Native American Food Yesterday and Today

Convenience, poverty main culprits of dietary changes

Native American tribes serve as a perfect example of how culture is subject to diet, and diet is determined by geography. According to the United States Department of the Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs, there are currently 564 federally recognized Native American tribes within the United States. Each of these tribes has an independent culture and diet that, over time, has been forced to evolve and adapt to the mainstream culture. However, many of these tribes have maintained elements of their heritage through tradition, ritual, and diet. An attempt to define the traditional Native American diet would ultimately be fruitless, due to the tremendous diversity among tribes and their distribution throughout the continent. A singular classification would be restricting and shallow at best. Unlike Mexican or Haitian cuisine, which speaks to one culture, Native American fare is an umbrella term. Each tribe has its own unique diet. Similarities do exist, mainly corn, berries, nuts, and beans, but these foods are widespread and abundant in diverse climates and geographies.

Native American diets have changed significantly over time and many tribes have abandoned their farming, hunting, and foraging for a heavily commercialized and processed way of eating.  As a result of the westward expansion of the United States in the early 19th century and the creation of Native American tribal reservations, native people have struggled with poverty, addiction, and poor health. One-third of the Native American population in the United States live on reservations and survive on a diet of government-issued and-manufactured products. A diet once rich in lean proteins and fiber was replaced with one saturated by carbohydrates, fat, sodium and calories. As a result of poor diet and a limited understanding of nutrition, increasing rates of obesity, diabetes, cancer, and heart disease have crippled the already depressed Native American population. However, attempts are being made by a number of tribal communities to promote a healthy lifestyle complete with exercise and affordable, balanced eating. 

Three Diet Staples

Most Native American diets employ corn, or maize. Corn, along with squash and beans, was traded and cultivated prior to the arrival of Europeans to the continent. These three crops, harvested by early native people, were known as the "Three Sisters" because they are companion plants, or plants that benefit from one another. The corn supports the beans, which provide nutrients to the soil, and the squash covers the ground, protecting it from intrusive weeds or animals. The trio served as what was thought to be a balanced diet when animal protein was scarce and were, therefore, regarded as divine gifts or blessings.

However, according to Robert North, Director of Development and Operations at Boys & Girls Club of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, the "Three Sisters" used in early cuisine are dramatically different then the crops used today. Modern vegetables, though a better alternative to processed and canned products, are still loaded with hormones, pesticides, and other chemicals. North argues that crops used by early native people were much more beneficial and wholesome because they were not bleached, altered, or mass-produced. The changes made to vegetables and farming over the occurs of time have taken away from the nutritional value of most fruits and vegetables.

Proteins and Plants

Though a component of most traditional Native American diets, animal protein was not a fixture. A steady diet of animal protein was difficult to maintain and not always readily available due to changes in weather, climate, and animal populations. Early Native American people had diets rich in vegetables and plant nutrients, which were accessible to most tribes in abundance and throughout the year. When game was limited, plant proteins from seeds, nuts, and beans provided an alternative. Fish was a protein that was more reliable than big game and more satisfying than proteins found in vegetation. Tribes within close proximity to water incorporated fish regularly into their diets.

Dandelions, thistle, and mint, along with various herbs and wild plants, were integrated into early Native American food and drink. Many of these plants were used in teas or medicinal remedies and are still common remedies in many tribes. Often, these ingredients were passed down through generations and carried on, despite the changes in culture and cuisine. For example, a stew made from acorns remains a traditional Native American dish that has been adopted by a number of tribes throughout the country and, despite some variations, has remained relatively unchanged over time. Likewise, the Hopi people continue to produce a dish called "Piki bread," bread made from juniper ash, sunflower oil, and cornmeal. These recipes are often similar to recipes found in neighboring tribes, reflecting the flora and fauna of the location.

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Last Modified Date: December 24, 2013

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