The Native American indigenous foods we eat today are the result of thousands of years perfecting the cultivation of a variety of crops that now feed the world. The diverse foods were perfected long before Europeans arrived. -By John Jacobs
When you think of Native American food, do you think of terms like “cuisine”? Probably not, because history has focused mostly on stories about foods such as maize (corn) and other vegetables. History has left out the stories of food preparation delivering flavorful and diverse dishes that display an expert blend of wild plants, cultivated plants, meats, fish, and other ingredients. At one point, the indigenous foods did mix with European foods, but today Native Americans are returning to their ”cuisine roots”, because they feel that traditional indigenous foods offer a better path to health and wellness and cultural pride.
Cultural Restoration Through Food
According to Open Table, indigenous cuisine is divided into four historical periods. The first period is the authentic Native American food period known as the Pre-Contact Period (10,000 BC to 1492 AD), referring to a period before Europeans arrived. Then the First Contact Period started and endured into the 1800s. The Government Issue Period refers to the mid to late 1800s, when Native Americans were relocated and forced to eat foods they were not used to eating. The current period is the New Native American Cuisine Period, and it is a period of cultural restoration. Today, Native American chefs choose their ingredients from the first three periods to develop new recipes that offer healthy eating options.
Did you know that approximately 60% of the world’s food supply today originated in North America? By the time the Europeans arrived in the First Contact Period, Native Americans had already become proficient in developing varieties of three main crops: corn, squash, and beans. These staple foods are called “the three sisters.” Squash was native to North America, and corn and beans are believed to have originated in South America. Wherever they came from, these three crops provided many essential nutrients for good health. The early Native Americans had learned to improve cooking with what they found upon arrival in North America, through hybridization and selection. The three sisters are still grown to this day on farms and in gardens.
Perfect Diets for Good Health
The food culture of Native Americans involves more than just growing and cooking vegetables. Berries were crucial to maintaining health also, because they are rich in phytochemicals. Berries included elderberries, blueberries, and black raspberries among others. The Native Americans were hunter-gatherers, and it is possible their reliance on agriculture began when giant food sources such as mastodons disappeared. However, in James Adair’s book (1735-1770) describes the fact that Native Americans hunted bears and deer, as well as catching fish. It is also known they hunted small game, turkeys, and other wild birds. A staple food that Adair mentions is cornbread made with corn, beans, and chestnuts. They used herbs and roots, too. According to Adair, most foods were cooked, except for fruits and berries. The Native American women baked, fried, deep-fried, boiled, and roasted foods over an open fire.
Some of the common indigenous foods were corn porridge, succotash made of beans and corn, cornbread that could be thick or thin like tortillas, bean bread made with corn and beans, baked squash chunks, soups and stews, baked beans, and meats and fish skewered and cooked over open fires. Naturally, the indigenous people’s particular diet depended on where they lived, but they had developed diets that were perfectly suited to maintaining good health. Europeans brought additional food items with them, but there is no doubt the Native Americans would have done just fine without their ingredients. They knew how to use food as a medicine of sorts too, and they enjoyed natural sweets. Adair describes Native Americans tapping maple trees for the syrup to pour over pancake-like bread.
Connecting Through Food
It is no secret that many Native Americans are suffering on their reservations today, due to the loss of connection to their culture, and many are turning to food to address the health crisis. The North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems (NaTIFS) was founded by The Sioux Chef, a James Beard award winner. The Indigenous Food Lab is a commercial Indigenous kitchen and training center that is focused on Indigenous food identification, research and development, gathering, cultivation, and food preparation. The goal is to train entrepreneurs to start and run successful culinary businesses based on Native traditions and Indigenous foods. This approach drives economic empowerment and better health.
The Sioux Chef is committed to revitalizing Native American cuisine and reclaiming the culinary culture. Composed of a team of Anishinaabe, Navajo, Mdewakanton Dakota, Oglala Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Wahpeton-Sisseton Dakota, the Sioux Chef has now opened its first full-service restaurant in downtown Mississippi on the banks of the Mississippi river (sacred HahaWakpa). It provides the perfect opportunity to enjoy reading the philosophy and menu, to see how the Native American food culture is being revived. There are two principles. First, the menu has recipes based on a mix of traditional foods that include fish, game, insects, birds, wild plants, and Native American heirloom farm varieties. Second, ingredients that the Europeans brought (and not original to the land) such as chicken, beef, pork, wheat flour, dairy, and cane sugar are to be avoided.
On the menu is a delicious array of dinner options that include lake trout, bison, turkey, elk, and duck sausage. Many of the items are plants, like maple baked beans, wild rice, and roasted sweet potatoes. There is blue corn mush made of Ute Mountain Blue Corn, hazelnut, maple, and berries. You can order heirloom corn tortillas or a garden salad with toasted crickets. Best of all, there is a “Three Sisters” option made of black bean purée, pickled squash, and corn.
Learning from Native Americans
The authentic Native American diet is one that everyone could follow. It is healthy, interesting and steeped in culture (and utterly delicious of course). Food, as everyone knows, can make or break good health. As Native Americans reclaim their food culture, we might also all learn from them, by reclaiming our good food choices.