The fall equinox marks a turning back of Tawa, Father Sun towards the southern house on the horizon. It is time to get on the road to go to a favorite juniper piñon picking spot in the high country. This Hopi human activity is called “tu va po’ pong töh”.
This year there is a bumper crop. In the old days, when travel was by wagon, families could not go too far from the Hopi villages. Today, we can get to places like the Grand Canyon in a couple of hours where the picking is better.
This weekend was special as it is the first time that my granddaughter will experience piñon picking. She is almost four years old and anxiously packed lunch in her “pack-pack” to go to the “big tum bak’ (canyon)”.
A childhood memory of gathering green juniper piñon cones, baking and removing piñon nuts from the cones was a family affair. Several families traveled by wagon to the high country. Once a good site was found, the men would set up the camp tents and the women would set up the cooking stoves. A campfire provided light and warmth in the camps.
Early the next morning, canvas tarps would be spread under the trees and the men would climb the trees. After much shaking and beating of the branches with sticks, the green cones would fall on the tarp. The women would gather the cones in bags. It was sticky business, as the piñon tree pitch would get on your skin, clothes and hair. Everyone was black by the end of the day!
After a couple of days many bags of cones were gathered. Then the men would start digging a deep pit. Everyone gathered wood and a fire was made in the pit. After a few hours the pit was hot enough and the bags of green cones was dumped into the pit and covered up with branches, tarp and sand. The cones slowly cooked in the pit overnight.
On the third day, after the pit cooled, the green cones split open to reveal the piñon nuts inside the cone. The women would only have to hit the cones to remove the piñon nuts. By the fourth day, a few bags of cooked piñon nuts would be ready to take back home. Everything was packed in the wagons and the families started back home to the village with filled stomachs and healthy, nutritious piñon nuts.
Today, we still use the piñon nuts as a staple food source to prepare Hopi dishes, grease the piki stone, and as payment to the storyteller to tell us a good Hopi story in the winter months. Each piñon nut is special because you can only pick one at a time and it takes many hours to fill a small bucket. Woe is one who picks last year’s piñons that are empty of seed meat.
Here at the Grand Canyon, the tourists whiz by and wonder what those Indians are doing on the side of the road. There are many tribal people here today, patiently searching under the juniper trees for the dark colored piñon nuts that fall hourly from the cones high in the trees. This human activity has been practiced by native peoples in this place since time immemorial.
When you go to the store and get sticker shock at the price of piñon or pine nuts, just remember that someone picked each nut by hand, one by one while being poked with cacti, tree branches, sticky with piñon pitch and all other discomforts of working on all fours on the ground for hours!
Just eat the piñon nuts and savor the taste. We only get the privilege of gathering and eating piñon nuts when Mother Nature decides that we deserve her gift of natural food from the land, once again.
My granddaughter ate more piñons than she picked but a new memory is now fixed in her mind. Try piñon picking with your family this year. There is plenty for everyone.
*This story may be used by teachers in the classroom. Webmaster MFredericks, 9/30/2020