Category Archives: Native American customs

Native Americans had created a rich cultural history that was usually disregarded, disdained, and rejected by the larger Anglo-centered population. Native peoples had their own languages, medical methods, religions, rituals and ceremonies, and world outlooks. When the federal government changed its policy from overt warfare, it did not stop trying to destroy Native Americans. The government pursued a policy called “assimilation” which tried to erase all Native American heritage and culture. Fortunately, Native peoples proved themselves stronger than these policies and held on to many of the cultural aspects the government tried to erase.

Falling Silent

A Collection of Native American Vocabular, courtesy American Philosophical Museum

A Collection of Native American Vocabulary, courtesy American Philosophical Museum

Languages around the world have been lost over time, and this loss continues. The reference work Ethnologue lists 245 indigenous languages in the United States, with 65 already extinct and 75 near extinction.

This language loss happened in several ways. A prominent cause came from the federal government’s push to eradicate Native American culture. Children were taken from their homes to boarding schools and forbidden to use their native languages. By the time they came back home, many had forgotten it. As native peoples dispersed into cities and used English, their original languages also fell into misuse. Though there are documents that have recorded many native languages, they cannot document the vocal attributes of the language–often an important part of understanding the language’s meaning. These languages also includes concepts and culture which cannot be replicated in English.

Anthropologist Frank Speck and Delaware Lenape Chief Witapanoxwe, circa 1928, courtesy American Philosophical Society

Anthropologist Frank Speck and Delaware Lenape Chief Witapanoxwe, circa 1928, courtesy American Philosophical Society

People are making attempts to preserve languages. The Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages has partnered with the National Geographic Society to form the Enduring Voices Project to preserve particularly unique, poorly understood, or threatened indigenous languages. The  Administration For Native Americans also provides grants to native communities and nonprofits to teach young people to speak native languages.

The Smithsonian Institution’s Bureau of Ethnology collected audio recordings of Native American languages in the 19th century. You can hear digitized snippets of these languages at the Smithsonian’s site, http://siris.si.edu. In the blue box on the right hand side under “Culture & History” click “Native American Language.” In the new page, on the left hand side under “online media” click “sound recordings.”

Ethnogropher Alice Cunningham Fletcher and Chief Joseph of the Nez Pierce

Ethnographer Alice Cunningham Fletcher and Chief Joseph of the Nez Pierce

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Making Sugar at Sugar Camps

Gathering Sap in Makuks

Gathering Sap in Makuks

When sugar camps were ready (see last post), tree tapping began as soon as the sap started running. Though only experts tapped trees, these could be either men or women, and an individual could make up to 300 tappings a day.

In the Chippewa method of making sugar, workers put down sap dishes in the early morning and gathered them when they were filled. After taking the sap back to camp, workers poured the liquid into kettles or into troughs at the door of the tipi used for making the syrup. Other workers heated the sap in small kettles before pouring it into larger kettles so that all the sap could be heated gradually. The sap in the large kettles would then be boiled until it thickened, which could take all night.

Mrs. Dick Gahbowh Boiling Sap, Mille Lacs, 1925, courtesy University of Minnesota Duluth

Mrs. Dick Gahbowh Boiling Sap, Mille Lacs, 1925, courtesy University of Minnesota Duluth

When it was thick enough, the sap was strained from a full kettle into an empty one through a mat woven of basswood bark. (In later days, burlap was used instead of the mat.) After the kettles were cleaned, the syrup was reheated; women placed small bits of deer tallow in with the syrup to keep the sugar soft. At the proper consistency, the syrup was transferred to a granulating trough and worked with a paddle to make sugar.

Chippewa Indians With Maple Sugar in Birchbark Containers, 1909, courtesy University of Minnesota Duluth

Chippewa Indians With Maple Sugar in Birchbark Containers, 1909, courtesy University of Minnesota Duluth

All of this was hard work, but everyone enjoyed the end product. Women stored sugar made from the last run of sap in makuks (birchbark containers) buried in the ground. This valuable product could last for a year if properly covered with bark and boughs to keep it fresh.

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Sugar Camps

Building a Birch Bark Tepee at a Maple Sugar Camp, Mille Lacs Reservation, courtesy firstpeople.us

Building a Birch Bark Tepee at a Maple Sugar Camp, Mille Lacs Reservation, courtesy firstpeople.us

Native peoples who had access to trees with sweet sap (such as the sugar maple) made sugar products just as later Europeans did in New England states like Vermont. In the spring, Chippewa families or groups of two to three families enjoyed working together at sugar camps. The families worked their own sugar bushes, which were stands of maple trees measured by the number of “taps” available. Each tree, for instance, might have two or three taps, and a bush might have 900 taps.

Each sugar camp usually contained a permanent lodge, which would be cleared of snow and repaired each spring, sometime around March. Women went early to examine their sugar-making utensils, like bark dishes for gathering sap, makuks (birchbark containers) for storing sugar, syrup buckets, and troughs where the buckets of sap were poured. When the equipment was ready, women went back to their home camps to fetch large kettles for boiling the sap; they also got the rest of their family ready to move to the camp. Both men and women were involved in setting up these sugar camps.

Native Americans Making Maple Sugar, Cass Lake, 1905, courtesy University of Minnesota Duluth

Native Americans Making Maple Sugar, Cass Lake, 1905, courtesy University of Minnesota Duluth

My next post will explain the Chippewa’s sugar-making process.

Ojibwe Woman Tapping a Sugar Maple, 1908, courtesy Elder Nmenhs-Arthur McGregor of Whitefish River First Nation

Ojibwe Woman Tapping a Sugar Maple, 1908, courtesy Elder Nmenhs-Arthur McGregor of Whitefish River First Nation

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Many Thanks

Corn Dance, Taos Pueblo, circa 1920s

Though the majority of the U.S. population celebrates an official day of gratitude called Thanksgiving, Native Americans have always had a deep tradition of routinely giving thanks. They have particularly given attention and gratitude to the animals and plants which gave their lives to provide sustenance or medicine.

 

Planting ceremonies were also important, as were dances and feasts to celebrate good crops. Among others, the Creek, Cherokee, Seminole, Yuchi, and Iroquois tribes celebrated the Green Corn Festival, which marked the beginning of the first corn harvest. It was a time to thank Mother Earth and all living things for providing food  and other usable items that made life good. The Maple Syrup Ceremony (late spring), Strawberry Ceremony (early summer), Bean Dance and Buffalo Dance (winter), are only a few of the times that Native Americans set aside to acknowledge their dependence upon the bounty of the earth.

Buffalo Dance at Hano, courtesy www.firstpeoples.us

Buffalo Dance at Hano, courtesy www.firstpeoples.us

Qahatika Women Resting in Harvest Field, courtesy Library of Congress

Qahatika Women Resting in Harvest Field, courtesy Library of Congress

The Iroquois particularly formalized times of thanksgiving, which would include a special Thanksgiving Address. A speaker was chosen to give thanks on behalf of all the people. The thanksgiving prayer then offered gratitude to the Creator for the earth and the living things upon it. The prayer could be quite long, encompassing specific things the speaker wanted to call special attention to, like birds, rivers, medicinal grasses and herbs, wind, rain, sunshine, the moon and stars, and so on. Thanksgiving festivals provided opportunities to feast, express gratitude, and enjoy good things, and also provided times of cleansing, healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

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Fourth of July

Sioux Indians Hitting a Dime at 100 Yards, July 4, 1891, courtesy Library of Congress

The Indian Bureau was never culturally sensitive, especially when it came to Native American celebrations. It actively discouraged or forbade ceremonial dances, feasts, and other gatherings, fearing that they might unite tribes or keep them from assimilating into white culture. Most gatherings required written permission. One explanation for the Indian Bureau allowing celebrations at all was offered in Sunday Magazine (July 2, 1911): “Shut off on reservations and compelled to do without any extraneous amusements, the Indian grows morose and is much more inclined to give trouble than when occasionally permitted to enjoy himself.”

The Bureau didn’t pay as much attention to Fourth of July celebrations, and Native Americans soon discovered that they could get together on that day without written permission. They began to use the Fourth of July as an excuse to gather and perform the dances and ceremonies they enjoyed. Some tribes had a practice of giving away assets during celebrations, often through a formal ceremony called a potlatch. Native Americans considered it an honor to give their possessions to others, and often gave to the poorest members of the tribe, first. Sioux Indians apparently ramped up this gift-giving practice on the Fourth of July, and the Indian Bureau began calling this “Give-Away Day.” Tribal members celebrated the Fourth with games of skill and strength, feasting, and dancing. They also incorporated their practice of honoring individuals with important gifts, with no thought of reciprocation. Gifts were substantial–horses, fancy bead work, saddles, and other valuable items. Whites seemed to be amazed by the practice, since it often left the giver without any resources.

Fourth of July Celebration, 1891, South Dakota, courtesy Library of Congress

 

Nez Perce Fourth of July Parade, Spaulding, Idaho, 1902, courtesy Library of Congress

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Natural Medicine

Woman Digging Roots

Woman Digging Roots

Before modern pharmaceuticals, people looked to nature for their cures. The Chippewa, for instance, used numerous plants to treat ailments, often in conjunction with special songs and music. Red baneberry treated the “diseases of women,” giant hyssop treated cough and pain in the chest, and jack-in-the-pulpit was useful for sore eyes. Other plants, like wild sarsaparilla and white mugwort, could be used for both medicine and as charms.

Medicine Man Preparing Medicine, courtesy National Library of Medicine

Medicine Man Preparing Medicine, courtesy National Library of Medicine

Isabelle Thing, a Kumeyaay Indian Traditional Healer

Isabelle Thing, a Kumeyaay Indian Traditional Healer

Chippewa plant names often indicated the appearance of the plant, the place where it grew, one of its properties, or its use. Blue cohosh was called becigodjibiguk; becig meant “one” and djibiguk meant “root,” thus “the plant having a tap root.” Often, one plant had several names, and individual gatherers often gave a plant a name, as well. Sometimes when a medicine man taught someone about a plant, he would show the person the plant without telling its name, in order to keep it secret.

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The Hope of Spring

Navajo Family Near Fort Defiance, circa 1873

Navajo Family Near Fort Defiance, circa 1873

Cultures throughout the ages have celebrated the return of spring after a long, harsh winter by eating the first new greens they can find. Native Americans took advantage of fresh, wild plants to supplement their winter diets of dried foods; foraging in woodlands or near streams could bring in an entire meal in some cases.

Mushrooms often sprouted with the renewed moisture of spring; experts had to hunt for this very nutritious, but dangerous food. Women hunted dandelions, wild onions and leeks, ramps, chickweed, poke, and wild mustard (or a related plant called “creasy greens”) as soon as possible, since many of these plants get more bitter as they grow older. Even young, tender leaves and shoots can be bitter, but these wild plants are very nutritious and have long been considered a tonic to wake up the liver and kidneys after a long winter diet of dried starches (like beans and pumpkin) and meat.

Pueblo Indian Planting Maize

Pueblo Indian Planting Maize

Sugar-Making Among the Indians in the North, Nineteenth Century Illustration

Sugar-Making Among the Indians in the North, Nineteenth Century Illustration

Traditional (Algonquin) Green Salad: One part wild onions or leeks, chopped, and one and a half parts dandelion leaves, to four parts watercress. Add a small amount of sheep or wood sorrel, and then flavor to taste. (Add a bit of maple syrup for sweetness, or use other traditional flavorings like salt, along with enough oil to coat the leaves.)

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Winter Food

Boy (son of Wolf Chief) Drying Corn, circa 1914, courtesy State Historical Society of North Dakota

Boy (son of Wolf Chief) Drying Corn, circa 1914, courtesy State Historical Society of North Dakota

Throughout the ages, people have had to energetically search for food to stay nourished; that task has always been much more difficult in winter. Like most other peoples, Native Americans worked hard to find and preserve enough food for their winter needs. Some game and fish might remain available during the cold months, but not usually in plentiful enough quantities to feed a whole population.

Convenient as these methods are to many of us today, freezing and canning are recent innovations. Napoleon Bonaparte offered a reward in 1795 to anyone who could discover a safe and reliable method to preserve food for his traveling army, and by 1810, both glass “bottling” and true tin “canning” had been invented. Neither of these methods were used by the masses, however, until John Mason invented his glass container with a molded screw-on thread at the top. Until that time and well after, drying, salting, and fermenting foods were the best methods of food preservation for many people.

Lillooet Indians Drying Berries, 1954, courtesy British Columbia Archives

Lillooet Indians Drying Berries, 1954, courtesy British Columbia Archives

Native Americans traditionally dried corn, beans, meat, fish, and other common foodstuffs. Food like berries and sweet corn could be sun-dried and eaten later as snacks or with other dishes. Salting and smoking often went together, and were used most often with fish and meat products. Meat (whether salted or unsalted) might be hung in racks over fires fueled by aromatic woods like mesquite or apple wood to both dry and flavor the end product.

Arapaho Camp With Buffalo Meat Drying Near Fort Dodge, Kansas, 1870, courtesy National Archives

Arapaho Camp With Buffalo Meat Drying Near Fort Dodge, Kansas, 1870, courtesy National Archives

Fermented foods like sauerkraut and pickles were not common among Native Americans, though they did eat some fermented foods. A type of Cherokee bread consisted of maize wrapped in corn leaves that then fermented for a couple of weeks; however, it was not a long-term storage item. Fish and meat items might also be allowed to ferment, but again, were eaten fairly quickly after fermentation.

 

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Fry Bread

Navajo Woman and Baby at Bosque Redondo, 1866, courtesy New Mexico State Monuments

Navajo Woman and Baby at Bosque Redondo, 1866, courtesy New Mexico State Monuments

Fry bread (or frybread) is associated with Native American cuisine, but it is not a traditional food for native peoples. The food originated during hard times, and is a symbol of both pride and pain.

In 1863 Gen. James Henry Carleton, commander of New Mexico Territory, rounded up Navajos and Mescalero Apaches in the Four Corners region and forcibly marched them from Ft. Defiance in Arizona to a camp called Bosque Redondo at Fort Sumner. Around 10,000 men, women, and children (including the elderly) walked 450 miles into this eastern New Mexico encampment. Many died along the way or were shot as stragglers. This tragic event is known as The Long Walk.

Once in Bosque Redondo–which was 40 square miles of shortgrass prairie and desert that wouldn’t support farming–at least 2,380 people died of exposure, disease, and hunger. The U.S. government finally issued commodity rations like white flour, lard, sugar, and canned goods to alleviate the misery. Fry bread was a filling meal these prisoners could make, though it was not a nutritious one.

Today fry bread is still a common food which is also popular and prominent at celebrations and powwows. The bread has been eaten for many years by Native Americans and represents a shared culinary experience among many tribes, but more importantly, it represents their perseverance and resiliency. Fry bread is a subsistence food that represents repression and hard times on one hand, yet speaks to triumph and tenacity on the other.

In 2005, the Bosque Redondo Memorial center opened as a place to mourn the dead and to celebrate survival.

Survivors of The Long Walk, 1864, at Fort Sumner

Survivors of The Long Walk, 1864, at Fort Sumner

Navajo at Bosque Redondo

Navajo at Bosque Redondo

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Eating to Live

Native American Woman Using a Scaula Hoe in North Dakota circa 1912

Native American Woman Using a Scapula Hoe in North Dakota circa 1912

Autumn and harvest-time go hand in hand, and many people today are paying far more attention to their food than they have in the past. We are beginning to recognize that our food has changed dramatically over the years in terms of nutrition and safety; many families are trying to to get away from modern processed food and return to foods that are actually healthy.

Native Americans who lived off the land before they were displaced were probably healthier, with less degenerative diseases than people today. Foraged produce like dandelion greens have far more phytonutrients (natural chemicals found in food that aren’t essential to health but have many benefits to human nutrition, such as carotenoids) than spinach. The traditional colored corn types that Native Americans grew were rich in the anthocyanins that protect against cancer, high blood pressure, inflammation, and cholesterol. Today’s common grocery-store sweet corn has far fewer of these phytonutrients and much more sugar.

Native Americans ate regional foods, meaning that desert dwellers did not eat seafood and coastal dwellers did not eat prairie chicken. Locally grown fruits, vegetables, and grains  produced seeds with traits that were well-suited for that region, leading to better crop success. Earlier foods were more bitter, less tender, and more fibrous than foods today; farmers have spent hundreds of years breeding crops for sweetness and tenderness, to the detriment of nutrition.

The growing interest in heritage foods may bring many forgotten foods back into the mainstream. Organic methods will also recall Native practices and enhance food safety. Native peoples lived in environmental balance and prove that it can be done.

Dandelions

Dandelions

Native American Farmer

Native American Farmer

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