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


Wissler has designated California and adjacent regions as the wild seed area.14 The Miwok are true to type in this respect, as wild seeds, including acorns and buckeyes, are their dietary mainstay. Most wild seeds are eaten in the form of pinole, or meal, produced by pulverizing the seeds in a mortar. The metate was not employed for this purpose by the Miwok, except as an allegedly intrusive modern implement from the Great Basin.

The following discussion concerns seeds and nuts other than the acorns and buckeye. None required leaching. Most all were winnowed to remove chaff, parched with coals in a basket, and pulverized. Most were eaten in the form of dry meal, others were mixed with water, and some were cooked as a mush or porridge.

The seventeen identified species are listed in alphabetic order. Only three used by the Miwok were used by the Yuki and Pomo, although in three cases different species of the same genus were used by these peoples: Boisduvalia densiflora15 (Lindl.) Wats., Corylus rostrata Ait. californica16 A.DC., Madia dissitiflora (Nutt.) T. & G. 17

Oats (Avena barbata Brot.). Aweni (C), obviously a corruption of Spanish avena. When ripe the seeds were gathered with a seed-beater and carrying basket. They were pounded lightly in a mortar merely to loosen the husks, not to pulverize the seeds. Then followed winnowing. After that the seeds were parched with coals in a parching basket. The seeds were next pulverized in a mortar, and finally stone-boiled in a basket, making a soup or mush called tcista (C).

Balsam Root (Balsamorrhiza sagittata Nutt.). Ho'tcōtca (C). The seeds were cracked with mortar and pestle, winnowed, and eaten.

Dense-flowered Evening Primrose (Boisduvalia densiflora [Lindl.] Wats.). Winiwayu (C), wawō'na (S). The seeds were gathered with a seed-beater and burden basket, parched, pulverized, and eaten dry. Those stored were unparched.

Upright Evening Primrose (Boisduvalia stricta [Gray] Greene). Winiwayu (C). The seeds were gathered with the seed-beater in the fall. They were parched and pulverized, and the meal eaten dry.

“Ripgut” Grass (Bromus rigidus Roth., var. gussonei [Parl] Coss. & Dur.). Sū’llū (C). The seeds were pulverized and eaten as pinole.

Red Maids (Calandrinia caulescens H. B. K. var. menziesii, Gray). The prized seed from this small plant was called ko'tca (N, C). These black seeds were very rich and oily and were eaten pulverized. About the end of May the entire plants were pulled up and spread out on cleanly swept hard ground, or on a granite outcrop, to dry. With drying the seeds tended to separate, and by striking the drying plants the separation was accelerated. Lastly the plants were picked up and shaken to get additional seeds. Thereafter they were thrown away.

The seeds were then swept together with a soaproot brush and placed in a very tight, coiled, fiat-bottomed basket. The winnowing was with the aid of the wind and was done in a tight winnowing basket (hetalu, C), different from the openwork winnower (tcamayu, C). Then followed thorough drying and storage in a flat-bottomed coiled hupulu basket.

In preparing kotca seed as food a quantity was parched in a discoidal basket plate (kewayu, C) about four inches deep. The mass of seeds and coals was turned over with a rotary motion by skillful manipulation of the basket. After parching, the seeds were pulverized with a stone pestle in a bedrock mortar. The meal was very oily and was pressed into balls and cakes for eating.

Painted Cup (Castilleia sp.). Ponko (C). Gathered in June with seed-beater. Dried and stored for winter. Parched, pounded, eaten dry.

Fitch’s Spikeweed (Centromadia fitchii [Gray] Greene). Its seeds were eaten in the form of mush.

Clarkia (Clarkia elegans Dougl.). Sokowila (C). The seeds were collected in a finely woven burden basket (tcikali, C) with the aid of a seed-beater. After drying they were parched and pulverized in a mortar. The meal was eaten dry with acorn mush. Sometimes the whole plant was dried and the seeds removed later.

Hazel (Corylus rostrata Ait. var. californica A. DC.). So'lōkō, so’llogū (N); mūla', so'lokū, lī'ma (C); m'la (S). The nuts were used to a limited extent as food.

Summer’s Darling (Godetia amoena [Lehm.] Lilja.). Sipsibe (C), The whole plant was pulled up and dried as soon as the flowering was over. With the drying the seeds popped out. These were parched, pulverized, and eaten dry.

Farewell to Spring (Godetia biloba [Dur.] Wats.). Witala (C). The seeds of this plant were gathered in June. The tops of the plants were broken off and tied in large bundles, using the stem of one for binding. They were then dried on a granite outcrop, without untying the bundles. The hot summer sun prevented molding. When thoroughly dry the bundles were opened and spread. Treading and beating with sticks loosened the seeds, which were gathered and then winnowed in the wind. The cleaned seeds were then stored in a hupulu basket. They were parched and pulverized before eating.

Farewell to Spring (Godetia viminea Spach.). Nuwati, nō'watcī, nō'wasī (C). The entire plants were pulled up, bound in sheaves, placed in water for two hours, and laid on a granite outcrop to dry. The pods opened, releasing the seeds. This process was facilitated by beating the bundles with a stick. The seeds were winnowed and stored. In preparing them for food they were pulverized, but were eaten dry and uncooked.

Gum-weed (Madia dissitiflora [Nutt.] T. & G.). Etce' (C). The seeds of this tarweed were among the most valued. They were harvested in August with the aid of the seed-beater, winnowed, and stored in baskets. The method of preparation was to parch with coals in a parching basket, rewinnow, and lastly to pulverize in a mortar. The resulting meal was oily and could be readily picked up in lumps.

Tarweed (Madia elegans Don.). Yō'wa (C, S). Its seeds were gathered in midsummer, being struck off with the seed-beater into a soaproot-lined burden basket (waka, C). Yowa seeds were harvested by women during a period of a fortnight. They were easily kept in storage and sometimes the supply lasted a year, until the next harvest.

The seeds were winnowed, the husks or chaff (pusela. C)18 being blown away by the wind. The seeds were pulverized in a bedrock mortar with a stone pestle, being ground very fine. Both winnowing and sifting (pika, to sift, in C) were done in a flat circular basket plaque (hetalu, C). The sifting was done by jiggling the plaque so that the big fragments separated from the fine meal. The large fragments were pulverized further. The meal was eaten dry.

Chile Tarweed (Madia sativa Molina.). The seeds are used as food.

Buena Mujer (Mentzelia sp.). Matcū' (C). The seeds were pulverized and eaten as pinole.

Skunkweed (Navarretia sp.). Hau (C). Gathered with seed-beater in August, sun dried, stored. Parched and pulverized. Eaten dry.

Valley Tassels (Orthocarpus attenuatus Gray). Tummu (C). The seed was gathered with the seed-beater and burden basket, dried, parched, and pulverized. It was eaten dry.

California Buttercup (Ranunculus californicus Benth.). Takalu (C). The seeds were gathered in June with the seed-beater and soaproot-lined burden basket. The processes involved in order, were winnowing in the wind, drying, storing; and, when eaten, parching and pulverizing in a bedrock mortar.

Unidentified seeds which were eaten are hetchetci (C), a grass growing in Hetch Hetchy valley and from which a mush was made; ho'tcōta (C); ka’llu (C), flat, curved, black seeds from which a meal was made; mūkū'sū (S); o'pkole (S); oppole (C); po'sowila (C), plant flowers in June; pū'ka (C); sitila (N), flattish seed from a meadow plant which grows a foot high, burned as offerings; siya (C); sulle (C); talaku (C); tca'nta (S), grows at higher altitude than Miwok habitat, meal boiled and drunk as a gruel; tokobu (N), a globular seed from a single-stemmed, two-foot high plant with pale blue flowers, seeds explode with noise when burned; ska (C); yū'ta (C), flat, curved, brown seeds.

14Wissler, fig. 1.
15Chesnut, 370.
16Chesnut, 333.
17Chesnut, 395.
18Cf. puselu, to blow; puse, to winnow.

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Online Library: Title Author California Geology History Indians Muir Mountaineering Nature Management