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Native American Food

One of the most common questions that we get is "What did American Indians eat?" Of course, the answer to this question varies from tribe to tribe-- as you might be able to guess, Athabaskan Indians in Alaska had a very different diet from Brazilian tribes in the Amazon rainforest!

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Some Native American tribes were also much more agricultural, staying in one place year-round and farming the land, while other tribes were semi-nomadic, moving frequently from place to place as they hunted and gathered food for their families. This also affected what kinds of food they ate.

Here is a general overview of some of the American Indian food sources and food gathering techniques the people developed over the years to fit these needs.

Native American Food

How did Native Americans get food for their families in the days before supermarkets?

There were four basic ways for people in ancient societies to find food: hunting and fishing, gathering, farming, and raising domesticated animals. Native Americans did all these things, but the first three were much more common. There were not many domesticated animals in North America before Europeans arrived-- only turkeys, ducks, and dogs, and most tribes did not eat dog meat (although some did.) In South America, llamas and guinea pigs were also raised by some tribes for their meat.

The other three food sources were much more important to Native American life. Most tribes used two or three of these food-gathering techniques at once to get a varied diet. Every American Indian tribe that we know of took part in hunting and fishing to get fresh meat to eat. The Inuit (Eskimos) and some Indian tribes of the far north relied almost entirely on hunting and fishing to survive. Some Native Americans were primarily big game hunters, migrating frequently to follow herds of bison or caribou. The Blackfoot and Sioux are two examples of big game hunting tribes. In tribes like these, large groups of Native Americans usually worked together to drive large animals into an ambush, a man-made pit, or over a cliff, sometimes setting controlled fires or building fences to cut off their escape. In other tribes, such as the Chippewa or Creek, each individual Native American hunter would stalk deer, rabbits or other game, or set snares or traps for them. In fishing tribes, Native American fishermen would either catch fish and hunt marine mammals from their canoes, or else set fish nets and wooden traps for them. The Tlingit and Salish are two examples of Northwest Indian tribes who got most of their meat through fishing. Native hunting and fishing weapons varied from tribe to tribe but the most common ones were bows and arrows, spears, harpoons, fish-hooks, and blowguns.

Farming was another very important source of American Indian food materials. Native agriculture was most advanced in what is now the southern United States, Mexico, and the Andean region of South America. Native Americans from those areas used special farming techniques like irrigation, terracing, crop rotation, and planting windbreaks to improve their farms, and they usually harvested enough crops to dry and store for the winter. Some examples of southern Native American tribes who were expert farmers included the Hopi, Navajo, and Cherokee tribes. Other tribes further to the north planted crops in garden plots in their villages but did not harvest enough to last the winter, so they would split up into hunting camps during that time instead. Examples of northern tribes who farmed this way included the Lenape and Iroquois tribes. Besides food crops, Native American farmers often grew cotton, hemp, tobacco, and medicinal plants.

Gathering is a general term for collecting food that grows wild in the environment. Sometimes this is a very basic sort of task, such as picking blueberries from a bush. Other times gathering can be complicated and requires special tools and training, such as tapping trees for maple syrup or grinding and leaching acorns into edible flour. The kinds of wild foods gathered by an Indian tribe and the tools they needed to do it with varied a lot depending on where the tribe lived. Usually Native Americans gathered wild foods in addition to hunting, fishing, or farming.

What were some typical Native American foods?

The most important Native American food crop was Indian corn (also known as maize, which comes from the Taino Indian name for the plant.) The majority of American Indian tribes grew at least some corn, and even tribes that did not grow corn themselves often traded with neighbors for it. Other important American Indian crops included beans, squash, pumpkins, sunflowers, wild rice, potatoes, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, peanuts, avocados, papayas, and chocolate.

Whether they were farming tribes or not, most Native American tribes had very meat-heavy diets. Favorite meats included buffalo, elk, caribou, deer, and rabbit; salmon and other fish; ducks, geese, turkeys and other birds; clams and other shellfish; and marine mammals like seals or even whales. But almost any animal who lived in the Americas in ancient times was sometimes added to the menu, even animals you might not think of as food like porcupines, monkeys, or snakes. Many Native American tribes had strong beliefs against wasting food, so if they killed an animal for any other reason, they would often try to eat it.

Other foods that could be found naturally in the Americas and were often eaten by American Indians included eggs, honey, maple syrup and sugar, salt, nuts (including peanuts, pine nuts, cashews, hickory nuts, and acorns,) fruit (including cranberries, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, chokecherries, wild plums, and persimmons), and a wide variety of beans, roots, and greens.

What were Native American meals like?

Native American cooking tended to be simple. Most Native Americans preferred to eat their food very fresh, without many spices. This was different in Mexico and Central America, where Indians tended to use less fresh meat and more spices in their dishes, including hot peppers, cumin, and chocolate seasonings. Meat was usually roasted over the fire or grilled on hot stones. Fish was often baked or smoked. Soups and stews were popular in some tribes. Corn was eaten in many different ways, including corn-on-the-cob, popcorn, hominy, and tortillas and corn bread baked in clay ovens. Indians in some tribes enjoyed fruit puddings or maple candy for dessert. Most Native Americans always drank water with their meals, but hot chocolate was a popular beverage in Mexico, and some Indians in Central and South America developed an alcoholic corn drink called chicha.

How did Native American eating habits change after Europeans arrived?

The Europeans introduced some new plants and animals that didn't exist in the Americas originally, such as bananas, wheat, sheep, and cows. Some Native American farming tribes, such as the Navajos or the Mexican Indian tribes, began to raise these new crops and farm animals in addition to corn and other traditional crops. Many people in those tribes are still farmers today, and they have been raising some of these "new" foods for centuries now!

Other tribes were forced to change their traditional lifestyles a lot after Europeans took over. Since Europeans killed most of the buffalo, tribes that used to follow the buffalo herds had to find new ways of living. Today, some tribes raise buffalo on ranches. Many forests and jungles have been cleared, which makes it harder to earn a living by hunting. In rural areas of Canada, Alaska, and South America, some Native Americans and Inuit (Eskimos) still make their living by hunting and trapping, but this is becoming rarer. And of course, one of the biggest changes was Indian tribes being forced to move to reservations far from their original homelands. In many cases, these tribes had to give up their old ways of life in their new location because the environment was different and the land was not suitable for their traditional agriculture.

Some traditional American Indian foods and recipes are still enjoyed by Native American people today. However, except for a few remote rainforest tribes, Native American people also eat modern food, just like their non-native neighbors do.

What are some Native American recipes I could make for school?

This is harder than it sounds. Most traditional Native American recipes from North America included fresh meat or fish, which isn't easy to share with your class. Here is a good recipe for wild rice and cranberries, a dish of the Northeast Woodland tribes. Here is a general American Indian recipe for corn cakes and another for blueberry wojapi, which is a kind of Sioux fruit pudding. They taste good together! You could also make tamales, which are a popular Mexican food of Aztec origin, or fry-bread, which is a contemporary Native American treat that you can commonly find at powwows. (Wojapi tastes great on frybread, too.)

If those things are all too complicated, you can make a nice salad out of traditional Native American ingredients, like succotash or a bean salad or a native fruit salad.

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Recommended Books About Native American Food
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Foods of the Americas: Native Recipes and Traditions:
    Museum book of Native American food and cooking traditions.
Buffalo Bird Woman's Garden:
    Interesting book about Native American farming traditions narrated by a Hidatsa woman.
American Indian Food:
    Detailed book about the history of Native American agriculture and food use.
Native American Food Plants: An Ethnobotanical Dictionary:
    A scholarly encyclopedia of food crops and edible plants from throughout Native North America.
Strength of the Earth: The Classic Guide to Ojibwe Uses of Native Plants:
    Book of Ojibwe traditions regarding woodland and prairie plants.
Wild Rice and the Ojibway People:
    The spiritual and practical importance of Native American wild rice cultivation.
Foods of the Southwest Indian Nations:
    Book of Southwestern Native American recipes compiled by a Kiowa chef.
Spirit of the Harvest: North American Indian Cooking * Native Harvests: American Indian Wild Foods and Recipes :
    Two more good cookbooks featuring Native American Indian recipes.

Further Reading

Native American Food Words:
    Picture dictionaries teaching the words for traditional Native American foods in different tribal languages.
American Native Food:
    General overview of Native Indian food sources, with links to Native owned food businesses.
Native American Cuisine:
    Wikipedia article on Native American food traditions, with links to specific dishes.
Hunting Without Guns:
    Illustrated descriptions of American Indian hunting tools and strategies.
Aztec, Maya, and Inca Foods and Recipes:
    Information about Mexican and South American Indian food including recipes and links.
Agriculture of the North American Indian:
    Anthropology article on Native American agriculture.
Traditional Native American Food:
    Interesting articles about native farming, food preparation, feast traditions, and nutrition.
Aztec Milpa Fields * Maya Indian Agriculture * Inca Agriculture:
    Illustrated articles on native crops and farming techniques in Pre-Columbian times.
Native American Indian Recipes * Native Food Recipes * North American Indian Recipes:
    Traditional and modern-day Native American recipe collections.
Maya Recipes:
    Several good Maya Indian recipes including Indian hot chocolate and tamales.

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