The Land and the Kumeyaay

"The Kumeyaay were seasonally migratory people who followed food," says Linda Hawley, volunteer trail guide for Mission Trails Regional Park. "They would summer in Point Loma for the fish and abalone, which were plentiful then, and [for the] nice cool ocean breezes. This time of year would be when the Kumeyaay would make their way east to San Carlos to collect the coast live oak acorns." On Saturday, November 25, Mission Trails Regional Park is offering a guided nature walk amongst the native habitat of the area's indigenous people, the Kumeyaay Indians.

When the Kumeyaay migrated inland in autumn, one of their main sources of protein was shawii, a kind of pudding made from acorns that is created in an elaborate process taking up to several days. "The first step was to collect acorns in granary baskets -- those are four-foot-tall, oval-shaped baskets that they could strap to their backs," Hawley explains. "They would strap the baskets in the crotch of a tree to protect [the acorns] from insects and ground critters." After the acorns had been collected, they were dried in the sun. Once dry, the acorn seeds were removed from their shells.

The shell cracking, says Hawley, "was a murderous, time-consuming process. It took almost all day." When the acorns had been liberated from their hard casings, the skin remaining on the nuts was then removed using winnowing trays, or flat woven baskets. "They would take their hands and grab a handful of these acorn seeds and rub them with their palms so the brown skins would fall off. Then they'd toss them up in the air, almost like a pizza guy, and [any leftover] skins would fly off in the breeze. When the seeds were completely white and clean, then they would grind them."

Boulders and stones near the river were used as mortars and pestles to grind the nuts to a fine powder. "After the grinding, they would sift the powder in loosely woven straining or leaching baskets that worked like colanders to remove the tannic acid. This would happen for hours." Finally, the ground and soaked acorn mush was placed into a juncus basket, into which fresh water and hot rocks were added to cook the pasty substance.

"If they wanted to make it really nice and tasty, they would add a big-eared woodrat or a rabbit and make a stew out of it. They would also add honey." Hawley had the opportunity to taste traditional shawii at the Barona casino (where the process was expedited with the help of a food processor and blender). "It's very bland," she remembers. "Some say it's like corn mush or pudding, but to me it was more like oatmeal."

The Kumeyaay had an abundance of food in the riparian area that was home to the oak groves. "They were farmers, of a fashion, and would increase the growth of certain plants that they knew attracted mule deer, which they also ate." According to kumeyaay.com, fire was the most significant tool used for environmental management by the Kumeyaay. They would burn the brush in certain areas and then plant seeds in the burned soil.

The arroyo willow plant was used to make skirts for women. It was also used to build 'ewaas, the rounded-topped huts in which the Kumeyaay slept, often after lining the interior with rabbit skins. The willow also acted as a panacea -- it contains salicylic acid, the primary ingredient in aspirin.

In an article on kumeyaay.com, Kumeyaay elder Jane Dumas explains the medicinal qualities of many indigenous plants. Black walnut leaves can be made into tea to purify the blood and ease stomachaches. Buckwheat tea can be given to babies to relieve diarrhea, and rose petal tea can combat fevers. Boiled elderberry stems are said to "heal sores in diabetic patients," and horsetail stem tea helps to control high blood pressure. Violets, Dumas writes, are "not only beautiful, but the leaves can be made into tea to ease coughing and sore throats."

White sage is another plant of many uses, acting as an insect repellent and, when boiled, a decongestant. Kumeyaay men would rub the sage on their bodies prior to hunting in order to mask their human scent, and sage is slowly burned, like incense, during sacred rituals.

"Another thing [the Kumeyaay] would eat this time of year are the berries from the toyon, what we call 'Christmas berry,'" says Hawley. Toyon is a green shrub with clusters of small red berries. "They are protected here, so people can't go around cutting it to make a nice fresh wreath. But the Kumeyaay knew just when to choose them -- if you pick them too soon, they're very bitter." -- Barbarella

Guided Nature Walk at Mission Trails Regional Park Saturday, November 25 9:30 a.m. Visitor and Interpretive Center One Father Junípero Serra Trail San Carlos Cost: Free Info: 619-668-3281 or www.mtrp.org

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