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(or Miwok Big Time)

 

 

The  Miwok Acorn Festival is held on the fourth weekend every September by the Miwok  (MEE-wahk) Indians that lived in the area that we know today as Northern California. There were three groups:
     1. The Lake Miwok who lived south of Clear Lake.
     2. The Coast Miwok who lived just north of what is now San Francisco.
     3. The Eastern Miwok who lived south of what is now Sacramento.

The Miwok Indians were just like other California Native Americans and relied a lot on acorns for food. They harvested these from the valley oaks in the autumn and stored them in cha'ka or granaries.

The acorns can't be eaten as is. They had to go through a special designed process to get rid of the tannin, which prevents the human body from absorbing their nutrients. Tannin also gave the acorns a bitter taste. 

The acorns were cracked open and the "meat" was ground into meal. This was done using stone pestles in the mortar holes formed in huge slabs of marbleized limestone called chaw'se or grinding rocks (see below).  These rocks can still be seen today, especially at the California Grinding Rock State Historic Park in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The biggest is a huge, flat, expansive limestone that contains more than 1,000 mortar holes; and, represents evidence of the Miwok's labor.

After the acorn meat was made into meal, it was then rinsed over and over with water to wash the tannin away. Then it was used to make soup, acorn mush or acorn bread.  Acorns are very high in nutritional value. (See this link by US Agriculture on Acorn Flour.) The average adult Miwok consumed about 2,000 lbs. of them a year. This is why the harvest was such a major event.

The Miwok would celebrate the acorn harvest each year at a tribal gathering called the Big Time.  Families from widely scattered Miwok villages came together for this harvest activity  and share the fruits, chat and exchange information, supplies, and news. They would also perform ceremonial dances.

The 1848 Gold Rush disrupted the Miwok's lifestyle in a major way. It forced them to leave their land that they had lived on for centuries.  But, the Miwok Acorn Festival is still celebrated today at  Miwok Park in Novato, CA, at Point Reyes National Seashore and other spots. But, the biggest and best-known celebration takes place annually at the Grinding Rock State Park in Pine Grove, CA. The entire Miwok village, including acorn granaries, the ceremonial roundhouse and typical Miwok bark homes have been reconstructed.

Descendants of the original Miwok (approximately 3,400 based on the last census) and other Californian Indian tribes come to this event on the last weekend in September. They all perform traditional dances, play hand games and engage in storytelling.

 

The place where they Miwok stored their acorns all winter is called the cha'ka or granaries.  These were structures that were several feet high, consisting of poles through which branches had been woven to form sides. It had a thatched roof of fir or cedar to keep out the rain and a lining of pine needles and wormwood to ward off deer, rodents, and insects. In essence, they look like tall baskets.

Each family had it's own cha'ka.  Today they have been reconstructed at various Miwok sites to stand as a symbol of their culture and tradition.

 

That big limestone grinding rock that I mentioned above that is located at Grinding Rock State Park has become a monument to the Miwok survival.  It has 1,185 grinding cups (or mortar holes) more than any other grinding rock in North America!  When the cups fill with rain, they look like round, sparkling, footprints across the stone.

This stone is also distinguishable because it has 363 petroglyphs (rock carvings) that depict circles, wavy lines and human and tracks.  It is believed that these petroglyphs are approximately 2,000 to 3,000 years old.  They tell the story of the history of the Miwok in this area. Except for one other smaller stone at another site, the stone at the Grinding Rock State Park is one of two that are decorated in this way.

Limestone is soft and fragile.  So, visitors are not allowed to to walk on the stone. But they are allowed to admire it from a wooden observation platform, as well as to respect it as a symbol of the Miwok way of life.

 

Just like the stone, the roundhouse at the Grinding Rock State Park is also the largest in existence today.  It is 60 feet in diameter.  Cedar poles with woven wild grapevine make up it's inside walls. The roof slopes gradually upward from the ground level and is made of cedar bark slabs.  The floor is clay. Huge oak posts are in each corner.  Ceremonial dances are performed inside this roundhouse several times during the year. But the biggest occasion is the Acorn Festival.

When the roundhouse got remodeled in the early 1990's, many Native Americans got upset.  It was remodeled to comply with state safety and fire laws.  So a fire exist had to be put in.  Because the circular shape of the building symbolizes Mother Earth, adding the fire exit tampered with that structure's symbolism.  Some see the roundhouse now as "ruined" and will refuse to go inside.

Return to our September Holidays Page for more celebrations.

Source of Information:
"Holidays, Symbols & Customs  3rd Edition"
By Sue Ellen Thompson
Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003

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