Acorn Conference Sows Seeds of Pride and Love for Traditional Acorn Practices

Conference participant grinds acorns with a mortar and pestle.

This November, Sherwood Valley Tribal Youth Program and Indigenous Community Initiatives hosted the first-ever Acorn Conference, supported by First Nations’ California Tribal Fund. This conference featured acorn processing demonstrations, an art exhibit, educational presentations, and acorn-based foods at the Grace Hudson Museum in Ukiah, California.

The seed for the conference was planted when Antoinette Asencio, tribal youth program director for the Sherwood Valley Band of Pomo Indians, heard that elders wanted to teach the community about acorns, in part so that they could eat acorn mush again. They started with acorn workshops to educate youth, and then decided to expand so that the whole community could participate.

Asencio and her colleague, Monique Sonoquie (Chumash/Tongva), organized acorn practitioners throughout California to come celebrate and share their diverse acorn knowledge.

The Acorn Conference began on a Friday evening with a screening of a 30-minute video of Essie Pinola Parrish (Kashia Pomo) gathering, storing, and processing acorns. The video, produced by the University of California Berkeley in 1960, stimulated conversation as it played on a loop in the art exhibit throughout the conference.

Corine Pearce, a master basket weaver and 2020 Luce Indigenous Knowledge Fellow, participated in the Acorn Conference.

Attendees appreciated the opportunity to see the entire process, and hear elders discuss how the video depicted an unrealistically perfect process. Corine Pearce (Redwood Valley Little River Band of Pomo), a 2020 Luce Indigenous Knowledge Fellow, noted that none of the waterways in California contain potable water, so we could not use river water, like Parrish did, to process acorn now.

Pearce commented further: “It strikes me that those baskets were on loan to Essie from the museum. We don’t have harvesting baskets. We don’t have drying baskets. We don’t have fishing baskets and cooking baskets because they had to leave our community in order for us to live, in order for us to afford to be here.” She asked people to raise their hands if they had heritage baskets at home and few raised their hands. Baskets were one of the few goods that Native people could sell to settlers to make money, so now countless baskets are displayed in museums and among non-Native collectors.

The nuts and bolts of the conference

On Saturday and Sunday, Yuki dancers from Round Valley opened the event. Xa Kako Dile, a local Indigenous women-led nonprofit organization, provided meals throughout the event that incorporated acorn and other traditional and locally grown foods.

Among the presenters was traditional singer and dancer Bernadette Smith (Manchester Band of Pomo Indians). Smith spoke about the dire situation for tanoak trees in Mendocino County. Between Sudden Oak Death and the timber industry labeling them “trash trees” and killing off hundreds daily, tanoaks are at high risk of going extinct. Called chishkale, or “beautiful tree,” in Kashaya, this tree is sacred to the Kashaya people.

Smith cites lack of safe access to tanoak trees as the primary reason that her people no longer gather acorns. She recalled times she spent in danger on the sides of curvy roads because that was the only place to gather acorns. Currently, to gather acorns, Native people must identify and build relationships with allies who own land where these trees live.

Stan Rodriguez (Iipay Nation of Santa Ysabel) makes an acorn granary.

For years, Smith returned to a grove on private property. Last year, the grove had died, but when the property owner was digging for a new shed, he found a pestle and contacted her to return it. “When I got this back, it was beautiful, but it was heartbreaking because I could see the trees being there when my ancestors were there. I felt so connected to the trees and felt a ray of hope that we could continue this tradition that went on for generations from these very trees. But then to go back and see them gone, turning black from Sudden Oak Death, all the limbs falling off. It’s so heartbreaking. I felt a physical reaction to seeing my trees gone,” Smith recalls.

Yet, she maintains hope, “I believe in our ceremonies. We can pray things into existence. If you see an acorn tree, you say ‘thank you’ for your gift. Thank your Creator for this gift. He’ll hear that. He’ll see that. He’ll feel that. And He will put things in place so that we can protect those trees. That’s something I can do. I use my voice to sing, and to bring awareness, and to pray for the truth. And that’s what I do. That’s my gift. That’s my reciprocity.”

Stan Rodriguez (Iipai, Santa Ysabel) taught participants how to make acorn granaries in his traditional way, with his family. He explains that they use willow because it contains salicin, which repels insects. He speaks out against the term “hunter/gatherers” that implies that California Native people were not permanent on the land. He discusses how people took responsibility for oak groves and understood the boundaries of one another’s lands, and that sharing and reciprocity were key to life.

“You don’t have that much black oak and you need some. Well, we have an abundance, come take what you need. But we have an accommodation that if it ever happens with us that we can come to you. That’s how we do things, that’s how our people work together,” shared Rodriguez.

Carly Tex (Western Mono) demonstrates her acorn leeching process.

Carly Tex (Western Mono) brought a heritage basket for her acorn cooking demonstration. She was nervous to use it and risk damaging it, but her father encouraged her because it was made for preparing acorn, and if it broke, she knew how to fix it. The basket was given to her father by her grandmother after Tex made her first cradle board and gifted it to her grandmother.

Tex’s mother, Julie, shares the story: “And then she disappeared and came back with this cooking basket, and turned to Carly’s dad and said, ‘Here, son. This basket was made for you by your grandma. And I held onto it until I knew that you were going to carry on the culture, and you were going to take care of it. And now that I know you’re teaching your daughter, I’m going to give it to you.’ So that’s why Carly always asks her dad. It’s his basket, and he is always willing to say, ‘Yep, grandma’s going to go with you.’”

Julie Dick-Tex (Western Mono) demonstrates acorn cracking.

‘Eat the food from where you’re from’

Overall, the Acorn Conference was a success in fostering a love for acorns and encouraging people to revitalize acorn practices. Pearce reassures California Native peoples who may feel timid about reacquainting themselves with acorns: “Don’t be afraid and don’t feel shame about it because the plants will teach you along the way. We are an evolving culture, but something that doesn’t ever change is our connection to place and our love of place. So, if you are feeling disconnected, the most important thing that you can do is eat the food from where you’re from. Every single acorn will teach you a lesson in humility and will give you victory, because you’ll get it right someday.”