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History on a Plate: How Native American Diets Shifted After European Colonization

November 30, 2020 in History

By Lois Ellen Frank

For centuries, Indigenous people’s diets were totally based on what could be harvested locally. Then white settlers arrived from Europe.

Native people pass down information—including food traditions—from one generation to the next through stories, histories, legends and myths. Native elders teach how to prepare wild game and fish, how to find wild plants, which plants are edible, their names, their uses for food and medicine, and how to grow, prepare and store them.

As European settlers spread throughout America and displaced American Indian tribes, Native food customs were upended and completely disrupted. The evolution of Native American cuisine can be broken down into four distinct periods, described below.

Hundreds of petrified corn cobs, some embedded into the cliffs above Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, a major center of ancestral Pueblo culture between A.D. 850 and 1250, photographed 2002.

1. Pre-contact Foods and the Ancestral Diet

The variety of cultivated and wild foods eaten before contact with Europeans was as vast and variable as the regions where indigenous people lived.

Seeds, nuts and corn were ground into flour using grinding stones and made into breads, mush and other uses. Many Native cultures harvested corn, beans, chile, squash, wild fruits and herbs, wild greens, nuts and meats. Those foods that could be dried were stored for later use throughout the year.

As much as 90 percent of the Southwestern Pueblo diet consisted of calories consumed from agricultural products, with wild fruits, greens, nuts and small game making up the balance. Because large game was scarce in some areas, textiles and corn were traded with the Plains peoples for bison meat. There is evidence that ancient Native cultures even incorporated cacao—the bean used to make chocolate—into their diets, as a 2009 excavation in New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon revealed.

Corn, beans and squash, called the Three Sisters by many tribes, serve as key pillars in the Native American diet and is considered a sacred gift from the Great Spirit. Together, the plants provide complete nutrition, while offering an important lesson in environmental cooperation. Corn draws nitrogen from the soil, while beans replenish it. Corn stalks provide climbing poles for the bean tendrils, and the broad leaves of squashes grow low to the ground, shading the soil, keeping it moist, and deterring the growth of weeds.

Two Navajo women, pictured with a baby and three small lambs, c. 1930s.

2. First-Contact Foods and Changes …read more


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