The traditional Native American diet is complex and vast with a huge historical significance on our food system today. There are countless health, environmental, and medicinal benefits that can be obtained by following the Native American cuisine. Unfortunately, due to colonization and other barriers, traditional Native American cuisine has been overlooked and forgotten about, similar to their history. Before we dive into the various reasons why we need to bring back the traditional Native American diet, it is important to first understand what Native American cuisine truly is and recount the evolution of its food history. Keep reading to find out why we need to bring back the traditional Native American diet! 

What is Native American cuisine? 

Native American cuisine is unique because it mirrors the natural life of their region. Because there are more than 570 Native American tribes across North America, the staple food items vary from community to community, based on the climate and landscape. However, there are certain foods that are considered inherently American and did not exist outside of the country prior to trade and colonization. These foods include corn known as maize, squash, beans, tomatoes, potatoes, chile peppers, cacao, and vanilla. This means that prior to colonization, Italians did not have tomatoes for their pasta, the French did not have chocolate for their pastries, the Irish did not have potatoes, and Thai food did not have its characteristic spice from chile peppers. Without these indigenous crops, more than half of the famous cultural dishes we know today would not be here. Keep reading to take a closer look at the evolution of Native American cuisine. 

What is the history of Native American cuisine? 

There are several stages of history to Native American cuisine, starting with the pre-contact phase prior to colonization and any outside influences. The foods that existed in the pre-contact stage were all hunted, gathered, and grown by the Native tribes. These foods varied by region with primarily bison as the staple in the Great Plains, wild game in the East, and fish in the Pacific Northwest. 

After colonization, new animals were introduced to the Americas such as sheep, cows, horses, and pigs as well as a plethora of diseases that destroyed the health of thousands of Native Americans. The new animals of the post-colonial period not only introduced a new meat source, but also a new milk source. However, most Native Americans are lactose-intolerant because it is simply not feasible to get close enough to a buffalo or an elk to milk it so dairy was rarely consumed. 

More recently, the government involvement phase has occurred in which thousands of Native Americans were displaced from their homes with the Indian Relocation Act of 1956. Commodity foods were issued to the Native population which included many processed foods and canned goods. The introduction of the government issued foods caused a rapid increase in diabetes and heart disease in the Native American population. One popular food item that came about from this period was fry bread, a perfect representation of survival and colonization. 

Today, there is a reclaiming period in which Native Americans are tapping back into their heritage and trying to restore original recipes from their ancestors. We can learn a lot from Native American cuisine including the environmental benefits of reestablishing the natural ecosystems of America, the medicinal benefits of indigenous food, and the health benefits of the traditional Native American diet.  

What are the health benefits of the traditional Native American diet?

When discussing the various health, environmental, and medicinal benefits of the Native American diet, we are referring to the traditional diet prior to the colonization of the Americas. 

  • Traditional Native American cuisine is high in protein and low in carbohydrates, primarily being complex carbohydrates from fruits and vegetables. High protein and low carb diets have been effective for weight loss and diabetes control. 
  • Traditional Alaskan Indian cuisine is high in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, and vitamin A from the consumption of salmon, shellfish, and caribou. In fact, oils from wild fish and mammals were shown to have a higher percentage of unsaturated fat than saturated fat. The consumption of omega-3 fatty acids has been linked to better mental health and reduced depression and anxiety. 
  • The wild plant foods of the Northern plains such as plums, cherries, turnips, prickly pear, hazelnuts, and rose hips were shown to have a higher fiber content than cultivated crops. Dietary fiber has been shown to help reduce the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
  • Wild plant foods have exhibited a higher micronutrient content than domesticated plants and vegetables. This means there are greater amounts of vitamins and minerals in traditional Native American plant foods than the foods found in the grocery store. 

What are the environmental benefits of the traditional Native American diet? 

  • The principles of traditional Native American cuisine respect the natural environment and help to maintain the native ecosystems while mass farming and production have ruined the nutrient content of the soil and destroyed thousands of ecosystems. 
  • The Native American diet is founded on sustainable hunting and gathering principles as well as local, small-scale farming. Additionally, the entirety of the food product is utilized which eliminates food waste. The organs, fat, and muscle of the animal are used for food, the hide for clothing and shoes, and the tendons for thread to sew items together. 
  • The farming of the three sisters (corn, squash, and beans) of Native American cuisine work together in harmony to provide each other nutrients without the addition of fertilizer, pesticides, and other chemical products that erode the earth. The corn stalks provide a pole for the beans to climb and the shade from the corn helps the squash grow. The beans provide nitrogen for the corn and squash and the shade from the squash helps keep moisture in the ground for all 3 crops. 

What are the medicinal benefits of Native American foods? 

  • Native American tribes would have their designated medicine man who had knowledge of the healing properties of certain plant foods or spiritual practices. One example is using tea made from the bark and needles of the eastern white cedar to treat scurvy, as this drink provided the necessary vitamin C to overcome the nutrition-related disease. 
  • Many Native American herbs are still used today for alternative medicine treatments such as stinging nettle for reducing inflammation and reducing arthritis pain. 
  • Native Americans have an understanding that food provides spiritual health and that the consumption of traditional foods contributes to mental health. 

There is no doubt about the benefits of the traditional Native American diet. The tricky part is restoring this cultural cuisine to its former glory prior to colonization. Bringing awareness to the ecological footprint and health implications this diet promotes is one step forward in the right direction of bringing back the traditional Native American diet.

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