Chaw-Se: Honoring the Californians Who Were Here First

By Debi Drake-Maurer

Home to the largest collection of bedrock mortars in North America, Chaw'se Indian Grinding Rock State Historic Park in Volcano is a place of contrasts. The Northern Sierra Miwok once relied on its 135 acres of meadows, mixed pine forest and oak woodlands to furnish materials for shelter, tools and food. Much later, the miners and farmers of the Gold Rush came to Chaw'se, turning the land over in their search for gold and to plant crops. Evidence of both uses are still found within the Park, with one of the most intriguing being the grinding rock itself.

Shadows and light play across the hollows and planes of the marbleized limestone grinding rock, known as chaw'se in Miwok. Oak leaves, rain water and dust now gather in the mortar cups, belying the rock's former role as a hub of activity in the old Miwok village site. The Miwok women would gather here to grind acorns from the surrounding Valley Oaks, which were prized for their high nutritional value. However, the nuts are bitter tasting due to their tannin content. The Miwok overcame this problem by cracking the acorns and pounding the nuts in a mortar with a stone pestle. Once the meal was fine enough, water was poured through it, rinsing away the tannin. The acorn meal could then be cooked in watertight baskets over open fires.

Chaw'se is only the second known site in California to combine petroglyphs with mortars. The carvings, which include animal and human tracks, circles, and wavy lines, are estimated to be two or three thousand years old. While
he petroglyphs are protected by a fence, a deck still offers a good view of the overall rock outcropping. Binoculars are handy here, affording you a close-up look at the rare drawings while respecting their fragile nature.

For the Northern Sierra Miwok who settled in this area centuries ago, the roundhouse or hun'ge was the true center of ceremonial and social life.
Chaw'se's roundhouse, one of the largest in California, was dedicated in 1974. It reflects the cooperative efforts of the State Department of Parks and Recreation and local Native Americans to make Chaw'se a "cultural and intellectual bridge between the past, present and future of Native Sierra people."

Although the Native American dancers come but once a year to share their heritage with Park visitors at the Fall "Big Time" celebration, their energy lingers in the roundhouse at Chaw'se. Within the 60-foot diameter roundhouse, it's easy to imagine "deer" walking in cadence with drum beats or "tiny birds" flitting about the fire circle. The pairing of the semi-darkness with the smoky shaft of light filtering in from the ceiling
vent creates a sense of reverence, even when Park visitors can only stand in the doorway. In respect of the round house's continued use for private
ceremonies of great religious importance to today's local Native American's, Park visitors are usually only allowed inside the house of worship during the Fall "Big Time" event.

Some of the beauty and ingenuity involved in the round house ceremonies can still be enjoyed year-round when you visit the Chaw'se Regional Indian Museum. Exhibits of feather regalia, ceremonial dress, and musical instruments are displayed along with basketry, jewelry, arrowpoints and other tools.

The museum's exhibits and demonstrations also take you through a day in the life of a Miwok villager, showing how they used their intimate knowledge of their environment to feed, clothe, doctor and shelter themselves for centuries. Weather permitting, local Native Americans bring to life some of their tribe's honored traditions. The second Saturday of each month, two
Miwok elders share their art of basketmaking with Park visitors. On the fourth Saturday, children have the opportunity to create their own soapstone carvings. After Memorial Day this year, Chaw'se will offer guided trail walks and evening campfire programs each Saturday, through summer's end.

Beyond the grinding rocks and the roundhouse, Chaw'se also features a small scale recreation of a Miwok village near the ancient oaks. Walk into one of the seven bark houses or U'macha' and imagine sleeping there beneath the stars or during one of California's incessant winter rains. Made of cedar poles woven together with wild grape vines or willow, the frame was covered with cedar bark. Smoke from cooking or heating fires escaped out a hole in the top. Nearby, a large granary or cha'ka holds its cache of acorns. Often eight feet high or taller, the cha'ka look like large baskets on poles. The Miwok lined them with pine needles and wormwood to keep away insects and rodents. White fir or incense cedar boughs thatch the top to keep out rain and show.

Two easy-to-traverse, developed trails within the Park let you walk in the footsteps of the Miwok. As the winter rains give way to sun, you'll find the meadow cloaked in green and the first wildflowers raising their showy heads beneath Chaw'se's oaks and pines. So far, over 130 species of native plants are known to grow here, many of which were integral to the Miwok's way of life. Some of the wildflowers found at Chaw'se include: shooting stars, Hartwegs iris, giant trillium, monkey flower, and mariposa lily. A large number of resident and migrant birds fill the air with song and color. Keep an eye out for California quail, hermit thrushes, the red-capped acorn woodpecker, and some migrants, such as hummingbirds and western tanagers. (When you view the basketry in the museum, note how some of these wildflowers and birds influenced their designs.)

Want to really immerse yourself in the Sierra environment and learn more about the Miwoks? Large groups, up to 44 people, are welcome to reserve the seven bark houses for private camping. You haul your water, supplies and equipment two hundred yards or more from the parking lot. Reservations must be made in advance by contacting the Park for an application. The Park also has 23 campsites with paved parking, fire rings, piped water and flush toilets. These are available on a first-come, first-served basis year-round, except during heavy snowfalls and "Big Time." Picnic tables are available for day use.

Chaw'se Indian Grinding Rock State Historic Park is located eight miles east of Jackson on Highway 88 East. For more information or to confirm hikes, campfire talks or other special events, please call (209) 296-7488.

At Chawse east of Jackson, generations of Native American women ground acorns in more than a thousand grinding holes in this huge rock outcropping.
The roundhouse at Chawse is the largest in California. Ceremonies still take place here.
Interior of the roundhouse at Chaw-se. Note the fire pit and smokehole.

Genocide and Redemption

By Betty Sederquist

Beginning with the Spanish missionaries, incursions of Europeans decimated Native populations. These newcomers not only spread disease that often decimated whole villages at once, but they destroyed the Natives' sources of food and in many cases, outright murdered them. During the peak years of the California Gold Rush, this genocide was particularly devastating. In 1769, an estimated 310,000 Natives lived within the California borders; by 1900 fewer than 20,000 Natives survived.

Today the Natives of California work hard to keep their cultures alive. The El Dorado Amador Counties Indian Education Project serves the academic and culturally related needs of Native American students, grades K-12, who attend public schools in El Dorado or Amador counties. The students offer not only support for students, but also feature hundreds of books, videos, music/story audio tapes, CDs, arts and crafts and much more. The centers are open Monday through Thursday, 1 p.m. to 6 p.m.

The Placerville center is located at 100 Forni Road, Placerville (mailing address for both centers: 6767 Green Valley Road, Placerville CA 95667); (530) 621-3097.

The Ione Center is at 25 S. Sacramento Street, Ione; (209) 274-0296.

Although Chaw'se is the largest park focused on California Native American culture, Wassama Roundhouse State Historic Park, located seven miles north of Oakhurst near state Highway 49 at Ahwahnee, features a partially restored Yokut village featuring an old roundhouse, sweat lodge, burial ground and grinding rocks. The first roundhouse known to be on the site was built here in the 1860s. Ceremonies are still conducted here.

Please note: all photographs and other illustrations on this site are ©

Chaw-se Article © Debi Drake Maurer. Do not copy without permission.

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For more information on the park: Chaw'se.