The Food Sovereignty Project tells stories about traditional Indigenous knowledge and practices that honor and strengthen the relationship to the plants and animals that sustain all of us. The seven-story project was co-managed by Nicole Charley and Jackleen de La Harpe for Underscore News with generous support from The Roundhouse Foundation. Read the entire series here.
On an unusually warm October weekend, I sat on a picnic bench beneath the oak and pine trees of what is today known as Touvelle State Park near Medford, Oregon. With a pestle in hand and a stone mortar in front of me, my neighbor, a young kid, poured the crumbled bits of acorn from their mortar into mine as part of our makeshift assembly line. I twisted and pushed my pestle into the bigger pieces of acorn, grinding them until they became acorn flour.
More than 40 other members of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde and Confederated Tribes of the Siletz Indians were there, attending the first modern-day intertribal acorn camp along the bank of the Rogue River. As the sun filtered through the tree canopy, we could see a wide, slow-moving portion of the river from where we sat. Some descendants of both tribes, including myself, can trace their ancestry to people who lived along this river and in this valley for thousands of years.
Further to the north are Lower and Upper Table Rock, two 800-foot volcanic plateaus with steep and jagged cliff faces. The Table Rock Treaty was signed there on September 10, 1853, a temporary treaty between the U.S. government and the Shasta, Takelma and several other tribal bands that lived along the Rogue River before they were forcibly removed and relocated to the Coast Reservation. The U.S. government later took a series of actions to reduce the size of the reservation.
Acorn camp is an intergenerational gathering. Tribal members range from toddlers to elders who have come with their children and grandchildren. We stayed for two nights, working as a community to gather and process acorns in the traditional way. We camped among the homelands of our ancestors. And we learned from cultural bearers of both tribes to process acorns into flour and make San-chvn-tuu-’i’ or “juice of the acorn” (sometimes called acorn mush), a First Food and staple for thousands of years.
After I ground the acorns into a fine powder, I poured the powder into the flat basket of my neighbor, who shook and sifted it. Any pieces that were too big were poured back into a mortar to be ground further. Then, the fine flour was poured into a separate container to be soaked, leaching it to remove bitter tannins.
What our ancestors knew
It can be tedious to process acorns into flour, especially alone. But the process goes much faster when we’re together, sharing news and creating community bonds. For many tribes like Grand Ronde and Siletz, gathering, processing and preparing food together was foundational to our ancestors' way of life. That included salmon, acorns and camas bulbs.
Families and villages collecting these nutritious nuts as a community spread the work of gathering and grinding acorns among many hands. It was more efficient, and it was a crucial process to teach and pass down traditions from older generations to the young.
Acorn camp, hosted by both tribes and the Indigenous Gardens Network, helps to facilitate this intergenerational knowledge sharing.
“I love hearing the clinking sounds of the pestle and mortars and seeing all the squirrels come out,” said Jacob Reid, an organizer of acorn camp and mental health case manager for the Siletz tribe. “It’s almost like they remembered what that sound meant.”
Bringing back our traditional ways of processing food while in community represents an intentional effort to reconnect to that way of life and enact food sovereignty. For us, that means asserting our right to gather healthy and culturally appropriate food in the ways we see fit.
But it’s not always easy. Local, state and federal policies limit access to ancestral lands of camas meadows and oak woodlands, where traditional foods grow. Community members don’t always have the ability to travel and take time away from work or access to transportation. And there are long-lasting effects from forced removal, relocation and termination that continue to ripple through our tribal communities.
More recently, the Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted our ability to gather together in person, especially with our elders who are more vulnerable to the disease.
Once around 200 acorns have been ground — enough to produce about two cups of flour — it’s time to start the process of leaching. Acorns are rich in protein, carbohydrates and fat. But they also possess a tannic acid that can make them too bitter to eat right out of the shell.
A traditional way to leach the acorn flour is to use a nearby stream or river to let the natural flow of running water remove the tannins over several days. To speed up the process at acorn camp, we wrapped the flour in cheesecloth and rinsed it several times with cold water until the water ran clear.
We used water from a nearby spigot and took turns rinsing and squeezing the cheesecloth. Several kids got excited and couldn’t wait to take turns squeezing the cloth. They circled around the spigot, each one resting a hand on the bag and squeezing in unison.
When the water runs clear, it’s time to make San-chvn-tuu-’i’, or acorn mush. The recipe varies from tribe to tribe.
As daylight waned, dinner preparations began. We set up two portable camping stoves, one with simmering beef and lamb stews for the camp dinner soon to follow. On the other stove, acorn flour and water slowly heated up in a big pot. We stirred the mixture constantly, being careful not to burn the flour, until it reached a porridge or oatmeal-like consistency.
Several tribal members gathered around to take a spoonful of the San-chvn-tuu-’i’. We discussed the taste and texture, noting the nuttiness and slight sweetness. Maybe we didn’t quite grind the flour enough: there were bits of acorn meat left in the mush. But I liked the small crumbs of acorn in each bite; they added a pleasant crunch. As the moon rose into the night sky and the stars revealed themselves, we spent the rest of the evening exchanging stories over bowls of stew.
Through their tenacious efforts
I wonder what it was like for my ancestors to gather and process acorns together. I wonder how many acorns they had to gather and save for winter. And I wonder what it would be like to continue this practice today, outside of acorn camp, and how hard it would be to gather and prepare acorns alone, without a large gathering of tribal members.
Siletz and Grand Ronde share similar histories, but they are also unique. Both are confederated tribes, meaning they are recognized as single sovereign governments despite being composed of over 30 different tribal bands, all of whom the federal government forcibly removed from homelands spanning from northern California to southwest Washington.
The federal government terminated the tribes in 1954 with the Western Oregon Indian Termination Act. Termination was an egregious policy that ended the government’s legal responsibility to tribes across the U.S. and was intended to dispossess tribes of their land, their sovereign status and their tribal identity.
Through the tenacious efforts of their members, both Siletz and Grand Ronde saw their status as federally recognized tribes restored in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Like many, the Siletz and Grand Ronde tribes have traditional practices that were violently disrupted by colonialism and continue to be impeded by U.S. government policies.
Since termination, the tribal governments for Siletz and Grand Ronde have carried out a number of valuable missions to improve the economics, health, education and well-being of their members. They have reclaimed tribal traditions, such as dances, basketry, language, and access to First Foods. Attending acorn camp is one of many ways to reclaim our traditional practices.
On our last morning at camp, a small group of tribal members rose before dawn to ascend Lower Table Rock for a sunrise ceremony. Acorn camp ended with prayers to thank the land for all it has given to us. While this was the first acorn camp that I attended, I am hopeful it will not be the last.
Lead image: Jordan Mercier, cultural education coordinator for the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, demonstrates how to grind acorns using a pestle and mortar. (Jessica Douglas / Underscore News)