Sunlight streamed through the open roundhouse top, a fire crackled in a pit at the center, and ash floated down around them as a handful of volunteers made nupa, or traditional acorn soup.
All of this is in preparation for the 50th annual Acorn Festival hosted by the Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuk Indians this weekend at the Tuolumne Rancheria.
Tribal Council and tribe members making nupa included Val Day-Burciaga, Renee Wessel, Jennifer Bates, Rhiannon Hendricks, Chris Bailey and Yvonne Jansen. Shauta Collier and Rhonda Standage usually help, as well.
It’s all about giving thanks and celebrating the acorn, a staple food for the Me-Wuk and people of California, Bates said while stirring a batch of nupa.
The traditional acorn soup takes several days to make. Acorn is pounded into flour and leached to remove the bitterness. The flour is then mixed with water and cooked using hot rocks.
Bailey tended the fire in the roundhouse Thursday. He started it at 7:30 a.m. to make sure the rocks would be hot enough for cooking to begin at 10:30 a.m.
The women took turns, two at a time, stirring hot rocks into the nupa. They used wooden paddles and stirrer sticks — long wooden sticks with looped ends to catch the rocks or hold them in place so they don’t crack in the soup, Wessel said.
What would take several hours on a stove to cook takes about 15 minutes with the rocks, Bates explained.
They use smooth lava salt rocks gathered from the Eastern Sierra Nevada.
“In the old days, you cooked in baskets, and the smooth rocks were easier on baskets than the craggier rocks. Now it’s tradition,” Bates said.
“We think happy thoughts, good thoughts, because that goes into what we’re cooking,” Day-Burciaga said.
Despite the heat, there was plenty of laughing, joking and good-natured ribbing.
“It’s a good time. We all get together once a year to cook for our community, share thanks to the acorn and people who donated,” Wessel said.
The finished soup has a sandy color and mushy texture.
“It’s bland. Definitely an acquired taste,” Day-Burciaga said.
“We get fancy with it,” Bailey joked, adding that they like to eat it with steak, mushrooms and onions.
After a batch of nupa was complete, Bates “fed the fire” by pouring some over the flames, saying the festival had begun.
“All this is passed down from generations. … We brought in other generations and taught them to make it,” Wessel said.
They shared stories of ancestors, like Mary Cox and Viola Wessel, who made the nupa in the past.
The Acorn Festival was first celebrated in October 1965. American Indian people from throughout California came together to help rebuild the traditional roundhouse, which serves as the spiritual center of the Tuolumne Me-Wuk. After completing the roundhouse, the tribe held a celebration and dedication ceremony.
This began the annual tradition of the tribe’s Acorn Festival, which occurs during the second weekend of September.
The event includes traditional dancers, native arts and crafts, an inter-tribal powwow, deep pit barbecue dinner and Indian tacos.
Several of the women who made the nupa, including Day-Burciaga, Hendricks and Jansen, will dance. Bates weaves baskets.
Another feature of the festival is a hand games tournament. A Hino ‘wu hand game gambling set is made of bone, sinew and/or hempstring and pine pitch.
The Me-Wuk have played games of chance for all their history, according to the tribe. The Hand Game is played while singing gambling songs, and a team must guess the bones. There are four bones, two that are marked and two unmarked. To start the game, a team must match the other team with their guessing, using hand motions to give the guess signals. There are 10 counter sticks that are used for points, and the object is for one team to take all 10 counter sticks to win the game.
The game can take minutes or go on for days if teams are well versed in song and hiding the bones,
The first prize is $5,500, and gifts will be given to the first 10 teams to sign up. The times depend on the number of teams. To sign up, call (209) 928-5300.
Admission is free. Shuttle buses will transport visitors between the festival and the parking areas at Black Oak Casino. Shuttles will run from 10 a.m. to dusk Saturday and Sunday.
Vendor booths open at 10 a.m. Saturday and Sunday and will close at 6 p.m. both days.
The opening ceremony with traditional dance by the Tuolumne Me-Wuk’s will begin at 11 a.m. in the outdoor dance area behind the tribal hall. Afterward, traditional dancers will dance inside the roundhouse.
Each dance in the roundhouse lasts about 45 minutes to an hour, and there will be a door attendant to let people know proper roundhouse etiquette. No entering is allowed while the doors are closed. No cameras or recording devices are allowed in the roundhouse.
There is about a half hour between each traditional dance group, Brown said.
Food, art and craft vendors and the powwow will be set up on a large lot across the street from the tribal hall.
The Tuolumne Rancheria is on Mi-Wu Street, off Tuolumne Road just north of Tuolumne township.
For more information, go online to www.blackoakcasino.com or call (209) 928-5300.