The Miwok People
Indian Grinding Rock State Historic Park is on the traditional homeland of the Northern Sierra Miwok people who gathered acorns and other kinds of seeds and ground them into meal in chaw’se or mortar holes. The Miwok possess an understanding of the resources that are available to them, and they have passed that knowledge down from generation to generation. For centuries, the Miwok caught fish and hunted deer and other game throughout the area and traded with other tribes.
Traditionally, plant foods were generally collected and processed by women while men trapped, fished, and hunted. 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. The fibrous leaves could be dried and bundled to be used as a brush. Deer were the most important animal resource. Again, all parts were used. The meat was used for food. Clothing was made from hide. Antlers, bones, and hooves were used for tools and instruments. The brain was used to tan the hide.
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 lined 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 have to be processed to make them edible. First acorns are shelled and then the acorn meat is placed in a mortar cup where it can be pounded with a stone pestle to the texture of fine meal. Hot and cold water is poured through the meal to leach out the tannin. The prepared meal is mixed with water to the desired texture in a large watertight cooking basket. Hot rocks are then added to the acorn mush or soup and moved about with paddles until the acorn meal is cooked.
Chaw’se is the Miwok word for mortar cups. The Miwok ground acorns and other seeds into meal, slowly forming the cup shaped depressions in the stone that can still be seen today. Along with the mortar holes, the main grinding rock within the park also features a number of decorative carvings: circles, spoked wheels, animal and human tracks, wavy lines, etc. Some of these carvings are thought to be as much as two or even three thousand years old and are now becoming difficult to see. This association of rock art and bedrock mortar pits is unique in California. Except for one other small site, Indian Grinding Rock State Park has the only known occurrence of mortars intentionally decorated with petroglyphs. The marble grinding rock is fragile and very susceptible to weathering and chipping. The natural elements are claiming many of the petroglyphs and visitors are asked to stay off the rock and to respect this irreplaceable cultural history.
Village and Roundhouse
A typical Miwok village has been reconstructed which helps the Miwok preserve their heritage and traditions and share them with present and future generations of Californians. Bark houses, a ceremonial roundhouse, acorn granaries, shade ramadas, and an Indian game field help illustrate the past to present day visitors. California State Parks is committed to stewardship and to continue to work with the tribes to protect and develop the park.
The roundhouse, or hun’ge, remains the setting for a variety of social gatherings and ceremonial events. Ceremonies may be held, to pray, to mourn the dead or to observe special occasions through music and dance. The hun’ge is sixty feet across and is one of the largest in California. Four large beams and center poles support the roof. A large hole in the center of the roof allows smoke from the fire pit to escape.
Traditionally, Miwok homes ranged from eight to fifteen feet in diameter and were built of cedar poles interwoven with grapevines or willow and covered with cedar bark. A hole was left at the top for smoke from cooking or heating fires. Bark houses or u’macha’ can be seen near the grinding rock and also at the reconstructed village west of the roundhouse.
A game field, poscoi a we’a, was reconstructed near the roundhouse. The game played is very similar to soccer. On a field about 110 yards long, players try to kick or carry a ball to the opposing team’s goal. Both men and women play, though the rules are different for each. Men can only kick the ball, while women can handle the ball in any manner. If a woman holds the ball however, a man can pick her up and run for the goal.
The grinding rocks are fragile, and the meadow is fragile. Please stay on the trails, and please do not pick the wildflowers.
State law prohibits gathering or removing artifacts. Leave objects you discover where you found them and please notify the park staff.