Bear River Awakening

Nisenan (Native Americans)

Ethnobotany of the Nisenan

Story and photographs by
Julie Carville

The Nisenan lived deeply in touch with the earth. They felt the heartbeat of the seasons, the animals, the rocks, and the plants, and over time they became horticultural experts, manipulating the environment with fire and gathering practices to maintain the health and productivity of their preferred plants.

Grass nuts lily
Balsomroot

Fire was their most important tool for managing their primary food source, the fire-adapted Black Oak, which enabled them to grow black oaks that could produce up to 140 pounds of acorns in a good year. Brodiaeas and other lilies were also important foods that were fire managed and dug in ways that increased plant populations. The women gathered the bulbs, corms, and tubers of these plants with fire-hardened, mahogany digging sticks in late summer and ate them raw or roasted them in earthen ovens. They harvested only the largest lily bulbs while scattering and replanting the tiny bulbs that had grown around the mother bulb. There are stories of brodiaeas and lilies growing so thickly that they once created acres of dense pink, yellow, white, and purple blossoms in spring.

Thimbleberry
Sierra gooseberry

Seeds and berries were another important food. Lily seeds were fall harvested for cooked cereals and unleavened bread. Balsamroot's small sunflower seeds were eaten raw or ground into flour for unleavened breads and hot cereals, and its seeds were boiled with deer fat and made into small cakes. Buttercup and bunchgrass seeds were gathered and roasted in flat, tightly woven baskets with fire-heated rocks. After roasting, the seeds tasted like popcorn. Mustard seeds, thimbleberries, rose hips, and gooseberries were all gathered in late summer, along with manzanita berries, which were made into a refreshing cider. The Nisenan crushed the large brown seeds of the buckeye and added them to slowly moving eddies in streams. The crushed seeds released a substance that stupefied the fish, allowing the people to grab them and toss them onto the shore for the next meal.

Buckeye

Leaves were eaten as food and used medicinally. Spring greens were gathered with delight after the long winter. Clover, chickweed, Indian lettuce, violet leaves (which are high in vitamin C), and monkeyflower leaves were eaten raw, made into teas, or steamed and added to various foods. The leaves and bark of the willows were brewed into tea to relieve headaches and body pains — it was from salicin in willows that chemists developed aspirin. California poppy leaves were eaten in spring after steaming, while the orange petals and roots were used to make a yellow dye for baskets, and the mildly narcotic root was applied to an aching tooth to lessen the pain.

Redbud

Plants also provided tools and weapons. Willows, redbuds, and other shrubs, were firemanaged to stimulate new spring growth of long, non-branching stems that were better for fine basket weaving, tools, and weaponry. Arrow shafts were made from the redbud, mock orange, and from various species of willows. The redbud was used also for the framework of cradleboards, and after its red stems were finely split, they were used for red designs in willow baskets. Incense cedar bark was made into planks for houses, and its shredded bark was used to insulate moccasins in winter and used for "baby diapers," and its branches were made into bows.

Mountain violet
Wild lilac

Manzanita, violet, and redbud flowers were eaten raw, and wild lilac flowers were gathered by the Nisenan to use in shampoos or as soap because they lather in water, and the flowers were used as part of a wedding ceremony to wash the beloved's hair, an act of intimacy and tenderness that was a symbol of their commitment.

This is only a small sampling of the Nisenan's vast plant knowledge. No one should consume wild foods based just on this write-up and no one should ever eat any part of a plant without being absolutely sure of its identification and how to prepare the plant to safely consume it. With that proviso, I want to leave you with a word from Chief Luther Standing Bear, a Lakota Sioux, "The old Lakota was wise. He knew that man's heart away from nature becomes hard; he knew that lack of respect for growing, living things soon led to lack of respect for humans too, so he kept his youth close to its softening influence."

May you and your children always be close to the softening influence of nature and plants, and may we honor them for the gifts they give to us everyday in so many ways.

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