Native American Food: Yesterday and Today


Written by Ariana Lipsman | Edited by Carol Coutinho

November 27, 2020

The month of November is famous for the rosy story of Thanksgiving. The classic tale of coming together in which Native Americans (specifically the Wampanoag tribe of Massachusetts) welcomed the Pilgrims to Plymouth Rock with open arms. They taught the Pilgrims how to grow their own food, and after their first winter, the two groups shared a feast of squash, corn, and most famously, turkey. In recent years, we’ve begun to acknowledge the darker side of that story- the ensuing genocide of America’s indigenous peoples. This is a past that we have to reckon with. One of the ways that we can do this, especially since today is Native American Heritage Day, is by learning about indigenous cultures, and helping to keep them alive.

Infographic displaying the nutrient profile of one cup of cooked fresh pumpkin and a cartoony illustration of a green bowl of orange pumpkin puree

My cousin put together a book of my Grandma’s gefilte fish recipe for my family. It shows my late grandmother going through each step of preparing the poached fish patty. It’s definitely not my favorite food, but it’s a distinct Ashkenazi Jewish dish. My grandmother learned how to make it from her parents, who didn’t survive the Holocaust. My grandmother did, and she brought their gefilte fish recipe with her to the U.S. after she was liberated from the camps.

As a Jew who comes from a family of Holocaust survivors, I know that a crucial way to do this is through food. In my own family, food has been one of the best ways that we’ve preserved a cultural identity that was almost destroyed. Food is a connection to the past, and a way to hand down history to the next generation. When this is lost, so is a huge part of who you are. So this year, let’s honor our Native American citizens by learning about their cultures- what they were eating before we got here, the issues they face today, and most importantly, how we can assist them in reclaiming their distinct and highly important food cultures.

Pre-colonial Native American food

Before Europeans “discovered” America, there were over 60 million Native Americans living across the continent, almost the same as the population of Europe at the time. There were entire civilizations, replete with their own languages, customs, and foods (2). A lot of these foods were shared between tribes throughout the country, thanks to a sophisticated system of trade routes and a common sign-language that was used by most groups. Here’s a surprising fact: About 60% of foods eaten around the world are from the Americas- corn, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers- and they were all first domesticated by, you guessed it, Native Americans. In North America, indigenous populations can be identified as 10 distinct cultural areas: the Arctic, the Subarctic, the Northeast, the Southeast, the Great Plains, the Southwest, the Great Basin, California, the Northwest Coast, and the Plateau. That’s a lot of areas, so let’s take a look at each of them:

Native American map

Tree of Ed. “Eastern Woodlands”. 2020. Jpg file. 

The Plateau

The Plateau was made up of modern day Idaho, Montana, eastern Oregon, and Washington. Tribes like the Klamath, the Klikitat, the Nez Perce, the Salish, and the Spokane (sound familiar?) lived along rivers and streams, fishing for trout and salmon and gathering nuts, berries, and roots (5). They mostly relied on fish, and prepared it with methods you may have seen on cooking shows. If fish was going to be eaten fresh, it was roasted over the fire on a spit, or baked in the fire’s ashes (also used by award winning chef, Francis Mallman, in Chef’s Table), or boiled in baskets with hot rocks and water. Most fish was smoked and dried to use in the cold winter months (6). 

Salishan man smoking fish

Edson, Norman. “Salishan man named William We-ah-lup Smoking Salmon”. 1906. Jpg file. 

Northwest Coast

This area trailed along the Pacific coast from British Columbia to Northern California. Here, tribes like the Athapaskan Haida, Wakashan Kwakiutl, and the Penutian Chinook relied on the ocean and rivers for salmon, seals, whales, and shellfish. Instead of salt and pepper, these tribes flavored their food with fish oil (6). Today, fish oil is frequently used in vitamin supplements since it’s bursting with healthy fatty acids like Omega-3.

Man fishing

Canada’s First Peoples. “Nuu-chah-nulth man fishing with a net”. 1903. Jpg file. 



California was the most highly populated area in America before Europeans came into the picture. Over 300,000 individuals lived there in 100 different tribes with their own languages- the Chumash, the Salinas, the Hupa, and the Serrano to name a few. Many California tribes used earth ovens lined with rocks; the Pomo tribe used them to bake Indian potatoes and buckeye nuts, while the Sierra Miwok used them to bake acorn bread and cook roots, mushrooms, and greens (7).  Acorn bread is a fairly easy recipe, you can make your own at home! 

acorn bread

Indian Country Today. “Acorn bread”. 2016. Jpg file.  

Great Basin

From the Rocky Mountains to the Sierra Nevadas, this area was full of deserts, salt lakes, and salt flats (5). It doesn’t seem like that kind of landscape would have many resources, but tribes like the Ute, Pauite, Shoshone, and Washoe ate a variety of things, from chokeberries, bison, elk, grasses, ducks, and pinyon nuts to lizards, insects, and brine shrimp (8). They also made a nutritious mixture of meat, fat, and dried fruit called “pemmican” (9), that’s very similar to a protein bar. Pemmican is still widely used today, especially in the popular ketogenic diet. There are a lot of great recipes out there! 


Sisson, Mark. “How to Make Pemmican”. 2020. Jpg file. 



This covered the massive deserts in New Mexico and Arizona and contained two different lifestyles. The Hopi, Zuni, Yaqui, and the Yuma were farmers who grew corn, squash, and beans, a combination of crops widely known among Native Americans as “The Three Sisters”. The Apache and Dine’ (also known as the Navajo) of the region moved around, hunting and gathering wild plants and animals.  

Check out this great recipe for Three Sisters Stew! 

Three Sisters Stew

Atlas, Nava. “Three Sisters Stew.” 2016. Jpg file. 


The Plains

This huge prairie region covered the middle of North America, from top to bottom. Tribes like the Apsáalooke (misnamed the Crow by white settlers), the Blackfeet, the Cheyenne, and Comanche were relatively settled, hunting and farming in a fixed place. Once horses were brought by Spanish settlers, these tribes became more nomadic, following the buffalo that were a crucial staple of their diet. Buffalo meat is very nutritious, higher in protein and lower in cholesterol than beef.   


Crow Native Americans

National Museum of the American Indian. “Crow Indians on the March”. Jpg file. 


The Southeast

Just above the Gulf of Mexico, the Southeast tribes such as the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole were highly skilled farmers. They grew a variety of crops, like maize (corn), beans, squash, tobacco, and sunflower. The tribes of this region created our beloved corn bread

Creek Indigenous Tribe of Alabama

Digital Alabama. “Creek-Indian-Tribe-of-Alabama”. Jpg file.  

The Northeast

The tribes in this area, the Cayuga, Seneca, Wampanoag, and Erie, to name a few, were the first to make contact with Europeans. They, too, grew crops like corn, squash, and beans, and also fished along rivers and lakes. They also ate succotash! This classic dish’s name is Narragansett, from the word “sohquttahhash” which means “broken corn kernels.”


Taylor, Kathryne. “Vegetarian Succotash.” jpg file.

The Arctic 

This is a pretty brutal area, a frozen desert in modern day Alaska. The Inuit and the Aleut survived here by living in scattered, small populations hunting seals, otters, and whales. 


Moore, Robert W., “An Inuit girl holds a treat of muktuk—whale blubber and skin.” 1956. Jpg file.


The Subarctic

This area was mostly tundra and swampy forests called “taiga” (5). The tribes that lived here, the Tsattine, Kuchin, and Deg Xinag, lived in small family groups that moved around hunting caribou, much like the Plains tribes. 


Native American influence today

Native American agriculture pioneered many practices that are used in modern farming. Native Americans developed corn from a mere wild weed to a major staple in their diet that would later be eaten across the world, and become one of the U.S.’s three major crops. 

There are accounts from European colonists of the massive stores of corn that Native Americans, namely the Iroqouis, were able to grow- an astounding 3-5 times more corn than the amount of wheat that European farmers could produce (18). 

They, and other indigenous farmers, were able to do this because they had already discovered methods used in modern-day regenerative agriculture. Regenerative agriculture is a popular field in today’s sustainability movement, and pre-colonial Native Americans practiced two of its tenets: they did not plow fields, and grew multiple kinds of crops in the same field, also known as crop diversification. Plows hurt soil fertility, and without them, Native Americans created richer farming soil that could support more crops in less space. Since they were not depleting the soil, as their European counterparts were doing, they didn’t have to clear forests for more farmland.

Native American agriculture

Native American Roots. “Southeastern Indian Agriculture”. jpg file. 

They also grew “The Three Sisters”, which is what they called the grouping of squash, beans, and corn in the same field. They noticed that the growth of these crops was vastly improved when grown together, and used this method of crop diversification centuries before it was practiced by today’s regenerative farmers. 

What happened to Native American food after colonization

One of the major ways white settlers forced out indigenous peoples was by attacking their food sources. The most notorious example of this is the near extermination of the American bison. Once numbering in the millions, they were whittled down to less than 1,000 individuals in the 1800’s. Frontiersmen, the U.S. Army, and even civilians were told to “Kill every buffalo you can! Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone!”, as Buffalo Bill is famously quoted (10). This mandate was a direct attempt to solve “the Indian Problem”, and eliminate Native Americans from the landscape. Dams were erected, which flooded rivers and creeks that were home to crucial fish food sources as well. 

Bison skulls

Smithsonian Magazine. “A Pile of American Bison Skulls in the Mid-1870’s”. Jpg file. 

This kind of persecution is still happening to this day, such as the Dakota Access Pipeline, which was built through the Standing Rock Sioux reservation against their will and threatens their water supply. When the Sioux Nation peacefully protested in 2016, just four years ago, they were met with violent attacks from police and guards hired by the energy company building the pipeline. 300 protesters were seriously injured and one was killed.

Standing rock protest

Wilson, Rob. @RobWilsonFoto.  “Standing Rock Protests.” 2016. Jpg file. 

Eventually, indigenous people were forced onto reservations where natural resources were scarce, completely displacing them from the lands that they were so skilled at living off of. They were then forced to rely on government rations, which were cheap and fatty. Rations were usually very basic- flour, lard, sugar, salt, and beans. Instead of buffalo, Native Americans were given beef. These new foods were radically different, and had far less nutritional value than traditional Native foods. Tribes were not allowed to leave the reservations to continue hunting, fishing, and gathering on their native lands, so their lifestyles became much more sedentary as well (14).

Ration card

JF Ptak Science Books. Government Ration Card. “The Longest Surrender in U.S. History—Native Americans and the Rationing of Food, 1870-1925”. Jpg file. 

Further, Native children were sent to boarding schools where they were taught not to speak their native languages, and to essentially unlearn their culture. Lorene Sisquoc, a Cahuilla/Apache elder, helped found the Chia Cafe Collective, an organization committed to revitalizing native foods. She teaches at a high school that was once one of these boarding schools. In an interview with KCET, she explains that there, children were taught to, “Forget about your traditional plants. Forget about the acorns and the pine nuts and mesquite waiting to be gathered. You’ve got to […] make a garden and milk that cow…It was lactose intolerant kids being fed dairy products and introduced foods… They were taught that their ways were wrong. Many of our gathering practices were not passed down because the boarding school students weren’t home to learn them” (13). 

Native American health today

This rapid, forced change in diet and lifestyle caused health problems in Native communities that are still major issues to this day. According to the CDC, Native Americans have a greater chance of getting diabetes than any other racial group in the US (15). In the past fifty years, the rates of heart disease in their communities have doubled. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute interviewed Amanda Fretts, Ph.D., a member of the Mi’kmaq tribe and an epidemiologist at the University of Washington. Dr. Fretts has conducted studies on the dietary habits of the Native American population. She states that “…studies have shown that unhealthy, nontraditional foods like canned meats and fast-food, are a large part of the problem. Many of these processed foods contribute to diabetes, which is a risk factor for heart disease”(16). Many Native American reservations are also food deserts, places where there are very few or no grocery stores. This severely limits these communities’ access to nutritious, fresh foods. 

Reclaiming original food systems

In response to these problems, many Native Americans are taking matters into their own hands. They are reclaiming their ancestral history and their health by seeking out their much more nutritious, pre-colonial diets, and it is becoming a movement. Sean Sherman for instance, an Oglala Lakota and a James Beard Award-winning chef, founded the Sioux Chef, a collective of indigenous chefs, caterers, food truckers, ethnobotanists, and food preservationists. Their sole mission is to revitalize traditional Native American foods and bring them back to Native communities, as well as into the eye of the general public.

Sean Sherman

University of Minnesota Press. “Sean Sherman Stands in front of his Tatanka truck”. Jpg file. 

Another major development is a new partnership between Niman Ranch and Native American Natural Foods (NANF). Together, they are creating a business that will return bison to the Pine Ridge Lakota Reservation as a food source for the Lakota Nation (17). 


Gahagan, Kayla. “Restoring buffalo and resisting drought on the Pine Ridge reservation”. 2014. Jpg file. 

The new documentary, Gather, produced by Jason Momoa (a.k.a. Aquaman, and also an indigenous Hawaiian), spotlights Native American individuals working to move the Native community back to their original food sources. One such person is Nephi Craig, a White Mountain Apache chef. Nephi has opened Cafe Gozhóó on his ancestral reservation, a restaurant that serves fresh, locally-sourced, traditional Apache foods in an area where fresh food is not easy to find.

Ration card

Amazon Prime. “Gather”. 2020. Jpg file. 

What you can do this Thanksgiving

2020 has been a strange, scary year. But it’s also been a year of increased awareness, and striving to be better. So this Thanksgiving, let’s recognize the contributions and the importance of our country’s first people. There are a ton of ways to help support Native American groups in their efforts to regain their culture and their health. Maybe you can even add a Native American dish to your Thanksgiving table next year! Here is a list of some organizations to support, and exciting food businesses forming in the indigenous food community: 

Dream of Wild Health – The longest operating Native American-led nonprofits in the Twin Cities, focusing on restoring health and well-being to the Native community by recovering knowledge of and access to healthy Indigenous foods, medicines and lifeways.

Bow and Arrow“At the base of the legendary Sleeping Ute Mountain, between Four Corners Monument and Mesa Verde National Park, lies the home of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. That’s where Bow & Arrow started in 1962. We’ve been proudly producing high quality products ever since. Bow & Arrow is part of the Ute Mountain Ute Farm & Ranch Enterprise.”

Native Wellness– “NWI exists to promote the well-being of Native people through programs and training that embrace the teachings and traditions of our ancestors.”

Indigikitchen– “An online cooking show dedicated to re-indigenizing Native diets using digital media. Using foods native to the Americas, Indigikitchen gives viewers the important tools they need to find and prepare food on their own reservations. Beyond that, it strengthens the ties to Native cultures and reminds us of the inherent worth of our identities while fueling our physical bodies.”- Mariah Gladstone, Founder.

Native American Natural Foods“We are Oglala Lakotas on the Pine Ridge Reservation, SD, with a deep commitment to helping the People, the Buffalo and Mother Earth. We look forward to providing you with the very best foods that are sustainably grown by Native American producers, minimally processed with care and respect, to help you feed mind, body and spirit.”

COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund– Native American communities across the country have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. The COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund is designed to distribute funds efficiently and swiftly to Native nonprofit organizations and tribal programs that need it most. Funds are being prioritized in high-concentration areas – California, New Mexico, the Pacific Northwest, New York, Navajo Nation, Hopi Tribe and COVID-19 hotspots.

Sources: (1) 

(2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7) (8) (9) (10) (11) (12) (13) (14)  (15) (16) (17)  (18) (19) 

Related Articles