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.

In the past, people who were Native Americans ate a lot of food that they found in the wild. They were like detectives, hunting and searching for their food. They often ate big animals like bison, deer, elk, and also birds. They caught fish like salmon and trout too! They also loved munching on nuts. When they caught meat, they often made it into something like beef jerky by smoking or drying it.

Native American Food Facts for Kids

  • Corn, beans, and squash are called “Three Sisters”.
  • They also ate buffalo, fish, and deer.
  • Nuts and berries were popular snacks.
  • They used sun drying to preserve foods.
  • Corn was ground to make cornmeal.
  • Some tribes ate insects like crickets.
  • Maple syrup was a natural sweetener.
  • Food was often cooked in clay pots.
  • They made soup and stews often.
  • Wild rice was a staple food.

Sugar Maple Trees

Native American tribes have long revered the sugar maple tree for its sweet bounty. Each spring, they skillfully tapped these trees to draw the sap, a tradition still practiced today. The sap, a natural sweetener, was boiled down to create maple syrup or sugar, which was used in many recipes. This not only added flavor to their foods but also provided important nutrients. The sugar maple tree, therefore, played a crucial role in the Native American diet and culture, symbolizing the richness of their land.

Wild Foods

Native American tribes greatly relied on the wild foods available in their respective regions. Hunting games like deer, buffalo, and fish provided a rich source of protein. Gathering activities yielded a variety of fruits, nuts, berries, and edible plants, adding essential vitamins and minerals to their diets. These wild foods, expertly foraged and hunted, were not only important for survival, but also deeply intertwined with their cultural practices and seasonal rhythms, truly reflecting a lifestyle in harmony with nature.

Salmon Filets

Salmon, a staple in the diet of many coastal Native American tribes, was revered for its abundant nutrition and availability. Tribes skillfully fished for salmon and prepared filets through smoking, drying, or roasting over open fires. These methods not only enhanced the flavor but also preserved the fish for leaner months. Some tribes even held ceremonies to celebrate the first catch of the season, underscoring the integral role of salmon in both their sustenance and cultural traditions.

Maple Cakes

Maple cakes, made from the sap of sugar maple trees, were a delicious part of Native American cuisine. Tribes collected sap and boiled it down to create a thick, sweet syrup. This syrup was then combined with cornmeal and water to form a batter. The batter was shaped into cakes and baked until golden. These naturally sweetened cakes provided energy and essential nutrients. Maple cakes not only represented a resourceful use of available ingredients but also a unique aspect of Native American food traditions.

Ice Fishing

Ice fishing was a crucial survival strategy for Native American tribes living in colder regions. During the winter months, they would cut holes in the ice-covering lakes and rivers to catch fish. This technique provided a consistent food source when hunting game was more challenging. The fish, often species like trout or pike, were usually smoked or dried for preservation. This method of gathering food highlights the Native Americans’ resourcefulness and deep understanding of their harsh environment.

Sweet Potatoes

While sweet potatoes are not native to North America, they were introduced to Native American tribes after European contact. Adapting to the new crop, tribes incorporated sweet potatoes into their diet due to their rich nutritional profile and versatility in cooking. They could be roasted, boiled, or mashed, and were often combined with native ingredients like corn and beans. The sweet potato, despite its foreign origins, became a valuable part of the Native American culinary landscape.

Wild Plants

Native Americans were expert foragers, gathering a variety of wild plants for food and medicinal use. Edible plants like cattails, wild onions, and various berries were a significant part of their diet. They added flavor, variety, and vital nutrients. Some tribes cultivated wild plants, leading to early forms of agriculture. Additionally, certain plants had spiritual significance and were used in rituals. The use of wild plants highlights the tribes’ deep knowledge of and respect for their natural environment.

Wild Rice

Wild rice, a staple in the diet of many Native Americans particularly those in the Great Lakes region, was harvested from marshes and lakes. This nutritious grain was often combined with other ingredients like venison or fish, creating hearty meals. Its high protein and fiber content made it an excellent source of sustenance during harsh winters. The harvest of wild rice was more than a food-gathering task; it was a communal activity, reinforcing social ties and marking the change of seasons.

Heated Stones

Heated stones were an innovative tool in traditional cooking methods, useful for baking, roasting, or steaming food. Stones were heated in fires until extremely hot, then used to cook food wrapped in leaves, or placed at the bottom of dug-out pits for a makeshift oven. Sometimes, these stones were dropped into liquid-based meals to bring them to a boil. This stone-cooking technique not only made it possible to prepare a wider range of dishes but also showcased remarkable ingenuity and understanding of available resources.

Marine Animals

Coastal regions teemed with a wealth of marine animals that formed a rich source of food. Whales, seals, fish, shellfish, and more were skillfully harvested using an array of techniques and tools. These marine delicacies were consumed in various forms, either cooked fresh or preserved by smoking or drying for later use. Feasting on these sea creatures not only fulfilled nutritional needs but also led to cultural practices, including communal meals and ceremonies, that honored the ocean’s bounty.

Hunting and Fishing: Lifelines of Native Tribes

Many 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, and 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 was originally cultivated by Native Americans!

Foraging, Healing Herbs, and Simple Cooking

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 in the far north survived almost entirely by hunting.
  • The staples of native diets were corn, beans, and squash.