Miwok Big Time

Miwok Big Time (Miwok Acorn Festival)

Type of Holiday: Calendar/Seasonal
Date of Observation: Fourth weekend in September
Where Celebrated: California
Symbols and Customs: Cha'ka, Grinding Rock, Roundhouse


The Miwok (MEE-wahk) Indians lived at one time in what is now northern and central California. There were three groups: the Lake Miwok, who lived south of Clear Lake; the Coast Miwok, who lived just north of what is now San Francisco; and the Eastern Miwok, who lived south of what is now Sacramento. Like other California Indian tribes, the Miwok relied heavily on acorns for food, which they harvested from valley oaks in the autumn and stored in CHA ' KA or granaries. But before the acorns could be eaten, they had to go through a special process designed to get rid of the tannin, which prevented the human body from absorbing their nutrients and gave them a bitter taste. The acorns were cracked open and the "meat" was ground into meal by using stone pestles in the mortar holes formed in huge slabs of marbleized limestone known as chaw'se or GRINDING ROCKS . These can still be seen, particularly in California's Grinding Rock State Historic Park in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Here a huge, flat expanse of limestone containing more than a thousand mortar holes stands as evidence of the Miwok's efforts.

The acorn meal was rinsed repeatedly with stream water to wash the tannin away. Then it was used to make soup, acorn mush, or acorn bread. Acorns are extremely high in nutritional value, and the average adult Miwok consumed about 2,000 pounds of them a year, which is why the harvest was such an important event.

The Miwok would celebrate the acorn harvest every year at a tribal gathering known as Big Time. Families from widely scattered Miwok villages would come together to share the fruits of the harvest, exchange news and supplies, and perform ceremonial dances. Although the Gold Rush in 1848 disrupted the Miwok's way of life and forced them to leave the land they had occupied for centuries, Big Time is still celebrated at Miwok Park in Novato, California, at Point Reyes National Seashore, and elsewhere. But the best-known celebration takes place at Grinding Rock State Park in Pine Grove, where an entire Miwok village-including acorn granaries, a ceremonial ROUNDHOUSE , and typical Miwok bark dwellings-has been reconstructed. Descendants of the original Miwok (who number about 3,400, according to the last census) and other California Indian tribes come to this event on the fourth weekend in September to perform traditional dances, play hand games, and engage in storytelling.



The Miwok Indians stored the acorns they would eat during the winter months in granaries known as cha'ka. These were structures several feet high, consisting of poles through which branches had been woven to form sides, with a thatched roof of fir or cedar to keep out the rain and a lining of pine needles and wormwood to ward off deer, rodents, and insects. Each family had its own cha'ka, and these structures, which resembled tall baskets, have been reconstructed at various Miwok Indian sites, where they stand as a symbol of Miwok culture and tradition.

Grinding Rock

The huge limestone grinding rock or chaw'se that can be seen in an open meadow at Grinding Rock State Park has become a monument to the Miwok's survival. It has more grinding cups or mortar holes (1,185) than any other grinding rock in North America, and when the cups fill with rainwater, they look like round, glistening footprints across the stone.

The chaw'se at Grinding Rock State Park is also distinguished by the presence of 363 petroglyphs or rock carvings that depict circles, wavy lines, and human and animal tracks. It is believed that these carvings, estimated to be between two and three thousand years old, tell the history of the Miwok in this area. With the exception of one other, much smaller, site, this is the only Native American grinding rock known to have been decorated in this way.

Because the limestone of the grinding rock is relatively soft and fragile, visitors are not allowed to walk on it, but are encouraged to admire it from a wooden observation platform and to respect it as a symbol of the Miwok way of life.


The reconstructed roundhouse or hun'ge at Grinding Rock State Park is one of the largest in existence. It is 60 feet in diameter, and its inside walls consist of cedar poles through which wild grapevine has been woven. The roof, which slopes gradually upward from ground level, is made of cedar bark slabs. There is Miwok Big Time

a clay floor on which ceremonial dances are performed, with a huge oak post at each corner. Ceremonies are held here on several occasions each year, Big Time being one of them.

Many Native Americans were very upset when the roundhouse was remodeled in the early 1990s and a fire exit was added to comply with state safety laws. Because the circular structure of the building is considered to be symbolic of Mother Earth, and because the addition of the fire exit tampered with that structure, some people now see the roundhouse as "ruined" and refuse to go inside.


Eagle Walking Turtle. Indian America: A Traveler's Companion. Santa Fe: J. Muir Publications, 1989.


Indian Grinding Rock State Historic Park www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=553

Federated Indians of the Graton Rancheria www.gratonrancheria.com