Nisenan territory offered abundant year-round food sources. Food gathering was based on seasonal ripening, but hunting, gathering, and fishing went on all year, with the greatest activity in late summer and early fall. They gathered many different staples, not depending on one crop.
Seasonal harvests could be communal or personal property. Most activities and social behaviors such as status, sharing, trading, ceremonies, and disagreements were important adjuncts to the gathering and distribution of food.
Extended families or whole villages of hill Nisenan would gather acorns. Men would hunt while women and children gathered the acorns knocked from the trees. Buckeye nuts, sugar and digger pine nuts, and hazelnuts were also gathered.
Acorns were cracked on an acorn anvil and shelled. They were then ground into flour using a bedrock mortar (grinding rock) and a soaproot brush to control scattering. The flour was leached to remove the tannin then cooked in watertight baskets. Cooking was done with fire heated stones that were lifted with two sticks, dipped in water to clean them, and then dropped into the cooking basket. Enough soup and mush was usually prepared for several days.
Roots were dug with a digging stick in the spring and summer and were eaten raw, steamed, baked, or dried and pounded in mortars and pressed into cakes to be stored for winter use. Wild onion (chan), sweet potato (sí kum), and “Indian potato” (dúbus) were the most desired. Wild carrot (ba) was used as medicine while wild garlic was used to wash the head and body.
Grasses, herbs, and rushes provided food and material for clothing and baskets. Seeds were gathered by the use of a seed beater and tray. They were then parched, steamed, dried, or made into mush.
Many varieties of wild plums, native berries, grapes, and other native fruits were eaten. Manzanita berries were often traded to the valley or made into a cider-like drink.
Game was baked, roasted, or dried.
Deer drives were common, with several villages participating and the best marksman doing the killing. The animals were often driven into a circle of fire then killed. Deer were also hunted using deadfalls, snares, and deerskin and antler decoys. Sometimes they were run down on soft ground or snow. Antelope were taken by surround, drives, and flag decoys while elk were usually killed along waterways on soft ground.
The bear hunt was very ceremonial. Black bears were usually hunted in the winter. Lighted brands were often used to drive them from their dens. Grizzlies that lived on the valley floor were greatly feared and rarely hunted.
Wildcats and California mountain lions were hunted for food and their skins.
Rabbits and other small game were killed with blunted arrows and sticks. Traps, nets, snares, fire and rodent hooks were also used. In the foothills and valley nets were made into a fence where driven rabbits were entangled and clubbed. Other small animals were often caught and killed, with exception to the coyote. Drives generally took place in the late spring. The man in charge of the drive divided the catch.
Weirs, traps, harpoons, nets, and gorgehooks, as well as tule balsas and log canoes were used in fishing. Fish were poisoned using turkey mullein and soaproot or driven into shallow water and caught by hand. Freshwater mussels and clams were obtained in the larger rivers. On the lower courses sturgeon and salmon were netted and speared. Whitefish, suckers, and trout were caught at higher elevations. Waterfalls were eel fishing (freshwater lamprey) stations; Salmon Falls, on the south fork of the American River was one such location.
Birds were taken with nets, arrows, snares, traps, and nooses. Owls, vultures, and condors were not killed. Birdskins and feathers were used for regalia, clothing, and decoration.
Salt was acquired from springs near Lincoln, Cool, and Latrobe. It was also acquired from a plant with cabbage-like leaves gathered in the summer.
(Sturtevant, William C., HANDBOOK OF NORTH AMERICAN INDIANS, Vol. 8 California, (Smithsonian Institute, Washington 1978).