The rugged Sierra Nevada forms the backbone of California. Only 40-80 miles wide they are 400 miles long, gently rising out of the broad Central Valley. Located in the foothills just 8 miles from Jackson is the Indian Grinding Rock State Historic Park. It was a gorgeous fall day when we explored this park nestled in a small valley at an elevation of 2,400 ft. It, too, was influenced by the California Gold Rush.
White Man Comes
In the Sierra, Native Americans found not only beauty, but natural abundance yielding deer, small game, fish, grass seeds, berried, and the indispensable acorn. Until gold was discovered at Coloma in January 1848 by James Marshall. Miners poured into the area, forcing the Miwok out of their traditional patterns of living.
This very land where today’s park exists became farmland or ranches during the 1850’s with farmhouses, outbuildings, gardens, orchards, livestock ponds, etc. Traces still remain.
In the 1880’s the land was sold to Serafino Scapuccino who tended the land, but also welcomed the Miwok to camp in the meadow, gather acorns and hold ceremonial events at their old village site. He also protected the “great rock” by putting a fence around it.
After his death his family held the title to the property until the 1950’s, when concerns were raised about its preservation in the midst of developmental pressures. In 1958 the State of California acquired 48.5 acres of the property and in 1968 it was formally dedicated as a state park, later placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.
When we first arrived at Indian Grinding Rock we hung out in the Chaw’se (pronounced Cha-sa) Museum, checking out the exhibits and collection of Sierra Nevada Indian artifacts. This is an easy place for the entire family to brush up on Native Americans (in Canada we refer to them as First Nations) studies and for the kids to learn without realizing it (unschooling).
Chaw’se is the Miwok word for the mortar cups that formed in a stone slab as the Miwok pounded acorns and other seed into meal. This park has preserved that incredible outcropping of marbleized limestone with 1,185 mortar holes. This is the largest collection of bedrock mortars anywhere in N America.
Acorns, Other Foods & Trading
Acorns were the mainstay of the Miwok diet, high in fats, protein & carbohydrates. They were gathered in the autumn, dried and stored in large granaries (cha’kas) made of poles interwoven with slender brush stems. The cha’kas were thatched with short boughs of white fir or incense cedar to shed snow and rain, and then lined with pine needles and wormwood to repel insects and rodents. (see structure on left of photo)
Rich in nutrition, acorns are bitter to the taste because they have a lot of tannin. To counter this the Miwok would crack & shell them, place them in the mortar holes to be crushed into a fine meal. Then they took the meal to the creekside & poured water through the meal to leach out the tannins. The prepared meal was then mixed with water in a large, watertight cooking basket. Hot rocks were added to the acorn mush or soup, moved around with paddles until the acorn meal was cooked.
Acorn wasn’t their only food, of course; they hunted game and fished. The Miwok and other foothill tribes would follow the migration of deer and other game upland during the summer months. Commodities not found locally were often obtained via trading with neighbouring peoples, such as highly favoured Black Oak acorn or abalone shells for obsidian arrowheads or plant materials from the east.
Out in the valley here at Indian Grinding Rock there is a reconstruction of a Miwok village including a roundhouse (closed off to the public). In a typical village the hun’ge (aka Roundhouse) would be the largest building, about 20 to 50 feet in diameter. This one here is 60 feet across…one of the largest in California. The hole in the roof allows smoke to escape. One could also see the night sky through this.
Only a tribal headsman could bear the great responsibility to construct a hun’ge for the village; when he died, the hun’ge he built would be destroyed or abandoned. Hun’ge were the centre of community life, and every element of their architecture contained spiritual significance. Praying, mourning for the dead and observing special occasions through music and dance took place in the hung. From birth to death, almost all aspects of an Indian’s life was intimately connected with ritual and the spiritual world. Today many still follow the old way of relying largely on spiritual guidance.
This was all we could see when peeking inside.
This is the view to the grounds when leaving the Roundhouse.
The Roundhouse here at Indian Grinding Rock is still actively used today by local Native Americans for various social gatherings and ceremonial events. In September Miwok families meet at the park to dance, play hand games, sing and tell stories, all traditional activities. This is Big Time, the time for the annual acorn gathering ceremonies. Spectators are welcome.
Using bone and stone tools men and boys constructed bows, arrows, baskets, houses, nets and many other items used every day. Perfecting skills took years to acquire so as to produce items that would be admired by others and demanded in trade. Some men would specialize in producing particular tools such as arrow points or bows that were sold or traded with community members.
Just as Native Indians lived by the land, their homes were traditionally made from the land. The Miwok called their homes u’ macha. They were built of cedar poles tied with wild grapevines (or willow) and then covered with incense cedar bark. By overlapping layers of bark, the house became waterproof. A small hole would be left in the top for smoke to escape from fires used for cooking and heating.
The door into the u’ macha was bark slab or deer hide. The floor was covered with pine needles or grass.
There’s a $8 fee for parking at Indian Grinding Rock which pays for entrance to the Chaw-se Museum and the opportunity to wander through the Miwok Village and along the hiking trails.
There’s camping here (additional fees of course), and a unique opportunity to camp in bark houses! The camping is primitive (i.e. no services) but would certainly be an unforgettable experience! We didn’t do this, but maybe next time!
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