Looking into the Sierra Foothill’s past
Generations ago —women would gather at these spots to grind their acorn meats.
“That’s where they would go get to work. That’s their kitchen — they would keep that very clean,”
“You’ll find different holes at different depths. Traditionally, they like a shallower hole to pound the acorn flour. The deeper holes maybe they’re just really, really old but they did pound some meat and some of the deeper holes they would even store things in there.”
“The holes were always near a source of water— because the ground grits needed to have the bitter tannins leached out of them before they could be turned into flour and eaten.
It was a communal experience at the grinding station.
There are holes in the granite at many locations in the high country like these and around the Sierra foothills where springs and streams flowed.”
~~quotes by Lois Bohna, an artist and teacher
This spot is near Whiskey Falls in the Sierra National Forest, just up the mountain from my garden.
Also, below the garden about 800 feet is an expanse of flat and sloping granite upon which are another grouping of grinding holes to wonder about. This is Mono, Yokut and Chuckchansi country and to think of native Californian women gathering here is awe inspiring!
Grinding the acorns
The native women would gather here on the shady granite expanse of rock to grind acorns from the local Valley Oaks, which were prized for their high nutritional value. However, the nuts have a high tannin content which give them a bitter taste. The women solved this problem by cracking and pounding the nut meats on the rock with a stone pestle. The repeated grinding created depressions in the stone over time. Once the meal was fine enough, water was poured through it, rinsing away the tannin. The acorn meal could then be cooked in traditional large cooking baskets an open fire.
Whiskey Falls are a favorite spot to take visiting family and friends. Nearby is a large rock face of granite where a small cedar bark cabin was built one hundred years ago by one family. Near this cabin are 10 or 12 grinding holes. This ancient, sacred location has been used for hundreds of years high up on Peckinpah Mountain that overlooks my garden.
This expanse of granite lies south and east of the falls and along Whiskey Creek. Pines and oaks create a woodsy setting where a summer home would likely be maintained by native peoples. In winter, this area is covered high in snow which doesn’t melt until April, May or even June.
The creek flows through steep sided granite cracks, and if imagining native Californian families here, would be an alarming place to bring small children because of the steep rock edges of the swift flowing stream. The number of grinding holes here indicates that a large community group must have made their summer home here.
Viewing and wondering about grinding holes just brings home the fact that we have life very easy in comparison.
Native Americans in the Sierra Foothills
The indigenous Mono, Yokut, Chukchansi and Miwok people comprised one third of the 300,000 Native Californians in the Sierra Foothills when population was at its peak. From plants like sedge, tule, willow and bracken fern they created the baskets for which they are famous, used for storage, cooking and display. They were fishers, hunters and gatherers. Besides acorn meal, they lived on seeds, insects, fish and game. Seasonally, they moved their homes and livestock from lower to higher elevations.
Plenty of oaks supplied acorns and wood, expanses of grassland and chaparral provided seeds, deer, antelope, rabbits and birds, while abundant amounts of fish were taken from streams and lakes. Native Californians were never hungry.
Newcomers brought by the Gold Rush drove native Californians out of their hunting and food-gathering grounds. To protect their homes and livelihood, some Native people retaliated by attacking the miners, which in turn provoked counter-attacks on native villages with disastrous results. Today, the number of local tribe-members has diminished by a tenth.
Native American Sacred Sites
From Inyo, Sierra, and Sequoia National Forest Service Planning: Native American sacred sites are those locations considered to be sacred by: Indigenous Americans, the citizens of the 110 California Federally recognized Tribes, the 50+ non-Federally recognized tribes petitioning for recognition, and a multitude of other Native Americans who may or may not be associated with a specific federally recognized tribe. The complexity and breadth of the Forest Service’s statutory responsibilities in managing the NFS are immense. It is abundantly clear that the Nation’s Native Americans retain histories, values, and spiritual underpinnings that are inextricably intertwined with National Forests.
“Every part of this Earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every clearing and humming insect is holy in the memory and experience of my people. The sap which courses through the trees carries the memories of the red man.”
Si’ahl (Chief Seattle), 1851