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.

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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Combating Smallpox

Lokata Sioux Winter Count Showing Smallpox Outbreak, courtesy National Institutes of Health

Lokata Sioux Winter Count Showing Smallpox Outbreak, courtesy National Institutes of Health

Smallpox decimated Native Americans (see last post) after Europeans arrived and spread this virulent disease on a population with no immunity to it. However, the disease was not simply accepted and endured. Though native peoples did not immediately connect smallpox with Europeans, they did understand illness and how to treat it.

Native Americans first turned to traditional medical practices to help combat smallpox. Drums, rattles, and incantations helped patients rally, while fasting and dreaming also followed traditional healing ways. Herbs and oils were used to alleviate discomfort. Unfortunately, the common use of the sweat lodge in treatment may have made a patient’s condition worse, since heat and steam caused sweating and dehydration, while cold water plunges may have overly shocked the body.

The Cherokee developed a Smallpox Dance in the 1830s, and other tribes formed curing societies and developed healing rituals. Families eventually stopped their traditional practice of crowding around a sick patient and allowed a quarantine for those with smallpox; people also avoided traveling to places with active cases, and burned (or thoroughly cleaned) homes where someone had died of smallpox.

The smallpox vaccine was available as early as the 1700s, though Native Americans were not routinely vaccinated. When the vaccine was offered, however, many native peoples took advantage of it. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) was the official vaccination administrator, but missionaries and  traders also urged vaccines. Traders, especially, who cared little for Washington politics and did not need to put white settlers’ needs ahead of their trading partners’, were probably just as successful in helping the vaccination effort as the BIA.

The Mandan Tribe Suffered Greatly From Smallpox

The Mandan Tribe Suffered Greatly From Smallpox

Medicine Man Administering to a Patient, courtesy National Institutes of Health

Medicine Man Administering to a Patient, courtesy National Institutes of Health

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Misery on Display

The Public Outside Utica State Lunatic Asylum

The Public Outside Utica State Lunatic Asylum

Most patients, of course, did not want to be in an asylum, and moving into one very likely added to whatever problem that had brought them there. Doctors’ management of their conditions may or may not have alleviated their distress (see last post), since much of the available medication in the 1800s and early 1900s had undesirable or unpleasant side effects.

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Another Sad Twist

A Bedridden Patient With Visitor at Blackwell's Island Hospital for Incurables

A Bedridden Patient With Visitor at Blackwell’s Island Hospital for Incurables

The argument can certainly be made that very few patients at the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians were what might be called “classically insane,” with complete disassociation from reality, a complete change in personality, or a complete inability to function within their traditional society. Continue reading

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