Gathering showcases traditional superfood
Sunday’s Acorn Day at the Grace Hudson Museum showcased a variety of traditional arts, skills and opportunities for the general public to learn how to process acorns.
Acorn Day is an annual event at Grace Hudson, but this year was the first time the event was preceded by a two-day conference exclusively for Indigenous people to share information with each other. On Sunday, children cracked the ancient superfood under the guidance of Monique Sonoquie, who wrote the grants and pulled together between 70-80 people to share their knowledge at the conference.
Sonoquie is a Tongva and Chumash acorn maker, gatherer, and craftsperson who is originally from Southern California but has been in Willits for thirty years. “I thought it would be fun to do a conference around Native foods, but I decided to focus on acorns this time,” she said. So she reached out to her friends, who have skills she was hoping to learn. “I was too busy to learn everything, but I got to see it,” she reflected at the end of the day on Sunday.
Sonoquie was pleased that the Yuki dancers from Round Valley traveled to Ukiah for the event, as well as artists and vendors from around the region. A video of elder Essie Parrish working with acorns played all day Saturday and Sunday. Speakers shared their perspectives on tradition and climate change. U’ilani Moore-Wesley, who is originally from Hawaii, brought offerings of venison stew, fresh produce and foraged foods from Xa Kako Dile, an Indigenous women-led six-acre farm in Caspar. The harvest spread also included muffins made with acorn flour. “It’s a superfood,” Wesley-Moore said, comparing acorns to poi, the taro root that’s the staple of the traditional Hawaiian diet. “Our main source of food before colonization was taro, and here, it’s acorn…It’s just the best. I’m so honored to be able to make something with this beautiful source here.”
While the gathering was an opportunity to celebrate and share with friends, Sonoquie noted that there are gaps in the knowledge, and some raw realities to contend with. “We don’t have all the information that was passed down, because of colonization and trauma and people stealing lands, and the rape and murder and pillaging of our villages,” she said. “And even accessing acorns is difficult, because Indigenous peoples have been pushed out of their traditional territories for a long, long time, so lots of times we have to ask permission to go gather on people’s lands, or in the forests or in the parks.” The Grace Hudson Museum lets people gather in the wild gardens on site, but it’s a small space, compared to the vast areas that were formerly available to entire families to gather all day. “So being able to come to an event like this and taste the acorns that Indigenous people gathered is really special,” she added.
There is a lot of technical and scientific information involved in gathering acorns, as well as some important etiquette. Blue oaks and valley oaks are popular locally for their large acorns, but preferences and approaches vary regionally. Sonoquie advises watching the ground around the trees to gauge their productivity. The acorns that fall after the first rain are often full of worms, “So we leave those for the creatures,” she said. She likes to wait until after the second rain, when the acorns are usually bigger, with a whitish cap. “But I learned a lot this weekend, because some people do it differently,” she said. “Somebody said, gather what you can. Because you don't know what kind of year you’ll have…There’s a lot of science to it, but really, it’s watching your trees. In the old days, and maybe even today, some families have their trees that they gather from. So you want to make sure you’re not gathering somebody’s tree, and they show up, and all the acorns are gone.”
This may have been an auspicious time to have the first acorn conference at the museum. “It seems to be a very good acorn year,” Sonoquie reported.
And it’s still harvest season. After the acorn celebration, Wesley-Moore planned to go back to the farm and turn her attention to reclaiming another ancient plant. “I think, like many things, tobacco has really just changed,” she reflected. “The sacredness of tobacco is really important to bring back. So we’re going to go back and harvest the rest of our squash and the rest of our tobacco so we can dry and cure them so we can offer them as offerings at the next event that we’re welcomed to…I know that there are some tribal organizations here that are doing more gatherings and classes on harvesting tobacco to bring that connection of sacred tobacco offerings back to the land, and taking away the ugliness of what tobacco has turned into. So we’re grateful to be able to grow tobacco really well on Northern Pomo land on Xa Kako Dile.”
And she has a request. “I think a lot of people don’t know how to come to Indigenous gatherings like this,” she noted. “If it's open to the public I implore folks to come. It’s a good way to create a bridge of communications with tribal relations and come in a good way, to come and be open to learn and just to listen. You don’t have to come to these spaces to talk. You can come to these spaces and just listen. That’s your first step to being in good relations with the people of this beautiful land.”