Foraging for acorns is a tribal tradition in LA

It’s easy to forget that LA’s dense city environment is surrounded by nature, like the Angeles National Forest that overlooks downtown LA from the San Gabriel Mountains.

Before settlers paved it over, Native American tribes had lived in and around the LA basin for many centuries. Their descendants remain, and some still carry on ancient tribal traditions, like gathering acorns, which were very significant in the traditional diet of Native American communities across California.

Heidi Lucero is the tribal chair of the Juaneńo Band of Mission Indians of the Acjachemen Nation. She says that her tribe “used to eat it in a mush, similar to Cream of Wheat or Malt-O-Meal, and it would be served hot with every meal.”

To prepare the acorns, Lucero explains, Native Americans would first roast them to kill weevils eating any of the nuts. They would then shell the nuts and grind them into flour. She says acorns have tannic acid in them and are too bitter to eat right out of the shell. To remove the tannic acid, Indigenous people would leach the flour, flushing the tannic acid out with water in a creek or stream. 

“It is definitely an arduous process,” Lucero says. “But when you have something that can last through the winter season, it really is worth having that as a food source. It's something that can be stored. And it's definitely worth the process of making the acorn soup or the wiiwish.”

Heidi Lucero demonstrates for Lila Higgins how to make wiiwish, the traditional Native American mush or soup made from acorn flour and water. Photo by Christian Bordal.

There are many types of oak trees, and their nuts have slightly different characteristics. Lucero’s favorite acorns come from the Black Oak. “It's the nuttiest. It's got a lot of fat in it, so it's got that nice creamy consistency.”

Lila Higgins, the senior manager for community science at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, enjoys the relationships that oak trees have with other species.

“They provide so much habitat and home and food for so many other species. The acorn woodpecker that's got a jaunty red cap and laughs a lot, you'll see them collecting acorns, and sometimes you'll see these giant granaries with little holes where they've jammed the acorns in. And then there are mushrooms that grow on the oak trees.” 

Juaneńo Band of Mission Indians Tribal Chair Heidi Lucero (right) and Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County Community Science Manager Lila Higgins (left) forage for acorns near the Haramokngna American Indian Cultural Center in the Angeles National Forest. Photo by Steve Chiotakis.

Despite large canopies of oak trees, Lucero and Higgins could only find cracked nuts from previous years — nothing fresh. Lucero says there could be several reasons for the lack of nuts this season, all of which have to do with climate change, including severe drought and fires.

It’s a good thing Lucero brought some premade acorn flour that was already ground up and leached with water to remove the tannic acid. To make the wiiwish, she cooks it on a portable stove with a bit of water. It thickens up quickly and looks similar to Cream of Wheat. Traditionally, she says tribes would have eaten the acorn soup or mush alongside game, like rabbit, deer, or fish. 

Sometimes, she likes to add a bit of salt or honey. On a cold winter's day during the holidays, wiiwish tastes just right.

Heidi Lucero, tribal chair of the Juaneńo Band of Mission Indians of the Acjachemen Nation, demonstrates how she cracks an acorn. Photo by Christian Bordal.