The terms "American Indians" and "Native Americans" (both are appropriate) refer to diverse groups of indigenous peoples that have occupied the area north of Mexico and south of Canada since at least 12,000 b.c.e. With more than 550 sovereign Indian Nations currently residing within the political boundaries of the United States, summarizing their different foods and foodways is difficult. Such an undertaking would be analogous to characterizing "European foodways" as though Europeans from Italy to England were a homogeneous group. However, it is still possible to discuss some general characteristics organized along geographic lines.
Over several millennia the foodways of Native Americans were well established and included both wild and domesticated foods, traditions that have continued to evolve through the centuries of conquest, assimilation, and resistance that began with European contact in the fifteenth century. Contrary to popular stereotypes, not all Native Americans were horse-riding bison hunters who lived in tepees. Although these elements fit some historical contexts, they ignore actual regional and cultural differences.
Given the extensive ethnographic record of American Indians and the great interest the public has in their lives, it is surprising that so little research on their foodways has been done. A great deal of work on the ethnobotany of plants they used was done in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but it often focused on the potential economic importance of the plants as food and medicine, not on their importance as foods in specific cultures.
Both hunting and gathering (foraging) made important contributions to the diet of all American Indian groups at the time of contact, whether they were horticulturalists or not. The fact that no large mammals (horses, cattle, pigs, sheep, and goats) were domesticated in Native North America—only to be introduced later by Europeans—explains in part why foraging remained important. Virtually every native plant and animal species was used to some extent for food, medicine, and/or manufacture. Animal domesticates did include dogs, turkeys, and ducks, while domesticated plants included several varieties of maize (corn), beans, squash, gourds, sunflowers, sumpweed, and goosefoot (Chenopodium ). Maize was a central food in the diets of many regional groups, and, except for California, was grown just about everywhere it was ecologically viable. The cooking traditions of Native Americans included everything from stone-boiling in leather bags to roasting and baking in earth ovens.
Because of a mixed subsistence pattern for horticultural groups, it is not surprising that both wild and domesticated foodstuffs remain traditional American Indian foods. The extent of this relationship is recognized in rights guaranteed by treaty to forage (hunt, fish, gather) many species that are restricted by season or prohibited to non-Indians.
Traditional Native American Culture Areas
Native Americans have been traditionally divided into several culture areas related to shared geographic and environmental boundaries. This is not to say that peoples falling within these realms were all culturally the same. However, both the historical experience of these groups as well as their ways of adapting to each area have heavily influenced their traditional foodways. Regardless of academic debates about the use of the cultural-regional approach, it remains a useful way to organize the regional differences that define Native Americans and their foods. Although the focus here is the American Indian groups south of Canada and north of Mexico, there is a great deal of overlap with cultures to the north and south. Also, in addition to the hundreds of federally recognized tribes in the United States, there are dozens more who maintain cultural traditions that are not federally recognized. A few contemporary issues for each area will be discussed, but no attempt will be made to detail the foodways of specific cultural groups.
Eastern Woodlands. Comprising the the Northeast, Great Lakes, and Southeast United States, this area extends from the Atlantic Coast west to the eastern prairies, north to the Canadian border, and south to the Gulf of Mexico. It is a place where corn, beans, and squash, all originally from Mexico, were the central staples of life and identity. Communities ranged in size from the small dispersed villages of New England to the large urbanized mound-building cities along the Mississippi and Ohio River valleys. The degree of maize dependence varied from area to area, but its central importance to this region's Native Americans is undeniable. Maize is a fundamental element of their folklore and origin myths.
Early European colonists in eastern North America rapidly incorporated various Native American dishes into their diet. Some of the best-known examples are those of Algonquin-speaking peoples, with some alterations of the original names and meanings. "Succotash," a corrupted version of the Narragansett "misickquatash, " refers to whole kernels of grain. It is often a mixture of green corn cut from the cob, beans, and perhaps another ingredient, which might be anything from meat to squash. Hominy, or "rockahominy," is made by taking shelled ripened corn and soaking it in an alkaline solution made from wood ash or lye to remove the hulls. This method also enhances the nutritional value of the maize product. Throughout the United States it is sold as yellow or white hominy or under its Latin American name, "pozole." When dried and milled into course bits, it is called "hominy grits." In some areas of the Southeast, however, the term "hominy" can also refer to grits.
Although maize is an important food item in the Great Lakes region, the gathering of wild rice takes precedence there because it is essential to maintaining the identity of many cultures in this area. In fact, in many states only American Indians can legally gather true "wild" rice (Zizania aquatica ). Given the constant demand for this product in American cooking, it continues to be a profitable resource for these communities. Many of these groups have also been in conflict with U.S. federal agencies, environmental groups, and local non-Indian communities over their legal spearfishing rights.
From the Iroquois nations of upstate New York south to the Cherokee of the Carolinas and the Seminoles of Florida, traditional foodways for nations of the Eastern Woodlands still combine locally gathered foods with the overarching importance of what the Iroquois refer to as the "Three Sisters": corn, beans, and squash. Across this region green (unripened) corn is the central element in "Green Corn" ceremonies, including the Busk ceremony of the southeastern cultures, which signals the beginning of a new year, and the annual Schemitzun (Green Corn Festival) of the Mashantucket Pequot held near Ledyard, Connecticut, which gathers nations from across the country for a huge powwow. Green corn is now a major item of American foodways when consumed as sweet corn, a mutated variety of maize that concentrates a sugar rather than a starch component.
Great Plains and Rocky Mountains. Bison, or buffalo, were a central food item and cultural symbol to many of the peoples of the central and western regions of North America. The meat was often processed into pemmican, a dried pounded meat often mixed with fat and choke-cherries. This foodstuff was stored in parfleches (leather pouches) and could sustain a mobile population for long periods of time. The introduction of the horse in the eighteenth century greatly transformed the nomadic bison hunters of these regions, including groups that engaged in seasonal small-scale horticulture as well as those who did not but traded meat for maize with horticultural societies to the south and east. The horse also facilitated the migration of groups from the eastern prairies, like the Sioux, who gave up horticulture to live in tepees and become bison hunters. They were not only able to traverse great distances, but their mobility gave them the opportunity as warriors to resist assimilation well into the late nineteenth century, when almost all other Native American groups had been placed in some type of reservation system. Their dependence on bison was also their downfall because those animals were systematically slaughtered to the brink of extinction by white men, a destruction greatly facilitated by the completion of the transcontinental railroad and U.S. policies intended to starve them into submission by eliminating their food supply.
Bison remain central to Native American cultural identity. In the Dakotas and Montana some groups have begun to raise large herds of bison on the great expanses of grassland that they once occupied. A market that demands a low-fat alternative to beef, which bison meat provides (for example, buffalo burgers), has made raising them economically valuable.
Annual gatherings at the time of the traditional bison hunts in the summer months led to the importance of powwows or social get-togethers that are still held. The dance style of the plains groups is at the core of a powwow circuit that involves Indian nations from all over the United States. These events have also spread foods central to pan-Indian identities, for example, fry bread.
Southwest. Traditionally home to pueblo farming communities and bands of foragers, this desert region exemplifies Native Americans' ability to adapt to extreme environments. The same triad of corn, beans, and squash was also central to these groups, along with a host of plants gathered from the deserts and mountains. Unlike many Native American groups who were forcibly removed from their traditional homelands, Southwest farmers from New Mexico to Arizona have been able to maintain an ongoing relationship with lands that they have cultivated since prehistoric times. Groups like the Hopi continue to practice dry-land farming in the desert of northeastern Arizona, and perform cycles of elaborate rituals to bring rain and fertility to their lands. Throughout the Southwest, water rights are a major point of concern for Native Americans whose livelihood is based on range livestock and irrigated crop production. They compete for water with growing urban centers like Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Phoenix, Arizona. The use of water by mining operations exacerbated the scarcity and critical need for this finite resource.
Even peoples who were traditionally known as foragers, like the Navajo, over time incorporated horticulture. With the introduction of sheep into the region, they continued to adapt to the desert by becoming herders. Since the 1930s the Navajo have suffered through a number of government-imposed livestock reduction programs meant to limit overgrazing of the fragile desert grasses and forage, and they continue to resent and resist attempts to regulate their livelihood and important source of food. By continually adapting to both the desert environment and changing political climates, the Navajo Nation, which completely surrounds the Hopi Nation, is the largest group of American Indians in the United States, with a population of well over 300,000.
In the harsh Sonoran Desert of southern Arizona, groups like the Tohono O'odham (Papago) and Akimel O'odham (Pima) combine ancient agricultural traditions using irrigation canals with foraging for desert plants. For example, bean pods from the mesquite tree are picked and then pounded into flour, and the fruits of the saguaro cactus are collected and boiled down to make a syrup, which was also fermented and used traditionally as a ceremonial wine.
Chili peppers, a New World cultigen from Mexico, were introduced into the Southwest by the Spanish and became central to many regional cuisines.
California, Great Basin, and Plateau. Although California is known today as a major U.S. food-producing area, in the past it was home to foragers who utilized the diverse natural ecosystems of the region (e.g., their annual gathering of acorns that were processed into flour). Many groups utilized the rich coastal resources, too. This pattern ran from the Baja region in the south north to areas that overlapped with the Northwest Coast native peoples.
Native Americans from the Great Basin area survived well into the twentieth century as foragers in one of the most extreme environments that humans inhabit on earth, the Mojave Desert, including "Death Valley." Communal rabbit and grasshopper drives brought together greatly dispersed bands. A variety of desert plants were also collected. Soshonean groups in Nevada have found it difficult to maintain many of these traditions in areas where nuclear testing and uranium mining have destroyed ecosystems.
Groups from the Plateau region of the United States are located in an area that overlaps traditions from the Great Basin, Northwest Coast, and Northern Plains. The gathering and preparation of the camas tuber (Camassia quamash ), a type of lily, links groups like the Nez Percé to their traditional foodways.
With the vast environmental diversity of these regions, mining, logging, and commercial fishing enterprises threaten the ability of many Indian nations to continue their traditional food-getting activities. Such operations not only destroy local ecosystems but areas that are considered sacred as well.
Northwest Coast. Native American fishing and whaling communities along the Pacific coast from northern California to southeast Alaska provide a unique example of sedentary foragers who utilize both aquatic and terrestrial species of plants and animals. Salmon was a central element of their diet, smoked and also processed for oils, and provided a great source of wealth for these peoples. The anadromous nature of salmon—swimming downstream to the ocean from their birthplace and then returning to it to spawn at the end of their lives—provided an abundant and predictable source of food, allowing these foragers to become sedentary dwellers along the salmon runs. Salmon continues to be economically important to these peoples.
The operation of commercial fishing fleets as an extension of their traditional food-getting activities continually places American Indians on the Northwest Coast in direct conflict with the non-Indian commercial fishing industry as well as with U.S federal agencies regarding their fundamental right, guaranteed by treaty, to secure a livelihood. A conflict over whale hunting has also emerged. Ever since gray whales were removed from the endangered species list, some groups, like the Makah, have petitioned and won the right to conduct traditional whale hunts, to the disappointment of environmental activists who have attempted to stop them. The goal for Northwest Coast peoples is not necessarily to make whale hunting a commercial enterprise, but to engage in an important food-getting activity that has great symbolic meaning in their culture.
The Northwest Coast area is also known for the potlatch (etymologically unrelated to "potluck"), a great feast and giveaway. Wealth that was accumulated—salmon oil, for example—by the elite of a community was ceremonially given away to rival villages. Although reciprocity was an important dimension of the potlatch, gaining status and the display of a family's and community's wealth was the major point of the event. As in the past, totem poles are erected to mark the greatness of a potlatch. The potlatch remains an important community event that reinforces cultural traditions through dance, feasting, and sharing.
Contemporary Diet and Nutrition Issues
Native Americans face a host of social problems (i.e. alcohol/drug abuse and violence) at levels far above the national average, and it is alarming that the rate of adult-onset (Type 2) diabetes for American Indians is over three times that of the rest of the U.S. population as a whole. Explanations for this phenomenon have included the "thrifty genotype" model, which posits that such a genotype would have given a genetic advantage to populations who experienced periods of feast and famine. If, during periods of feasting, they were capable of maximizing their caloric intake of fat for storage, which could be tapped during times of famine, they would have a selective advantage over other populations. Greatly increased insulin production during feasting would facilitate this process. A problem occurs when the feasting, especially in the form of high-fat, carbohydrate-rich foods, becomes full-time. The result has been high rates of obesity, insulin resistance, and diabetes.
Understanding this phenomenon is a complex issue that involves changes in diet, more sedentary lifestyles, and a movement away from traditional diets and to activities that are known to be healthier. The epidemic rise in diet-related health problems like diabetes, coronary heart disease, hypertension, and obesity has been most pronounced in the decades following World War II. The promotion of an American diet and lifestyle as one of the many facets of attempting to assimilate Native Americans into the U.S. mainstream included home economics instruction for women showing them how to utilize the surplus commodities being provided to the impoverished Indian communities. Many of these foods left out a number of micronutrients available through traditional methods of processing. For example, stone-ground maize provided a good source of iron and other minerals. Ironically, the combination of commodities—highly refined white flour, sugar, and lard—are the basis of a common Indian food, fry bread. One would be hard-pressed not to find some variant of it in communities across the United States. Go to any powwow and fry bread power will be there. A variant that includes toppings like spicy ground beef and/or beans is called an "Indian taco."
In general, the daily diet of most Native Americans does not contain traditional foods or foodways. Native Americans are just as much a part of the system of foodways as everyone else in the United States. For many, their diet reflects that of other low-to middle-income families who often buy food for its bulk, not its nutritional value. This is not to say that traditional foods are not important to their Indian identity; they are. Unfortunately, for many tribes these traditions continue to fade. The recent boom in casino gambling may benefit some groups, but the future will tell if the all-you-can-eat buffets found in most casinos represent cultural revitalization or loss.
A number of tribes have started educational programs on nutrition and campaigns that extol the benefits of their traditional foods. For example, O'odham groups (Pima and Papago) of Arizona, working in cooperation with Gary Nabhan and Native Seeds/SEARCH, have been attempting to reduce their incidence of diabetes and other diet-related health problems by promoting the growing and gathering of traditional desert foods. These programs not only stress dietary change and physical activity but also emphasize the importance of cultural traditions. The history of Native American foodways shows that, when faced with challenges, Indian peoples adapt and change while maintaining their core identities. In many cases, even when the traditional language is no longer spoken or religious rituals are no longer performed, the knowledge of traditional foods has not been forgotten.
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Barrett P. Brenton