by Gretchen Kell
Long before Alice Waters made famous the idea of celebrating local foods in season, the California Indians tended, gathered and appreciated the state's natural bounty for their meals.
But until now, the story of the California Indians' culinary lives-how they gathered, hunted, stored, processed, cooked, ate and celebrated their foods-has never been told in a comprehensive way.
As part of its "A Year of Food, "a year-long look at cuisine and culture, Berkeley's Hearst Museum of Anthropology has opened "Food in California Indian Culture"-the nation's first extensive exhibit on the food and food customs of the California Indians.
Home of the world's largest and best collection of California Indian artifacts, the museum has devoted most of its gallery space through June 14, to displaying food-related objects. But rather than being showcased for their beauty alone, these objects are assembled in a sequence that teaches how they were a means to an end.
"This exhibit is a material trace of food customs and habits, and it's structured as a narrative," said Ira Jacknis, a research anthropologist at the museum and creator of the exhibit. "The primary theme is food as an art form. The California Indians are not widely known for their cooking, but they actually created a great cuisine-they did not live by acorns alone."
In preparing the exhibit, which has been in the works since January, Jacknis said he discovered that about two-thirds of the museum's 250,000 catalogued California Indian artifacts were "food-related."
Most of the objects in the exhibit were gathered in the early 20th century and made in the last half of the 19th century.
The exhibit, which will help dispel myths about Native Americans and their food, shows visitors that whether it was a harpoon, a net for catching fish, a cooking pot or a spoon, these food-related objects were not crudely made but artistically crafted in harmony with the natural world.
"This is the first time that California Indian food objects have been given dignity," said Jacknis. "They've always been presented as functional. But when you look at them there is a beauty there as well as a strong human element."
While the museum attempted to include as many different tribes or groups as possible in the exhibit, it focused on several groups well-represented in its collections-the Yurok, Maidu, Pomo, Sierra Miwok, Western Mono, Cahuilla and Mohave. The objects are presented inter-culturally to allow tribal comparisons.
A display of mush paddles shows how they are common among northern but not southern groups, with the exception of the Kumeyaay, who live around the Mexican border. The paddles also are very elaborately decorated, especially the handles, by the Klamath River peoples-the Yurok, Hupa and Karuk. They are crafted in a much simpler way among other groups who focus on the paddle blade itself. The Pomo and their neighbors, for example, seem to like to use a round, lollipop shape for the paddle.
They are really quite elegant and efficient objects," said Jacknis, "One also can learn how uses of these objects differed from region to region."
The exhibit is arranged in two parallel tracks-one for plants and one for animals. Most of the space is devoted to plants, due to the museum's larger number of plant-related objects.
The large number of plant-related artifacts, said Jacknis, "also reflects the greater dependence of the California Indians on the plant world.
"They knew what to do with the land and appreciated it and tended it and had an elaborate lifestyle living with plants and animals," he said.
California Indians did periodic burning, weeding and irrigation; southern groups practiced agriculture. Harvesting was accompanied by prayers and the admonition not to take everything one found.
The exhibit, said Jacknis, is meant as an "appetizer, not a meal" for those interested in California Indian food and food culture. Visitors may attend gallery talks at the museum throughout the "Year of Food" and a contemporary photo exhibit, "Nuppa- Acorn Soup," opening Oct. 1.
The photo exhibit by Dugan Aguilar, a Native American who is Maidu/Pit River/Paiute, will show the contemporary eating and cooking of traditional California Indian foods such as acorn soup and pit-roasted deer, as well as newer foods such as fry bread and supermarket groceries.