The Miwok People
The people who settled in this area many centuries ago are now referred to as the Northern Sierra Miwok. They established their villages alongside the rivers and streams of the Sierra Nevada from the Cosumnes River on the north to the Calaveras River on the south. Other Miwok groups lived to the west and south in California’s great central valley as far west as Mount Diablo and south as far as Yosemite National Park.
The Miwok of this immediate area gathered acorns and other kinds of seeds and ground them into meal in the mortar holes – or chaw’se – in the large flat limestone outcropping in the meadow. They also caught fish and hunted deer and other game throughout these hills. The climate was agreeable, the water supply was generally reliable, and many good village sites were available. Commodities that could not be found locally could often be obtained through trade with neighboring tribes.
The Miwok possessed an extraordinarily detailed understanding of the resources that were available to them and they passed this knowledge down from generation to generation. Plant foods were generally collected and processed by women while men trapped, fished and hunted. All resources were used with care and thanksgiving so they would continue to be available, and they were used fully. Little or nothing was wasted. For example, a plant called soap root was mashed and used 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.
Deer were the most important animal resource and again, all parts were used. The meat was used for food. Clothing was made from the hide. Antlers, bones and hooves were used for tools and instruments. The brain was used to tan the hide.
Like most California Indian groups, the Miwok relied upon acorns as a mainstay of their diet. Acorns were harvested in autumn, dried and stored in large granaries called cha’ka. These could be eight or more feet high and were made of poles interwoven with slender brush stems. Resembling large baskets, they were lines with pine needles and wormwood, the odor of which repelled insects and rodents. The cha’ka was thatched with short boughs of white fir of incense cedar to shed snow and rain.
Acorns are rich in nutrition, but they contain a great deal of tannin, which makes them bitter to taste. They had to be processed to make them edible. The Miwok cracked and shelled them and then placed the acorn meat in a mortar cup where it could be pounded with a stone pestle to the texture of a fine meal. Hot and cold water was poured through the meal to leach out the tannin.
The prepared meal was mixed with water to the desired texture in a large watertight cooking basket. Hot rocks were then added to the acorn mush or soup and moved about with paddles until the acorn meal was cooked.
The village was the primary political unit in Miwok life though alliances were likely to exist between villages and some basic understandings were widely held by the Miwok as a whole. Village size varied from two dozen to as many as several hundred individuals. Each village had a specific territory that belonged to the group. Because this territory encompassed several ecological life zones, the village could be reasonably sure that its need for food, clothing and shelter would be met. Diversity in the environment was important to survival.