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.

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 grainsĀ  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 andĀ  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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Winter As a Time of Reflection

Rosebud Indian Agency, courtesy South Dakota State Historical Society

Rosebud Indian Agency, courtesy South Dakota State Historical Society

In most earlier cultures, life slowed during the winter months; people could not plant seed in frozen ground, days were short and dark, and most agricultural tasks were complete. As in today’s practice of contemplation at the New Year, native peoples used winter as a time to reflect on the important events of the previous year. Continue reading

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Preserving Food

William We-ah-lup Smoking Salmon, 1906, Tulalip Indian Reservation, courtesy University of Washington Libraries

William We-ah-lup Smoking Salmon, 1906, Tulalip Indian Reservation, courtesy University of Washington Libraries

Patients at the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians, though forced to eat a relatively poor diet of increasingly refined foods provided by the government, benefited from the fresh food and meat raised on the asylum grounds. However, there never seemed to be a sufficiency that allowed the kitchen staff to do much in the way of preserving this more nutritious food for winter use. Continue reading

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Food Woes

Smoking Fish for Preservation

Smoking Fish for Preservation

Choices concerning Bran Flakes and Shredded Krumbles (see last post) weren’t the only food problems patients at the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians suffered. They, like most Native Americans, had already lost a basic underpinning of life–their traditional foods. This loss led to nutritional deficiencies and diseases that had never affected them before encountering the white man’s culture. Continue reading

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Native American Ghosts

Navajo Shaman Ceremony

Navajo Shaman Ceremony

Native Americans believed in ghosts–spirits who were not at peace. This could happen because someone who died had not been at peace, personally. Unrest could also occur because a person was not buried properly or respectfully. Continue reading

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