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Native Foods
Canadian Native Indian Foods and Nutrition


I was visiting my Doctor and just happened to see copies of this book sitting in a basket. I had a wee look and thought the opening section was interesting and so took a copy and have scanned in the first few pages for you to read.

Traditional Food Habits

For thousands of years the Indians and lntuit in Canada lived off the produce from the land, rivers, lakes and the sea. Survival in this rugged, rich land was a measure of supreme skill in hunting and fishing, knowledge of native plants and appropriate techniques of food preservation.

To appreciate the food habits of the early North American Indians and Inuit, it is important to recognize that there were many distinct cultural groups in the different geographic regions of Canada prior to the arrival of the Europeans.

Ten language families existed among the Indian tribes. Within each language family were very distinct cultural groups, while different language groups often shared a similar culture.

Anthropologists recognize at least five distinct Indian cultures in Canada: the Woodland Indians; the Plains; the Indians of the Plateau; the Pacific Coast Indians and the Indians of the Mackenzie and Yukon River Basins.

Woodland Indians

In the east, the Woodland Indians which included the Bcothuk. Micmac, Malccite, Montagnais and Naskapi, Ojihway, Algonkins and Cree occupied the dense boreal forest from Newfoundland and Labrador west to the shores of Lake Superior, from Hudson Bay south to the Ottawa valley and the north shore of the St. Lawrence. They were expert hunters, trappers and fishermen travelling the waterways in their lightweight, skillfully crafted canoes by summer, ice fishing and trapping on snowshoes throughout the long winter months. They hunted moose, deer, bear and in Labrador and northern Quebec, caribou. They also hunted geese and ducks and trapped muskrat, beaver and hare. The mans lakes and rivers were teeming with fish and there was an abundant supply of wild greens and berries. To survive the long cold winters, they dried meal, fish and berries.

Fish and shellfish were an important part of the diet of the Micmac and Malecite. Cod. lobster, oysters, eel. Atlantic salmon, scallops and other fish, as well as seaweeds like dulse. Irish moss and kelp, vegetables such as corn and potatoes, wild greens like fiddleheads and blueberries and cranberries were all enjoyed by the maritime Indians.

Long before the arrival of the Europeans, American Indians could take great pride in their agricultural achievements. Their plant breeding techniques were among the most advanced in the world. South of the Great Lakes. Indians cultivated at least 79 different species of plants, including sunflowers, pear and plum trees, tomatoes, potatoes and squash, cotton and flax and plants for medicinal and narcotic use. More than 86 varieties of corn were cultivated. 21 of which were grown in Canada.

The American Indians taught the Europeans to grow or use more than 29 different vegetables which were unknown in Europe at that time (e.g. tomatoes, potatoes, squash, cucumbers, corn and beans).

The Indians of southeastern Ontario included nine Iroquoian tribes including the Huron, the Neutral, and the Iroquois (a confederacy of five tribes).

The Iroquoian tribes were superb farmers who grew more than 15 species of corn, including 61 varieties of sweet corn, 25 varieties of popped corn, five varieties of flint corn, and six varieties of bread or starchy corn. They also grew more than 60 varieties of beans including at least eight varieties of bread beans and eight varieties of soup beans, as well as squashes, cucumber, melons and sunflowers. Their success in agriculture was attributed to their development of special seed varieties, their knowledge of fertilizing methods and their planting techniques. For example, by planting corn and pole beans together, the corn served as a support for the beans and the beans added nitrogen to the soil. Squashes and dwarf beans were planted between the rows to reduce the growth of weeds.

The Iroquoian diet was mostly vegetarian. Corn, beans and squash, the seeds of squash and sunflower were supplemented with fish, wild game, berries, wild greens, nuts, roots and maple sugar. Corn was central to the Iroquoian diet, mythology and religious celebrations. Different varieties of corn were used as a basis for soup, bread, dumplings, pudding. It was also made into travelling food, and hominy. Indian corn soup was made by boiling corn in water and hardwood ashes until the corn began to swell. The hulled corn was rinsed well, and added to water along with beans, meat or game.

Sometimes sunflower meal or crushed nuts were added for a different flavour. The combination was a delicious complete protein meal. These foods eaten separately are considered incomplete protein, that is, they are lacking in one or more essential amino acids and will not support growth. By combining these foods the proteins in each complement each other and therefore supply the necessary amount of essential amino acids to support growth. Corn bread was made with cornmeal. beans or dried berries and nuts and boiled over an open fire or baked on flat stones over an open fire. The cornbread was often served hot or cold with fat, gravy or maple syrup or fried. It was also dried for later use.

The strawberry festival had its origins in the Iroquoian celebration of the arrival of the Strawberry Thanksgiving, an annual longhouse ceremony to thank the Creator for his gifts. Strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, choke-cherries, and currants were plentiful and enjoyed fresh, sweetened with maple syrup, dried or as a fruit drink. The Iroquois were quick to adopt the European practice of cultivating orchards and by the mid-1700s they had huge apple, peach and plum orchards.

The maple tree was highly esteemed and considered a special gift from the Creator. Each spring the chief would conduct a ceremony at the base of the largest maple tree to give thanks to the Creator. The arrival of the maple sap was considered the first sign of spring/3*

Many wild greens were collected in spring for food and medicinal use. These included wild asparagus, cattail, milkweed, sorrel, wild pea and dock, as well as mushrooms, puffballs and occasionally root foods such as artichoke and yellow pond lily roots.

Plains Indians

The Plains Indians included eight different tribes speaking three distinct languages. The Blackfoot, Blood, Peigan. Gros Ventre and Plains Cree all belonged to the Algonkian language family. The Blood, Blackfoot and Peigan occupied territory throughout the central and southern part of Alberta to the east of the Rocky Mountains. The Tsuutina and Chipweyan, who spoke an Athapaskan language, lived to the north and west of the Blackfoot. The Gros Ventre lived to the east and the Plains Cree occupied the northern part of the prairies as far east as Manitoba.

The Assiniboine and Sioux spoke a similar language of the Tsuutina family. The Assiniboine's territory extended across what is now known as Saskatchewan and Manitoba, south of the Cree. The Sioux (also known as the Dakota) were scattered across the American plains and the Canadian west.

The Plains Indians of the central and southern part of the prairies carried their tipis in search of the buffalo herds. The buffalo became their major source of food, clothing and shelter. Some of the meat was barbecued on a spit or boiled in a skin pouch with hot stones. Most was cut into razor-thin strips and dried in the sun.

The famous pemmican - a food ideal for travelling hunters or warriors was made by combining powdered dried meal with melted buffalo fat and dried berries, making a highly nutritious and lightweight food that would keep well. Most berries were gathered in season, dried and later added to soups. Saskatoons were a favourite berry in this area. Another famous food, that is still made today, is a delicious chokecherry paste. Whole chokecherries were dried in the sun. Water was added to the dried berries and they were then cooked in a small amount of fat. Birds, wild greens and Labrador tea were also collected to supplement the diet. Other game such as moose and deer were more important in the northern plains or along the mountain ridges. Fish was not used by the Blood Indians but in the northern plains dried or smoked whitefish, pike and pickerel were very popular.

Popular foods among the Plains Cree of northern Saskatchewan included smoked, dried fish and pemmican made of dried fish and dried saskatoons or blueberries. Moose, deer and bear were the main meats which were normally dried or smoked. Moose meat was often used to make sausage and the moose nose (considered a delicacy) was singed over an open fire, scraped, washed well and then boiled until tender. Dried meat could be used for pemmican or as a base for soup. Bear fat taken from bears hunted in the fall was rendered and used for cooking or as a hair treatment. A delicious dish used dried moose-meat cakes, topped with the fat from the spleen (which had the appearance of lace) and cooked over an open fire. Moose, caribou, hare and waterfowl are still in common use today. Soup made from suckerheads or whitefish was very common. Sometimes fish eggs were added to bannock.

Many wild greens and roots, including pigweed, dandelion and cattail roots, were picked and added to soups. In early spring the sweet tasting poplar cambium was eagerly sought as a tonic for the blood and a cure for worms. Rosehips, Labrador Tea and mint were dried for teas.

To the Plains Cree. certain foods had a very important religious significance. For example, dried chokecherry paste and saskatoon berries were always served as part of the Sundance ceremony and the Sweatlodge. For other feasts, such as Flower Day, a ceremony held at the end of August to honour the spirits of the ancestors, the elders would burn a little sweetgrass and serve food at the graveside of their loved ones. The community would then participate in a feast of soup made with dried meat and herbal tea.

Plateau Indians

The Plateau Indians included six tribes in the interior of British Columbia - the Salish (including the Lillooet. the Thompson, the Shuswap and the Okanagan). The Kootenays spoke a distinctive language and occupied the southeastern corner of British Columbia. Three Athapaskan-speaking tribes were located in the northerly part of this area - the Chilcotin, the Carrier, the Tahltan. In the extreme north lived the Tagish, a member of the Tlingit language family.

The Plateau Indians relied principally on salmon. The smoked, dried salmon was stored in underground pits lined with birch bark. Their pemmican was made from dried salmon mixed with salmon oil and saskatoon berries. Game. waterfowl, roots, greens, a variety of berries (saskatoons, raspberries, blueberries and salmonberries) and the inner bark of everercen and poplar enriched the diet.

Pacific Coast Indians

The Pacific Coast Indians included six tribes speaking five distinct languages - the Haida of the Queen Charlotte Islands, the Tsimshian along the mainland coast opposite the Haida, the Nootka on the west coast of Vancouver Island, the Salish on the eastern coast of Vancouver Island and at the mouth of the Columbia river and the Bella Coola (the Nuxalk) and the Kwakiull along the central coastline of the mainland.

Plentiful fish, wildlife and plant life made it possible for the Pacific coast tribes to build permanent settlements and develop a sophisticated society. They used a variety of fishing techniques including netting, harpooning, and trolling to bring in the salmon, herring, cod. flounder and halibut catch. All parts of the fish were used - the head. eggs, organs and backbone. Most of the salmon was smoked, dried and stored in cedar boxes. To serve, water was added and the fish boiled or cooked over the fire. The west coast tribes were (and still are) famous for their barbecued salmon. The whole fish was stretched flat, soaked in seawater for a short time, dried in the sun for about an hour and then woven onto water-soaked cedar sticks. The sticks were positioned upright, leaning into the fire and barbecued for 2 to 3 hours.

Towards the end of March and the beginning of April, the Nuxalk of Bella Coola people watched for the signs of the ooligan run - a type of salt water smelt. This fish was highly valued for its oil - used to flavour fish and berries, and as a preservative for berries. To make ooligan grease, the ooligans were allowed to ferment in large stink boxes made of cedar for seven to ten days. The fermented fish was then carefully simmered until the fat separated out. The fat was poured off, strained and stored in a cool place-14*

The Nuxalk women gathered a wide variety of shellfish including mussels, clams, crab, abalone, sea cucumber, sea urchin, octopus. Seal, hunted only once a year by the Nuxalk Indians, was preserved in salt.(4)

Wild greens were carefully harvested by the women in early spring. The cow parsnip (sometimes called wild rhubarb) was important to the coastal people. The stems were peeled and the stalks eaten raw or steamed and eaten with ooligan grease. Sheep sorrel, lamb's-quarters and shoots from salmonberries, fireweed and thimbleberries were steamed or eaten fresh as a salad.

Nutritionists and ethnobotanists now estimate that the Indians of the northwest coast used more than 25 different species of wild roots and had a lively trade in camas bulbs. Some of the wild roots included roots from clover, silverweed, camas, riceroot and fern. Camas roots were steamed in underground pits, dried and then added to stews made from dried salmon, berries and other roots. They were also served cold with oil from ooligan, seal or whale. Roots could be stored fresh or dried for later use. Many of the west coast tribes served clover and silverweed roots at feasts. Seaweed (laver) was gathered in May and sun dried. It was used on top of soups or stews, or served boiled with fish or shellfish.,4> Cottonwood mushrooms were collected, dried and used as a flavouring in stews.

The Nuxalk people maintained their berry patches by carefully burning trees and undergrowth along sections of the mountainside. There were many varieties - raspberries, salmonberries, blueberries, huckleberries, soapberries and elderberries - all in abundant supply. The berries were sun dried or smoked. The berry cakes were wrapped in leaves and stored in cedar boxes or in ooligan grease.

Each spring women went to the beaches or outlying rocks at low tide to gather seaweed. The seaweed was used in a variety of ways - as an ingredient in fish soup or clam chowder, simmered with fish eggs or dried for later use. Dried seaweed was a favourite snack among children.

The Indians of the Mackenzie and Yukon River Basins

Twelve tribes lived in this area all speaking languages belonging to the Athapaskan Dene family. The Chipewyan Dene were the largest tribe, occupying the area north of the Churchill River west to Great Slave Lake. The Beaver lived in the Peace River valley to the south and west of the Chipewyan. To the west of Great Slave Lake as far as the Mackenzie River were the Slaveys Dene. The Dene of Yellow knife lived among the lakes from the east end of Great Slave Lake to the eastern end of Great Bear Lake. To their southwest were the Dogrib Dene. Moving further west and north were the Hare Dene. The Yukon interior was principally occupied by the Kutchen while in the southern Yukon lived the Dene groups of the Han, Tutchone, the Kaska and the Mountain. On the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains lived the Sekani Dene nation.

Scarcity of the food supply required a constant search for migratory animals - the moose, caribou, mountain sheep -each with their own particular territory. The northern tribes were very dependent on the caribou herds and the wood buffalo, while some such as the Hare, were more dependent on small game and fish. Among the Chipewyan Dene, dried smoked moose, caribou and buffalo and whitefish are still popular foods. Soup made of wild duck or rabbit is still widely used.

Travel by birch-bark canoe, dogsled and snowshoe enabled the hunters to cover great distances in search of food. Very strict rituals were practiced in the slaughter and butchering of game. Bears were held in great respect by the northern tribes and among the western groups the lynx, wolf and wolverine were of special ceremonial importance.

The Inuit

The Inuit occupied the Arctic region of Canada from Alaska to Labrador. In the land of long, dark, cold winter days and the short summer when the sun never sets, only those with a remarkable facility for adapting to their environment could hope to survive. The Inuit were a self sufficient people. In the winter they hunted the marine mammals. In the summer they travelled inland to fish, hunt caribou and birds and collect berries and wild greens. Seal or caribou was often eaten raw, dried or frozen.

Although separated by great distances, the Inuit shared a similar language with slight regional variations in dialect. Their food habits varied somewhat from one region to another depending on the food supply. For example, the Mackenzie Inuit of the western Arctic had access to a plentiful meat supply - the caribou, muskoxen. seal, whales, moose, beaver, and muskrat.

The Copper Inuit who lived to the east could hunt caribou and muskoxen in summer and seal in winter. The Netsilik Inuit lived to the east in an icebound area where they were known for their skill in hunting marine mammals. The Igloolik occupied the area north of Baffin Island. They were particularly fond of walrus and went inland during summer to hunt caribou and birds. Seal was the staple of the South Baffin Island Inuit. Caribou and birds were hunted in the summer. The Ungava and Labrador Inuit hunted whale, seal, caribou, partridge, ducks, geese and smaller animals. They fished off the Atlantic coast for salmon, cod, smelt, char and trout. Their berries included bakeapples, blueberries and blackberries.

Use of Herbal Teas

Herbal teas made from the leaves, bark, stems and fruit of shrubs were the traditional beverage of most native people.l2-4-9' Herbal teas included Labrador tea and teas made from salmonberry, strawberry, raspberry, and mint leaves, rosehip and bergamot. Some teas were used by the native herbalist as medicines.(2-3-4-7) Many of these herbal teas are still used today.

Food Preservation

Most Indian tribes preserved fish and game by drying and/or smoking such foods. They carefully selected the proper woods and controlled the cooking time and amount of fire to develop the best flavour. In the Arctic, where fuel was scarce, fish and seal were eaten raw or frozen.

Berries, bulbs and roots were air-dried, mixed with oil or fat, and sometimes dried meat or fish, to form pemmican. The pemmican was stored away from the air and light in cedar casks, root cellars, underground pits, birch bark containers or animal stomachs.

Seeds and nuts were collected, dried and stored for winter use.

Cooking Methods

Very sophisticated cooking techniques were developed, the method varying according to the region and foods available. Most foods were boiled or barbecued but in some west coast regions vegetables were steamed in underground pits lined with rocks. The Montagnais wrapped fish in clay and baked it in the sand.

Bernard Assiniwi, in his book Indian Recipes, provides a wonderful collection of traditional and new recipes from across Canada. Among the recipes submitted is one for the famous "Indian Succotash'" a complementary protein meal made by boiling corn and beans together

In some areas of Canada these skills and methods are still known and practiced especially for festive occasions. The tempting aroma of a steaming soup kettle with hearty chunks of salmon, delicately flavoured with wild onions, mushrooms and camas root might still be served on the West coast. And "Indian Ice Cream" a light dessert made by whipping soapberries, is still prepared in west coast communities.

The menu would vary from coast to coast, by season, and with different foods cherished by different Indian and Inuit tribes.

Travelling in the Arctic, you might have been treated to frozen raw seal with a texture and flavour not unlike frozen sherbet. Drop in on a family in the northern plains, and you might have been just in lime for a delicious buffalo steak served with berry soup. Or if your travels took you to the Atlantic coast, your meal might have included salt cod, smoked eel soup or fish chowder.

As trading increased between Indian and Inuit tribes, and Europeans arrived in Canada, new foods were added - sugar, wheat Hour, pork, beef, potatoes, milk, oatmeal and lard.

Although the traditional food habits of the Indian and Inuit people of Canada varied according to region and the foods available in each area, people were able to select a nutritionally balanced diet. The native peoples shared certain common elements - namely their reliance on meat and/or fish, a high protein diet supplemented with berries and wild greens, fairly low in fat and. with the possible exception of the Iroquois, a low carbohydrate diet.

Their adaptability and ingenuity enabled them to develop methods of transportation, food preservation and cooking to meet the challenge of a harsh environment. Food was cooked simply but with great care.

Their intimate knowledge of indigenous plants enabled them to make maximum use of plants as food and medicine. Their great respect for plants and animals and belief in living in harmony with nature and others led to the wise use of food, the development of certain rituals concerning the use of food in religious ceremonies and a commitment to share with others.


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