Times Past

Dan Krieger: A tribe, a pine nut and an early Thanksgiving

The Thanksgiving holiday that Americans celebrate this week has its origins in the traditions of the early settlers of New England.

Other cultures have their own rituals of Thanksgiving. The “Bear Song” of the Salinan Indians of the northern half of our region expresses gratitude for the bear in time of need. The Salinans also celebrate the oaks, whose abundant acorns were an ever-present food reserve.

The Salinan “keepers of the land” gave thanks for the gaunt, sparsely needled ghost pine, which is sometimes called the gray pine or digger pine (Pinus sabiniana). The tree was considered worthless by white settlers because of its coarse twisted wood.

The tree was extremely hardy and could survive through years of little rainfall. Its nuts contain nearly 31 percent protein, making it one of the most protein-rich of all nuts. The elegant Italian stone pine pignolia (Pinus pinea) that we treasure in salads and pesto sauce for pasta has considerably less protein.

When the Franciscan missions at San Antonio de Padua and San Miguel Arcángel were secularized by the Mexican government in the mid 1830s, the Salinans were quickly dispossessed and driven into the Coast Ranges. The oaks, with their plentiful acorns, were in valleys near the missions.

Salinan folklore traditions tell of refugees surviving in the Coast Ranges on the nuts of the ghost pine, which was ground to a meal-like consistency in bedrock mortars. It would then be mixed with water, often along with similarly prepared acorns, in a sturdy basket. The mush-like mixture would be cooked by heating rocks over the coals of a fire and using wooden tongs to drop the hot rocks into the basket.

Although stripped of their traditional homes, the Salinans were able to survive decades of persecution by both the Mexican and early American government. The Americans offered bounties for capturing or killing American Indians, even from a peaceful group such as the Salinans.

On Nov. 30, 1850, Peter Burnett, California’s first American governor, proclaimed the state’s “Thanksgiving Day.” He presided over a banquet in Sacramento where “Forty different dishes, including the traditional turkey and pumpkin pie, and eight different wines, were served. Many dishes were as elegant as any served in the best restaurants around the world. The feast and festivities went on until midnight.”

At that time, the hunted Salinan and many other American Indian peoples were living as fugitives in the rugged and remote mountain ranges, subsisting on the nut of the humble ghost pine.

St. Francis of Assisi proclaimed through word and deed 800 years ago that gratitude for the smallest of things is the greatest way to celebrate the gifts we have been given.

If you are interested in the Salinan people who once inhabited the northern part of our region, you are invited to join the Salinans as they review prospective designs for a Salinan cultural center prepared by the Cal Poly juniors in the architectural design class taught by Margarida Yin-Yip.

The review is set for 3 p.m. on Dec. 4 at the newly completed Community Center at Mission San Miguel Arcángel, a mission built by the Salinan people. The center is just off Mission Street behind the recently restored mission.

Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.