Nicole Lim’s memories of visiting her grandmother’s house as a child often center on food.
“The table always had food on it,” says Lim, who is the executive director of the California Indian Museum and Cultural Center (CIMCC) in Santa Rosa, an hour north of San Francisco. “She could make anything taste good.”
Lim is Pomo and Miwok, tribes that once subsisted on acorns, berries, deer, and abalone in what is now Northern California, from the Sonoma coast to the oak-shaded woodlands that surround the Clear Lake basin. But after two centuries of displacement and assimilation efforts, the tribes have been largely disconnected from their traditional foodways.
The three counties where CIMCC operates—Sonoma, Lake, and Mendocino—are home to 24 tribes and more than 23,000 Native people. Since 1996, the museum has worked to reconnect these tribal community members to traditional knowledge and practices, including foodways. The nonprofit offers several food-focused programs, including a youth-led project to create a healthy snack food made of acorns. The resulting product, known as Acorn Bites, is sold at the museum store and local farmers’ markets.
The organization’s efforts are in line with the growing movement among pre-American tribes to reclaim access and control over their ancestral foodways. Now, the museum is on the verge of expanding its food work. In December, it received a $180,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Healthy Food Financing Initiative, a federal program designed to provide “resources to healthy food retail and food enterprise projects to overcome the higher costs and initial barriers to serving low-access areas.”
The organization will use the grant to transform an existing warehouse space at the museum into a food hub that will house its food sovereignty programs and a new incubator for Native-led food startups. The museum will outfit the 5,000-square-foot space with commercial kitchen equipment, including a dehydrator for drying acorns or jerky and a freeze dryer for preserving berries and other ingredients.
Lim hopes to support local Native food vendors by providing not only space and equipment but also business development resources that will help them grow. CIMCC staff members, several of whom started with the museum as part of its Tribal Youth Ambassadors program, have identified a handful of cottage-food producers that offer traditional staples such as acorn flour, dried seaweed, and jerky. While these startups may become part of the incubator once it gets underway, Lim had expected to find more potential candidates for the program. The region’s lack of Native-led food businesses is a problem she hopes to address via the food hub.
“The idea is not only to support the few existing producers in the region, but to create opportunities for new producers to emerge,” she says.
A ‘Resource Center’ for Native Food Startups
The museum’s search for potential candidates led them as far as Fresno County, more than 200 miles to the south, where Arrow’s Native Foods is reviving a traditional dish known as acorn mush. First launched as an Indian taco booth at powwows on the Big Sandy Ranchería northeast of Fresno, the small, family-owned business provides acorn mush and other traditional foods at tribal events and ceremonies throughout the San Joaquin Valley and in other areas of the state.
The mush is made from a mixture of acorn meal and water that is heated before cooling, at which point it congeals into a consistency between pudding and jello, says co-owner Arrow Sample. Given its lack of availability in recent decades, Sample says the one-time staple food is especially popular with tribal elders.
“Seeing the elders’ satisfaction makes me know I’m doing something right,” says Sample, who is a member of the Big Sandy band of Western Mono Indians. “We’re protecting what’s always been ours and trying to find a place in our modern-day lives to incorporate that into our diets.”
Sample, who leads the business alongside his fiancée, Rochelle Bonillas, says he would be eager to participate in the CIMCC incubator program, which would serve as a “resource center” for his and other Native-led businesses while providing a much-needed physical location for processing their products.
The museum is well aware of the challenges associated with being a local producer. In its ongoing efforts to produce and market Acorn Bites, for example, the museum’s staff and tribal youth ambassadors faced difficulties in sourcing acorn flour and encountered steep fees for space at local farmers’ markets. Lim says the incubator program will pave the way for more Native-led businesses to access the markets, while increasing the local supply of acorn flour and other ingredients.
And while the incubator’s intent will be to support Indigenous food makers, Lim says the project will also further two of the museum’s primary objectives: passing along traditional knowledge and practices, and making traditional foods more accessible.