Food, Clothing and Shelter
(of the Suisune People)
Food, clothing, and shelter are the basic needs of everyday life that the Native Americans of Suisun Valley share with all California Indians. Understanding these provides background information to better appreciate the sections on archaeological sites and artifacts we provide elsewhere. The links below lead to more information on how the Suisune and their South Patwin neighbors lived before the coming of the white man. Powers (1877, p. 218-228), Kroeber (1925, p. 351-363) and Johnson (1977, p. 350-360) are the primary references for this information, and we suggest that you check these out to learn more.
Food of the Suisune People
Although the Suisune Indians fished the local creeks and the nearby sloughs and marshes all year long, and hunted deer, rabbit, racoons and other game in the grasslands and oak forests, most of their food came from plants, particularly acorns, nuts, seeds, roots, and berries. Women gathered these staples in the Summer and Fall, and because food was plentiful there was no need to farm. If one type of food became scarce with the passing of the seasons, the Suisune simply found another.
Acorns were an important food for almost all California Indians. Surprizingly acorns are an excellent food, as attested to by a nutritional analysis that is usually posted at Indian Grinding Rock State Park (fig. 1). There is a problem though in that acorns are so incredibly bitter that they are virtually impossible to eat. This is due to tannic acid, which not only makes acorns taste awful, but it does not sit well in your stomach either. The Indians were resourceful though, and they knew how to process acorns to remove the acid and make the acorns edible.
Most Indians ate 1 to 2 pounds of acorns every day, which means heavy eaters might consume up to 1½ tons per year. Fortunately oak trees are fairly common in most parts of the state. Apparently the Indians liked acorns from black oaks the best, as this is the tree that is usually found near bedrock mortar sites. But if the pickings became lean during drought years, any type of acorn would do.
Women were the main acorn gatherers, and each Fall they hiked to oak groves in the surrounding foothills, hoping to gather the acorns before oak moths infested the trees. They would knock the acorns off the branches using sticks, and pick them up off the ground (fig. 2). Then each woman put a net on her head that was woven like a cap and hung down her back. From this, she suspended a large conical basket, sometimes called a "burden basket", to be filled with acorns for the hike back to camp.
After collecting, the acorns were placed in the sun to dry, then stored in baskets or acorn granaries, sometimes for months at a time (fig. 3). Later, women and children cracked the acorns open with stones to remove the hard shells and smashed the soft "insides" into meal using stone bowls and elongate pounding stones. Often this chore was done on bedrock slabs and boulders, usually near oak trees, using holes in the rocks that are called "bedrock mortars". These holes became deeper and deeper with successive poundings over the years, and eventually needed to be replaced by new mortar holes as the old ones became too deep to use. Needless to say, acorn meal often contained grit, which tended to wear down ones teeth.
A bitter acid in the acorns, called tannin, would make one sick, and had to removed before the acorn meal could be eaten. To do this, a hill of sand was made with the center of the hill scooped out and lined with leaves, often from native grapevines. The acorn meal was set on top of the leaves and boiling water poured over this meal several times to leach out the tannin. Another method was to bury the shelled, but otherwise whole acorns, in marshy ground for several months to let the damp soil slowly leach out the acid.
To cook acorn meal, women mixed it with water in tightly woven baskets to make a mush and heated the mush with hot cooking stones from the fire. These stones were spherical in shape, and were dropped into the baskets using sticks that were bent to form loops, and held together with sinew or twine from plant fibers. Constant stirring was required lest the hot stones burn through the bottom of the baskets. The acorn meal could also be made into a dough and cooked on hot rocks, or rolled into hard balls to carry on a journey.
Figure 1: Nutritional analysis of Black Oak acorns
Figure 2: Harvesting acorns
Figure 3: Miwok scorn granaries (Powers, 1977)
Pine nuts were another important food that was eaten raw or ground into meal. Because the Pinyon (Piñon) Pines from which these nuts were collected grew in the higher foothills, well above the oak trees, the Suisun probably needed permission from neighboring tribes to collect this staple. However, ancient agreements existed between tribes, and permission for the harvest was seldom denied.
Harvesting was done in the Fall, when the small cones were full of pitch and ready to open. Men knocked the cones down from the trees using sticks with willow branches lashed into V-shaped forks on the ends. Women and children gathered the cones in large cone-shaped baskets, suspended these "burdon baskets" on their backs with head nets, and hauled them to temporary camps near the pine groves.
Back at camp, the cones were piled high in a fire pit, and roasted on hot coals with frequent turning until the cones popped open, allowing the nuts inside to be shaken free. However, soft brown shells encasing the inner fruit of the nuts still needed to be removed. To do this, the nuts were mixed with some hot coals on flat round baskets called winnowing trays, and both coals and nuts tossed repeatedly into the air with swirling motions. When the shells became hard, crisp and dark brown, the coals were removed, the nuts placed in a stone mortar hole, and pounded with a stone pestle to crack the shells.
Some of the cracked nuts - now translucent, soft, yellow-orange and quite delicious - were eaten raw. The rest were returned to the basket trays to winnow out the husks, with repeated tossings and swirlings until the wind carried off the remaining shells. Coals were then added back and roasting repeated until the nuts became dry, hard, and somewhat darker than before.
The nuts could now be stored in large above-ground storage baskets for later use, provided squirels and other vermin didn't get to the baskets first. Some of the dried nuts were eaten raw, but most were ground into flour using an elongate rolling stone called a "mano" on a flat grinding stone known as a "metate". When enough flour was available, it was added to water and the mixture warmed by dropping hot stones into it to make a thick, pine-nut mush that was bit bland on its own, but became quite a feast when berries, roots, leaves, and possibly some chopped meat or fish were added.
Tule Grass from the sloughs, and grasses, sage and other bushes from the fields and brush provided seeds that could be ground or eaten raw. Grass seeds were collected in the Fall using flat baskets, called seed beaters, which scooped the tops of grasses to strip off the seeds. A type of sage brush called chia produced an oily, but very tasty seed, that was collected in the summer. Mesquite bushes produced long, pod-like beans that were also collected in summer, when the pods were still green. The pods were dried, stored like acorns in baskets, then ground in stone mortar bowls for mush, baking dough, or mixed with water to make a drink. Other seeds were usually ground into flour using the stone "manos" and "metates" we described above.
There were also tubers and roots from tule grass, cattails, and dandelions that were edible, as well as berries from manzanita, junipers, and the red Toyon (Christmas) berries. All could be eaten raw or ground up and seeped in boiling water for tea.
Fish and game provided variety, but were supplements, not staples, of the Suisune diet. Almost anything that moved was fair game, but not the coyote or grizzly bear, as they were sacred. Small fresh-water clams that proliferate in the sloughs and creek banks were collected, and crayfish caught in baited traps. Grasshoppers that later plagued white settlers were harvested by the Suisune in the late summer, and when toasted provided a tasty treat. Indeed, the Suisun Valley provided many delicacies, and even though life for the Suisune was hard, and their lives short, food was seldom scarce.
Clothing of the Suisune People
Patwin clothing was minimal, to say the least. Stephen Powers (1877) writes in "Tribes of California" that when he was among the Patwin, "on the plains all adult males, and children up to ten or twelve, went perfectly naked, while the women wore only a narrow slip of deer-skin around the waist. In the mountains where it was somewhat cooler, the women made for themselves short petticoats from the inner bark of the Cottonwood." Shown on the right is a drawing made from personal observation by Henry B. Brown in 1851 or 1852 of Patwin women wearing skirts of deerskin. The middle woman has a burden basket on her back, and a winnowing basket in her hand. (from the Huntington Library Collection)
Although men generally went naked, they might wear fur capes with antler horn caps to camouflage themselves on the hunt, and perhaps an elk hide skirt along with a body armor made of several upright sticks held together by twine to protect themselves in battle. They also wore their hair long, coiled on top of their head, and secured with a hair pin of bone. The drawings below show clothing styles of various California Indian men that are probably illustrative of the types of clothing that the Indians of Suisun Valley wore (when they did wear something).
Above are shown clothing styles similar to what Suisun men may have worn.
Left Image: Naked Yukut (Yokut) men near the San Francisco Mission by Louis Choris (1816).
Center Image: Ohlone Man in deer hunting regalia by Dan Liddell (1992).
Right image: Pomo Warrior dressed for battle by Unknown? (c.1920s).
Whereas clothing among the Suisune most of the time was non-existent, their dancers, as with most Indians, wore elaborate costumes. The scene below, which according to Milliken (2009, p. 26) may show Suisune dancers, was drawn in 1816 by Louis Choris and witnessed by Captain Otto Kotzebue, who were part of a Russian expedition that visited the San Francisco Mission. Kotzebue relates that, "as we were leaving the Mission, we were surprised by two groups of Indians, which were also composed of different nations. They came in military array; that is, quite naked, and painted with gay colours: the heads of the most were adorned with feathers, and other finery; some of them however had their long disordered hair covered with down, and their faces daubed in the most frightful manner."
Dancers, possibly Suisune, at the San Francisco Mission as drawn by Choris (1816).
Another description of these costumes comes from Kathryn Simmons (1905), who as a young girl in the 1860s and 1870s witnessed Patwin dancers at Knight's Landing. She writes, "the Indian adorned himself with feather ornaments, painted his body with glaring colors, sometimes painting one-half of his body one color and the other half a contrasting color, and in this brilliant plumage more resembled a bird than a human being. The dancing was accompanied by yodelings, clapping of hands and other instruments."
Shelter of the Suisune People
Patwin families lived in simple dome-like to cone-shaped huts. Near most huts there would also be a much larger ceremonial lodge, as well as a small sweat house for the men, and a menstrual hut for the women. These smaller huts were 15 to 20 feet in diameter, whereas ceremonial lodges were often 30 feet or more in diameter. All of these had inner frames of four to seven poles. Temporary shelters were made for outlying food-gathering camps in the marshes and foothills. Because these were occupied only intermittantly in the spring, summer and fall, the outer walls were made of just woven mats of tule grass from the marshes, or sheets of tree bark brought down from the foothills. By contrast, the main villages had permanent huts that were waterproofed for winter weather by plastering a covering of mud and dirt several inches thick on the outer walls and roof.
Stephen Powers (1877) writes in "Tribes of California" that the Patwins "excavated about two feet [into the ground], banked up the earth enough to keep out the water, and threw the remainder on the roof dome-shaped. In a lodge thus covered a mere handful of sprigs would heat the air agreeably all day. In the mountains where wood was more abundant they frequently put on no roofing of earth."
Then Kathryn Simmons (1905) reports in a speech reprinted in the Woodland Daily Democrat that the Yolo Patwins in earlier times "were found in an extremely nude condition. In summer all they required was to be shaded from the sun, and for this a pile of bushes, a tree, or the shelter of a crag sufficed. Their winter huts were a trifle more pretentious. Willow poles were set upright in the ground and the tops drawn together, forming a conical structure. Brush or strips of bark were then piled up against the poles, and the whole was sometimes covered with a thick layer of mud. A hole in the top let the smoke escape and a small opening close to the ground admitted the occupants."
The illustration below and left by Powers (1877, Fig. 21) is titled "earth lodges of the Sacramento Valley". Notice that entry into these winter huts is from central holes in the roofs. Sticking out of these holes are ladders with rungs lashed between two poles. There might also be small holes carved on the sides of some huts so that little children and the elderly could crawl in and out on their own without having to climb up and down ladders. The drawing below and right by Henry Brown (1852} shows a Patwin village on the Sacramento River with entry into the earth-covered huts from holes in the roofs. By contrast, the illustration above and right by William Huff shows temporary summer huts, as might be found at food-gathering sites out in the marsh, with entry from openings on the sides. Note the door of woven grass mats laying against the outside wall of the hut in the foreground. Such structures were desireable near the marshes to keep out mosquitos at night. There is also a dirt-covered ceremonial lodge in the center of the huts.
Platon Vallejo (1914), the son of General Mariano Vallejo, grew up in the 1850s in Sonoma with a Suisun Indian for a companion and mentor, which gave him a life-long interest in Suisune language and culture. He relates the following regarding their dwellings. "In winter they returned to higher land, often to a grove that served as a wind break or partial shelter. Here they had winter quarters. In the first place, they excavated a sort of curcular pit or shelter, about five feet deep---goodness knows how, for they had only the most primitive tools. Some of these pits were large. I have seen them thirty feet in diameter, sufficient for a large family. Around the circumference large straight limbs of trees were firmly driven [into the ground] and drawn together at the to, so as to form a sort of cone. The sides were thatched with rushes and brush and the whole covered with a plaster of clay so as to make it water tight. Living in this cellar shielded the inhabitants from the sharp wind, while a fire, burning on a high platform of stones gave them heat, with very little smoke. As a rule, the floor of this winter hut was covered with either woven mats or with the skins of animals ... The winter quarters of the Suysunes did well enough. But they were only used in times of stress. Between storms, when the weather moderated, the people loved to sleep outdoors."
House pits are circular pits that mark where either family dwelling huts, or ceremonial lodges once stood. These pits are all that remains after abandoned huts collapse, and the poles and grass from the walls and roofs rot away to reveal the sunken floors. Sometimes a partial rock wall or a line of stones marks the perimeter of the pit, or a few scattered stones in the center belie what was once a fireplace. We know of one example where there is a small platform of stones that may have been used inside a hut to elevate a fireplace up off the floor of the hut (see center photo below).
Left Photo: A Suisune Patwin house pit at Rockville Park. The pit is about 10 feet across and is ringed by boulders.
Center Photo: A fire platform used by the Napato Patwins at Upper Marie Creek in Napa County (Skyline Park).
Right Photo: A Napato Patwin lodge pit at Upper Marie Creek (Skyline Park). The pit is about 25 feet across with loose stones in the center.