Native American Foods Throughout The United States

Variety of colorful corn. Autumn market.

From acorn bread to fry bread, succotash to beef stew, Native American cuisine has been a staple in homes across America for centuries.

Today, these traditional dishes are still consumed in homes and restaurants throughout the country, some stick to the classic recipes, and some put a modern twist on the old favorites. Many staples in our daily diets, like tomatoes, wild rice, and peanuts are often credited to the Europeans, when in fact the Indigenous people of the Americas are to thank for it.

Depending on the region and tribe, the food varies quite a bit. Different tribes had to cater their menus with the foods native to their regions back in the day. Today, traditional meals are still enjoyed and prepared all over the country.

Keep reading to learn a bit about the different tribes, and which Native American foods are known to them.

Southeast

One of the main staples of the southern diet, corn, came from the Southeast Native American tribes.

Still today, much of the food consumed in the south got its roots from the Native Americans. We can thank them for cornbread, grits, and whiskey. While our cornbread and grits may taste a bit different today, the inspiration behind the dishes dates back centuries. The Southeast Native Americans were mainly hunters and gatherers for smaller animals like rabbits and turkeys. The Southeast of the United States is quite warm and was ideal for farming. Crops like tomatoes, sweet potatoes, tobacco, peppers, and cotton were among the most common. They incorporated these foods with their hunted meat to create their main dishes. 

Southwest

From Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado the southwest, tribes coming from the present-day Four Corners area of the United States, relied heavily on agriculture. Commonly known as Ancestral Pueblans, they are famous for their pottery, basket weaving, and clay pot cooking. Corn (maize), beans, squash, and sunflower seeds are the most common ingredients in their dishes.

They were also sure to utilize their local pinyon pine trees for pine nuts. For their meat sources, they relied heavily on hunting game, including deer, rabbits, and squirrels. Most of the time they would cook the meat on an open fire or in hand-crafted tools, which are variations of our modern-day cooking ware. 

Northeast

The Northeast is today commonly referred to as the New England region of the United States. One thing to remember about this region is the drastic change in seasons.

Famous for having harsh winters and hot summers, the Native Americans in this area had to cater their diets to the current season. Many Native Americans farmed in this area, mostly corn, beans, and squash, also known as “the three sisters.”



Do you like maple syrup over your pancakes or how about maple sugar candy?

We have the Native Americas from the Northeast to thank for these tasty treats we still eat today. Although they most likely didn’t sweeten their waffles with syrup, they mainly used it season vegetables, fish, game, and grains. The Northeast is also cranberry heaven; the Native Americans used to grow the berries and eat them dried or mixed into different dishes. Sometimes they would even use them raw to flavor their drinking water.

Plains

In the plains region, Native Americans relied on a very meat-heavy diet. They hunted turkeys, ducks, deer, buffalo, elk, and bison for their families. Berries and other dried fruits were also often consumed. Usually, berries would be consumed raw while they did cook the meat into various stews and savory dishes. Pumpkins, herbs, and root vegetables were also heavily used in this region.

Northwest

Native Americans from what is now known as the Northwest region of the United States, relied heavily on salmon, other kinds of fish, and seafood as their primary source of protein. Mushrooms and berries were also abundant in their area, so they used the berries to sweeten their bread and desserts.

They were primarily hunter-gatherers, and their warmer climate made it easier to rely on year-round food supplies. For other sources of protein, they hunted deer, duck, and rabbit and made various stews from the game meat. Only during the summer were they able to dry meat, so dried deer and rabbit meat were often consumed during the warmer months. To make loaves of bread, cakes, and other baked goods, the tribes from the Northwest region would grind acorns down into a flour.

How did Native Americans influence modern cuisine?

Do you love a good turkey dinner with all the fixings?

How about cornbread, cranberries, blueberries, and grits? While these may only be consumed during the holiday seasons in the United States, we do have to give credit to the Native Americans for this food.

Without the Native Americans, we would not have the same corn, beans, squash, wild rice, avocados, peanuts, sweet potatoes, and even chocolate. Today, many Native American families will serve fry bread at their social gatherings, and it’s a commonly known staple in the south. In the last decade, people have been health-conscious than ever before.

While quinoa and spirulina may sound like new foods to you, the Native Americas have been eating them for centuries. Today, they are known as ‘superfoods’ or foods with an ample amount of nutrients. Quinoa has the highest protein content of any grain, and some tribes even used the leaves of the plant in soups and stews. Back in the day, they would also toast and grind up the quinoa seeds to make it into bread. The Native Americans bread, cultivated and domesticated some of the many plant species we still use to today in our daily lives. These crops originating from the Americas are now everyday staples in diets worldwide.

Can you imagine a world without vanilla, potatoes, or peppers?

Without Native Americans, we would not be able to enjoy so many of the favorite foods we have today.


 

Last Updated on October 19, 2022 by Paul G


7 Comments on “Native American Foods Throughout The United States”

  • Chuck Watson

    says:

    Very interesting article on Native American Foods. However, regarding corn, more specifically corn originated in Mesoamerica, not the Northeast tribes. Northeastern and Southeastern tribes received corn in trade from Mexican tribes approximately 800 AD. Tomatoes and avocados also are from Mexico. Potatoes came from the South American Andes and was only brought to Europe in the 1500’s where it spread west and northwards back to the Americas (US) . Sadly, the Indigenous tribes of Mexico/Mesoamerica and South America are often forgotten. In fact, most Pow Wows that I have been to in my lifetime almost never have a flag from our neighbors to the South (Mexico) along with the other flags and Eagle staff for Grand Entry. Yet, they almost always have the Canadian Flag. There is this misunderstanding on the part of native Americans from the U.S. that if one is Spanish speaking they are Spanish. The language spoken in any colonized country will be the language of whoever were the colonizers. This is why most U.S. born Native Americas speak primarily English-which of course does not necessarily mean they are English.

  • Susan E Stein

    says:

    Looking for recipes for wojapi. I used to make this with cherries or blueberries because we have no access to choke cherries but have forgotten how I made it.

  • Dusty

    says:

    Is there a book/pamplet that has all these recipes ?

  • Drew

    says:

    Once again,Powwows.com missed yet another food entirely! Being from the Menominee-Nation,our main food source was us harvesting our natural “wild-rice” that grows in our rivers still to this very day! We still harvest the same way we’ve done for generations! Then we’d mix that rice with foods we’d hunt,such as turkey,deer,moose,etc. combined with the numerous amounts of different mushrooms we have growing within our huge forests!

    Also,we tapped our Maple-trees within our forests,for the syrup during the colder months,so I’m not really sure if it was the “Northeast” that invented that!?!? Lol. But that is yet another staple of ours,that we still do to this very day within our forests on our Reservation! ~Peace~

    • Stephanie

      says:

      We have a wonderful small museum in Warner, NH, the Kearsarge Indian Museum, that held a gathering last spring where there was a family day of playing “snow snake” and boiling maple sugar in small clay pots on an open fire and then pouring it on snow for a sweet snowy treat. Luckily it had recently snowed so no dirty snow LOL.

      About a year ago, there was also a nice local story on TV – close to thanksgiving – which focused on how Indigenous peoples in New England might celebrate thanksgiving, including seaweed steamed mussels, local fish, fire roasted veggies, etc.

      Distantly related to food is a PBS special airing again in New England called the “Great Dying” and how (probably) French trappers brought diseases to the villages, wiping out about 85% of the population. Mayflower passengers landed finding gardens growing and assumed that god was showing them they were meant to claim this land.

  • Gayle Crane

    says:

    Now I’m hungry!

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