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 Praries and the Region of the Great Lakes.
The most important sources of food for the Natives living in the Praries and in the Region of the Great Lakes were:
Hunting, especially of bison.
Horticulture. The main crops were corn, beans and pumpkins (*1), typically cultivated by women (*2) on the small plots of land surrounding the winter villages.
Fishing, particularly important in the Region of the Great Lakes. This activity was usually performed during night time, since freshwater fish was attracted by the fire of the torches.
The tribes settled on the eastern borders of the Plains, initially depended on the hunting of the bison of the woods. After its extinction, they relied on the hunting of elk and deer, and the gathering of berries and roots.
*1: Corn, beans and pumpkins were often planted together, so that:
The large leaves of the pumpkins would keep the soil moist.
Beans would use the long stalks of corn as a support, providing in exchange the nitrogen it needs.
*2: Agriculture and gathering were usually considered women’s work.
Native North Americans food: the Northeast and the Southeast.
The most important sources of food for the Natives living in the regions of the Northeast and Southeast were:
Horticulture. This provided about the 50% of the food needed in the Northeast. In the Southeast, the presence of great cities and a more complex society, allowed the development of a ‘structured’ agriculture, with the main crops being corn, beans and pumpkins.
Hunting. It was the second source of food both in the Northeast and in the Southeast. The Natives hunted white-tailed deers, elks, bears and small animals like beavers, hares, rabbits, badgers. They also hunted birds like turkeys, swans, and various types of ducks.
In the Northeast, great was the importance of seal hunting and whaling.
In Florida and the marshy areas of the Southeast, alligator was one of the favorite preys.
Fishing. Both freshwater and marine fish (Atlantic salmon, cod and herring) were of great importance for the coastal communities. These natives ate also freshwater clams and seafood.
Gathering, especially of fruits from wild plants, like nuts and acorns.
Native North Americans food: the Great Basin.
The Great Basin, especially in the desert areas, was characterized by a considerable shortage of food resources. The Natives of this region could survive thanks to:
The gathering of pine nuts (piñon), seeds, roots and tubers.
Hunting. In the north, the Natives hunted deers (*1), antelopes and mountain goats. In the desert areas of the south, they hunted rabbits, various types of rodents, snakes and insects (especially grasshoppers).
*1: Deer hunting (in the north) and rabbit hunting (in the south), were community activities, involving the whole tribe.
Native North Americans food: California, Baja California and Northwest Mexico.
The most important sources of food for the Natives living in California, Baja California and Northwest Mexico, were:
The gathering of pine nuts (piñon), acorns, yucca, mesquite ‘beans’ (*1), and agave (*2). Cactus was particularly precious in the desert areas: this plant provided fruits (eaten fresh or dried) and seeds (usually dried or roasted). The juice obtained from its pulp was used as a drink.
Hunting. In the south of California and in the north of Mexico, large fauna was quite rare. The Natives ate small rodents, rabbits, reptiles and even insects. In some specific locations of Central California (the Rocky Mountains area), they hunted deers, mountain goats and bears. On the coast, they hunted sea mammals.
*1: Mesquite beans could be eaten fresh. Once dried and minced, they could be boiled.
*2: The ‘mezcal’ is a fermented beverage, made using agave leaves.
Native North Americans food: the Southwest.
The most important sources of food for the Natives living in the Southwest were:
Agriculture. Corn, cultivated in many varieties, was extremely important in this region (*1). It was often used to make a particular type of bread, the ‘piki’ (Hopi word).
The gathering of mesquite beans, pine nuts and Saguaro cactus fruits.
Fishing. Only the tribes living along the Rio Grande ate fish.
The arrival of Dené speaking peoples (Navajo and Apache) from the Canadian Yukon drainage, partially changed the food habits in the Southwest. These nomadic hunters and gatherers forced the Pueblo to trade with them (*2) agricultural products in exchange of game (especially bison).
During the Eighteenth Century, some Dené groups tried to convert themselves to agriculture, but hunting and plundering remained their main source of food until, as in the case of the Navajo, sheep raising was imposed ‘manu militari’ by the US Army.
*1: The Natives of the American Southwest were very good farmers. During the Nineteenth Century, the Pima and Maricopa tribes produced so much corn that they could sell part of it to the pioneers going to California.
*2: Raiding the Pueblos was their usual ‘way of trading’.
Preservation of meat.
The preservation of meat was a serious problem for the Native North Americans and, in general, for all the peoples with a mesolithic or neolithic technological level. It was usually cut into thin strips and laid on racks under the sun. If the tribe was lucky, weather was mild and the dried meat was stored or processed into pemmican. If not, a summer shower (a quite frequent event) would ruin all the supplies, leading to a winter of starvation and death.
Wood for the teepee in the prairie.
Every year, after the harvest, many tribes of Native North Americans left the earth lodges of their winter villages and moved to the prairie. Here they built the ‘teepees’ (tents), using the precious wood poles jealously stored the previous year: trees were in fact (and still are) very scarce in these plains, growing only along the banks of the few rivers.
Native North American music.
Native North American music to accompany the reading of this article:
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The importance of maple syrup.
Maple syrup and the sugar extracted from it were fundamental for the Natives living in the area extending from the Northeast to the region of the Great Lakes. This syrup, collected by drilling holes into the trunks of maple trees, is still today an important part of the diet both in the U.S. and in Canada.
Frybread is a typical Native food invented in 1864 by the Navajo living in the reservation of Fort Sumner. At that time, the US government provided these people with supplies including flour, salt, sugar and lard. Even if the flour was meant for bread, no one taught them how to make it. Far from discouraged, the Navajo women melted the lard, adding flour mixed with water, salt and sugar. The result was a highly caloric dough, used to prepare something similar to a pizza: the ‘taco’ (Indian taco). This was seasoned with all sort of ingredients, like jam, eggs, meat, ham and many types of vegetables.
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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