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Acorn Soup and Roundhouses

November 3, 2014

I am one of the luckiest people on earth. I live in an area where there are many Native Americans and have been invited to some of their events. For years, I read and taught about Native Americans. I visited reservations in Arizona and Northern California, saw ceremonies and dances, walked among Navaho sheepherders in red rock canyons – but was always an outsider passing through. But here, in north central California, there are many rancherias in places such as Potter Valley, Redwood Valley, Point Arena, Stonyford, Cortina. Recently, I was an invited guest at two Acorn Harvest Dinners at Cortina.

“I was about twelve years old when we installed electricity in my Uncle’s cabin,” one gentleman told me. He pointed to a small, unadorned wood building where his Uncle had lived. One room, simple porch running across the front. “He liked it at first. He had electric lights and a refrigerator. But after a couple of years he asked us to take it out. ‘It’s too much trouble,’ he told us. It was easier for him to blow out a candle when he wanted to go to bed. The refrigerator was too much work. ‘Bring back my old ice box.’ His drinks were kept cool by setting them on a metal plate on top of the ice box,” my acquaintance told me. “That was really all he needed or wanted.”

Another person told me about the water at Cortina. “You can’t drink it. The water here has too much sulfur. We can use it for washing dishes and that’s about it.”

“What do you do for drinking water?” I asked. It was a stupid question, the answer obvious. Nearby sat an ice chest filled with bottled water. I amended my question, “I mean, before bottled water. In the past.”

He pointed toward a ravine full of brambles on the other side of the picnic tables. “There used to be good spring down there, and a path leading to it. I don’t know if it’s still there or not. I haven’t gone there since I was a little boy.”

I asked if I could go exploring, find the path. He shrugged, “Well, if you want.” I asked, because I didn’t know – and still don’t – what is considered off limits. There are no KEEP OUT signs at the entrance to Cortina Rancheria, but neither are there signs pointing to it. Just driving there makes me feel as though I’m entering a Brigadoon: long winding road, gravelly, leading back and back along the edge of uninhabited lonely oak hills to a dead end at the edge of a arid canyon. I have only met one other local white settler family who has ever been there or heard of it.

The elder who extended me an invitation, a woman whom I believe serves as leader although I don’t think she uses that title, said a prayer in the native language before long tables under a sheltering roof. The tables were spread with potluck food such as you might find at a church picnic but scattered among the dishes were other specialties: hand prepared fat tortillas, fry bread, elk, deer, and bowls of acorn soup. At the head of the table was a water-tight basket full of the thick brown liquid.

The conversation around the table was about native gatherings, big times and dances, held at other locations; news of people who hadn’t been seen recently, whether the round house at Cortina would be rebuilt. A rough circular hole in the ground near the picnic tables was all that remained of the last roundhouse. A number of guests had traveled long distances from other rancherias: Point Arena, Calpella, the Feather River region. There was little advance warning of the two Acorn Harvest dinners I attended, only a couple of days. “How did you hear about this dinner?” I asked two women from Point Arena. “I’m suprised so many people came with so little notice.”

“Oh, word spreads, ‘invite your friends’, get on the phone, email.” Then she told me about an upcoming dance at the round house in Point Arena. “The public is invited; you should come!”  I did. That might be another post.

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