A Story of Abundance, Diversity, and Indigenous Stewardship
The diverse, seasonal foods of California’s first peoples came directly from the land they nurtured, which nurtured them in turn. This diversity included plant foods such as acorns, wildflower seed crops, grains, underground plant parts, fruits, berries and greens; animal foods from various mammals, fish, fowl and insects; and fungi, seaweeds and shellfish added even more variety. Granaries were filled, and plant parts and animal parts were regularly dried for storage and eaten in the off-seasons, but much food was seasonal, valued for its seasonality, even eaten in situ in pleasure and appreciation.
Lucy Thompson, a Yurok woman from northwestern California, wrote in 1916: “My people were in the habit of eating but two meals a day. . . the menu differing according to the season of the year.” With a great assortment of available foods and a broad, functional knowledge of them, California’s indigenous people had diets that were generally secure and exceptionally nutritious.
Early written descriptions of California tribes give testimony to the robust health of these indigenous peoples. Journalists, anthropologists and non-Indian settlers noted their “sweet breath and beautiful white teeth.” The late Norma Turner Behill, a Mono/Dumna woman from Auberry, California, said, “Some of the old people lived to well over one hundred—that was because of their diet.” The late Grace Tex, a North Fork Mono woman born in 1909, who continued to prepare and eat traditional acorn mush throughout her life, in her late nineties described herself as having “no pains” in contrast to so many other elderly people.
The good health of California’s first peoples can be attributed not only to the great variety of foods eaten but also to the quality of those foods, which in turn was based on the good health of the ecosystem in which they lived. Early white settlers recognized the amazing abundance of foods they found in California, describing it as “an overflowing store,” but generally did not recognize it as linked in any way to the Indian presence and participation in the landscape. But the consistent experience and testimonies of California’s first peoples, as well as the work of investigators and scholars, confirms that the variety and quality of these foods poured forth from a land that was productive and ecologically healthy in response to the deliberate stewardship of generations of California Indians over millennia. California’s native peoples enhanced and intensified their food resources with a highly developed suite of culturally supported land stewardship practices, engendering the bountiful California landscape that so impressed the early European explorers and settlers.
Today California Indians still care for the land, harvest and process many California plants in traditional ways, and hunt, fish and gather seaweeds, but their opportunity to align themselves with their traditional native foodways is not what it was before their relationship with their life-giving land was interrupted by European settlement and the centuries of Euro-American aggression against them. And yet Indian people and their lifeways continue to endure, offering wisdom and competence to a world in need of direction. This article explores the variety of foods eaten in native California, describes indigenous stewardship techniques used to enhance these food sources, looks at how the quality of these foods is connected to the ways in which the California Indians cared for their land, and introduces the underlying participatory cultural kincentric model that gives these lifeways endurance and strength.
LIVING ON THE LAND: THE INDIGENOUS DIET
C. Hart Merriam, a biologist who spent much time among the tribes of California between 1900 and 1937, commented on “their superior knowledge of the food, textile and medicinal values of animals and plants” in their landscapes. A trained taxonomist, he recounts an experience he had speaking to a Miwok woman, asking her for the whereabouts of two local species of manzanita (Arctostaphylos), a plant genus difficult to identify at the species level, only to be informed that there was a third local species, as her daughter fetched samples of all three. At the time of European contact, over a thousand species of plants were actively utilized in California, with each tribe incorporating over two hundred different species of plants, animals and fungi into its food repertoire, making up regional cuisines unique to each cultural group. Indian names for plants commonly recognized their morphological characteristics, habitat or use.
It was commonplace for adults and children, as they went about their daily lives or walked along a trail, to pick knowledgeably handfuls of leaves or berries to eat, nibbling on a diversity of wild foods, participating in the landscape. Native people would travel, often for the explicit purpose of getting something particular to eat—experiencing the first appearance of a favored green, the gathering of geese or great flights of pigeons, the maturing of grains on native grasses or the fall run of fish. Thomas Jefferson Mayfield, growing up under the care of the Choinumne Indians in the San Joaquin Valley in the 1850s, recalled with great pleasure the annual expedition many in his tribe made traveling downriver in fifty-foot long rafts constructed of tules bound with willow to Tulare Lake to participate in the abundant hunting and fishing along the shores where the Tache tribe lived.1
PLANT FOODS IN MANAGED LANDSCAPES
Various parts of native plants—fruits, seeds, leaves, stems, underground storage organs— provided a foundational portion of the diet for California tribes. Plants were cared for with vegetation management practices, many of which were managed forms of ecological disturbance, imitating the disturbance present in natural systems. Techniques such as pruning, knocking, protecting, weeding, digging, tilling, transplanting, watering and burning resulted in beneficial changes in plant and animal abundance, ecosystem and species diversity, growth, longevity, productivity and food quality.2
Especially valued were California’s numerous species of oaks and their acorns, whose use by native peoples gradually intensified three to five thousand years ago. Oak trees were cared for in multiple ways. It was common practice to harvest the acorns before they fell by climbing the trees and pruning the limbs, or by knocking them with long stout poles especially grown for this purpose in managed groves. It was understood that these activities were good for the trees, removing dead wood, protecting the tree and stimulating growth. Melba Beecher, Mono, says, “Knocking wakes the tree up. It alerts the tree to bear more.” The nutrient-dense acorn is high in fat, and requires processing through leaching to reduce bitter tannins before eating. Though naturalist John Muir may have given the impression that he hiked the Sierras on bread balls and China tea, records show he was given acorn cakes by Paiute women in the Sierras.
Figure 1. California Indians knocked oak trees with long poles to cause the acorns to release to the ground. Knocking removed dead wood, controlled diseases, and renewed fruitwood.
Setting low-intensity fires in oak landscapes under and between the trees was probably the most widespread Indian management technique for caring for the oaks and the land. This regular burning suppressed disease and especially helped to control insect infestations of acorns. The burns also stimulated the production of sprouts for the making of cultural items, reduced brush which decreased the risk of major conflagrations that could harm the oaks, encouraged the growth of edible mushrooms, increased edible forbs and grasses between and under the oaks, and increased forage for wildlife.3 In supporting and caring for the oaks, California Indians cared for the life of the ecosystem as a whole.
NUTS, SEEDS AND GRAINS
In addition to acorns, buckeye nuts and pinenuts, the grains of many native grasses and seeds of wildflowers were managed and harvested by tribes; they were eaten parched or made into cakes, bread, mush or soup. The wildflower redmaids (Calandrinia ciliata), numerous sunflower species (Helianthus, Wyethia), tidy tips (Layia platyglossa), chia (Salvia columbariae) and popcorn flower (Plagiobothrys) all were important foods for California’s indigenous peoples, relished for their oil content and gathered in great quantities. Modern wildflower enthusiasts who travel to see the spring wildflower blooms in such places as the Carrizo Plains in southeastern San Luis Obispo County may not realize that such vast displays of color were common throughout California before European contact, and were actively managed as vast seed-bearing tracts by the local tribes through such practices as seed beating, sowing and burning. Seed beating is seed harvest using a seed beater, a woven cupped paddle, to beat against the seed-bearing inflorescenses of the maturing plants, sweeping the seeds into a burden basket. In the process, some seeds fall down to the ground or up into the wind and thus are dispersed. William Pink, a Luiseño/Cupeño man, explains, “Seed beating chia plants helped scatter the seeds around the area and helped the crop. Otherwise the seeds just stay in the vessel, and with no collecting, the insects get the seeds.”
Grains from native grasses were gathered in quantity; before gathering grain from the drying grasses, Foothill Yokuts women would rub their forearms and legs with Indian tobacco herb to keep rattlesnakes away. Among the grass species harvested and eaten were grains in the genera Leymus, Nassella, Festuca, Phalaris, Panicum, Eragrostis, Hordeum, Elymus, Deschampsia, Bromus, and Melica. Grasslands were burned to enhance grain production. The native perennial bunchgrass California oatgrass (Danthonia californica) grains were eaten, and when the annual European wild oats (Avena fatua), with its comparatively large seeds appeared in the landscape, the Indians recognized its value, adopted it, began managing it and incorporating it into their diets. It is certain that the Indians contributed to the dissemination of the European wild oats throughout California.
The bulbs, corms and tubers of geophytes, many of which produce strikingly beautiful flowers and hence became a commodity of commerce for the nursery industry, were dug by California Indians with digging sticks. The Indian harvest of these plants loosened and aerated the soil, divided the plants’ underground storage parts and left behind small cormlets, bulblets or fragments in the soil, stimulating regrowth. These plants, which grew densely under Indian management, were seen by early white settlers as growing naturally in beds and came to be called Indian potatoes. They were gathered in great quantities by the Indians and eaten raw, boiled or baked in an earth oven. The brodiaeas (Brodiaea, Dichelostemma, Triteleia), mariposa lilies (Calochortus), sanicles (Sanicula tuberosa), camas (Camassia), soaproot (Chlorogalum), and many other geophytes were eaten. The gathering knowledge for these subterranean foods was complex and extensive. Lois Conner, North Fork Mono/Chukchansi, remembers what her Aunt Rosalie taught her: “Dig soaproot after the plants go to seed and leave the roots behind. If you break them off, they will grow back again.”
The leaves, stems, buds and young sprouts (capably identified in the very early stages of growth) of a great variety of herbaceous plants were eaten raw, often in the field, or stone-boiled in a basket, steamed as pot-herbs in an earth oven, or dried and stored for later use. Indian lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata), the leaves and tender tops of alumroot (Heuchera micrantha) and the young rosettes of fiddleneck (Amsinckia) are just some examples; the Sierra Miwok alone used forty-eight distinct varieties of greens. Native people today remember that edible greens were not “naturally” productive continuously, over many years, but required burning to maintain their quality and quantity each year. The late Rosalie Bethel, North Fork Mono, remembers, “They used to burn for the clovers. It would increase the quality—the clovers would be young and tender and increase in amount.” Clovers (Trifolium) were perhaps more widely eaten than any other greens, and were eaten fresh or steamed, or dried and stored for use in the off-seasons for making soups. The Choinumne pulled up handfuls of the tender first clover, rolled them into balls between the palms of their hands and put them into their mouths. After thoroughly chewing the clover-balls, they added salt by sucking on a length of saltgrass (Distichlis spicata).
Figure 2. Light and frequent fires set between the oaks reduced acorn insect predators and diseases, and kept down fuel loads to prevent a catastrophic fire from destroying the trees.
Many native fleshy fruits and berries were available to California Indians and these plants responded to their management; early photographs show large, concentrated patches of accessible berries from which one could gather much fruit in a short time. Such fleshy fruits or berries were gathered in substantial quantities and often dried and stored for winter use. Fruits such as huckleberries (Vaccinium), gooseberry (Ribes), sourberry (Rhus trilobata), wild grape (Vitis californica), wild strawberries (Fragaria), blackberries, thimbleberries, blackcap raspberries (Rubus), holly leaf cherry (Prunus ilicifolia), elderberry (Sambucus mexicana), and many others were valued. The medicinal values of these fruits—the elderberry for example—“were wellknown to our ancestors,” writes Rhonda Robles, Ajachmem.4
Figure 3. In addition to burning oak woodlands and grasslands, California Indian women saved edible seeds of wildflowers and grains of grasses and sowed them in appropriate habitats to ensure future harvests.
Fruits are used to make beverages such as the sour fizzy drink made from sourberry favored by the Sierra Miwok in hot weather. The drink with the most widespread use, still popular today, is made from crushed manzanita fruit. Thomas Jefferson Mayfield, writing of his youth with the Choinumne in the 1850s, says, “A sweet cider was made from the juice of the manzanita berries. They were crushed in mortars and set in wicker colanders to drain into baskets. A little water was added to the crushed berries. This made a sweet and well-flavored cider, and I remember it with more relish than anything I ever ate or drank with the Indians.”1 With over fifty species of manzanita native to California’s varied landscape, tribes had their own favored local ciders, each reflecting its own particular terroir.
Throughout the year mushrooms provided an important accompaniment to acorn, venison, elk-meat, fish and other dishes. Some California tribes gathered at least nine or ten different kinds, considering them a staple food. Varieties included chanterelles, morels, boletes, corals, puffballs and other soil-growing fungi. Others, such as willow or oyster mushrooms and giant sawtooths, were cut or torn from the trunks or branches of live and dead trees and then dried in large quantities.
ANIMAL FOODS IN MANAGED LANDSCAPES
Animal foods were an essential part of the diet for California’s first peoples; the diversity of animal foods incorporated into this diet again reflects an in-depth knowledge of and participation in the landscape. As native peoples managed their landscapes for the plants they valued, they were also managing for the benefit of animals. Indian-set fires increased forage available for large grazing animals. Karuk elder Georgia Orcutt told anthropologist Edward Gifford in 1940 that the scarcity of deer in the Orleans area of northwestern California then was due to the lack of fires, which formerly burned brush and encouraged the growth of grass. Studies have shown that with pruning or burning, numbers of larger game animals increase.
Large mammals that were hunted for their meat included tule and Roosevelt elk, pronghorn antelope, black bears, black-tailed and mule deer, sea lions, seals, whales and mountain sheep. Organ meats—such as the livers, kidneys, lungs, small intestines and hearts of deer—were widely eaten and valued. To the Miwok of the Sierra Nevada, the liver of mule deer was considered a delicacy.5 The Shasta and other tribes made a blood pudding by filling the paunch or large intestine of a deer with blood and fat from the outside of the paunch and cooking it in ashes.6 The Atsugewi, Coast Yuki and other tribes broke up the long bones of deer and scraped out and ate the marrow raw; the Lassik of the Mt. Lassen National Park region sought out the marrow from the bones of bears.7 Some tribes ground up the bones of deer and salmon and combined them with various plant products to create a hash or stored the pulverized bones for making soup in the winter. The vertebrae of deer were pounded and made into little cakes and baked. The old people especially drank the broth of deer meat or salmon. Oil retrieved from deer, bear, whale, seal and sea lion was preserved and warmed for eating with dried berries.8
Small mammals, such as porcupines, marmots, pine martins, cottontail and jack rabbits, chipmunks, raccoons, gray and ground squirrels, opossums, beavers and wood rats were often tenderized with pounding and then roasted, bones included. In 1935 anthropologist Cora Dubois described how the Wintu in northern California generally cooked small game: “It was singed, the paws and tail were cut off, and the entrails removed. The animal was then roasted in a bed of hot coals. Then the hide might or might not be removed. The head was cut off and the ribs extracted along with the other large bones. The body was then pounded, bones and all, until it was fine and crumbly.”
BIRDS AND REPTILES
Many kinds of birds were eaten including mourning doves, band-tailed pigeons, gulls, grebes, blue grouse, mud hens, sage hens, quail, sandhill cranes and a great variety of ducks and geese. The late Felix Icho, Wukchumni, described how to cook quail: “We used to make a soup out of quail. You pull the feathers off. Dip the bird in water and the feathers come off better. Then cut the bird open and gut it. We roasted it in live oak ashes—when the ashes turn red you put the bird in the fire.”
Reptiles such as certain kinds of lizards, desert tortoises, snakes and western pond turtles were also eaten.
Figure 4. Harvesting edible Indian potatoes with a digging stick aerated the soil and prepared the seedbed.
Invertebrates were gathered and eaten— grasshoppers, the pupa and larva of moths and butterflies, the larva of yellow jackets and adult June beetles. Cooked yellow jacket larvae are described as tasting like sweet corn. Roasted grasshoppers mixed with grain or acorns were a particular favorite. The late Pauline Conner, North Fork Mono/Chukchansi, described harvesting, preparing and eating the pupa of the California tortoiseshell butterfly: “I remember gathering huuya΄. We got them by the bucketfuls. They’re upside down on a string hanging on a twig of chaparral. Grandma Lily would whistle and the huuya΄ would shake and then you’d grab them. They pop in your mouth when you bite them—kind of crunchy. They kind of tasted like peanuts. They’re delicious—I love them. They let them dry. They rinse them to get the dust off. They put them in a pot with water just to cover them and let them boil. If you can stick a fork through their bodies, they’re done. If I could just have a pot of them to cook up. They came every year.”
In those days, there were vastly more butterflies about than today; Pauline Conner remembered that when she was a little girl, butterflies were so numerous that many would land on her as she played.
FISH, SHELLFISH AND SEAWEED
Many kinds of fish were caught in creeks, rivers, lakes and the ocean including salmon, catfish, suckers, trout, sturgeon, bass, minnows, smelt or surf-fish, pike, rock cod and bullhead. Small fish, such as surf-fish and sardines, were eaten whole without removing the intestines. The Kumeyaay of the San Diego region cut off the fins, tails and heads of certain fish and used them to make a nourishing soup. Lobsters, scallops, shrimp, octopus and crabs were eaten too. Mussels, clams and crayfish were harvested by diving to the bottom of rivers; abalone and chitons were gathered off rocks along the seashore.
Figures 5 and 6. In the gathering process, it was customary to break off the smaller offsets (cormlets and bulblets) of the Indian potatoes and replant them to ensure re-establishment at the site.
The Pomo developed an ingenious way of harvesting and preparing barnacles for eating: build a fire over a barnacle bed at low tide, tend the fire, thereby cooking the shellfish, until the rising tide quenches the fire and cools the meal.4
The California Indians collected seaweed in season to dry for later use. The Pomo saying, “When the grass is growing, the seaweed is growing. When the grass is gone, the seaweed is gone,” expressed this rhythm. Coastal tribes traded dried seaweeds with interior tribes.
Salt was also valued in trade, constituting the most popular trade item in native California in former days. Salt was collected for trade from the ocean by coastal tribes, or from salty interior lakes, as it was from Owens Lake by the Paiutes.1
INDIGENOUS LAND STEWARDSHIP VALUES
California Indians depended on biological diversity and continued abundance in the landscape to meet their needs. They developed a management system that provided for and maintained the health of the ecosystem that they so fully engaged in, through a moral and ethical cultural value system that saw participation with and responsibility for nature as relationship with kin. Enrique Salmón, Rarámuri, used the term kincentric to describe this indigenous value system.9
This Native American kincentric approach, immersed in and committed to participation, is expressed when elders respond to the question, “Why have all the plants gone?” with “Because people don’t use them anymore.” This kincentric view, one of interaction and responsible treatment of other species, can be contrasted with an anthropocentric view, the dominant Western model, in which nature is seen as a resource stockpile to be mined or extracted, and again contrasted with a biocentric view in which nature is seen as existing for its own sake, expressed by the American wilderness movement, which arose in reaction to the destructiveness of the anthropocentric approach.
The indigenous kincentric approach is relationship- based; by its very nature it is based on directly available knowledge, and leads in time to a deep and intimate understanding, respect and obligations for the landscape and all its participants. Mihilakawna Pomo elder Lucy Smith, recalling her mother’s teachings, describes this culturally supported learning process, “[She said] we had many relatives and, . . we all had to live together, so we’d better learn how to get along with each other. She said it wasn’t too hard to do. It was just like taking care of your younger brother or sister. You got to know them, find out what they liked and what made them cry so you’d know what to do. If you took good care of them you didn’t have to work as hard. When the baby gets to be a man or woman they’re going to help you out. You know, I thought she was talking about us Indians and how we are supposed to get along. I found out later by my older sister that Mother wasn’t just talking about Indians, but the plants, animals, birds — everything on this earth. They are our relatives and we better know how to act around them or they’ll get after us.”
1. Thomas Jefferson Mayfield, Indian Summer: Traditional Life among the Choinumne Indians of California’s San Joaquin Valley, Heyday Books, 1993.
2. M. Kat Anderson, Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources, University of California Press, 2005.
3. M. Kat Anderson and Eric Wohlgemuth, “California Indian Proto-Agriculture: Its Characterization and Legacy,” Biodiversity in Agriculture: Domestication, Evolution, and Sustainability, Paul Gepts et al. (editors), Cambridge University Press, 2012, pages 190-224.
4. Margaret Dubin and Sara-Larus Tolley, Seaweed, Salmon, and Manzanita Cider: A California Indian Feast, Heyday Books, 2008.
5. Samuel A. Barrett and Edward W. Gifford, 1933 “Miwok Material Culture,” Bulletin of the Public Museum of the City of Milwaukee 2(4):117-376.
6. Catherine Holt, “Shasta Ethnography,” Anthropological Records 3:4, page 309.
7. Thomas R. Garth, “Atsugewi Ethnography,” Anthropological Records 14(2):129-213, 1953.; Edward W. Gifford, “The Coast Yuki,” Sacramento Anthropological Society Papers 2, Sacramento State College, 1965.; Frank J. Essene, “Cultural Element Distributions: XXI Round Valley,” Anthropological Records 8:1 University of California Press, 1942, page 1-97.
8. Gladys Ayer Nomland, “Sinkyone Notes,” University of California Publications in American Archeology and Ethnology 36(2), page 153.
9. Enrique Salmón, “Kincentric Ecology: Indigenous Perceptions of the Human-Nature Relationship,” Ecological Applications 10(5):1327-32.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Fall 2012.🖨️ Print post
Hi, I’m a cook in SF and I’ve been steadily gaining interest in native foods. Is there a direction you could point me in where I can learn more? Thank you.
You have already arrived. Welcome.