Food of the Native North Americans (Second Part)

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Food of the Native North Americans (second part)


According to what explained in the first part of this article, it would be wrong to think that all the Natives of North America eat the same kind of food. It’s therefore necessary to be more specific, examining each of the main geographical areas. Once again, please keep in mind that, since the topic is vast, the following information are generic and subject to exceptions.


Native North Americans food: the Arctic Region.

Native North Americans food: Food of the Natives in the Arctic Region.

The Arctic Region stretches from Alaska to Labrador and Greenland.
In the past, these territories were inhabited mainly by Aleutian, Yupik and Inuit populations.
Since it’s impossible to grow anything on the ice pack and on the permafrost (*1) of the High Tundra, the most important sources of food for the Natives in this area were:

The hunting of sea mammals like seals, sea lions, whales and beluga whales.
The hunting of caribou, especially during summer.
The hunting of waterfowl and migratory birds (during summer).
Fishing (*2).

The Arctic peoples ate most of their meat raw, including fat and internal organs: this way their diet provided all the vitamins and the salt necessary for human nutrition, as well as an abundance of proteins. So it’s no coincidence that the liver was considered a delicacy and bile was the fundamental ingredient for a traditional sauce.

*1: Frozen soil.
*2: Fishing (especially salmon) was predominant in the areas near the mouths of the rivers Yukon and Kuskokwim.

Native North Americans food: Whale (crt-01)


Native North Americans food: the Subarctic Region.

Native North Americans food: Food of the Natives in the Subarctic Region.

The peoples of the Subarctic Region inhabited the land stretching between the inner part of the Alaskan peninsula (to the west) and the Atlantic Ocean (to the east). The most important sources of food in these zones were:

The hunting of caribou in the northern areas and moose (Canadian elk) in the south. Bears, beavers, porcupines, deer and rabbits were also part of the local diet.
Fishing, fundamental for those living near the Yukon river basin.

Shellfish was very important for the Natives living on the Atlantic coast.
Only a few vegetables were available, it was possible to eat roots, seeds, some types of herbs and berries (blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, currants, etc.).

Native North Americans food: Moose (img-02)


Native North Americans food: the Northwestern Coast.

Native North Americans food: Food of the Natives in the Northwestern Coast.

The Natives of the Northwest Coast lived in the narrow coastline between the Pacific Ocean to the west and the mountain ranges covered by thick northern rainforests to the east. Their most important sources of food were:

The fishing of Pacific salmon (*1), candlefish, halibut and cod.
The hunting of sea mammals (*2), especially humpback and gray whale.
The gathering of sea plants was important too: once collected, these were dried, crushed and pressed in blocks that could last for long periods.
Various types of berries, the camas root and the salal-berry (*3) were also part of the local diet.

*1: Pacific salmon was the main source of food from the banks of the Klamath and Eel rivers in California to the Yukon drainage.
*2: Whales covered great part (about 80%) of the nutritional needs of the five Makah tribes in the Olympic Peninsula and of the Nootkan tribes in the British Columbia.
*3: Salal-berry was often used by Natives as a sweetener. Among the Haida, it was a side dish for salmon eggs.

Native North Americans food: Shellfish and other food from the Northwestern Coast (crt-01)


Native North Americans food: the Plateau.

Native North Americans food: Food of the Natives in the Plateau.

The Plateau stretches from the Canadian provinces of British Columbia to Alberta (in the north) and the US state of Washington to Montana (in the south).
The most important sources of food for the Natives of this region were:

The hunting of large animals (for example moose), especially in the northern areas, characterized by a climate similar to the Arctic region.
Fishing, especially of salmon, in the western areas.

The tribes in the southwest, an area extending from Oregon to Northern California, had a mixed diet, based on gathering (berries, fruits and vegetables) (*1), hunting (deer, rabbits, etc.), and fishing.

*1: Camas root (Camassia leichtlinii) was particularly important in their diet.

Native North Americans food: Turnips (crt-01)


Native North Americans food: the Plains.

Native North Americans food: Food of the Natives in the Plains.

The Great Plains of North America stretch between the Saskatchewan river in Canada and the Gulf of Mexico. The most important sources of food for the Natives of this Region were:

Hunting, especially of bison. Elk, deer, pronghorn, antelope, bear and some small animals were an alternative source of food when the great bison herds changed their migration route.
The gathering of berries. Some of them were used to make the famous ‘pemmican’. Roots were also part of the diet.

The tribes living in areas adjacent to the southwestern prairies could get corn, beans and pumpkins through trade or warfare.

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

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


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The ‘piskun’.

The ‘piskun’ was the method most frequently used for bison hunting, even before the arrival of the horse. This method consisted in starting a stampede, bringing the herd to crash off a cliff. Women and children had the task to feast on the carcasses, taking the best parts. The rest was left to vultures and coyotes.


Dog meat: food for special occasions.

Native North Americans didn’t usually eat dog meat, but only on special occasions. For example, among the Cheyennes, the ‘Dog Soldiers’ warrior society had the privilege of serving a boiled fat dog during their feasts.
The Dakota and Lakota ate this kind of meat just in times of famine.


To die of hunger … eating rabbits.

In the Arctic Region, rabbits had little nutritional importance. Their meat had not enough calories to survive at low temperatures. Not surprisingly, in Labrador a common saying was: “to die of hunger … eating rabbits”.


Camas root in the plateau.

For the peoples of the Plateau, camas root was as important as corn in other regions. It was collected during autumn, when its flowers were easily distinguishable from those of the poisonous deathcamas. Its bulbs were usually roasted in earth ovens or boiled, they could also be grounded into flour. Their taste was similar to sweet potatoes, but sweeter for the presence of inulin.


The ‘candlefish’.

The ‘candlefish’ (Eulachon or Thaleichthys pacificus), is a fish so fat that can burn like a candle. It was an important source of oil for the Natives. This oil was an essential ingredient to make a traditional sauce, used to dress meat and fish.


In the third part.

Food of the Natives in the Region of the Prairies and of the Great Lakes, in the Northeast and in the Southeast, in the Great Basin, in California, Baja California and Northwestern Mexico, in the Southwest.


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The images bearing the logo ‘webfoodculture’ are copyrighted.

The following images are public domain:

img-01 (**) – Hunting Buffalo, A.J. Miller (1810–1874), Walters Art Museum (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-02 (**) – Moose, Superior National Forest, Minnesota, USA (Wikipedia Link)
img-03 (**) – Eulachon (Thaleichthys pacificus), image by James Crippen (Wikipedia Link)

cc-01 (**) – Young rabbit. Author: Siddharth Patil (Wikipedia Link)

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.