EARLY INHABITANTS OF SPENCEVILLE - THE NISENAN
By Julie Carville
Long before European settlers arrived, the Spenceville area in Nevada/Yuba Counties was home to native people, the most recent being the Maidu-Nisenan. The Spenceville area is rich with Native America history. Some of the most obvious sites left by the Nisenan are bedrock grinding holes where acorns were ground into a flour know as ooti. Less obvious to all but the trained eye, are the earth depressions that held the ceremonial lodge pits. Many of the early village sites are found along Dry Creek and its tributaries, because large amounts of water were needed to leach the bitter tannic acid from the acorn meal.
While acorns were the main food source, women also gathered bulbs, roots, fruits, seeds, fungus and insects, such as grasshoppers, and edible and medicinal plants. The men provided the remainder of the diet by hunting and fishing.
Many of the plant seeds and bulbs found in Spenceville were important to the Nisenan. Buttercup seeds were gathered by native people and roasted in flat, tightly woven baskets. The baskets were shaken so that the rocks did not burn either the basket or the seeds. After roasting, the seeds were safe to eat and tasted like popcorn.
Many species of brodiaeas can be found blooming among the grasses. Brodiaeas are a groups of plants within the Lily Family that were important as a food source to the California Indians. They gathered the bulbs and seeds of the brodiaeas in the fall - the bulbs were roasted in earthen pits and the seeds were ground into a meal and cooked as a mush or used in unleavened flat breads. To find the brodiaeas, look for flowers with six apparent petals. There are the blue-purple Blue Dicks, Grass Nuts and the Elegant Brodiaea, the creamy-yellow Pretty Face, the lovely White Brodiaea and the interesting, pink Twining Brodiaea, whose long, naked stem climbs and twists up neighboring plants like a snake.
Look also for the shrubs of poison oak, so that you are sure to avoid them. Touching them causes a terrible rash on most people. Indians, who usually were not allergic to poison oak, gathered the leaves and wrapped food in them and roasted the packets over hot coals. The leaves held the contents together and added flavor. Some California Indians used the juice from the stems to dye the tattoos used in body decorating and to darken materials used in the black designs of willow baskets.
Buck Brush is one of the many species of wild lilacs that grow in California's foothills. This evergreen shrub grows from 3 to 8 feet tall with small gray-green leaves that are loosely spread along the branches. Its white flowers bloom in early spring and are very attractive to bees, helping to nourish them at a time when few flowers may be in bloom. Native people gathered its flowers to use in shampoos because it lathers in water. In some tribes, the flowers of the wild lilac were used as part of the wedding ceremony to wash the beloved's hair, an act of intimacy and tenderness that was a symbol of their commitment. Try it yourself by taking a few blossoms to the stream and rubbing them in your hands with water, and you'll see the lather appear.
Gray Pine grows with great vigor in Spenceville with a trunk that is often forked and bends in graceful forms that gave rise to a story that the Nisenan used to tell to their children. They said that this tree came into its own at night and danced with great joy all night long. But when the first rays of sunlight crept over the hilltops, it shyly stopped its dance and froze in whatever position it was in when the day dawned and there it stood in its graceful, held position under night's darkness once again freed it to dance with such delight.
The seeds of the Gray Pine were gathered and eaten by native people and also used to decorate the women's dance dresses. They would attach the seeds with string made from the iris and as they danced the seeds would click together to make a rhythmic, rattling sound. Squirrels and other animals also eat the seeds. The Acorn Woodpecker drills holes in the dead trunks of Gray Pines and jams in acorns, using the trees as storage units for its winter food year after year.
The California Buckeye is a shrub or small tree that blooms in April or May at Spenceville with rich green leaves made up of 5 to 7 leaflets. Its fragrant clusters of small, azalea-like flowers are attractive to insects. After fertilization of one of the flowers in the cluster, the other flowers lose their ability to reproduce and so only one large, brown, rounded seed pod is formed from each cluster. The seed pod "resembles" a deer's brown eyes and thus its name Buckeye. Its seeds were eaten, after processing, by the Nisenan when other favorite food wasn't available. They also crushed the seeds and added them to slow moving pools in streams. The crushed seeds released a substance into the water that stupified the fish, allowing the people to scoop them up with their hands and toss them onto the shore - a quick and easy way to gather the salmon, trout and other fish that ran in these streams.
From their homes in Spenceville, the Nisenan could view the Sutter Buttes, which they called Est-Yamani, the place where their creator Atkat kept his spirit house. Most Nisenans were forced into reservations by 1857, although some remained in the area until the 1870's because they were welcomed to remain on their land by the Nichols family who had purchased property, in what was to become Spenceville, from a French fur trader in 1854. Great Grandma Nichols learned the native language and in friendship shared the land and her freshly baked bread with the Nisenan.
The Nisenan lived at Spenceville for hundreds of generations before the coming of westerners, before they were forced off their land. Most people living in Nevada and Yuba counties today know little of their culture. Returning to Spenceville will help you to feel more connected to a people and a way of life that sustained generations through the richness and beauty of the oak woodlands of Spenceville.