Nisenan (Native Americans)

Ooti: A Maidu Legacy

From the book by Richard Simpson

Lizzie Enos was a Maidu Indian. She was born in Placer County in 1880 and lived most of her life in the area of Meadow Vista and Clipper Gap. Her ancestors once populated an area from the Sacramento River eastward to the crest of the Sierra Nevada, almost touching Lake Tahoe. On the south were the converging American and Sacramento rivers, to the north Mount Lassen. Less than a hundred and fifty years ago this region was a natural wilderness where the Maidu culture flourished, a culture in which the spiritual and the mundane existed undivided. Springing from the Maidu myth of creation, the beliefs of the people lifted the earthly and tedious to a place of reverence and celebration. According to those beliefs, the crushing of an acorn into meal, the crushing of ooti, became not an endless unbearable task, but a spiritual experience. The finding of the first acorn flower in spring signaled a time for festivals and dancing and celebration of life. The eating of ooti became a circle of remembrances, mysteries and ever-changing associations.

Lizzie speaks for the people. She helps us understand that even the most simple everyday tasks are filled with miraculous importance and beauty. The following is her story of ooti.

Photograph by Richard Simpson

In the early time of legend, when Coyote was said to have swayed the people to his cunning ways and lost for them the good life, First Man, from World Maker's counsel, told the people of the acorn. He told them how the acorn should be gathered, how the shells were taken from them, how to pound the acorn into powder, how to sift them, how to take the bitter from them, how to bake them deep in coals, how to boil them in willow baskets, and how to make the water biscuit. All these things still survive in the mind of Lizzie, as if the past had never left her.

In the early days when villages had many houses, one could hear the endless music of the bone awl squeaking through the willow coils in the constant weaving of new baskets, and the constant repair of the old and worn. At the village Chukam Pakan, only Lizzie makes this music now. She has spent many days weaving baskets, all made watertight of red and white yellow, made strong and in all shapes and sizes suited to the job they must perform. A great pile of sound baskets now stands ready to be taken with acorns to the pounding place.

Back from the green tufted bank of Choopim Seyoo, the little creek called Willow Water, sits a boulder full of acorn grinding holes. It is here, upon the boulder, that Lizzie will work throughout the day.

From the village Maw Bawtatimaa to this boulder many women would come to sit and work. They sat and winnowed, gossiped, scolded children, pounded acorns until they had deep holes sculptured, now abandoned and filled with leaf mold, left their only mark in this hard black bedrock outcrop.

One of these holes is chosen. It is scrubbed hard with a soaproot brush until the lip and hollowed bowl shows blue against the older rainworn rock around it.

Then Lizzie takes the first acorn in her fingers, points it down upon the boulder and strikes the white end twice with a small cracking rock. The acorn bulges and then splits open.

My mother used to tell me about this Indian lady that gold cracking rock, big round one. She cracked acorn with that for a long time I guess … until this white man hear about it. White man come there and give that old lady fifty cents for it and take it away. But she don't care. That old lady had lotta those regular cracking rocks and fifty cents besides. Old time Indian never seem to care about gold like white people.

Lizzie pulls the split shell apart and the kernel falls into her palm.

When we crack and open this acorn, some of them black inside. Old timer never thrown that away, just put it aside in one place. When they get maybe half sack they put that in running water about a week. Whole thing they put in there, and then take that out and boil it. After it boil they put salt on it and eat it that way. Is good. I used to eat with old people. Is good. Just taste like acorn bread.

The day moves on. Shells fall away and a basket fills with clean kernels. Ootim Hai.

When the final acorn has been hulled, Lizzie fills the grinding hole with kernels. Then she lifts the heavy stone pestle called Bai above her head, and, guiding the force of its weight back down into the hole, lets it fall to break the kernels, lifts it high and lets it fall to break and crush the kernels, lifts it high again and lets it fall, breaking, crushing, grinding the acorn kernels.

The ground kernels are scooped from the stone bowl and piled onto the flat winnowing basket. Daw is the Indian name for this special willow tool. The basket is whirled and tilted and bounced until the acorn meal arcs and spins in the air to find its own size there, then settles in a fine powder at the upper side of the basket as the larger particles fall over the lower edge and back into the hole to be re-ground.

Photograph by Richard Simpson

Then the heavy pestle lifts and falls once more, thump, thump, thump, through the afternoon. And every little while the winnowing basket tilts and spins to interrupt the pounding, refining again and again the already sifted meal. So when the day is late and the shadows long, one basket has slowly filled with the finest yellow acorn flour, Ootim Bat.

Old people always have fine meal. "You eat better that way and it tastes good that way," my mother used to tell me. But I can't make it like they do. When they make acorn mush and it cold, it just like Jello. You can catch one side and it just come out in big chunk; then we eat it. Acorn dance song about that. Everybody dance and one man sing.

We dance, all of us. Men folks come into Round House with their costumes, come up in front, and the ladies circle around the outside of those men dancers. Oh they look good! They just go slow and dance. Oh, they look good!

Old timer had a lot of songs. That Acorn Dance song just one of them they do all the time.

Lizzie leaves the acorn grinding rock for the day. Her basket is now filled with the new meal that tomorrow must be leeched of its bitterness.

Summer is here and deep sand lies stranded on the banks of the stream Choopim Seyoo, separated from the clay and gravel like fine meal at the upper edge of the winnowing basket, fine sand to absorb the bitterness of the acorn. It is to such a place as this that Lizzie brings her baskets and newly ground meal.

She has built a fire on the gravel nearby, and over this fire her hand releases a spray of meal that sprinkles through the upward swirl of smoke and flame. She says the Toomwey, a prayer, speaks it as the meal is consumed by the heat of the fire and rises again as smoke to hang in the still morning air. Lizzie speaks this prayer to the spirits all around her.

Look at me from above
Look at me from these hills
Look at me from Heaven
And bless me

Lizzie then places cooking stones at the center of the fire to heat. These are the stones that will heat the water and cook the meal.

This be special rock. Common ones, when you make it hot and dip it in cold water, it break. But not that special rock. Just use same one over and over. Koolem aw we call that. Aw is the rock. Koolem aw, Powerful Rock.

Koolem aw got lotta little holes all over, only it not rough when you touch it. Is hard, that rock, but it have smooth feel like soapstone. That kind come from special place too. Used to be old camp, big Indian camp, up near Colfax with creek running through, and that creek got lotta those cooking rocks in there.

In early days, maybe man and his wife they go up to that camp for Big Time, you known, dance or something. They had all kinds of Big Time those old-time Indians. And when that over and they come back home, each bring down two or three of those rocks on their backs. That's the way they used to do.

They have lot of it, that Powerful Rock.

Where the sand is deepest Lizzie smoothes it flat and level. She smoothes it around and around with her hand until a lip of sand circles the outer edge to form a shallow sand bowl as wide as an arm across.

As she works, Lizzie talks of the acorn and of the Big Prayer.

First acorn that fall, those green ones, they call that New Acorn. Old timers always have big doings for New Acorn.

Every woman from every camp bring New Acorn, and men folks kill lotta deers and rabbit. Women folks pound that acorn and they and they make New Acorn soup. That's the way they have big prayer. They don't say much, but they just talk a little bit and then you all go ahead and eat. Just same as white people.

Old timers used to do that, but late years we don't have that any more — we don't have New Acorn Prayer. That's why my mother used to say, "Acorns sometime no more because you don't pray for it."

Dry pines needles are placed upon the sandy basin, strewn and patted down evenly to make a porous nest. Over this in turn a thin white cloth is spread. Then the meal, rich and yellow with bitterness, tumbles from Lizzie's basket onto cloth. It is smoothed out with the hands until a layer of acorn meal covers the entire circle of the nest. At one edge of the unleeched meal, green Cedar boughs have been placed.

This be where water pour. Water hit this bough and keep from making big hole that way. When you eat acorn mush or bread, little bit Cedar you can taste.

A basket of cool water is dipped from Choopim Seyoo. It is poured through the Cedar boughs and the first water fingers out upon the meal. Another basket of water pours, and another, until a little lake stands on this sandy bar.

Slowly the water sinks and goes into the meal. The water soaks the acorn particles, then sinks below the acorn meal, through the cloth, through the dry pine needles and disappears into the sand carrying with it the bitterness of the acorn.

After this, warm water is poured through the Cedar boughs, but never is it made hot enough to cook the bitterness into the meal.

And so this little lake rises and sinks, rises and sinks, as the early morning sun comes bristling through the pine trees that stand back upon the hills.

Photograph by Andy Laursen

The Bear is home to a rich and diverse wildlife population, including many rare and endangered species. With limited public access, the Bear River canyon may provide the last, best link between upland conifer forests and lowland oak forests, critical for wintering deer herds and other migrating wildlife.

When the last water disappears and the meal lies wet and not so yellow as before, Lizzie kneels at the edge and looks to find some trace of bitter. An extended finger sinks down to the bottom of the meal, then is pulled back out to touch her tongue. Quickly her hand travels here and there across the tiny flat, in and out, jabbing holes into the meal. The bitterness is gone. Awntee, the large cooking basket, is filled with wet meal.

Water is poured is poured into the basket and the meal stirred to a thin soup. It is then moved, along with a rising basket full of water, closer to the fire where the cooking stones have been heating at the center.

The hot stones are lifted from the coals, clamped in wooden tongs.

Each stone is passed quickly through the rinsing water and then lowered into the soup, spreading a circle of heat to the bottom. One hot stone, then two, then three hot stones and four, and already wisps of steam rise from the surface of the cooking liquid.

Soon the steam becomes dense. With Tawaal, the paddle, the stones are turned and lifted as the soup grows even hotter. Back and forth, around and around the paddles goes, tumbling the stones over and over within the soup.

The surface lifts. Bubbles pop softly, making muddy sounds.

Still the paddle goes until the cooking meal stirs stiff and thick, until large round bubbles stay open-mouthed and belch hot streams of steam into the air. It is done. It is Oosaw, acorn mush.

Lizzie pauses, listening to the hollow noises coming up from the heated stones and cooking meal, hears the hiss and grumble, sees the moisture lifting, moves the paddle now and then to keep the basket at the bottom free from burning. When the mush has become thick and still, the warm stones are lifted from the cooking basket. They are wiped off with a wet hand and dropped over the side onto a matting of Pine needles and Cedar boughs.

The mush is now ready to eat. It is soft and warm, and to be scooped up by the first two fingers pressed together; tasting good to the Indian. Every tasted mouthful is hinting of it process, hinting of the pounding rock, hinting of the Cedar boughs, hinting of the leeched-out bitter, hinting of the burning stones and ashes.

Sometimes those subtle tastes are later blended with the powder pounded from the glistening salt rocks. At other times the flavor is completely changed when the bright red Sourberry is crushed and added to it.

If this newly cooked mush becomes cool and rested, it jells to a substance firm but never solid, eaten as quivery chunks or slices just the way Acorn Dance song says: Oootim yawn ye-koonai — from the acorn blossom to the acorn mush, that's hard but wiggles.

But now the mush is still hot from the heated stones. From part of this hot mush Lizzie will make the Water Buiscuit.

Old timer use little basket just for making that Water Biscuit. Fill that little basket with hot mush and where the water be running clean and not too fast, dump it in there quick and let go. Get another basket full and dump it in. Keep doing that over and over till you get lotta little round biscuit.

Each little basket full of mush get kinda hard when it hit the cold water, you know. That's the way we made that kind. And they all look alike, that biscuit, same size, no difference, all just look like clam.

Early days they call that Saw. Now we call it Water Biscuit. Indian eat it with deer meat, or rabbit, gray squirrel, things like that.

In the early times, a day like this would probably find more than one woman from the village working on the gravel bar. And with them too would be the children ranging in age from those cradled in the shade to the young girl just learning the skills needed to survive within her culture.

On this day, of course, there are no children. Only Lizzie works here. But if there were, the cooking stones would not lie cold on the pine needles as they do now. Lizzie would have fixed them for the children in a special way — just as her mother did long ago.

That Awmpes, acorn mush cooked on those rocks. We like to eat when it just flake off dry, when we was little. Other times, old people, they put that in water there, and that Awmpes come off of the stones like it be thick skin or something. We used to pull it off and eat like nobody's business - little kids. Our mothers fix it that way for us, and then we just eating away and get belly full.

Part of the meal leeched of its bitterness that morning was held back from the hot stones of the cooking basket. This afternoon it will be baked to an unleavened bread, baked in the now smoldering coals of the morning fire.

Lizzie opens the hot ashes, makes a hollow there in the coals and lines this holes with green wild grape leaves brought from the marshy draw. The wet cake of leeched meal is firmly pressed into the bowl of leaves, then additional leaves are spread and pressed down upon the top. Over this, more hot ashes are heaped, and the still warm stones that circle the sire are moved in closer to contain the heat.

Upon all of this a new fire is built and Lizzie steps back to wait for it, too, to turn to ashes.

When the fire has burned down, Lizzie rakes away the coals and stones.

With two sticks she lifts the steaming leafy acorn bread called Maat, lifts it from the smoke and ashes to a flat rock nearby. The limp cooked leaves are peeled off from around it.

This cooked grape leak good to eat. They used to use these Black Oak leaves too, big ones. And best kind were those Water Leaves, Mawmbak, white folks call it Indian Rhubarb.

In spring time we used to get Poison Oak leaves. Old people says, "Go get Poison Oak leaves." We used to strip it into baskets and bring it in. Never get any itch from that Poison Oak. Old people cover that acorn bread with it, put it in ashes, and then when it's done we used to eat the leaf. Never hurt us.

The acorn bread sits cooling on the flat rock. A dove calls across the valley to the setting sun. Lizzie rests on the bank of Choopim Seyoo and touches the Spirits in all things around her, hears the distant voice of the old storyteller.

Hears in memory his tale of a water bubble with changeable rainbow colors, a water bubble which became the God-like man Aikat who killed Thunder and married his daughters.

Remembers how the Deer Children killed Bear Lady who had killed their mother; how they floated up to heaven on tree cotton and found their mother there.

Recalls the warnings about the red-faced wild people called Baawmkawle, who stole good-looking children when the rain fell softly.

Remembers Hunchup, the witch doctor who killed half-white girls with poison air, how he was killed and became a coyote.

Heard how the people killed the salt man, and where he died there still is salt.

Remembers the old man that raised tobacco on the hill; he who had gone to Estawm Yan, the Middle Hills, to hear the Spirits talk and to bring back new songs; he who told her the stories and legends of the Indian.

This old man he be part Dreamer, and he knew lotta stories. When we was kids we pester all the time: "Tell story, tell story!" And he tell them, good stories. But when that ol' man get tired telling he say, "Aawpawk-pawkawm aawm yoo-oolooshkit." That means, White Rock All Fall to Pieces. Then he wouldn't tell you no more, no matter how much you give him. You give him hundred dollars he wouldn't tell you no more. "Hammu!" he say. "That's All!"

The acorn bread is cool. The first star is the in the sky. The dove has gone to sleep. Lizzie has gone home. It is dark and acorns are growing in the trees.

Lizzie died in 1968 at age eighty-seven.

[Read more about the Simpson Ranch and Wooly Creek, where Lizzie fished for salmon in Holding On to the Heart and History of the Simpson Ranch … ]