Native American food – North America – pemmican and succotash

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Inuit carving of a sea lion - Native American food

Native American food: Inuit carving of a sea lion

Hunting and gathering wild food

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

Salmon, wapato, pine nuts and acorn flour

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 and Paiute people ate a lot of bread made from pine nuts or acorns.

Bison, birds, cactus fruit, and sunflower seeds

Smoking salmon on cedar sticks set upright around a small fire - Native American food

Smoking salmon the Chinook way, on cedar sticks

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 and the Ute, ate a lot of mammoth, at first, and then when the mammoth all died out, they started to eat a lot of bison meat. They dried and smoked the bison 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.

Wild rice and chestnuts

Corn on the cob - three yellow ears of corn lying on bark chips - Native American food

Native American food – Corn on the cob

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.

Venison, pigeon, and turkey

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.

Honey, maple sugar and sweet potatoes

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.

Pine nuts - a golden pile of small seeds - Native American food

Pine nuts – Native American food

What was pemmican?

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.

Native American farming: corn, beans, squash, and peppers

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 sweet potatoes, peanuts, and sunflower seeds

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 cornbeans 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.

What was succotash?

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.

What did Native Americans like to drink?

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.

Did you find out what you wanted to know about Native American food? Let us know in the comments!

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 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 home

By |2018-04-24T09:40:41+00:00August 8th, 2017|Food, Native American|17 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. Native American food – North America – pemmican and succotash. Study Guides, August 8, 2017. Web. January 23, 2019.

About the Author:

Dr. 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 Facebook, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.


  1. Lol August 29, 2018 at 3:46 pm - Reply

    This is good

    • Karen Carr August 29, 2018 at 5:30 pm


  2. Daniel M Mondragon April 29, 2018 at 2:58 pm - Reply

    can you give me information on Native American Wars?

  3. AwesomeDuelist669 April 6, 2018 at 12:21 pm - Reply

    How many different Native American Tribes grew the Three Sisters?

    • Karen Carr April 6, 2018 at 7:05 pm

      It would be hard to say: lots of them. Plus, many people who lived in states and not in tribes. By 1500 AD, when the first Europeans arrived, most of the people who lived in North America lived on corn, beans, and squash as staples. The percentage went down after that, as more and more Native people were pushed off their farmland and forced to move to places where you couldn’t grow the Three Sisters, like Oklahoma or Wyoming. That’s when they started to live on the bison (the buffalo).

  4. Chad Beimrohr March 16, 2018 at 8:15 am - Reply

    I enjoyed this article… But wish that they would have included how they cooked or baked without metal.

    • Karen Carr March 16, 2018 at 8:25 am

      That’s a great question, Chad! There were a lot of different methods. People roasted meat and vegetables on sticks over the fire, or they wrapped them in green leaves and put them in the coals to bake. Or they boiled water by putting hot stones in a basket. Many Native people used pottery, and then they could boil water in a clay pot hung over a fire, or set in the coals. And they could bake bread on flat stones set in or near the fire. People also dug pits in the ground and built fires in them, put a layer of stones or leaves over the coals, and then used that as an oven.
      Even in Europe, many people couldn’t afford metal cooking pots until the invention of cheaper methods of making steel in the 1800s. So they cooked in clay pots in Europe, too.

  5. Peter Moe March 14, 2018 at 6:59 am - Reply

    Very interesting article but I don’t think honey was available for a sweetener until European colonists brought honeybees to North America. There are hundreds of species of native bees in North America but they do make honey.

  6. LucasPaul January 17, 2018 at 9:49 am - Reply

    when was this published

    • Karen Carr January 17, 2018 at 5:15 pm

      Information for how to cite this article, including the publication date, is at the end of the article, right above the ad.

  7. BigPapiKuay December 26, 2017 at 3:18 pm - Reply

    Did they acquire some clout back then, if so how did they

    • Karen Carr December 26, 2017 at 6:18 pm

      Sorry, I don’t think I understand your question?

  8. Yoselin November 30, 2017 at 6:12 pm - Reply

    Do they eat fish

    • Karen Carr December 1, 2017 at 9:59 am

      Yes, they ate a lot of fish! In fact, Native Americans first came to North America probably following schools of fish along the Pacific coast.

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