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Miwok Material Culture: Indian Life of the Yosemite Region (1933) by S. A. Barrett and E. W. Gifford


Of the many vegetable foods used, acorns (muyu) were the staple. The nuts kept for months and were stored whole in outdoor granaries called tca'kka (P, N, C, S), or in small quantities in baskets indoors. Oak flowers are called hesaka (C); oak leaves, takta (C); oak balls, amayaka (C); oak gall balls, hopoto (C)—literally “spherical”; and oak leaf raspberry galls, yotcito (C).

The following are the oaks mentioned by Miwok informants:

California Black Oak (Quercus kelloggii Newb.), telē'lī (P, N), tele'lī (C), te'lelī (S).

White, or Valley, Oak (Quercus lobata Ne), sī'wek (P), mo’lla (N, C), lē'ka (C).

Interior Live Oak (Quercus wislizenii A.DC.), sa'sa (P, N), sako'sa (C), sakasa (C).

Large scrub oak (Quercus wislizenii A.DC.), sasa (C).

Water, Blue, Swamp, or Post Oak (Quercus douglasii H. & A.), ala'wa (P, N), otca'pa (P), wilisu (C).

Small bushy scrub oak (Quercus sp.), sakwuba (C). Evergreen. Bushy little oak (Quercus sp.), hakine (C).

The Central Miwok of the Transition zone grade acorns in the following order: teleli, sakasa, leka, sasa (yellow meat), hakine, sakwuba, wilisu. The poorest (wilisu) were so graded because the soup (nppa) made from them was watery and the bread or biscuits fell to pieces. Although white oak acorns make excellent food, they are placed second in the list, because of difficulty in hulling. When held on end on a stone anvil and struck with a hammerstone like other acorns, the hulls do not crack open readily but have a tendency to mash. For this reason they were usually hulled with the teeth. In 1922 one aged informant was forced to use these acorns, because of shortage of black oak acorns. The hammerstone crushed them too much and her few remaining teeth were inadequate, so she peeled them with a steel pocket knife.

In the open valley of the Plains area the principal oak was the water oak. Its acorns were gathered in great quantities and some were traded to the hill dwellers for other foods, including different species of acorns. Fish were similarly traded by the valley people.

Acorns were gathered in burden baskets, plate LIV, when they fell from the trees in the late autumn and early winter. Especially in times of shortage, the trees, in which the California woodpecker had drilled holes and stored acorns, were examined and the fresh acorns pried out with a pointed instrument (welup, N) of deer antler (kī'lī, N). See plate LVIII, fig. 11.)

The acorn anvil was called l'we (P), 'mme (N), tū'ka (C), mū'laa (S). The hammerstone, a natural pebble, plate XXXII, fig. 6, was called lū'p (P), lū'pu (N), lū'ppu (C), and pasa'kkila (S), Sometimes an unworked flat stone (never steatite) was used as the anvil, but frequently a special stone with several small, pecked, cuppings was employed. Sometimes the portable mortar, provided with one or more small cuppings on its underside, was upturned and used for the purpose. The shucks, called my (N), and moto'kkī (C), were discarded, or sometimes burned as they made a very hot and lasting fire. The plump meats (kat'ma N, and katumu (C), were placed in a basket and later ground into meal, called telē'lī (N), ka'wann (C), usually on the bedrock mortar, plate XXIX, fig. 2, but sometimes in the movable mortar, plate XXXIV. The bedrock mortars were merely large flat out-croppings of the bedrock of the region. Such a surface might contain from one to perhaps a couple of dozen of the cuppings or mortar holes, depending upon the population and age of a village. These cuppings were abandoned after they had worn to a depth of perhaps five inches. Such a bedrock mortar was a community “mill” and here at times the women congregated in numbers to do their grinding and to chat. Sometimes one of these bedrock mortars was protected from the weather by means of a small conical slab house such as that shown in plate XXX, fig. 2, which shows also seven of the cobblestone pestles which were found in this same house.

A peck or two of shelled acorn meats were placed on the mortar and the woman sat with her legs spread out straight on either side of the grinding area. The cobblestone pestle (plate XXXIII, fig. 1-6) was grasped in both hands and raised to about eye level. The body, hinging at the waist, swung backward as the pestle was raised and forward as it descended. As the grinding progressed and the acorns were reduced to coarse meal, it was kept in a ring, a foot or two in diameter and four or five inches high, with a crater in its center directly over the cupping in the mortar. The jar of the pounding shook down, both inside and outside the crater, the coarser particles of meal. Those in the crater fell automatically under the next blow of the pestle. At intervals of fifteen or twenty strokes of the pestle those coarse particles on the outside were scraped up with the hands and over into the crater. This process continued, with occasionally a general sweeping up with the soaproot brush (plate XXXVI), until the whole mass was reduced to a relatively fine meal. This was sifted repeatedly and the coarser meal (wassa'y, C) returned for further grinding. Holmes11 describes and illustrates the process. He observed the woman scrape up the large particles with one hand after each blow of the pestle.

Informants maintained that originally the sifting was done only with the closely coiled, discoidal basket, plate XLIX, fig. 4 and 5, called tū'ma. Later the flat, finely twined, triangular basket12 was introduced from the Washo and Paiute country and was as much used as the original Miwok form.

The sifting basket was held at an angle of about forty-five degrees toward the worker. It was gently shaken up and down, the upper edge moving somewhat more than the lower, until all the finer meal formed a solid mass adhering to the basket. This motion at the same time brought the coarser particles to the surface and caused them to roll down and off the edge of the basket. When no more coarse particles would roll off, two or three fingers were run through the meal to loosen it from the basket, and the whole process was repeated. After three or four such siftings, no more coarse meal remained in the basket, and the fine meal was poured into another basket as finished. When finely ground, such meal stuck quite firmly to the basket. It was loosened by a couple of sound taps with the tips of the fingers on any conveniently exposed portion of the basket. Finally, the basket was thoroughly brushed with the soaproot brush. Sifting was done on a still day if possible, as the wind tended to blow away the fine meal.

The pulverized root of Peltiphyllum peltatum (Torr.) Engler. (senseteko, C) was sometimes mixed with acorn meal to whiten it. The green leaves of Spanish Clover (Lotus americanus [Nutt.] Bisch.) (pulluluku, C) were pounded with acorns that were too oily, to absorb some of the oil. They did not alter the flavor of the acorn meal. A third plant which was at times pulverized and mixed with acorn meal intended for “bread” making was the root of either a pond lily or a cattail.

The tannin in the acorns made it impossible to use the meal directly from the mortar. It must first be leached. When possible a sandy spot was chosen and a shallow basin, three or four feet in diameter, was scooped out. In this the meal was placed and water was poured over it. As the water soaked through the fine meal it dissolved out the acid and leached it down through the porous sand. In order to leach the meal evenly it was necessary to distribute the water equally over the whole surface. Therefore, after the meal was first thoroughly wet, small radial furrows were made, usually with the fingers, to conduct the water from the center to all parts.

Lacking a natural sandy spot, an artificial one was constructed, like that shown in the background in plate XXX, fig. 1. Usually in the shadow of the brush sunshade, such a pit was made by first putting down a layer of boughs in the form of the required basin. This was then lined with fine grass to keep the sand from running through. Upon this was placed an inch or two of sand. Both types of leaching pit were called mo'lappa (N, S), molpa (C).

To break the fall of the water on the surface of the meal a small bundle of green conifer twigs was used. Douglas fir (tcapaha, C), white fir (tuttukine, C), incense cedar (mō'nōku, N, C, S), and tamarack (katabi, C) were thus used. The leaves were put over the meal in the leaching basin, or held in the hand, to break the force of the water and to cause it to spread, instead of striking the meal as a single stream. The first two or three applications of water were cold. Then lukewarm water was used. Each application thereafter was a few degrees warmer, until quite hot water was used. Usually ten applications of water sufficed to remove the tannin. The meal was tested, not only by tasting, but by running the finger through it to the bottom of the basin in several places and observing its color, which was whitish, rather than yellow or brown, if the leaching was complete. Leached acorn meal was called hutayu (C).

The leached meal was removed by placing the hand palm downward, spread to its fullest extent, on the meal, which adhered to the hand and clove easily from the sandy basin. The sand which adhered was easily removed by pouring water over it. The small amount of meal which was washed away with the sand was recovered by decanting the water from it, after it had settled in the basket used to catch the water, which was poured repeatedly over the successive handfuls of meal.

When a small amount of meal was to be leached it was sometimes done in a coarsely woven, triangular sifting basket. The basket was lined with a layer of leaves of Lupinus latifolius Agardh., to prevent the meal running through the interstices. The meal was placed on these leaves and leached as in the leaching pit.

The leached meal was cooked as soup, mush, “biscuits,” or “bread.” “Soup” was a thin gruel (n'ppa, P, N, C, S). “Mush” was cooked to a thick glutenous state by adding a greater amount of meal to a given quantity of water. It was called yo'kko (P, N), and was eaten by dipping with the first and second fingers. The shell of a freshwater mussel (sopo'nūī, C) was also used as a spoon (a'tkal, P; a'tkalu, N; talī'pa, C).

The typical mush stirrer of the north is a wooden paddle (plate XXXI, figs. 1-4), that of the south a looped stick (plate XXXI, fig. 5). In the Central Miwok region the two types overlap. Occasionally a paddle has a slight dish or curve to the blade to facilitate the removal of hot stones (hooya, C) from cooking baskets. The paddles were made of oak (Quercus) in several cases and of manzanita (Arctostaphylos) in one case. At least two of four looped mush stirrers noted are of oak. A young black oak branch was preferred. The looped stirrers have two string bindings; one at the base, the other near the end, of the handle.

The principal steps of the acorn industry are admirably illustrated by Holmes13 for the Central Miwok at Murphys, Calaveras county. In his plate 11 Holmes shows the use of the metate and mullet. Our informants did not mention their use in the acorn industry, and moreover said that any use of them was a modern innovation from east of the Sierra Nevada. If this is so, then the Miwok have adapted it to the preparation of acorn meal, for which it is not used in the Great Basin, as oaks are absent from that region.

The usual form of biscuit, ūlē' (P, N), u'le (C. of mts., S), and mosakala (C of hills), was made of acorn mush, cooked somewhat longer, and often further thickened by “dipping” it with a small dipper basket (plate XLV, figs. 1 and 2). It was dipped up and poured slowly, from a height of perhaps two feet, back into the cooking basket. The effect is not certain, but informants maintained that it thickened the mush and rendered it more gelatinous. When the proper consistency had been attained the mush was dipped out in this same small basket, which was placed for a minute or two in cold water, preferably a pool in a running stream. As the basket cooled its contents loosened easily from its surface and by deftly overturning the basket a small loaf of “bread” was slid out into the water. Here it remained until thoroughly cooled, when it had about the consistency of a modern gelatine dessert. If not cooled internally it was apt to go to pieces when handled. It was an excellent daily food and also found much use at feasts.

In cooking all three of these acorn products, soup, mush, and biscuits, boiling with hot stones was the universal method. Often steatite stones were employed. The water was placed in a large (about 30 quarts capacity) cooking basket, set in a pit two or three inches deep to guard against capsizing. About a dozen hot cooking stones, tu'le (N) (plate XXXII, figs. 1-4), were placed in the basket by means of a pair of long, wooden tongs, ta'lapa (N), pīnīta (C) (plate XXXI, figs. 6 and 7), used as illustrated in plate XXX, fig. 1. Each stone was first dipped in a basket of water to cleanse it. Meanwhile about two quarts of the newly leached meal were thoroughly mixed by the hands in a small basket with six or seven quarts of warm water from the big boiling basket. Except for a small amount, this was poured into another large basket. Hot stones were put into this thin gruel until it boiled violently and cooked thoroughly. As the cooking progressed more water or more gruel was added, to attain the desired consistency.

When placed in the basket the cooking stones were at almost white heat. They were prevented from burning the basket by constant stirring with a paddle (plate XXXI, figs. 1-4), called sa'lakka (P), tcawa’lli and tōlō'wa (N), uta'wa (C), and told wa (S), which was also used, among the Northern Miwok, to dip out the stones. A looped stirrer (sawa'iya, C, S), (plate XXXI, fig. 5), was used among the Central and Southern Miwok for this purpose.

A small basket with about two quarts of cold water was placed against the cooking basket. As the stones were lifted out of the latter the mush was scraped off with the fingers, and the stones dropped into the basket of cold water. Any adherent mush congealed and, when the stones cooled, was easily peeled off. More or less broke off or accumulated in the bottom of the basket. The water was drained off and this was eaten, or when the stones had been washed for the last time, the contents of this washing basket were poured into the cooking basket and the whole stirred to an even consistency. These salvaged particles of mush were called tcunupati (C). The process of boiling resulted in ten to twelve quarts of acorn soup, or a somewhat smaller amount of the thicker mush, from the original two quarts of meal.

Two kinds of bread, “leavened” or black, and “unleavened” or white, were baked in the earth oven. These were called respectively hū'itcu (P), pū’lla (N); and ūta'ya (P, N), yo'ko (N). The “leavened” bread was dark brown in color, and was made of the acorns of the “water” oak, ala'wa (P, N). The “leavening” was a small quantity of ashes of water oak bark added to the dough. This sweetened the bread decidedly, though it did not make it rise.

Among the Central Miwok the word pulla applies to a bread made directly from freshly leached acorn meal baked on a hot stone. It is turned as it is cooked, until finally brown.

11Anthropological Studies in California.
12Cf. Gifford, 1932, pl. 5.
13Holmes, 1902, pls. 10-15.

1. The higher Sierra Nevada region. 2. Site of the village of Eyeyaku, near Tuolumne.
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Figure 1. The higher Sierra Nevada region, visited only in summer by the Miwok. Vernal and Nevada falls with the snowclad summits of the high Sierra in the background. Yosemite Valley lies immediately adjacent, to the left. M.P.M. Neg. No. 406395.

Figure 2. Site of the village of Eyeyaku, near Tuolumne. Altitude about 2,600 feet. Village site in background, bedrock mortar in foreground, Turnback creek between site and bedrock. Neg. No. 7125.


Figure 1. Handling hot cooking stones with the wooden tongs, Northern Miwok, Railroad Flat, Calaveras County. Neg. No. 2739.

Figure 2. Entrance to the conical slab grinding house. Within may be seen the portable stone mortar. In the doorway are several cobblestone pestles, Northern Miwok, Railroad Flat, Calaveras County. Neg. No. 2755.

1. Handling hot cooking stones with the wooden tongs, Northern Miwok. 2. Entrance to the conical slab grinding house.
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Figures 1-4. Wooden paddles for stirring acorn mush and other foods while cooking. Specimen Nos. 1-10070 (C), 1-9963 (N), 1-10126 (C), 1-10287 (C). Fig. 2 measures 1008 mm. Neg. No. 2775.

Figure 5. Looped stirring stick for lifting hot cooking stones from baskets. Specimen No. 1-10331 (S). Neg. No. 2775.

Figures 6, 7. Wooden fire tongs for handling hot cooking stones. Specimen No. 1-9964 (N). Neg. No. 2775.

Figure 8. Two large acorn granaries, Railroad Flat, Calaveras County. Northern Miwok. Neg. No. 2751.

1-4. Wooden paddles. 5. Looped stirring stick. 6, 7. Wooden fire tongs. 8. Two large acorn granaries.
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Figures 1-4. Cooking stones used in boiling in baskets. Spec. No. 1-10061 (N). Neg. No. 5976.

Figure 5. Stone pestle, unusually well formed. Length 380 mm. Spec. No. 1-9940 (N). Neg. No. 5967.

Figure 6. Stone acorn cracker. Spec. No. 1-10010 (N). Neg. No. 5967.

Figure 7. Stone pestle. Spec. No. 1-10087 (C). Neg. No. 5967.

Figure 8. Stone pestle, unusually well formed. Spec. No. 1-10085 (C). Neg. No. 5969.

Figure 9. Steatite dish, very roughly formed. Spec. No. 1-10506 (N). Neg. No. 5969.

Figure 10. Cylindrical stone pestle. Length 322 mm. Spec. No. 1-10316 (C). Neg. No. 5969.

1-4. Cooking stones. 5. Stone pestle. 6. Stone acorn cracker. 7. Stone pestle. 8. Stone pestle. 9. Steatite dish. 10. Cylindrical stone pestle.
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Online Library: Title Author California Geology History Indians Muir Mountaineering Nature Management