“Before eating, always take time to thank the food.”
“A hungry stomach makes a short prayer.”
Indigenous Peoples Day in the United States* is celebrated annually on the second Monday in October – in Chicago's public school system, it has taken the place of Columbus Day as of earlier this year, amid some controversy. What typifies the traditional cuisine of this sole group of Americans who are not descended from immigrants? If you tend to connect foods served at Thanksgiving dinner with Native Americans, you are partially right, but there’s a lot more to it than turkey, stuffing, and succotash!
Native American fare, which has always been notable for its natural, unrefined elements, tends to vary according to geographic region, due to the availability of local ingredients – especially crops that do best in any particular climate and game meats and fish that are plentiful. There are, though, three baseline staples that you will find in almost any Native American cuisine: corn (or maize), squash, and beans – all of which can be eaten as is (in some cases) or incorporated into soups, stews, casseroles, vegetable dishes, sides, baked goods, and desserts.
What Native American foods are particular to each of the five regions of the U.S.?
Northeast/New England – In addition to the three culinary staples above (known locally as “the three sisters”), especially prevalent in a section of the country that is characterized by extremes in temperature, you will also find a variety of berries (especially cranberries) and maple sugar, used mostly as a flavoring.
Southeast – Here, where the climate is warm, you will find dishes that include such regional mainstays as wild rice, sweet potatoes, grits, peppers, onions, and cabbage, along with game meats such as wild turkey and rabbit. And, of course, cornbread, which is popular on its own or as an integral part of stuffings and dressings, muffins, pies, puddings, and more.
Pacific Northwest and Alaska – This is where seafood – especially salmon – comes into play, and in Alaska, the locals might dine on such delicacies as seal and whale blubber (yum!). Because the tribes in this region were originally hunters, Native Americans traditionally made (and still make) use of duck, venison, and rabbit (often dried to preserve them) in their soups, stews, and other dishes. Mushrooms are another mainstay, along with berries and acorns, which are ground into flour and used in baking.
Southwest – The cuisine in the “Four Corners” region (encompassing New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, and Arizona) gets considerably spicier, due to the area’s famous red and green chilies, which are in almost everything, Native American or not. Also of note: in addition to heavy use of “the three sisters,” you will find foods that utilize pine nuts from pinyon trees (also very popular in coffee and other beverages), tomatoes, and sunflower seeds.
The Great Plains – As this area is ideal for grazing, it is no surprise that Native Americans in this region are big fans of game meats, which have included everything from bison to venison to buffalo to elk to various kinds of wild fowl. Root vegetables, herbs, and berries, along with gourd vegetables such as zucchini and pumpkin were and are all part of the local diet.
Want to enjoy a quintessential Native American treat? Try this recipe for fry bread, which just happens to be the official state bread of South Dakota. This versatile and satisfying deep-fried flatbread can be used in place of a tortilla or pita bread, or as a dessert when topped with jam, honey, sugar, or fruit.
Here’s a PBS NewsHour segment with Sean Sherman, also known as The Sioux Chef, whose cookbook, The Sioux Chef's Indigenous Kitchen, won the 2018 James Beard Award for best American cookbook. Here, Sherman discusses Native American culinary traditions; how using natural, unprocessed ingredients can be delicious as well as nutritious; and how the ancient practice of foraging for those ingredients is an excellent way to eat healthily in a food desert. And here are a few more recipes from PBS Food to help you celebrate America’s Indigenous Peoples.
*Wondering about Canada? Our neighbors to the north observe Indigenous Peoples Day each year on June 21, to coincide with the summer solstice.