[Nyerges is the author of “How to Survive Anywhere” and other books. His weekly podcast can be heard at Preparedness Radio Network. He can be reached at Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041, or www.ChristopherNyerges.com]
Richard Toyon is a 14th generation Californian, according to the official records of the Mission San Juan Capistrano. He is descended from the Parra clan of the Acjachemem nation (pronounced “A-HA-Sha-mem), formerly known as the Mission Band of the Juaneno Indians. His family originates in what is now the city of San Juan Capistrano. He is a descendant of Alejo Parra, and the area was once called Rancho de los Toyones. Richard Toyon’s grandfather’s name was Ortiz de los Toyones, and after him the family name was shortened to just “Toyon.”
Toyon lives in La Crescenta and is active in Boy Scouts, local politics, and in representing the Tongva Tribe for various environmental and public issues.
Of course, when we first spoke, I could not wait to ask him about the native toyon tree, the tree from which his family name comes.
“When I give my walks and lectures a few times a year, I talk about the native uses of plants,” he explains. “The ethnobotanical uses of plants, not necessarily just the food uses.”
Toyon, who works in the film industry as a production designer, then went on to tell me about the first real estate venture just south of Griffith Park. “These guys looked up in the hills and they saw all the toyon trees with their brilliant red fruit, and they called the place ‘Hollywood Land.’ They should have called it ‘Toyonwood,” he laughs.
The toyon tree produces its fruit in the winter, which made it a bit unique among the native plants, most of which produced their fruit in summer and fall. “And the toyon fruit played a significant role in the Acjachemem diet.”
Though there are probably a dozen common ways of preparing the fruit – ground into meal, made into a drink, made into a dessert – Toyon says that in Acjachemem get-togethers today, the fruit is cooked in a wok, fried and lightly seasoned, and served 50/50 with rice.
He has also seen the toyon berries mashed up and served on top of potatoes, with butter.
“I also take dried toyon berries on my Scout trips and sometimes mix them into the regular trail mix to see if the Scouts even notice it. Toyon studied biology in college, and has been a forest fire fighter, a ranger, and now also is the leader of Boy Scout Troop 317 in Montrose. “I always try to educate the Scouts about the natural foods. For one of their merit badges, they need to know native plants, but most of them genuinely like the wild plants that I let them taste,” he explains. “We had a Scout trip to Buckhorn in the Angeles National Forest when the native rose hips were fruiting. They were the bluest rose hips I’ve ever seen. We gathered a few cups of the fruit, mashed them up, and the boys put them on their pancakes like jam. They loved it! The boys were amazed that it tasted so good.”
He often gets asked about acorns, which was perhaps the most widely used plant food among all Southern California Indians.
“The old-fashioned way of getting out the tannic acid, and then grinding them into a mush or flour is a lot of work,” Toyon explains. “I tell people who want to try acorns to just go to a Korean store and buy some. Acorn flour is a common commodity at most Korean stores.”
At home, Toyon makes a simple non-leavened bread from the acorn flour, which he compares to the nan bread from East Indian restaurants. “We cook it in a pan like tortillas,” he explains.
“One elder once told me that the seedheads of the wild California buckwheat was one of the flours that the elder people ate because it didn’t require grinding and the seed were very small. Since it required no grinding, there would not be tiny bits of stone in the meal that would hurt the elder people’s teeth.” California buckwheat seed heads are round and dark brown in color, and can be simply gathered, rubbed between the hands, and used in various recipes. It can be simply gathered, rubbed between the hands, and used in various recipes.
Before we were done, we spoke about many medicinal plants, and issues relating to native people today.
Toyon is often outspoken against various local real estate developments, and was named Crescenta Valley Volunteer of the year in 2007. He acts as a field representative for the Tongva Nation, and has spoken on their behalf on various environmental and cultural issues. Toyon also successfully lobbied to the U.S. Geological Survey to have a prominent peak in the Verdugo Mountains named Tongva Peak, in honor of the first people of the L.A. basin. (The other prominent peak in the Verdugos is called Verdugo Peak.) You can see Tongva Peak if you go to the intersection of Briggs and Foothill in La Crescenta and look south right at the peak.
Readers who are interested in contacting Richard Toyon can do so via Christopher Nyerges, through this paper or through his web-site, www.ChristopherNyerges.com