Native American Cuisine!


Food has played a major role in Native American tradition, culture, and life, with major shifts throughout their history that has lead to their current difficulties. Most tribes had sustained healthy diets for centuries before the European settlers changed everything. The majority of tribes enjoyed one to two meals a day with littler regularity in scheduling. Tribes were sustained by agriculture or a hunter/gatherer lifestyle; many tribes used a combination of both. Primitive tools inhibited natives from expanding deep into the culinary word, and three main ingredients ruled the menu: corn (maize), squash, and beans.

Across North America “The Three Sisters” were the most popular foods. Corn, squash, and beans were plentiful from the East to the West coast and they were easy to process so consumption was simple. Although most tribes used these three ingredients, it does not necessarily mean they dominated the diet. Other wild plants, seeds, and nuts were used just as frequently; the wild plants just varied more based on region.

Such as the Great Lakes region where tribes like the Objibwe focused more on rice cultivation than on “The Three Sisters.” Wild rice was extremely abundant and sustainable collection methods allowed natives to eat well and leave enough rice for the next season. The natives in this region also created maple syrup for when the rice did not taste sweet enough.

In the Pacific Northwest (PNW) the sea ruled the diet for the natives with fish, especially salmon, dominating the dinner table. The rivers in the Pacific Northwest, such as the Klamath, were said to be some of the richest rivers in the world with salmon literally jumping out of them. Many tribes further north used whaling as a way to sustain a colder lifestyle. Due to a major decrease in whale population many of these tribes can no longer practice or maintain their whaling traditions.

This is another sign of environmental degradation caused by European settlers. The two main focuses from this degradation are in the wild game populations across the country along with the decrease in fish population in the PNW. Before the settlers started exploiting them, the North American woods were considered the best hunting in the world. The worst damages to the land came with the massive culling of the American Bison. Pre-contact herds were said to be as large as 60 million head. But with new hunting technology and a higher price for furs both natives and settlers were responsible for sending the bison population to near extinction.

Many years after the destruction of the bison came the Gold Rush. The Gold Rush sent large groups of settlers to the West Coast. The mining, logging, and commercial fishing industries that explode on the West Coast crushed the local natives economy and way of life. Mining and logging sent polluted run-off into the local rivers. Commercial fishing would lead to a problem that the natives never though would happen. In 1920 the industry hauled in about 17,000 fish in one day. Then came the hydroelectric dams in the PNW. Dams were built as a way to collect energy and to provide farmers with irrigation. Unfortunately dams create a literal wall for salmon to get over when they return to their spawning grounds. Dams also create reservoirs, which change the temperature and chemistry of the water. These dams killed many salmon and stopped the rest from reaching their spawning grounds and many native fishing sites.

The natives were forced into different culinary practices when the settlers arrived because their food supply was greatly altered. This alone is enough to create major changes in population health, not to mention the settlers were not done influencing the natives diet. After the Long Walks, when many native tribes were forced onto reservations, the government started sending rations to the reservations. These rations contained extremely unhealthy foods such as butter and lard, which are high in cholesterol. The natives created fry bread using the ingredients given to them in these reservations. This is why fry bread is a tradition in many tribes across the country, and is a symbol for intertribal unity. It is also unhealthy and has contributed to some of the modern problems that tribes face today.

This girl loves fry bread!

Due to major shifts in the native diet, modern day Native Americans are facing serious health issues. They were forced to change diets in a negative direction that has lead to high rates of diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. Native Americans are 70% more likely to be obese than whites. Their wild game and fish heavy diets, which contained goods fats, have been replaced by foods high in bad fats and sugars. Today, poverty also inhibits natives from making changes to their lifestyle. Without the money to eat and live healthy, the obesity rates will only rise.

Many solutions are in the making for these issues. Many organizations are working towards a healthier future for Native Americans. Groups focusing on greater amounts of exercise for children, and eating healthier in schools are small ways in which the people are working towards better health. Plans to tear down dams on the Klamath and other rivers are in the works, this would bring the salmon population back up and allow natives to return to their fishing grounds. These are small steps the natives tribes are taking as they attempt to regain a healthy and powerful presence in the country.

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