For centuries, Indigenous people’s diets were totally based on what could be harvested locally. Then white settlers arrived from Europe.
Native people pass down information—including food traditions—from one generation to the next through stories, histories, legends and myths. Native elders teach how to prepare wild game and fish, how to find wild plants, which plants are edible, their names, their uses for food and medicine, and how to grow, prepare and store them.
As European settlers spread throughout America and displaced American Indian tribes, Native food customs were upended and completely disrupted. The evolution of Native American cuisine can be broken down into four distinct periods, described below.
1. Pre-contact Foods and the Ancestral Diet
The variety of cultivated and wild foods eaten before contact with Europeans was as vast and variable as the regions where indigenous people lived.
Seeds, nuts and corn were ground into flour using grinding stones and made into breads, mush and other uses. Many Native cultures harvested corn, beans, chile, squash, wild fruits and herbs, wild greens, nuts and meats. Those foods that could be dried were stored for later use throughout the year.
As much as 90 percent of the Southwestern Pueblo diet consisted of calories consumed from agricultural products, with wild fruits, greens, nuts and small game making up the balance. Because large game was scarce in some areas, textiles and corn were traded with the Plains peoples for bison meat. There is evidence that ancient Native cultures even incorporated cacao—the bean used to make chocolate—into their diets, as a 2009 excavation in New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon revealed.
Corn, beans and squash, called the Three Sisters by many tribes, serve as key pillars in the Native American diet and is considered a sacred gift from the Great Spirit. Together, the plants provide complete nutrition, while offering an important lesson in environmental cooperation. Corn draws nitrogen from the soil, while beans replenish it. Corn stalks provide climbing poles for the bean tendrils, and the broad leaves of squashes grow low to the ground, shading the soil, keeping it moist, and deterring the growth of weeds.
2. First-Contact Foods and Changes After Encounters with Europeans
As European settlers began arriving in the Americas, beginning with Christopher Columbus in the 15th century, they brought with them their own food customs. Some of the foods that came with the Europeans included sheep, goats, cattle, pigs, the horse, peaches, apricots, plums, cherries, melons, watermelon, apples, grapes and wheat.
Spanish sheep changed the lifeways of the Navajo (Diné) dramatically. From the time the Diné first acquired sheep, their flocks became central to their culture and lives. Newborn lambs are brought into the house when it is cold and fed by hand. Sheep are still a sign of wealth in some communities and can be given as a bridal gift to a woman’s family from her prospective husband.
Just as Native communities adopted new foods and livestock into their cuisine—newcomers also wove ingredients from Native American communities into their cuisine. The Italian tomato, the Irish potato, Asian chiles, Britain’s chips served with their fish, were all introduced by Native people of the Americas after initial contact in the 15th century and beyond.
3. Government-Issued Foods and Forced Relocation
The opening of the western frontier, triggered by the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, encouraged many settlers to move west into what was traditionally Indian country. Congress initiated the Federal Indian Removal Act of 1830, which evicted more than 100,000 Native Americans east of the Mississippi River to Indian Territory in Oklahoma, completely disrupting traditional Native foodways—and all of their traditional food sources.
In the Southwest, in 1864, the Diné (Navajo) were also forced to leave their homelands in Arizona when all of their crops were burned and animals killed, leaving them with no food. They were forced to walk to Fort Sumner, New Mexico on the Long Walk to Bosque Redondo where many perished.
Four years later, on the Long Walk of the Navajo, they were consolidated onto a reservation. In what became known as The Trail of Tears, the people of the Cherokee, Muscogee, Seminole, Chickaswa, and Choctaw nations were forced out of their homes and made to walk to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) to make their homelands available to settlers. All nomadic tribes north of the new border with Mexico were settled onto reservations.
During these forced relocations, new foods were distributed to tribes in the form of government-issued rations. The rations, distributed twice a month, originally included lard, flour, coffee and sugar and canned meat, generically known as “spam,” which has been linked to an increased risk of diabetes among Native people. This food distribution program led to one of the most dramatic dietary changes in American Indian history.
The original intention of the U.S. government was to supply rations as an interim solution until relocated Native peoples were raising enough food of their own. Instead, many American Indians became dependent on the rations. Some tribes initially abandoned their traditional food-procurement practices but found that there was never enough of the government-issued food to feed all their tribal members.
The Indian Taco, one of today’s best-known pan-Indian dishes, was developed as a creative combination of government-issued rations with traditional Indigenous foods that the ancestors used for survival. Wheat flour, baking powder, lard and, later in the distribution process, yellow processed cheese, were all commodity foods issued to families on reservations (and still being issued today). Beans, wild game meat, if available, green chiles and tomatoes, already familiar and in some cases being produced by many families at the time, made a natural accompaniment to the new commodity foods.
Although a relative newcomer to the Native table, the Indian Taco, and the fry bread on which it is served, are now considered indispensable at national fairs, powwows, and community events, both on reservations and in urban areas.
4. New Native American Cuisine
For the first time in U.S. history, Native chefs, Native cooks, restaurateurs and Native community members can decide for themselves what foods they want to include on their menus and on their plates.
The new Native American cuisine combines contemporary elements, which might include culinary techniques, presentation and flavors, with elements from the ancestral foods of the past. By weaving together the past and present, new Native American cuisine helps restore and disseminate pre-colonial food—and the Indigenous knowledge that accompanies it—for future generations.
Lois Ellen Frank is a Santa Fe–based chef and culinary anthropologist whose book, Foods of the Southwest Indian Nations, won a James Beard Award.
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