to acquire seasonings, like salt, or foodstuffs and other goods that might be rare in certain locales.

Native Americans understood their relationship with the natural world as one of reciprocal give and take. They possessed extraordinarily detailed knowledge of the resources available to them, and added to and passed this knowledge down through generations. Whatever was killed or harvested was exploited thoroughly and put to many uses. For example, the Miwoks of the Northern Sierra used a plant called soap root not only as soap, but also to stupefy and catch fish. Its leaves were eaten fresh and the bulb could also be baked and eaten. The fibrous leaves could be dried and bundled so it could be used as a brush. As one California Indian woman said, "When we Indians kill meat we eat it all up. When we dig roots we make little holes. When we build houses we make little holes. When we burn grass for grasshoppers we don't ruin things. We shake down acorns and pine nuts. We don't chop down trees. We only use dead wood."

Acorns, the nut of the oak tree, has been a staple of California Indian diet for more than 4,000 years, and for many groups, the most important plant food. Native Californians harvested 10 or more species of acorns, with the tanbark oak, black oak, blue oak, and valley oak being preferred species. Acorns are extremely nutritious, containing up to 18 percent fat, 6 percent protein, and 68 percent carbohydrate as well as vitamins A and C and many amino acids. In some groups, like the Maidu or Nisenen who resided in and around the Sutter Buttes, an adult would consume a ton of acorns each year. It took considerable time to harvest and prepare them, as West Coast acorn species contain tannic acid that must be leached out before they can be consumed. Acorn mush or bread was usually eaten with meat to make a balanced meal.

Acorns were gathered in the autumn. They were laid in the sun to dry, then stored for future use, often in large granary baskets set outside on raised platforms out of reach of rodents. Acorns can be stored for a long time. Some groups lined the baskets with pine needles and wormwood to discourage pests. When being prepared for eating, the acorns were cracked out of their shells, and the kernels peeled out of the thin paper-like skin that adheres to them. The kernels were ground to flour in a stone mortar and sifted in a special basket. After the flour was ground, the bitter tasting tannin was leached out by pouring water over it. This was done in a leaching basin, usually made of layers of fine and coarse sand, and the process could easily take several hours. When completed, the bitter taste had been removed from the flour, which could then be prepared as a mush, soup, or "bread."

Traditionally, cooking was done by adding hot rocks to a mixture of acorn flour and water, and stirring with paddles until the cooking was completed. Charles F. Saunders, in his Useful Wild Plants Of The United States And Canada (1920) described the flavor as "rather flat but with a suggestion of nuttiness that becomes distinctly agreeable…" Francis noted that California acorn mush is similar in principle to Prussian pea-sausage, in that the mush could be carried on long journeys. "When stopping for refreshment, it was only necessary to dilute a portion of this [acorn mush] with water and dinner was ready."

Another traditional way of preparing acorns was to bake a sort of bread from the acorn dough. This was done in fireless cookers - shallow pits lined with thoroughly heated stones. Often the dough was mixed with a bit a red clay (5%) to remove the last bit of tannin from the dough. A bed of green leaves was placed over the hot stones, the dough laid on the leaves, then covered with another layer of leaves, over which another layer of heated stones was laid. The entire pit was then covered with dirt and allowed to remain over night. After twelve hours, the bread was removed. It had the consistency of soft cheese, but hardened when exposed to air. The bread was heavy and oily, but sweet in taste, due to sugars that developed during the long, slow, steaming the dough received. Sometimes the ovens were not buried, but excavated in hillsides or in the ground, with a covering of boughs that could be lifted to check the progress of the baking.

Throughout their history, California Indians have kept alive their traditional uses for acorns. Into the twenty-first century, they continue to prepare food from acorns, which continue to be important in their culture and their ceremonies.

For additional information:

Sabra L. Steinber, Jeffrey R. Dunk, TallChief A. Comet. In Hoopa Territory: A Guide to Natural Attractions and Human History of the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation and Surrounding Areas. Publisher: Hoopa Valley Tribal Council, 2000. Pages 136-138.

Indian Grinding Rock State Park: