by Sara Moncada and Maya Harjo
We come here to listen. Under the beautiful Grandmother Oak grove that sits here along the tributaries of the Ignacio Creek watershed, we have come to listen to stories, to gather as community, to learn from one another and share good food. She is massive and very old, our Grandmother Oak, her many branches reach out in a towering dome that shades more than seventy people gathered under the protective embrace of her leafy limbs. Her grove, the extensions of herself and her neighbors that make up this beautiful protective semi-circle of vibrant greens, is especially poignant for this day of gathering, as we are coming together to share in acorn teachings—the gifts of land, food, language, song, ceremony—all that have come from her.
We are coming together to share in acorn teachings of Grandmother Oak.
Our guides for the day are Vincent Medina (Muwekma Ohlone) and Louis Trevino (Rumsen Ohlone), two California Natives whose journey to revitalize Ohlone language was strengthened and solidified in the land. They have come to share with community as part of The Cultural Conservancy’s Fall Harvest Gathering at the Indian Valley Organic Farm and Garden, nestled among the rolling coastal hills of Marin County, California. This is Coast Miwok territory, neighbors and trade partners to the Pomo, Wappo, and Ohlone. Vince and Louis’s teachings on this land reflect traditional economy that was once diverse and bustling across the entire San Francisco Bay Area. For California Natives, access to knowledge of language, stories, and songs is severely limited, as they stand among some of the most devastated Native communities across Turtle Island (North America) in the wake of Spanish conquest and the discovery of gold. Yet as Vince and Louis stand in our outdoor classroom at the foot of Grandmother Oak, their stories of revitalization and resilience are as much about Ohlone language reinforcing a sacred connection to the natural world as they are about the gifts within it. In their traditional homelands, they listened to Elders’ stories that included those of Native plants and their uses, and the value, respect, and love our ancestors have for traditional foods—foods that can heal, empower, and better connect us to culture and identity.
For California Natives, access to knowledge of language, stories, and songs is severely limited.
A multigenerational disruption of Indigenous knowledge and land-based practices has impacted the foundation of sacred understanding through which Native American people relate to their ancestral lands, waters, plants, and foods. This loss is especially felt among those communities who continue to experience dispossession of land on which to access, gather, grow, and practice living land traditions. To directly address these losses of connection and revitalize foundational Indigenous knowledge, a Native foods movement is taking hold across the nation and throughout the world. Particularly in the San Francisco Bay Area, this painful history of missionization and relocation has left Native California tribes and intertribal communities with little access to private or public land for food production or traditional ecological cultural practices. Vince and Louis’s work is centered on re-establishing these connections through Ohlone foodways, traditions that reflect land stewardship and Indigenous knowledge and experiences that aim to bring back into coherent vision a more ecologically sound worldview. This work creates opportunities to re-integrate organic vegetables, Native foods, and cultural traditions into the diet and lifestyle of Indigenous people—critical steps toward promoting the physical, mental, and spiritual health of individuals and communities.
For the Ohlone and most Indigenous peoples of California, the acorn has always been the lifeblood of health and community. California Natives live in close-knit reciprocal interconnection with such relatives as the treasured California black oak, tan oak, and coast live oak. Their gifts of food, medicine, dyes, utensils, games, toys, and other materials were interwoven with ceremonies and offerings of gratitude and love. For Indigenous peoples, there is a reverberating theme of the acknowledgment and importance of deep relationship within the living world, one that also reflects our responsibilities to ethically engage in land stewardship as members of the larger ecology. California Natives practiced regular controlled burnings to decrease oak diseases, increase edible grasses and ground foods, encourage the growth of shoots for basketry, and defend the land from the threat of larger life-taking wildfires. Families would collect from the same oak stands year after year, developing networks and working in community to gather the abundant offerings of the trees they knew so intimately.
Families would collect from the same oak stands year after year, developing networks and working in community.
When accessible, Vince and Louis collect from the same sacred gathering sites of their ancestors and bring those foods and teachings to sit with us under the Grandmother Oak, sharing the profound remembrances that have come in the revitalization of these lifeways. From learning the names of these places and foods in their traditional language, to ceremony and prayer, to gathering and cooking, the legacy of ancestral memory lingered in our mouths as we slowly savored the acorn brownies, white sage tea, yerba buena and venison meatballs, mushroom and Indian lettuce acorn flour flatbreads, and chia and bay laurel sorbets that they prepared. It is a powerful and sweet reminder of the dense nutrition packed in these superseeds and superfoods, cultivated by the community of human and non-human relatives who support each tree, each branch, each seed, throughout their lives.
We did not know then that this would be our last time together within the embrace of Grandmother Oak’s encircling grove.
We did not know then that this would be our last time together within the embrace of Grandmother Oak’s encircling grove. Due to a large construction overhaul and facilities development on the campus that also calls this land home, many of the bay and oak trees that stood around her in a half-circle of vibrant green were cut a month later. Without her community of trees to share in interconnection, in protection during wind and rain, and in sharing of good water during drought, Grandmother Oak now stands somewhat alone, separated from her community of support. The fertile ground of oak humus, where we once sat to receive the lessons of our Ohlone teachers and taste the nourishing flavor of their plant relatives, is now sun-dried and flattened by the daily passing of heavy machinery.
What will we learn from the acorn trees and the whole communities they support? How do we value local ecosystems in the face of commodification of place? We are called here, back to our Grandmother Oak, to remember our responsibility to listen deeply to our land relatives, just like our acorn teachings, to remember the importance of a deep awareness and reverence for the relationship among, between, and through all aspects of living creation, including our living relationship with the earth. This acknowledgment of relationship is the place where we ground the cultivation for ethical living. In other words, it all begins with this first acknowledgment of “all our relations” as the foundation for entering into any kind of exchange—be it shared knowledge, shared food, shared resources, or shared space. This recognition of the interdependence of all realities—relationships with one another, other beings, the natural world—leads to human engagement in the collective reciprocal links that connect all in the commonality of creation. This awareness of connection leads to an ethical space of living with the world around us that celebrates the health and well-being of all involved in that larger connected web, all held in the acorn seeds of Grandmother Oak.
Sara Moncada (Yaqui) is a Native artist, educator, and media-maker. She is Vice President of Programs at The Cultural Conservancy and cofounder of Wise Women Circles films. Her work is dedicated to Indigenous rights and revitalization and to sharing the power and beauty of cultural arts worldwide.
Maya Harjo (Quapaw) is an organic gardener and educator dedicated to restoring Native food systems through traditional foodways and sustainable agriculture. She is Native Foodways Coordinator at The Cultural Conservancy, having graduated from Brown University in International Development Studies. She has a certificate in organic horticulture from the University of California–Santa Cruz.
mak-’amham / Café Ohlone. (n.d.). Contemporary Ohlone cuisine [Website]. Retrieved from https://www.makamham.com/
The Cultural Conservancy. (n.d.). Native foodways. Retrieved from http://www.nativeland.org/native-foodways/