Native American food
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North American Food

small ivory sea lion
Inuit carving of a sea lion

March 2017 - Early on, until about 2000 BC, people in North America ate only wild foods that they could hunt or gather.

These foods varied according to the environment where each group of people lived. Inuit people, who lived in the far north along the coasts of the Arctic Ocean and in Alaska, ate a lot of fish and seal meat, and gathered seaweed. Chinook people, who lived a little further south in the Pacific Northwest (modern Oregon and Washington) ate a lot of salmon, and wapato, which was a lot like potatoes. Further south, Californian people ate a lot of bread made from pine nuts or acorns.

In the south-west (modern Arizona and New Mexico), Pueblo people ate cactus fruit and pine nuts, and hunted rabbits and birds for meat. The people who lived in the Rocky Mountains and the Great Plains, like the Blackfoot, the Sioux, the Ute, and the Navajo, ate a lot of mammoth, at first, and then when the mammoth all died out, they started to eat a lot of buffalo meat. They dried and smoked the buffalo meat so they could eat it for a long time after a hunt, making beef jerky. Ute and Paiute people also ate a lot of pine nuts, which they gathered from the trees, and sunflower seeds.

Further east, along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, people also ate a lot of fish and gathered nuts and berries. Along the Great Lakes, Cree people ate fish with wild rice that they gathered in the wetlands around the lakes.

And on the East Coast, the Iroquois and the Algonquin ate venison (deer meat) and fish, and also pigeon and turkey and rabbit. Sometimes they ate bear, which was important even though it was hard to get, because it had a lot of fat, and the deer and fish didn't. Like the Californians, they gathered acorns to make bread, and they also made bread out of sunflower seeds and chestnuts. To sweeten their food, East Coast people used maple sugar and maple syrup, and also wild honey. Cooks put maple sugar in bread, stew, tea, and vegetables, and people sprinkled it on top of their berries. In the south-east, Cherokee people ate a lot of turtle, fish, and venison, sweet potatoes and also acorn and chestnut bread.

An important food for people who were travelling or hunting was pemmican, a sort of energy bar made of berries and chopped meat, that people could eat without having to stop and cook anything.

But around 1000 BC, people began to eat very differently in North America. The Pueblo people began to farm about this time. They got corn and beans and squash from the pre-Olmec people of Mexico, and they began to eat a lot of these three crops (the "Three Sisters") instead of the wild foods. People made corn into a flat bread, like modern tacos and tortillas, and rolled up mashed beans inside these wrappers (The beans were the same pinto beans we eat in enchiladas today, but they also had kidney beans and lima beans), with other vegetables like green peppers.

Farming soon spread to other parts of North America, and by 1000 AD most people in the Mississippi Valley and along the East Coast were eating a lot of corn, beans and squash (the Three Sisters) along with their wild food. The Cherokee and Mississippi people grew sweet potatoes and peanuts, too. Along the East Coast, people also ate a lot of sunflower seeds that they grew, and used sunflower oil.

One important food that these farming people ate was succotash, which was a kind of stew made of lima beans, corn, meat, and bear fat.

People also ate roasted or boiled corn on the cob, popcorn, bean soup and squash soup. A lot of the food Americans eat today is the same as Native American food.

Whether they were farming or not, everybody's main drink was water. When they could, though, many people liked to drink herbal tea better than just plain water. People made tea with sassafras, or added pumpkin blossoms or corn silk to thicken their water. People in California added lemonade berries to their water to make a sour drink like modern lemonade.

Learn by doing: eating pemmican
More about the Three Sisters
American Food after the Europeans invaded

Bibliography and further reading about early Native American food:

Native American Foods Thanksgiving

Native North American Foods And Recipes, by Kathryn Smithyman (2005).

Turkeys, Pilgrims, and Indian Corn: The Story of the Thanksgiving Symbols, by Edna Barth (2000).

Later American food
More about Native Americans
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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