Native First Foods…a Sampling of Recipes

From foods found in old-growth forests to the far-reaching lands of the plains and from humid coastal lands to that found in drier desserts, foods grown by Native American tribes across these lands have long fed and created community.  

Food connects us all through past, present, and future across culture and borders. Despite the tools and preparation looking very different in a modern kitchen than they would traditionally, at the core, first foods have nourished communities for hundreds of generations. You are most likely familiar with many of the featured traditional foods (salmon, pumpkin, maple syrup, squash…), an essential testament to the lasting contributions of indigenous peoples in America. As you prepare the meals with these recipes, we hope you reflect on how many traditional foods and foodways have been lost due to colonization and recognize food’s crucial role in Native communities.  

Around eight thousand years ago, during the period when maize was being cultivated in Mexico, the potato was first grown in the high altitudes of the Andes mountains in Peru. Despite its unassuming appearance, the potato packs a nutritional punch, containing every essential vitamin except for A and D and serving as a notable protein source. 

The Inca civilization relied heavily on potatoes, maize, and beans as their mainstay crops. They cultivated these vegetables on terraced plots carved into the steep Andean slopes, effectively reducing erosion and conserving water. 

Leeks, along with other wild onions such as ramps and wild garlic, are native to North America (and in different regions of the world). They were part of the diverse array of plant species that Indigenous peoples foraged and incorporated into their diets long before the arrival of Europeans. Wild onions, including leeks, were valued by Native American cultures for their culinary uses as well as for their medicinal properties. These plants provide essential nutrients and flavors to traditional Indigenous dishes, contributing to the diversity and richness of Native American cuisines. 

Pinto beans are a key First Food and are one of the “three Sisters” of the symbiotic plantings of corn, squash, and beans. Pinto beans originated from Native American farmers in Mexico. In the Iroquois style of farming, pinto beans were planted just a few weeks after corn in the same mounds. The corn stalks served as the bean poles, while the beans added nitrogen to the soil. Low-growing squash was planted between the rows of the mounds, minimizing weed growth and retaining moisture in the ground. 

The earliest recorded name for a chili pepper (Capsicum annuum) has been linked to Proto-Otomanguean, a language spoken around 6,500 years ago in central-eastern Mexico, believed to be the region of the initial domestication of wild peppers. However, the Aztecs bestowed upon us the term for this t fruit, referring to it as chīlli in their Nahuatl language. Columbus, encountering them, dubbed them peppers due to their spiciness reminiscent of black pepper. 

Central American farmers began cultivating North American squash over 8,000 years ago, initiating a journey that saw these robust vegetables traverse thousands of miles, eventually finding their place in the gardens of various American Indian tribes from New Mexico to Massachusetts. The term “squash” originates from the Narragansett Native American word “askutasquash,” meaning “eaten raw or uncooked,” reflecting the vegetable’s indigenous roots. Today, numerous varieties of squash are revered for their historical and contemporary significance in the diets of indigenous peoples across the continent. 

Squash encompasses a diverse array of vegetables, including pumpkins, acorn squash, butternut squash, gourds, and zucchini. These vine-grown vegetables typically ripen late in the season, from late summer through autumn, displaying a spectrum of colors from orange to yellow and green. Squash varieties are commonly categorized into two groups: summer squash (typically Cucurbita pepo) and winter squash (typically Cucurbita maxima), distinguished by their harvesting and usage practices. Winter squash are left to ripen longer on the vine, featuring hard shells and lower water content, making them ideal for winter storage. Summer squash, harvested earlier, has softer skins and higher water content.

In addition to their culinary versatility, squash seeds and flesh, particularly pumpkins, are edible and were integral components of Native American diets. Southwest American Indian tribes often roasted or dried squash seeds, seasoning them with chili powder and consuming them with nuts and dried fruit. The flesh of the squash was baked, boiled, or mashed, serving as a hearty ingredient in various dishes or preserved as dried slices for winter consumption. 

Pumpkins are one of the earliest cultivated foods in the Western Hemisphere, with indigenous peoples of North America cultivating them over 9,000 years ago, preceding the cultivation of corn or beans. Originating in the Oaxaca region around 8750 B.C., pumpkins spread northward to the eastern United States by 2700 B.C., becoming a staple food source for various tribes, including the Pueblo, Apache, Hopi, Navajo, Havasupai, Papago, Pima, and Yuman. These tribes held annual ceremonies and autumn festivals to honor the pumpkin harvest. 

Both the pumpkin’s seeds and flesh were utilized as food. Southwest American Indian tribes roasted or dried the seeds, seasoning them with chili powder, and consumed them alongside a mixture of nuts and dried fruit. The flesh was often baked or cooked over coals, mashed and mixed with batter or syrup, or used as a soup thickener. Additionally, dried pumpkin slices were stored in storerooms for winter consumption. 

Throughout history, salmon was vital as a primary food source for numerous Native American tribes, providing crucial sustenance year-round. These tribes honed intricate fishing methods, such as netting, trapping, and spearfishing, to harvest salmon during their annual spawning migrations. The abundance of salmon not only met the dietary needs of indigenous communities but also underpinned their economic and social structures, enabling surplus fish to be bartered with neighboring tribes or preserved for leaner seasons. 

In many Native American cultures, salmon is woven deeply into creation narratives, ceremonial practices, and ancestral lore passed down over generations. Tribes like the Chinook, Haida, Tlingit, and Salish maintain profound spiritual connections to salmon, regarding it as a life-giving force symbolizing renewal and interconnectedness with the natural world. 

Salmon ceremonies hold pivotal significance in Native American cultural heritage, often heralding the onset of the salmon fishing season or commemorating the fish’s return to ancestral spawning grounds. These ceremonies involve a tapestry of rituals, chants, dances, and communal feasts, all aimed at honoring the salmon and expressing gratitude for its abundance. Preserving ceremonial fishing rights remains a cornerstone of indigenous sovereignty and cultural identity. 

For centuries, Native American tribes have served as stewards of the lands and waterways where salmon spawn and migrate. Passed down through oral tradition, traditional ecological knowledge informs sustainable fishing practices and habitat conservation efforts, ensuring the preservation of salmon populations for future generations. Many tribes actively participate in fisheries management, habitat restoration, and advocacy initiatives to safeguard salmon and their delicate ecosystems from threats like overfishing, habitat degradation, pollution, and the impacts of climate change. 

Sunflowers were cultivated extensively by various American Indian tribes across North America. Historical evidence indicates that as early as 3000 BC, indigenous peoples in present-day Arizona and New Mexico were cultivating sunflowers. Some scholars even propose that sunflowers may have been domesticated before corn. 

The versatility of sunflowers in Native American cultures was vast. Their seeds were ground into flour for cakes, mush, or bread, often mixed with other vegetables like beans, squash, and corn. Additionally, the seeds were eaten as a snack, and their oil was extracted for culinary purposes. Beyond food, sunflowers served numerous non-food functions, including providing purple dye for textiles and body painting, medicinal purposes for ailments like snake bites, and oil for skincare and haircare. The plant’s dried stalks were utilized as a building material, while the plant and its seeds held significant roles in ceremonial practices within indigenous communities.  

While sunflower seeds are perhaps the most well-known part of the plant, sunflower greens—meaning the young, tender shoots and leaves of the sunflower plant—also have historical and cultural connections in Native American traditions. Sunflower greens were consumed by various Indigenous peoples as part of their diets, providing a source of fresh greens, vitamins, and minerals. The greens could be harvested when the sunflower plants were still young and tender, making them a valuable addition to the seasonal diet. 

The “Three Sisters” is a term used by many Native American tribes to refer to the three main crops: corn (maize), beans, and squash. These crops are called sisters because they are believed to benefit from being grown together, with each plant providing something necessary for the others to thrive.  

The planting of corn, beans, and squash together embodies the principles of sustainable agriculture and interdependence. Corn provides a structure for the beans to climb, beans fix nitrogen in the soil, benefiting the other plants, and squash leaves create a natural mulch, retaining moisture and suppressing weeds. Together, they make a balanced ecosystem that requires fewer external inputs.  

When consumed together, the Three Sisters provide a balanced and nutritious diet. Corn is rich in carbohydrates, beans are a good source of protein, and squash provides essential vitamins and minerals. These crops complement each other nutritionally, providing a well-rounded diet.  

Historically, the cultivation of the Three Sisters formed the basis of many Native American economies. These crops provided sustenance for indigenous communities and served as important trading commodities.  

Cultivating the Three Sisters has been a fundamental aspect of Native American culture for thousands of years. These crops are deeply ingrained in the cultural identity of many tribes and are often featured in traditional stories, artwork, and oral histories. 

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