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Acorns Helped Sustain Indigenous Groups

Acorns from an oak tree. Credit: Sarah Khan

Acorns from an oak tree. Credit: Sarah Khan

Nutty, nutritious and abundant acorns populate our globe. California indigenous people have a long relationship managing oak forests and acorn-gathering and processing acorns for food. The first of this two-part series looks at indigenous people from California and how they sustainably managed oak forests and produced trees abundant with acorns suitable for basket-making and essential tools. In the second article, we take a closer look at the labor-intensive process to create acorn flour and the women who oversee it.

How to live sustainably in nature exists in many cultures. In the modern United States, native people carry this knowledge and pass it down from generation to generation despite environmental degradation. Though colonizers systematically destroyed indigenous cultures and forced them to become empty-handed, they did not become empty-headed. Sophisticated oak forest management that led to copious acorns for consumption is just one example of native people’s cultural survival and their contributions to our shared heritage.

Background on diverse people

Part 2 of the acorn series:

» Creating acorn flour

More from Zester Daily:

» The golden rules of sustainability

» Tips to forage by

» Wild about mushrooms

How else does one sustain culture than through the act of story, language and practice? Indigenous people of the area now called California included more than 100 tribes. They spoke 90 languages and more than 300 dialects. The region represented the most linguistically diverse landscape in the Western hemisphere before contact with settlers and the destructive Gold Rush. Yet today, only about half the languages are still alive, according to the Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival. A small revival is under way to revitalize the languages, songs, dances and foodways that still percolate through indigenous Californians. Dynamic descendants, like L. Frank Manriquez, are reconstructing traditions based on cultural artifacts because fragments of culture tell stories. The living legacy of the elder Pomo Indian Julia Parker, who created her renowned hand-woven baskets that grace the most prestigious art collections, is a testament to enduring cultural traditions.

Old-growth knowledge

Ecological knowledge spans many disciplines, for example, the geographic shape of the land; how dynamic ecosystems work; whether one utilizes a plant as food, medicine, ceremony or building material; how to apply and accomplish controlled fires for forest management; how to hunt, gather, farm or cook; how to build structures and canoes; how to make clothing; and how to heal. Yet indigenous people assert that the knowledge passed down includes much more than ecological knowledge. Many believe their knowledge is all-encompassing and rooted in spirituality, values, normative rules and cultural practices.

Indigenous management of acorns and oak trees

Beverly Ortiz and Julia Parker have committed their life’s work to enlighten the world about the native people’s rich traditions through the story of oaks and acorns. (Their book will be discussed in the next article.) Eighteen species of oaks are distributed throughout California; tanbark oak is the only oak that belongs to genus Lithocarpus, whereas the rest are of the Quercus genus. The many species vary in size, nutritional value, taste, habitat and more.

Ortiz, a longtime field researcher, summarized the wisdom that native Californians possess about how to sustainably manage vast oak forest landscapes. “California Indians used fire as a management technique to enhance the growth … ensure the growth of mature, open woodland trees with a dispersed understory, and to control some disease organisms and insect infestations.” Ortiz added that native people “used it [fire] to stimulate the growth of fine, straight, supple shoots used for weaving baskets and long, straight, sturdy hardwood branches useful for digging sticks and other tools. They also used it to generate the tender, new growth consumed by foraging animals, which, in turn, the men hunted.” The low-temperature burn would also clear the area underneath the trees to make gathering acorns easier. While precisely pruned acorn-bearing tips of oak branches produced straight and flexible shoots, specifically useful for basketry, it also further increased acorn harvests.

Native Californians effectively managed the vast landscape to create an optimal environment that allowed the collection of acorns. Only then could one benefit from the nourishment acorns provided. Long-term planning with the health of the landscape in mind was an integral part of ultimately collecting food for consumption. In the next article in the series, we will take a closer look at how to process collected acorns for food and flour.

This article was partially underwritten by the The Christensen Fund, a nonprofit organization, dedicated to biocultural and agricultural diversity of marginalized people and landscapes globally.

Top photo: Acorns from an oak tree. Credit: Sarah Khan

Zester Daily contributor Sarah Khan writes about food, culture, climate and sustainability. For her second Fulbright, she is presently traveling in South and Central Asia for a year (2014-15) to tell the stories of female farmers as they contend with a rapidly degraded agricultural landscape, gender inequality, poverty and climate change. She will document their challenges and victories in multiple media. To follow her journey, visit her website.

  • Eve Emshwiller 3·7·13

    Very nice to see this discussion of tending of oaks and acorns by Indigenous peoples of California. Thank you!

  • Suzy Hodgson 3·7·13

    Acorns as well as hickory nuts have proved to be a healthy food for the woodland grazing of our pigs on a micro scale. We’ve had a couple Gloucesters Old Spot and Tamworth pigs (old English breeds) who love munching on nuts and brush. The caveat is that they will continue to root around unearthing and eating saplings so rotating them from area to area is important or you won’t continue to have much of a sustainable woodland for people or animals. We’re in Vermont with a mixed woodland of ash, maple, hickory, beech, and birch. Philo Woodland Farm &

  • Candace Vorhaus 3·7·13

    Fascinating article Sarah! I never thought of acorns for consumption before reading this article. Thank you for the wonderful work you are doing!

  • Henry Drewal 3·7·13

    Chestnuts…move over! Ancient wisdom for today — controlling fire to sustain life — I love it!

  • Chambliss Neil 3·7·13

    I always thought acorns were poison. This is totally cool, as is seing how the food fits into the larger system. Thanks!

  • Nathan Carlos Rupley 3·7·13

    Acorns have tannins in them that need to be leeched before eating any quantity. This article says that they will cover it in the next post. Parker/Ortiz’s book is excellent for covering traditional techniques of acorn processing. Samuel Thayer’s book Nature’s Garden has 50 pages about acorns, and covers a range of modern and traditional techniques. A lot of other foraging books cover acorns, but most don’t have as much useful information as either of these books.

  • Sarah Khan 3·7·13

    Thanks for all the thoughtful comments, those of us in the northeast need to visit Suzy’s farm in VT, and thanks for the reference to Thayer’s book. Leeching of the acorns is an essential step discussed in next weeks follow up article. And you can even start picking sprouted acorns in the spring…

  • jane ping 6·7·13

    Context, yes indeed!
    Thank you for such an interesting website!