Food of the Native North Americans (First Part)

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Food of the Native North Americans (first part)


Native North Americans food: Native North American (crt-01)

To speak about the food eaten by Native North Americans is not an easy task, although it may seem strange to many readers. The prevailing view about them is that of a single people, divided into tribes, but with basically the same customs: a stereotype encouraged by literature, cinema, comics and, sometimes, by the natives themselves. For example, they are all depicted as great eaters of bison meat: nothing further from the truth, it’s like thinking that Europeans are just one people, eating only lasagna or sauerkraut.

That’s why deepening the knowledge of the food of Native North Americans is a good way to start knowing and understanding them.

Please keep in mind that, since the topic is vast, the information given in this article are subject to exceptions.

Native North Americans food: Food of the Native North Americans (img-07, crt-01)


Native North Americans food: the Indian ‘nations’.

Native North Americans food: North America, ecological and cultural areas.

Native North Americans have never been one people. Their main communities belong to 7 language phyla, plus a large number of ethnic groups belonging to not well determined linguistic phyla. In the past these communities gave rise to at least 500 organized entities, ranging from small aggregates of few families (bands) to larger ones (tribes), up to rather complex structures (federations, confederations, chiefdoms and even ’empires’).

The Indian ‘nations’ (*1) lived in the following ecological and cultural areas:

Northwestern Coast;

Prairies and Great Lakes;
Great Basin;

Baja California and Northwest Mexico;
Meso-America (from Mexico to the Isthmus of Panama);

Please remember that, in this case, the word ‘nation’ does not have the European political significance, but means just ‘group of natives’ (from the Latin ‘natus’, ‘born’).

Native North Americans food: Native North Americans (img-01)


Native North Americans food: so many types.

The North American Continent has many different ecosystems: from the frozen expanses of the Arctic to the deserts of Arizona and Sonora, from the rainforests of British Columbia to the deciduous forests of Virginia and the Carolinas, from the great plains along with the Mississippi-Missouri river systems to the swamps of Florida.

It goes without saying that each of these ecosystems is characterized by a huge variety of animals and plants, providing many different types of food.


Native North Americans don’t raise cattle.

Native North Americans food: Native North Americans horse riding (crt-01)

A characteristic common to many Indian Nations caused them significant survival problems in Pre-Columbian times and later: they were unable to raise cattle (*1). So, it’s not a coincidence that many of their myths begin with a period of famine: a dangerous menace often stopped by the intervention of a mythological hero. Once his task is completed, he usually leaves to the tribe a specific ceremony to be performed in order to avoid the problem in the future.

Recurring cycles of famine and abundance were the natural condition of life for Native North Americans.

*1: The only exceptions were turkey and dog. The latter was eaten rarely and usually just during rituals.


Native North Americans food: Food and religion.

Native North Americans food: Sioux, Ghost Dance (img-03)

Getting food always represented a serious problem for the Native North Americans, that’s why it was considered very precious and often eaten ceremonially.

The animistic vision.

The relationship of these peoples with nature was not ecological but animistic: they believed that the natural world, in all its manifestations, was inhabited by spirits. These entities were at best indifferent, quite often touchy and malevolent.

A limited number of animals.

Since they didn’t have the concept of population growth of species, it was a common belief that the number of animals was finite. Once killed, these creatures were destined to reincarnate themselves … just to be killed again.

The taboos.

Any shortage of preys was therefore interpreted (*1) as a punishment, due to the break of a taboo by an individual or by a group.
Some of these taboos concerned particular combinations of food: the Inuit, for example, were forbidden to eat the meat of land (*2) and marine (*3) animals together.
Since this kind of ‘crimes’ could lead to disaster, the offender, if found, was immediately sentenced to death.

*1: According to the animistic mentality of these peoples.
*2: For example caribou.
*3: For example fish, seal and whale.


Woman and prey.

Native North Americans food: North American native woman (crt-01)

Many Native North American peoples believed in magic parallelism between woman and prey.
For example:

Woman and kayak.

A woman sewing the skins used to make a kayak, usually had to perform the task wearing waterproof clothes. Her female smell could in fact impregnate the boat and this would alarm the preys.

Woman and seal hunting.

Not even one hair of a woman could get caught in the parka of a seal hunter, since this would offend the animals. When killed, their spirits would complain about his sloppiness, deciding to stay away from him in their next life.

Woman and whale hunting.

In the North West Coast, the wife of a whaler leader was conceived as a metaphor for the whale itself: for this reason, during the hunt, she was subject to many taboos.
A few examples:
When at home, she had to sit with her back to the sea, so that the whales, imitating her, would head for the shore.
She had to eat only fat food, so that the whales would be fat too.
She was not allowed to comb her hair, since tangling them would have also caused tangling the ropes attached to the harpoons.


The animals of the Natives: bison and caribou.

In the collective imagination, two animals in particular are associated with Native North Americans: bison and caribou.

Native North Americans food: Bison (img-04) Native North Americans food: Bison (img-04)


Contrary to popular belief, bison is like any other domesticated cattle. Nowadays it’s bred intensively in the ranches of the Indian reservations. Bison steaks are one of the most famous delicacies offered in the Native American casinos.

Native North Americans food: Caribou (img-05) Native North Americans food: Caribou (img-05)


In North America caribou, or American reindeer, has almost always been considered as game. The Lapps, the Samoyed and the Siberian Chukchi bred and are still breeding reindeer herds for milk production and sleigh transportation.

Native North Americans food: Little Big Horn (reenactment), (crt-01)

Native North Americans food: North American native woman (crt-01)


Native North American music.

Native North American music to accompany the reading of this article:

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Pemmican: concentrated energy.

‘Pemmican’ is a very nutritious food, rich in fat and proteins, invented by the Natives North Americans. Thanks to its great energy content and practicality, it soon became the favorite food of explorers.
Its main ingredients are:
Dried meat (usually bison, elk or deer);
Berries (usually cranberries, currants or cherries);
Animal fat;

Native North Americans food: WebFoodCulture: only the most typical and traditional food & wine.



The distribution of meat.

The distribution of meat following communal hunts, like whaling or the great annual bison hunt, was not equal: the best parts were usually given to the chief of the expedition or the owner of the land.
Among the Coast Salish, the first man hitting the animal received its rear part and the head, the second a fin, the third the other fin, the fourth the back, the fifth the neck.
Among the Arctic whalers, the best parts were given to the commander of the crew, who was usually also the owner of the boat.


In the second part.

Food of the Native North Americans in the Arctic and Subarctic Regions, in the Northwestern Coast, in the Plateau and in the Plains.


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The images bearing the logo ‘webfoodculture’ are copyrighted.

The following images are public domain:

img-01 (*) – Native North Americans, G. Mülzel, 1904 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-02 (**) – Caribou, Reindeer in Alaska. (Wikipedia Link)
img-03 (*) – Sioux Ghost Dance, Boyd James P., 1836-1910 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-04 (**) – American bison, US Department of Agriculture (Wikipedia Link)
img-05 (**) – Male caribou in Alaska, Dean Biggins, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Wikipedia Link)
img-06 (*) – Sioux tepee, Karl Bodmer, 1833 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-07 (*) – Hunting Buffalo, Alfred Jacob Miller, 1858 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}

The following images are published courtesy of:

crt-01 – Images published courtesy of Mrs. Flavia and Sandra Busatta.

(*) The copyright of this image has expired.
(**) Image released in public domain by its author.