A Beginner’s Guide to Indigenous Foods of North America
What is “indigenous”?
“Indigenous” refers to plants that are native to the Americas, i.e. weren’t brought over after European contact, circa A.D. 1492. Many of the plants that are native to the Americas originally grew wild and then were cultivated in South America and Mexico, and then later made their way up to North America.  (origins of agriculture). “Cultivation” refers to the purposeful planting, caretaking, and harvesting of plants. As people progress from gathering to cultivation, they usually narrow their range of plants through selective foraging. Through many generations, certain species with desirable characteristics (like big berries) are selected for. This causes noticeable changes in the morphology of the plant, which is known as domestication, or a physical distinction due to human intervention.
Natives in the Region and Origins of Agriculture
There were many Native American tribes living in Louisiana and surrounding areas long, long before Columbus and his crew even dreamed of sailing to the new world. It is estimated that Native Americans subsisted in North America as early as 12,000 BC. For more information on the individual history and culture of the Native American tribes in this area, visit: http://www.native-languages.org/louisiana.htm.
Before the advent of agriculture (or large scale, purposeful domestication) in North America, native peoples mostly subsisted as seasonal hunter-gatherers. The Gulf Coast was rich in many resources, including berries, nuts, barks, tubers, and leafy greens from the upper woodlands (see Table: Native Wild Plants of the Gulf Coast), and an abundant supply of marine resources from the coast. Agriculture became a major facet of the local economy between 250 B.C. and A.D. 200, and was comprised mostly of squashes, gourds, sunflowers, sumpweed, goosefoot (a “weed” today, closely related to quinoa ), knotweed, maygrass, and little barley. (origins of agriculture) It wasn’t until c. A.D. 1100 that North American agriculture shifted to a maize based agricultural system.
Native Wild Plants of the Gulf Coast
*from USDA culturally significant plant guide and other resources
**within a 200 mile radius
If you are interested in learning more about the parts of plants (what IS a tuber anyway?) check out more in-depth diagrams and definitions here: http://ag.arizona.edu/pubs/garden/mg/botany/plantparts.html
Plant guides for many of the above plants can be found on the USDA’s website: http://plants.usda.gov/java/
The Three Sisters
By 1100 AD, Native Americans had shifted towards a maize-based agricultural system, meaning that corn was the major staple food for the indigenous populations, including those in Louisiana. The Native Americans of this region were very adept farmers, and are most famous for their “Three Sisters” – squash, maize, and beans, which also dominated the agricultural economy at this time. These three crops were grown together, with the pole beans using the stalk of the corn for support, and the squash protecting the soil from weed invaders.
What crops were grown?
In addition to maize, the natives were also cultivating pole beans (other varieties are uncertain), sweet potatoes, sunflowers, greens such as poke salet, sheep shank, sour dock, lambs quarters and wild onions and squashes such as acorn squash, scallop squash, fordhooks, crooknecks, and bottle gourds. In addition to this domesticated crops the Native Americans also made use of wild foods they could gather (or cultivate less extensively than the above): acorns, plums, crabapples, persimmons, pawpaw, black grapes, cherries, mulberries, hickory nuts, pecans, walnuts, as well as animal sources such as alligators, bear, buffalo, rabbits, larks, turtles, catfish, deer, muskrat, raccoon, coot, ducks, clams and oysters. For the most part, the marine resources such as fish that were caught and eaten by the Native Americans would have been the same fish that we eat today.
The World of Indigenous Food
Many organizations are currently advocating a diet of traditional foods. In addition to the “wild diets” books that can be found in any library, many Native American groups have started advocating a return to a more traditional diet, and many health related and sustainable food conscious groups that advocate a return to an indigenous diet. These groups are motivated both by the cultural benefits of reconnecting with a traditional diet that sustained populations for thousands of years, as well as health benefits for more native foods. Devon A. Mihesuah wrote an article advocating an indigenous diet in the American Indian Quarterly back in 2003, and since then, other groups have continued advancing the traditional diet. The American Indian Health and Diet Project provides much information about indigenous foods, including traditional recipes. Their website can be accessed at: http://www.aihd.ku.edu/. Bishnik is the newspaper of the Choctaw peoples, and often provides articles on health and traditional diets. There are also online resources that can aid you in setting up your own indigenous food garden! Check out http://sproutrobot.com/ which tells you when to plant your crops for the New Orleans climate! Make a list of some of your favorite indigenous foods, and add a bit of wild to your diet. There is also a growing number of resources that are selling indigenous foods including acorn flour and recipes that can give you a true taste of indigenous Louisiana. Check out some of these links!
Eating Indigenous Today
Many of the foods we still eat today have indigenous roots, from corn to sunflowers. Next time you’re at your local grocery store, try a taste of the indigenous life, and pick up some locally grown squashes and blueberries. Here is an Indigenous Food Circle to help get you started. The larger the image, the more important that food probably was to the diet of the Native Americans of the Gulf Coast.
Eating on the Wild Side
Here are some traditional recipes, and some modern ones featuring indigenous foods.
Banaha (Choctaw Bread):
Pawpaw Recipes (many!)
Spaghetti Squash (you can substitute squash for pasta in many dishes! Here’s how to get started)
Choctaw Stew (although it calls for beef, it originally would have been made with deer or bear meat):