Native American Food

Native Americans were resourceful and very good at using what was available to them. Food was no exception. Wherever a tribe was located, they learned what plants would grow there and how to hunt the animals in the area.

fishMany tribes survived mostly hunting and fishing. In the Arctic and extreme northern parts of North America, most tribes relied entirely on hunting and fishing. The reason for this was simple—nothing would grow there! Other tribes hunted mostly big game, like buffalo or caribou. Those tribes moved frequently in order to follow the herds. Almost all tribes hunted at least part of their food. Most tribes hunted deer and rabbits, and caught fish in rivers and lakes. Native Americans felt very strongly that they should not waste food, so they were careful to eat all of an animal that they killed.

Agriculture, or farming, was very common among native tribes. Farming was most common among settled tribes who did not move around very often. It was most advanced in the Southern United States, where the warm climate created a long growing season. The tribes of the Southeast developed special methods for growing their food. They used irrigation, crop rotation and planted windbreaks to ensure their crops.

The main crops that were grown by Native Americans were corn, beans, and squash. Corn, in particular, was a very important part of the diet of Native Americans. It was referred to as maize by many Native Americans. Most Americans of today are used to corn in shades of yellow. But Native Americans grew a wide variety of corn in many different colors. They grew red, green, blue, and even black corn! Over the years, corn has been bred to be much sweeter than it was when Native Americans grew it.

Unfortunately, it’s far less healthy now than it was then. In addition to food crops, many native tribes also grew medicinal plants, cotton, and tobacco. Believe it or not, it is estimated that as much as three-fourths of the world’s foods today are food that were originally cultivated by Native Americans!

Native Americans also added to their diets by gathering foods. This meant that they gathered plants that grew wild, such as berries, nuts, and herbs. Over time, they learned which herbs could be used to cure sickness or help heal an injury.

Native American meals were prepared simply. Their food was usually eaten fresh, with little seasoning. Most food was cooked over an open fire. Corn was prepared and eaten in many different ways. They ate corn-on-the-cob, hominy, popcorn, and even baked cornbread. Many of these foods are still eaten in the areas where Native Americans passed along their foods and cultures.

Things to Remember:

• Almost all native tribes survived by growing their own foods
• Most tribes also hunted and caught fish. Tribes that in the far north survived almost entirely by hunting.
• The staples of native diets were corn, beans, and squash.