Canada: Native Peoples

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Native Peoples

There are over half a million Peoples of the First Nations scattered across Canada. Divided into more than 600 bands, nearly 60 percent live on reserves, the majority on the plains and the West Coast. Greatly differing in their background, culture, and traditional cuisine, the Peoples of the First Nations can be divided into cultural groupings, each with a distinct cuisine: the Woodland First Nations, the First Nations of Southeast Ontario, the Plains People, the Pacific Coastal Nations, the First Nations of the Plateau, and the First Nations of the Mackenzie and Yukon River basins. The Inuit, occupying one-third of the landmass in Canada, are another important aboriginal group with a different and distinct cuisine.

Inhabitants of Canada for thousands of years before European contact, the Native Peoples created markedly different cuisines from the raw ingredients available: local wildlife and indigenous plants. Although basic cooking methods varied from tribe to tribe, most peoples roasted food over hot coals and used the "stone-boiling" method of cookery. Food and water were placed in a wooden, bark, or skin container and hot rocks were dropped into the vessel to heat the water and cook the food. It was not surprising that iron kettles were highly prized when offered in trade by Europeans because they simplified this method of cookery. Salt was absent from their traditional food preparations as was frying food in fat. Both were introduced by Europeans along with new ingredients and preparations. Wheat flour was one of the first widely accepted foods and bannock became the traditional bread that spread to every tribe across Canada. New root vegetables such as carrots, onions, and turnips were readily added to their cooking pots for flavor and nourishment. It is thought that potatoes, brought to Europe from Peru by the Spaniards, were carried to Canada by Irish immigrants and these easy-to-grow tubers were quickly accepted in aboriginal communities. Refined, cheap sugar was a valued commodity and enjoyed in its many uses in sweet desserts and, later, in soft drinks. In the twentieth century, aboriginal people, like other North Americans, became enamored with manufactured foods including snack foods, rich in salt, fat, and sugar, and began to shop at their band or grocery stores for most of their food supplies. However, nutritional research has shown that their native diet was healthier than the new diet to which they were introduced. The incidence of diabetes and other dietary diseases is high among Native Peoples.

After initial contact, Europeans attempted to assimilate the Peoples of the First Nations into white culture, most recently by taking children from their families and placing them in residential boarding schools. Children were taught English and ate the white people's diet, but the Peoples of the First Nations remembered their past. There is a strong force within their communities to prepare traditional foods, and, at the same time, to improve their diet. Young aboriginal chefs are making their mark on Canadian cuisine. Specifically trained in courses on aboriginal cuisine and native culture, these young people are putting native cuisine on Canadian menus.

Although diverse in their foods and foodways, there is a commonality that crosses from Nation to Nation, and that is a deep spiritual relationship with the land and the life forms that inhabit it. The Peoples of the First Nations have a great respect for all living things and believe that human beings participate in a world of interrelated spiritual forms. Moreover, toward the end of the twentieth century, aboriginal peoples across Canada began a concerted effort to control their lands and resources.

The Woodland Peoples

The Woodland Peoples include Mi'kmaq, Montagnais, Ojibway, Algonquin, Odawa, and Cree, the tribes who first met the French and formed alliances with them in the seventeenth century. Spread across the eastern provinces from Nova Scotia to Manitoba, they were hunting and gathering societies, migrating from place to place, following the seasonal movements of wild game animals. Moose, venison, beaver, rabbit, and caribou in the north were their quarry. Wild waterfowl and fish were also part of their diet, as well as berries that could be gathered. Wild game was prepared by the women, who either roasted the food or boiled it by dropping heated stones into water-filled bark containers.

Sharing food was part of their culture and many an early settler would not have survived had it not been for the native people who gave them part of the meat they hunted and taught them how to track game and use snowshoes. They introduced the French to maple sap, which they prized as a spring tonic and which could be boiled down to sugar. They showed them fiddleheads, the fronds of the ostrich fern, a gourmet delicacy in twentieth-century Canada. An important grain, part of the Ojibway diet, was wild rice, gathered in shallow bays by canoe. The Woodland Peoples no longer depend upon wild game, although hunting and trapping are still important.

The spiritual part of their culture remains integral to their life. For example, the Ojibway observe the seasons with festivals, beginning in the spring with the strawberry festival and the drinking of strawberry juice, giving thanks to their creator.

Peoples of Southeast Ontario

At the time of contact, the aboriginal people who were farmers in Canada lived in Ontario (members of the Iroquoian tribes), and there were occasional farming settlements in Quebec. Fifteen varieties of corn, sixty of beans, and six of squash, including pumpkins, were grown. Jerusalem artichokes and sunflowers were also cultivated. Maples were tapped in the spring and the sap boiled down to sugar, used sparingly as a sweetener and sold to early settlers. The most important of their crops were corn, beans, and squash, the "Three Sisters," which together provided a complete diet. Food was cooked by the women in pottery containers, which they made. Fish and meat were added for flavoring but were a small part of their diet. Three festivals were held to honor corn: the corn planting, the green corn, and the harvest festivals.

The largest band in Canada is the Six Nations of the Grand River Iroquois in Ohsweken, Ontario, who came north with British Loyalists in the late eighteenth century. Their ceremonies are held in a modern building resembling a long house in style. For traditional ceremonies families bring food, fragrant sweet grass is burned, and the food is blessed. Corn soup is served at ceremonies and in homes. To make this special soup, women begin preparing it in late summer, first slowly drying white flint corn kernels in the oven and then storing them in containers. The soup is made by simmering the dried corn with fresh pork, kidney beans, and a little salt. Corn soup is also served at the "Snow Snake" in the winter, a contest in which the men throw a javelin-like spear down an icy groove (the spear may travel almost 3,300 ft., close to 1,100 yds.).

The Plains Peoples

The Plains Peoples (Blackfoot, Blood, Peigan, Gros Ventre, Cree, Assiniboine, Sioux, and Sarcee [Tsuu T'ina]) followed buffalo migrations. Depending upon the tribe, after the slaughter the kidney, heart, or liver (all were considered sacred) was eaten first, raw. Animals were always slaughtered as needed, not for sport. Every bit of the buffalo was utilized for food, clothing, or shelter. The fresh meat was either roasted or cooked in a skin bag by the stone-boiling method. Jerky was prepared by sundrying strips of meat, which were pounded almost into a powder and then mixed with buffalo fat and berries to make pemmican. Stored in a buffalo skin, it remained edible for years, and early European settlers and fur traders depended upon it. After the buffalo had all but disappeared, its meat was replaced by beef. Today, the Plains Peoples' favorite method of cooking beef is boiling it with potatoes, and the boiled meat is often served with pork cracklings. Tongue is a delicacy eaten during the Sun Dances. Kidneys, lightly grilled on the outside, are eaten by the Siksika of the Blackfoot. Intestines are stuffed with raisins, cooked, and eaten. Their tradition of not letting any part of the animal go to waste continues. Men of these tribes still consider themselves meat eaters and continue to hunt wild game for food and sportdeer, antelope, rabbits, and, near the Rockies, elk and mountain sheep, as well as other animals and birds.

The Pacific Coast First Nations

The Pacific Coast First Nations (Haida, Tsimshian, Nootka, Coast Salish, Kwakiutl, and Bella Coola) live on the coast of British Columbia. By the time Columbus had reached the Americas, these people had developed an elaborate social structure. They lived in semipermanent communities in homes built with cedar boards, had extensive trade networks, and had sufficient leisure time for artisan carvers to develop.

A unique feature of these people was the potlatch, an elaborate feast publicly declaring and legitimizing a change in statebirth, marriage, death, or inheritance of rights. The chief who gave the potlatch provided enormous quantities of food, served in intricately carved containers, and invited guests from other tribes were expected to consume food until they could eat no more. During the feast the chief gave away his possessions, and the more generous he was, the more powerful he was thought to be. The potlatch was outlawed from 1884 until 1951, but was still held in secret. Potlatches today are held for the same reasons as in the past, and the potlatch ceremoniessinging, drumming, dancing, and speech-makingall reaffirm the community's cultural identity.

The planning for a potlatch may take several years. The community participates in preparing feast foods, which are a combination of their favorite traditional dishes and North American foods. Entire families attend the potlatch, including infants. Generally, two meals are served each day of the potlatch, a dinner and then a late supper break after midnight. Some of the traditional foods that are served include dried herring roe, grease from the eulachon (an anadromous marine food fish found along the north Pacific coast), seaweed soup with salmon eggs, and, always, salmon. These foods are accompanied by tossed salads, vegetables, pickles, bannock, and cakes. Speechmakers reiterate the "plentifulness of the food." Rituals are observed at the feast: elders and chiefs are served first, guests are considered rude if they refuse food during the meal, and all are invited to take food home. On the last night of the feast, boxes and boxes of goods are given to the guests. Today these gifts consist of a variety of goods such as mugs, glasses, housewares, T-shirts with the family crest, towels, and blankets. Valued foods such as dried herring eggs and eulachon grease are given to special guests, as are envelopes of money. The revitalized potlatch reinforces community cohesiveness and support for the leaders of the community.

The First Nations of the Plateau

The First Nations of the Plateau (Interior Salish, Kottenay Tribe, Chilcotin, Tahltan, Tagish, and Carrier Sekani) occupy the great valley between the Rocky Mountains and the coastal ranges in British Columbia. These peoples, along with the coastal Nations, were the most numerous of any aboriginal group before European contact. Within these cultural groups, staple foods varied from northern to southern British Columbia. In the central area, salmon, which spawned in the Fraser River, were the staple food, while in the north wild game, especially moose, deer, and caribou, was hunted. Researchers have identified more than 150 plants that were gathered and, in the southern area, supplied 50 percent of the calories consumed. Families or chiefs owned gathering areas and, although agriculture, per se, was not practiced, the grounds were tended and cared for so that plants would flourish and could be harvested annually. Roots were an important staple, especially Yellow Avalanche Lily, Spring Beauty tubers ("Indian Potato"), and bitterroot. Pit cooking was favored for cooking roots. A hole was dug, rocks added, a fire built to heat the rocks, and a protective layer of vegetable matter was placed over the coals. Foods were placed on top of this layer and carefully covered with more greenery and then with soil. Some water was added, and the whole cooked for hours. Wild berries, gathered by women, were eaten fresh or cooked and dried in wooden frames to make berry cakes, then stored for later use. These cakes were soaked and mixed with eulachon oil. The Interior Peoples had extensive trade with the Coastal Peoples and exchanged their roots, berries, and other goods for eulachon "grease," herring roe, and other goods. When potatoes, rice, flour, sugar, and other foods were introduced, they were readily accepted by the Interior Peoples. They still gather berries, root vegetables, and wild mushrooms. Their traditional foods are greatly valued even though many of their ancestral gathering grounds have been destroyed by cattle or development.

The First Nations of the Mackenzie and Yukon River Basins

Small in numbers, the twelve tribes of the Mackenzie and Yukon River basins occupy one-fourth of Canada's land-mass. They include the Chipewyan, Beaver, Slave, Yellowknife, Dogrib, and Hare tribes. Their traditional hunting lands, located just below the tundra, provided sparse vegetation for game animals, so family units had their own hunting grounds. Seminomadic, they followed migratory animals such as caribou. Where available, they hunted moose, mountain sheep, wood buffalo, and bear. Hunting was often a winter activity that required snowshoes, and snares were set to trap game. Fish were important, caught either through the ice in the winter or by canoe after the ice broke up in the spring. Game was boiled in birch bark containers using the stone-boiling method. All of the Yukon tribes held memorial feasts for their dead on the first anniversary of their death. Today, hunting is still an important part of their life and snowmobiles have allowed them to have a wider range in their winter hunting territory. However, permanent settlements and the decrease in caribou herds in some parts of their territory have diminished the emphasis on game as their major food supply.

In the twenty-first century, Native Peoples eat much like other North Americans. They buy their foods from grocery or band stores, frequent fast-food restaurants and pizza parlors, get Chinese takeout, and drop into coffee and donut shops.

See also American Indians; Arctic; Canada; Inuit; Potlatch.


Hungry Wolf, Beverly. The Ways of My Grandmothers. New York: Morrow, 1980.

"Indian and Northern Affairs Canada." Section on Culture and History. Available at

Kuhnlein, Harriet V., and Nancy J. Turner. Traditional Plant Foods of Canadian Indigenous Peoples: Nutrition, Botany, and Use. Volume 8: Food and Nutrition in History and Anthropology, edited by Solomon Katz. Philadelphia: Gordon and Breach, 1991.

Skye, Bertha. "Traditional Cree and Iroquois Foods." In Northern Bounty: A Celebration of Canadian Cuisine, edited by Jo Marie Powers and Anita Stewart, pp. 113120. Toronto: Random House, 1995.

Stewart, Anita. "Potlatch Revival," Canadian Living (April 1993): 3136.

Turner, Nancy J. Food Plants of Interior First Peoples. Vancouver: UBC, 1997.

Jo Marie Powers


Bannock is a bread universally loved and prepared in the homes of every aboriginal tribe in Canada. The Scottish fur traders are thought to have introduced this preparation. Folklore tells its probable origin. Scottish men, carrying a bag of flour in their canoe and not caring about amenities, made a well in the center of the flour, poured in water, and stirred it with their fingers to make a dough. Wrapped around a stick and roasted over the campfire, this bannock was shared with aboriginal guides.

Today bannock has many variations. Flour, a small amount of baking powder and salt, and sometimes a little fat, are placed in a large bowl and an indentation is made in the center. Buttermilk, milk, or water is poured in and the liquid is deftly and gently worked into the flour to form a soft dough. This is rolled out and cut into rounds and baked. The result is a tender, unleavened bread about two inches thick. It is also cooked in an ungreased skillet on top of the stove. When the bannock dough is fried in fat, it is called "fry bread" or "fried bread." In the out-of-doors, bannock is still baked over a campfire, either wrapped around a stick in the traditional manner or in a heavy iron skillet placed on hot coals. For variety, blueberries, saskatoon berries, or raisins are added to the dough before it is baked.

At powwows, bannock is a featured food. It is rolled into large rounds and deep-fried as a base for Indian tacos. This recipe first appeared on the powwow circuit between twenty and thirty years ago, and the fry bread base is topped with a seasoned bean or meat mixture, shredded cheese, chopped lettuce, and tomato. The fry bread can also be served hot with butter and honey.

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Canada: Native Peoples

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