For most of my adult life, I have been intrigued by stories about the women who participated in the settling of the West–the women who traveled west in covered wagons, the homesteading women who worked as diligently and as hard as any man to prove up their 160 acres, the women who accompanied their men in a quest to find gold (or the women who stayed behind, at home, to take care of everything while their men went off in quest of treasure); the women who left everything near and dear and familiar to them because of a belief in a prophet or a new religion, or because of a dream of a new and better world for themselves and their children.
They left traces of themselves in diaries and journals, but we can’t help but wonder – what really motivated these women? It couldn’t have been easy to pack up and leave your family and friends and all that was dear and familiar –to cross thousands of miles of unknown territory, fraught with dangers…everything from hostile Indians to raging rivers, from inhospitable deserts to nearly insurmountable mountains.
And, along with all of this, thousands died en route, from common diseases, such as cholera, and accidents–such as getting run over by a wagon or struck by lightning (accidents that really did occur).
Did these women go because they felt they had no other choice? If your husband (or father) decreed, “we’re going west” did that mean there was no room for discussion? And how does that explain the unmarried women homesteaders—and make no mistake about it, they did exist!). Or did they want to go and considered it a great adventure? One can surmise some did have a sense of creating history, since so many women left journals and diaries telling of their experiences.
The first time my then-husband and I, with our one-year old son crossed country, (in a car–it took 5 days and we spent the nights at motels), traveling from Ohio to California, these pioneering women were much on my mind. The first time I flew from California to Ohio, gazing at the endless miles of prairie and mountains below, they were again on my mind. I think the question uppermost in my mind–then and now — has been “How did they do it?”
For over forty years, I have been collecting (and reading) books on this subject, searching for answers. More recently, I found myself wondering how in the world did women (often with young children and sometimes newborn babies) cook meals as they crossed country? What did they eat? How did they cook it? What did they use for fuel? (On a more personal level, how did they deal with the problems of every day sanitation, a topic left unmentioned in diaries?)
All of this reading and speculating has led to “Kitchens West” which is perhaps a bit of a misnomer. However, “Kitchen” is defined by the Encyclopedia of Cookery as …the room in which the housewife spends a large portion of her working day preparing the family food, and goes on to explain that in any early pioneer culture, the typical house was usually a one room affair with all family activities taking place in that one room…” In this interpretation, then, “Kitchen” is being expanded to mean, in a broad sense of the word, any place in which these various peoples prepared their meals… because we are going to explore the foods and recipes of native Americans, (after all, they were here first. We are going to take a make-believe journey across the Oregon trail with the women who made the trip over one hundred and fifty years ago; we will take a look at Cowboy Cuisine of long ago and today, and we will explore the life and culinary times of pioneer homesteaders.
Although this idea has been on my mind for quite a long time, it seems to be an idea whose time has come, because I have been finding research material everywhere I turn—the synchronicity of ideas continues to amaze me–at the present time I have found over fifty books to use for reference. I have discovered a true wealth of material published by the State University presses, and with the help of friends who are on the Internet, have discovered many other books I would not otherwise have known about. It also helps that Oregon celebrated the 150th anniversary of the Oregon Trail in 1993, inspiring a number of writers to write books to commemorate that great event.
Everywhere I turned, this topic seemed to turn up. An issue of Los Angeles Times (in a Sunday supplement) contained a story about the Nez Perce (pronounced Nez Purse) Indians in Oregon. Current issues of Reader’s Digest magazines featured several cowboy/Indian theme stories. In the Los Angeles Times daily paper one day, there was a fascinating story about a Sioux Indian, Chief Long Wolf, who went to London with Buffalo Bill’s show. Chief Long Wolf died and was buried in a remote cemetery in England, and now, a hundred years later, an English homemaker was instrumental in finding his gravesite and helping to arrange for the Indian remains to be returned to his home, mostly because it was the belief of the Sioux that a person’s spirit wanders without rest if they are not buried in their tribal homeland.
Whenever I see and hear about a subject at every turn, it feels as though a giant finger of the Universal Mind is nudging me in the back, telling me “pay attention!” So, here goes:
Let’s start with some definitions. Webster defines:
SETTLER: as one who settles, a colonist
PIONEER: as one of those who first enter or settle in a region,
opening it for occupation and development by others; one of those who are first or earliest in any field or inquiry…to go before – OVERLANDERS is another name for Pioneers.
HOMESTEAD: A home or dwelling, especially a house with the ground and buildings immediately connected with it; a tract of land, especially 160 acres, granted by Congress to a settler for development and ownership.
Covered wagon: a large wagon, with high curved hoops, covered by a canvas top, used to transport pioneers westward during the 19th century. Covered Wagons were sometimes also called Conestoga wagons. Covered wagons cost between $60-$90 and were usually 10′x4′ (about the size of a minivan). The name Conestoga, incidentally, a word which has all but disappeared from the American landscape, came from a town in Pennsylvania, where the first covered wagons were manufactured Covered wagons were also known as Prairie Schooners.
Cowboy: – A man who looks after cattle on a large ranch and does this work on horseback, a man who possesses the skills of a cowboy, especially those associated with a rodeo.
EMIGRANTS: was a 19th century name for the pioneers. Were sometimes called Overlanders.
The Oregon Trail: a route that encompassed what are today eight states, from Independence Missouri, to Oregon City in the Willamette Valley. It covered 2,000 zigzag miles, from Missouri, on to Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho, Washington, and finally to Oregon or California. It usually took almost five months (and sometimes seven) to reach the West and the trip was always a race against seasons. Most travelers chose the Oregon Trail because it provided a fairly regular supply of water along the North Platte and Sweetwater Rivers, a dependable supply of grass across the Prairie, and an easy, gradual grade to and through the mountains. The Oregon Trail was sometimes called THE EMIGRANT ROAD and THE OVERLAND TRAIL.
NATIVE AMERICANS are the Indian tribes of North America, specifically what is today the United States. Our focus will be primarily with the tribes in the Northwestern, Southwestern, and Western regions of the United States. As we all know, “Indians” was the name given to Native Americans by Christopher Columbus, who mistakenly believed he had reached India.
NATIVE AMERICAN IDIAN CUISINE…OUR AMERICAN HERITAGE. PART ONE.
One hundred (many) years ago the great Kahkawkonty told how the Great Spirit appeared to a wise forefather and showed him the plant, corn. The Great Spirit told him to preserve the two ears on the plant until the next spring, and to plant the
kernels. He should preserve the whole crop and send two ears to each of the surrounding nations, with the injunction that they were not to eat any of it until their third crop. The wise Indian did as he was commanded. By this means the corn
was distributed among all American Indians (From INDIAN COOKING, 1973, Nowega Press.)
There is another American Indian fable which tells of a youth who went to the woods to fast to prepare himself for his approaching manhood. He built himself a hut, and wandered about it, praying that the Great Spirit might acknowledge him by sending him a gift for his people who were in great need. Finally, after several days of fasting, he was too weak to move about, and lay on the ground. On the third day of this idleness, a youthful spirit appeared before him in flowing green plumes. The spirit commanded the Indian to rise and wrestle with him if he wished to get his heart’s desire. After the exercise, he was exhausted, and before he revived, the spirit left. This was repeated for four days. On the fourth day, the spirit said that he would return once more, on which occasion the youth would overcome him. He should then strip off his green clothes and bury them in the ground. If the mound over the clothes was tended and kept free from weeds, the young Indian would get his desire. The Indian defeated the spirit, and followed his directions. In a few days, a plant grew out of the mound which bore ears of grain which were good to eat. This was the origin of the Indian corn. (From ENCYCLOPEDIA OF COOKERY, WM h. Wise & Co, published 1948)
“THE AMERICAN INDIAN’S GREATEST CONTRIBUTION TO OUR CIVILIZATION IS, IN THE EYES OF MANY EXPERTS, THE PATIENT CULTIVATION FROM THEIR ORIGINAL WILD STATE OF THE FOOD PLANTS WHICH ARE NOW MORE THAN HALF OUR AGRICULTURAL WEALTH” – from CHEROKEE COOKLORE, MUSEUM OF THE CHEROKEE INDIAN, 1951.
Haven’t we all learned, as small children, the story of the First pilgrims, who came to America, but would have starved, to death if not for the generosity and sharing of Native American Indians, how Squanto, a Wampanoag, taught the starving immigrants how to grow corn, and kept them from going hungry? (Archaeological evidence shows that the horticulture of corn and beans is well over a thousand years old in southern New England and dates even further back in the southern regions–and, according to the ENCYCLOPEDIA OF COOKERY Icelandic sagas mention it as a product of the land to the west, which the Norse sailors discovered in the 11th century).
What you may not have learned in grammar school is that Squanto also taught the English colonists how to make use of the growing corn stalks to support the bean vines by planting the two together. They also learned that corn, unlike other grains which require smooth and well tilled fields, could be grown in patches where trees had been cut down–corn could be raised easily on land that not long ago had been heavily forested.
You also may not have learned in school that a number of families in the early Jamestown settlement were sent to live with friendly Indian tribesmen, so that they might learn to recognize strange varieties of edible roots and how to prepare them. This is how they were introduced to the potato and learned some of the many ways that the Indians used corn. From AMERICAN FOOD, THE GASTRONOMIC STORY by Evan Jones).
Corn is more than food to the Hopi people, writes Juanita Tiger Kavena, in HOPI COOKERY. It is life. At the naming ceremony of the newborn, a special ear of corn is selected as the ‘mother corn’ and is held sacred by the family, until it is used much later as food. Some families also put a taste of blue cornmeal into the baby’s mouth, saying, ‘This corn is your life’s strength. Eat this and grow strong and have a long, happy life.’
“Corn,” says Ms. Kavena, “has been the focal point of Hopi culture and religion as long as anyone remembers and is used In every ceremony…”
This must have been true of all Native American tribes who cultivated corn, since so many legends revolve around this most versatile vegetable.
A Navajo prayer goes like this:
“Truly in the East
The white bean
And the great corn-plant
Are tied with the white lightning.
Listen! rain approaches!
The voice of the bluebird is heard.
Truly in the East
The white bean
And the great squash
are tied with the rainbow.”
From SOUTHWEST INDIAN COOKBOOK by Marcia Keegan)
Corn is so important to the Pueblo and Navajo Native Americans, says Marcia Keegan, that whenever it is being ground, men come and sing. “In the grinding songs,” she explains, “they tell you almost what to do. And you have to grind to the beat, to the rhythm of the songs…”
A translation of a Taos Pueblo corn grinding song goes like this:
“From the corn we gather the pollen. The pollen that is like gold, reminds us of the color of anointment of the ancient ones. Grinding the corn it reminds us of heaven and it reminds us of earth. It reminds us that Father Sky and Mother Earth will unite forever. From the corn we learn to live, we learn the life that is ours, by grinding the corn we learn the footsteps of life. We go through a purification, until we are like dust. The corn came from the dust, from Mother Earth, and it gives life, like from Father Sky.
We are like the kernel that comes from the corn. With it we bring life, like the seed of the corn. Corn is the fruit of the gods, it was brought to us by the creator, that we may remember him. Our lives, we must remember that they are holy. The corn is sacred. We are sacred. We hold the seeds of the gods to the future.” (From SOUTHWEST INDIAN COOKBOOK.)
“Corn,” writes Ms. Keegan, “is the principal Pueblo food. The Pueblos traditionally believe their bodies are basically composed of corn and that as a result they share with the grain a simple essence…” (Sort of another way of saying you are what you eat, isn’t it?)
“During a Navajo wedding” writes Marcia Keegan, “the grandmother of the bride presents the newly married couple with a special basket filled with cornmeal. The bride and groom exchange a pinch of the golden substances with one another. The tradition is an ancient one”.
Lois Ellen Frank, author of NATIVE AMERICAN COOKING, FOODS OF THE SOUTHWEST INDIAN NATIONS Writes, “Corn is, and has been for thousands of years, one of the most important foods in the Native American diet. Considered to be the essence of life, corn holds a magical sacredness for the people. In fact, many ceremonial dances are held in which prayers are offered to the Corn Mother spirit…”
Ms. Frank also explains how corn was cultivated thousands of years ago in the Southwest, that the first varieties grown did not require irrigation, which made it a perfect crop for people to cultivate in the dry, arid region of the Southwest.
“Dry farming,” she says, “is still used by some tribes”.
Several different varieties and colors of corn,” says Ms. Frank, “including blue, white, red, yellow and speckled—are used by Native Americans today. Blue corn, which varies in color from pale blue to almost black, is considered one of the most important corn crops. It is used primarily in making baked goods, stews, stuffings, dumpings and beverages. White corn is still a major crop on many reservations and pueblos. It is used in prayer offerings and for making hominy and cornmeal flour, which is utilized in many traditional recipes. Red corn, ranging in color from light red to deep maroon, is used for baked goods, for stews and traditionally, for dye…Yellow corn is used in stews and is ground into flour or meal for baking…Speckled corn, which is a combination of all the colors of corn, is used for all kinds of cooking…” (If you are interested in trying different kinds of corn, you may want to refer to the Source Guide in Ms. Frank’s book, NATIVE AMERICAN COOKING where you will find a list of company names and addresses where you can obtain some not-too-readily-available ingredients).
I turned to Alvin M. Josephy’s THE INDIAN HERITAGE OF AMERICA to see what he had to say about corn and its origins. (Published originally in 1968, it was reprinted in 1991, by American Heritage Library.)
Mr. Josephy is a distinguished historian and the author of many books, including the OPENING OF THE NORTHWEST and THE CIVIL WAR IN THE WEST. He was (at the time this was first printed in 1998) the first chairman of the board of the National Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian Institute.
According to Josephy, Indian maize, or corn, was first cultivated from wild corn in Central Mexico. “In 1948,”writes Josephy, “tiny cobs of domesticated corn, between 4,000 and 5,000 years old, were found by archaeologists both at Bat Cave in New Mexico and at La Perra Cave in Tamaulipas in northeastern Mexico.
Since then, archaeological work…in two regions of Mexico has thrown important new light on the entire subject of the start of New World agriculture…” What the archaeologists found was evidence of the cultivation of pumpkin, peppers, bottle gourds and a kind of runner beans–9,500 to 7,500 years ago! They also found evidence of domesticated squash and corn 7,000 years ago in northeastern Mexico. Most food historians appear to agree that corn reached North America by way of migration from Mexico and South America.
There were so many different Native American tribes that I wondered if I could even begin to compile a comprehensive list; complicating the matter, dozens of tribes, especially those in the eastern part of the United States, became extinct by the nineteenth century.
In ENDURING HARVESTS, E. Barrie Kavasch provides us with a map of the United States which lists all the Native tribes that are mentioned in Kavasch’s book. Of the Great Plains tribes, there are Osage, Arapaho, Pawnee, Cheyenne, Oto, Omaha, Ponca, Sioux, Dakota, Crow, Mandan, Cree, Chippewa, 19 tribes of Pueblo, Hopi, Navajo, Apache, Yuma, Mojave, and many others. In the Northwest were Shoshone, Bannock, Yakitna, Walla Walla, Paiute, Nez Perce, Palouse, Spokane, Squamish, and Coeur D’Alenes, while in the Southwest were tribes of Opata, Suma, Pima and Bajo – and this is not a complete listing!
Another factor, as pointed out in Beverly Cox’s 1991 cook book SPIRIT OF THE HARVEST, is that many Indian people today do not live in the same areas where their ancestors did. “When Europeans appears in the New World,” Beverly writes, “and encountered native peoples, they introduced new ideas and new material goods that changed Indian life—brass and copper kettles for cooking, guns and metal traps for hunting. They also introduced new diseases to which the natives had no immunity, and some settlers established permanent settlements that disrupted native hunting
territories, or took over fallow Indian planting grounds. Many Indian groups, faced with such pressures, signed treaties, giving up part or all of their land. Sometimes they received other land in exchange and were moved to new areas.
The Oneida in Wisconsin, for instance, are descended from people who originally lived in upstate New York. The Choctaw tribe in Oklahoma originated in central Mississippi. The Cheyennes in Montana are probably descendants of people who once lived in the forests around the western Great Lakes. As they moved, these tribes adapted to the new foods found in their new homelands…”
“Stories about the origins of corn,” writes Doctor Clara Sue Kidwell in SPIRIT OF THE HARVEST, “have a common theme among Southeastern tribes. A story from the Miccosuke in Florida and Alabama is representative. A woman feeds her family a new and delicious food that they have not seen before. Her sons wonder where she is getting it, and they secretly follow her one day to find out. They discover that she is rubbing skin from her body and forming it into little balls. Se sees them and tells them that since they have discovered her secret, they must kill her and bury her body in a nearby field. The next spring, corn stalks grow from her grave. The story associates women, corn, cycles of the seasons, cycles of life and death, and fertility, and it makes corn a metaphor with many levels of meaning…”
(*Doctor Kidwell was a Professor of Native American Studies at the University of California at Berkeley at the time this was first published; she has written some of the introductions to various chapters in SPIRIT OF THE HARVEST. David Hunt, in his cookbook THE NATIVE INDIAN WILD GAME, FISH AND WILD FOODS COOKBOOK provides culinary insights and traditions of the following tribes:
SOUTHWESTERN: Pueblos, Zuni, Hopi
NORTHWEST: Salish and other coastal tribes
WESTERN: Plains Indians, Blackfeet, Cheyenne, Sioux
SOUTHEAST: Chocktaw, Creek and Cherokee
NORTHEAST: Canadian, Ojibway, and Eastern Woodlands
I found myself wondering, have I bitten off more than I can chew? How can I adequately describe the food heritage given to us by the American Indian? I turned again for help from THE INDIAN HERITAGE by Alvin M. Josephy, Jr.
“The Southeastern peoples”, writes Mr. Josephy, “generally had an abundance and variety of food. Villages had gardens in which the Indians raised many crops, including corn, beans, and melons, as well as tobacco. The waters and forests were filled with fish and game, the latter including bear, deer, turkeys, and wildfowl. Nuts and berries grew in profusion and sunflowers were cultivated for their seeds. Favored dishes included bear ribs, root jelly, hominy and corn cakes, and corn soup…”
Later, he explains, “the coming of the white man spelled disaster to the Southeastern tribes. Many were wiped out, and the Natchez and various Gulf coast peoples all but disappeared by the 19th century. In Florida, the Calusas, Timucuas, and Apalachees became extinct even earlier.
After the middle of the 18th century, refugee Creeks and other Indians from Georgia and Alabama moved into Florida and, intermarrying with runaway Negro slaves and the last survivors of the original Florida tribes, gave rise to a new people…their name was corrupted to Seminole and meant simply that they were separatists, or runaways from the Creeks. With the Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks and Cherokees, the Seminoles formed ‘The Five Civilized Tribes’, a named applied to them in the 19th century because of their adoption…of the white man’s civilization. Many of them raised stock, tilled large farms, built large European-style homes…they dressed like white men, learned the whites’ methods, skills, and arts, started small industries and became Christians…Despite this, calamity struck the Five Civilized Tribes. An expanding nation coveted their lands, and in the 1820s and 1830s, the United States government forced their removal, one by one to new homes west of the Mississippi River, in present-day Oklahoma, which was then thought to be uninhabitable by white men. Their emigrations were cruel and bitter trials. Some, including the Seminoles, resisted, but by the 1840s, only relatively small pockets of Indians, including some Cherokees in the mountains of North Carolina, remained in the Southeast…” From this great exodus came the name “The Trail of Tears”.
“To talk of Native American cookery,” writes Rayna Green in SMITHSONIAN FOLKLIFE COOKERY “is to talk of the oldest foods and the oldest cooking methods in North America. It is to talk of food and cooking traditions basely solely in the natural universe, of things gathered from the ground, from trees and bushes, from plants, from fresh and salt waters, from desert sands and mountain forests, from animals as old and older than the people who took food from them. And to talk of Native American food and cooking is to talk of dynamic change, movement, acceptance of the new and strange,and creative adaptation, like Native American people themselves.
”Once, long ago,” she continues, “as now, there was bear and buffalo, seal, salmon and oyster, cactus, fruit and wild rice, hickory nut and prairie turnip, now and for a while there has been pig and cow, wheat flour and sugar, watermelon and black pepper, even gelatin. In between what was gathered and hunted long ago and now, there was corn–Corn Mother, which together with beans and squash, became what the Iroquois call the Three Sisters….” (SMITHSONIAN FOLK LIFE COOKBOOK compiled by Katherine S. Kirlin and Thomas M. Kirlin, was published by the Smithsonian Institution Press in 1991 and is a tribute to many different American folklives, not just Native American Indian).
”Succotash,” writes Beverly Cox in SPIRIT OF THE HARVEST “in its many variations is a basic Indian dish that has long been a favorite of all Americans. Among the Algonquian and Iroquian tribes of the Northeast, food–and especially succotash–was kept simmering at all times, ready for any hungry visitor or family member…”
David Hunt, editor/author of NATIVE INDIAN WILD GAME, FISH AND WILD FOODS COOKBOOK (Fox Chapel Publishing, 1992), writes, “America’s first people were called ‘Indians’ based on the mistaken belief of the explorers that they had reached India. This lack of understanding and cultural arrogance would be a dominant theme in Native History. The only knowledge many people have of America’s first people is based on the legend of the first Thanksgiving among the early settlers and the fiction of Hollywood movies. Outside these sources, knowledge of Native Indians and their culture and traditions is sorely lacking. Few people have an appreciation for the variety and complexity of the different cultures that were in existence in North America long before the coming of the white man.
The different groups of North American native people had developed advanced farming techniques, distinctive craftsmanship and the fine arts and music characteristic of thriving, vibrant societies…”
David Hunt continues, “Native Indians left a great legacy of foodstuffs and cultivation practices. Corn, now a food staple world-wide was hardly known in Europe at the time of the settlers. However, Indian tribes had been cultivating corn for centuries and developed a great deal of knowledge and technical expertise. Early explorers reported sighting corn fields over 18 miles long. Techniques of breeding pure and hybrid varieties of corn were well-known. Counting the work of different tribes, Indians had developed over 30 varieties of corn – bred for specific climatic areas and different culinary purposes…Equally advanced processing methods for corn were part of native culture. Only recently have scientists discovered that corn soaked in ashes and water converts into a foodstuff most easily digested by the human body. This process was practiced for hundreds of years by the Indians of the Southwest. Many varieties of corn had hulls too thick to eat. The Indians manufactured lye from wood ashes, using the lye to dissolve the hulls away, leaving HOMINY – a later variation of which became that classic of the American South grits. Along came Dr. Kellogg’s discovery that hominy could be toasted and flattened which formed the basis for the company bearing his name and the modern breakfast cereal industry…”
Mr. Hunt also explains that the Indians first taught white men how to dry and use red peppers, make maple syrup, use wild plants and herbs and appropriate methods of preserving meat. It is ironic, says Mr. Hunt, “that such famous ALL AMERICAN FOODS such as Boston Baked Beans, New England Clam Bake, succotash, chili, crackerjacks, doughnuts and pumpkin pie are all based on Native Indian recipes”. (And don’t forget popcorn; Sam Arnold author of FRYING PANS WEST points out that strings of popcorn were used over 5,000 years ago in Mexico, in religious ceremonies and that even today, in remote Mexican churches, one sometimes finds the statues of the Virgin or Christ decorated with strings of popcorn).
Writes Mr. Hunt, “In addition to the all-important introduction of corn to the rest of the world, the Indians also demonstrated the value and usefulness of potatoes, tomatoes, squash, avocado, sweet potatoes, tapioca and wild rice to the early settlers…” (Commenting on the cultivation of wild rice by the Indians south of Lake Superior in the years 1670-99, one little booklet published by Ojibway Enterprises expressed surprise that some historians fail to mention this fact, since the possession of wild rice fields was one of the chief causes of wars between some of the Indian nations).
”And those who came were resolved to be Englishmen,
Gone to the world’s end, but English every one.
And they ate the white corn kernels, parched in the sun,
And they knew it not, but they’d not be English again.
( By poet Stephen Vincent Benet)
Europeans from The Old World were slow to accept corn (indeed, as Ms. Rozin pointed out, it was almost universally rejected as proper food for humans and was utilized (in European countries) primarily as animal fodder). You will find Europeans, today, who still feel that way about corn. Author Elisabeth Rozin explains why – that corn is a grain and people were reluctant to give up or accept substitutes for the grains (rice, barley, oats and rye) that they were accustomed to. Europeans made changes to the basic corn grown by Native Indians introducing wheat, flour, eggs, acids (such as those in sour milk) fat or frying and flavoring and dairy products, such as milk, cream and butter – things unknown in the new world with its lack of domesticated dairy animals.
So while your corn on the cob is strictly Native American, the addition of melted butter is really an Old World addition…the same can be said of popcorn – it is a true Indian food, however, the addition of butter is a foreign garnish.
There were, granted, hundreds of different tribes and some of these were nomadic tribes, traveling from place to place. (And even here, I stand corrected, as Mr. Josephy explains, “Actually, for more than a thousand years before the coming of whites, the dominant native peoples of the eastern plains were not nomads, but lived in semi-permanent farming villages. Although hunting contributed to their economy, agriculture was the principal source of their food…”
“To many non-Indians,” writes Josephy, “The tribes of the North American plains have become the most familiar of all the Indians of the Americas, although that familiarity is generally based on a stereotype that shows little recognition of the full scope of the history or culture of the various plains peoples….” More recent archaeological studies, he says, have indicated the presence (i.e., in the plains regions) of a somewhat stable village life based on an economy that combined hunting and gathering (such as collecting seeds, nuts, fruits and other edible resources, with agriculture. Remains of corns and beans at these[archaeological] sites are the oldest found so far in the Plains area. Sites dated at approximately A.D. 200-400 have revealed numerous storage pits, small burial mounds with stone-lined graves, and various relics, including pottery and objects of clay, stone, bone, copper and other materials. Around 800 A.D., Josephy explains, Woodland cultures were succeeded by groups that placed more reliance on agriculture and had a more settled way of life and appears to have extended westward onto the plains all along the front…generally, the people grew corn, beans, squash and sunflowers along the bottom-land and sent out hunting parties that perhaps roamed as far west as the Rockies, living in temporary camps during the hunts. These Plains Village Indians lived in earth-covered or mud plastered lodges, usually square or rectangular in shape, cultivated their gardens with digging sticks and bison-scapula hoes, stored their surplus food in underground pits, and often surrounded their villages with protective stockades and ditches. Women did the farming and men conducted the hunts. Then, “In late prehistoric times, perhaps around A.D. 1500, many of the more westerly farming settlements were abandoned, possibly because of drought or under the pressure of enemies. People in large parts of the area returned to nomadic hunting and gathering…” However, agriculture persisted in other regions and “intensive and extensive farming communities along the middle Missouri grew bigger, increasing populations became more sedentary, and cultural advancement quickened…”
In the far western plains, however, where the environment never favored agriculture, the economy remained what it had been traditionally, a hunting and gathering way of life which was pursued by small groups of people who lived at relatively low levels of subsistence and cultural development. (From THE INDIAN HERITAGE OF AMERICA).
It appears that most of the Native American tribes were farmers–cultivators. Writes Dale Carson, in NEW NATIVE AMERICAN COOKING (Random House, 1996), “Nearly 75 percent of the world’s foodstuffs are indigenous to the Americas, where, for millennia, Native peoples of both North and South America have cultivated a vast variety of crops, gathered wild nuts and berries, and enjoyed an abundance of fish, fowl, and game meats. In fact, Native peoples used more than 1,000 different plants for food, nearly 100 that they had cultivated before contact with Europeans. The ways of these Native ancestors are well documented, including their economy and ingenuity in farming and cooking…”
E. Barrie Kavasch, author of ENDURING HARVESTS, writes, “Every aspect of life and death is celebrated in some way, with food. For Native Americans, this can take the form of a pinch of cornmeal offered to the wind with prayers for rain and renewal or an elaborate thanksgiving feast, complete with honey smoked duck and stuffed pumpkin, or anything in between. All of these rituals are inspired by passion and respect for life…”
And David Hunt tells us, “Prior to the coming of the settlers, Native Americans obtained meat for their diets by hunting and fishing. Most tribes believed that animals had souls which could communicate with other wildlife even after they were killed. Because of this belief, many detailed rituals were developed for the hunting, killing and eating of game. It was thought that if an animal’s body was treated with respect, it would send positive message to other animals. As a consequence of this, elaborate ceremonies praised the beauty, valor and goodness of the kill. Were an animal’s spirit to be insulted, it would warn other game to flee the hunters. Many hunters asked the Creator for forgiveness before killing an animal.
Since some tribes believed gods appeared on earth in the form of animals such as snakes and rabbits, they were not eaten. Other tribes also believed that young braves could not eat of their first kill without bringing themselves permanent bad luck at hunting…”
I mention some of this to you because I think it is an important factor in understanding the wrath of the Indian tribes, when white men indiscriminately killed thousands and thousands of buffalo, often for the sport of it, or for the tongue or hump, leaving the carcasses to decay on the plains. It had to be anathema to everything the Native Americans believed and held sacred, for the buffalo represented to them food, robes, utensils and tipi covers, and was to be killed only when necessary.
Indian saying: “MAY YOUR MOCCASINS MAKE HAPPY TRACKS IN MANY
SNOWS AND THE RAINBOW ALWAYS TOUCH YOUR SHOULDER” (From
INDIAN COOKING, Nowega Press, 1973)
From INDIAN COOKING we learn some of the foods of American Indians. Of wild fruit and berries, there were blackberries, cranberries, raspberries, strawberries and huckleberries (to name a few), and they had cherries, plums, currants, persimmons, grapes, pawpaws, and crab apples. Their vegetables included artichokes, gourds, maize corn, melons, potatoes, pumpkins, squash, beans, tomatoes, and they cultivated wild rice, mushrooms, and sunflower seed. They were familiar with, and included in their cuisine, acorns, beechnuts, coconuts, hazelnuts, chestnuts and walnuts, hickory nuts, pecans and butternuts. Of meats they had alligator, antelope, bear, beaver, buffalo, caribou, deer, elk, moose, rabbit, goats, squirrel, raccoon, opossum and muskrats. They also cultivated and used flowers and certain leaves, such as skunk cabbage and water cress, and consumed many different kinds of fish. Herbs were used for medicine, flavoring foods or in beauty aids. They knew how to make poultices, such as those made from tea, for burns.
“We walked here once, Grandfather,
These trees, ponds, these springs and streams,
and that big flat rock across the water over there.
We used to meet with you over there,
Remember, Grandfather? And we would
dream, dance, and sing, and
after a while, make offerings.
Then we would sing the traveling song
and would go our ways, and
sometimes we would see your signs
on the way to our lodges.
But something happened, Grandfather.
We lost our way, somewhere, and
everything is going away.
The four-legged, the trees, springs and streams,
even the big water, where the laughing
whitefish goes, and the big sky of many eagles
are saying good-bye.
Come back, Grandfather! Come back!
Thank you, oh, Great Spirit, for all the things that Mother Earth gives! - Narragansett Indian prayer of Thanksgiving
“During the course of the white man’s conquest of the New World,” explains Alvin Josephy in THE INDIAN HERITAGE OF AMERICA, Indian numbers changed greatly. Many native peoples were entirely exterminated; many were almost wiped out; others approached the brink of extinction and then ‘came back’. The Indian population within the United States,(excluding Alaska) declined rapidly until by 1860 there remained only some 340,000. (It was around this same time that the U.S. Government encouraged the wholesale slaughter of buffalo, which Native Americans depended on for food, clothing and shelter, with the idea that–without buffalo for sustenance–the Indians would be crushed into submissiveness.)
By 1910, the figure had declined to 220,000 and the Indian had taken on the popular image of the ‘vanishing American.’ About that time, the trend reversed, and today, with a rapidly decreasing death rate and a high Indian birth rate, Indians are increasing in number at a rate 10 percent faster than that of the overall United States population. (In 1990, the Census Bureau estimated that the population of Native American Indians to be 2,000,000, of which fewer than 400,000 live on reservations (this total includes Eskimos and Aleuts. Sociologists believe that there will be almost 3 million Indians in the United States by the end of the 20th Century–more than half the number in the same area in 1492).
In a rapidly diminishing world,” writes Josephy at the conclusion of THE INDIAN HERITAGE OF AMERICA, “the future of the Indians…is one of accelerating acculturation. But complete final assimilation is still so remote a prospect as to make certain the Indians’ own pronouncement: ‘We are here, and we will be here for many generations yet to come.”
Let me walk in beauty, and make my eyes ever behold
The red and purple sunset.
Make my hands respect the things you have made and
My ears sharp to hear your voice.
Make me wise so that I may understand the things you
Have taught my people.
Let me learn the lessons you have hidden in every leaf and
I seek strength, not to be greater than my brother, but to
Fight my greatest enemy–myself.
Make me always ready to come to you with clean hands
And straight eyes. (An Indian Prayer – from OKLAHOMA COOKIN’ copyrighted 1976 Baxter Lane Co).
If you are interested in learning more about Native American cooking, I recommend NEW NATIVE AMERICAN COOKING by Dale Carson, published by Random House in 1996. This cookbook contains more than 125 traditional foods and contemporary dishes made from America’s indigenous ingredients. The book also provides a wealth of historical background.
It can be found on Amazon.com. pre-owned starting at $1.53.
Look also for ENDURING HARVEST By E. Barrie Kavasch, which contains native American foods and festivals for every season, tells the historical background of the various festivals and also contains a treasure of historical background material. This one can be found on Amazon.com starting at one cent for a pre-owned copy; a new one is available for $25.95.
BLUE CORN AND CHOCOLATE by Elisabeth Rozin, published by Knopf in 1992 can also be found on Amazon.com, pre owned starting at one cent. (You can also buy a new copy of this book for $19.11). (Always keep in mind that shipping is $3.99 for books purchased from private vendors). I have quite a few of Elisabeth Rozin’s books. She is a fine food historian.
NATIVE INDIAN WILD GAME, FISH AND WILD FOODS COOKBOOK edited by David Hunt and published in 1992 by Fox Chapel publishing Company can be purchased on Amazon.com starting at $1.56 for a pre-owned copy.
SOUTHWEST INDIAN COOKBOOK by Marcia Keegan, published in 1987 was also an R.T. French Tastemaker Award Winner. It is packed with information and can be purchased on Amazon.com starting at one cent for a pre-owned copy.
SPIRIT OF THE HARVEST by Beverly Cox and Martin Jacobs, published in 1991is one of the books I also reviewed on this blog and a pre-owned copy starts at $5.97.
While there are certainly many other books devoted to Native American cuisine, the cookbooks I have mentioned above are fairly recent publications and available on the Internet. I have bought many pre-owned books over the past decade. If there is a choice between “good” and “very good” conditions at the same price, I generally go for the book in the best condition. Eventually you will also become familiar with some of the vendors and get an idea how satisfactory their merchandise is.
It seems appropriate to conclude Part 1 with an Indian farewell:
”Until we meet again may the Great Spirit
make sunrise in your heart, and may your
moccasins make tracks in many snows yet to come”
-From OKLAHOMA COOKIN’ published 1976, Baxter Lane Publishing.