Native American food

Native American Food Indebts Us to the People Who Were Here First

Popcorn, fried green tomatoes, grits, beef jerky, clam chowder, chocolate — some of our favorite foods are rooted in Native American culture.

Popcorn, fried green tomatoes, grits, Boston baked beans, beef jerky, New England clam chowder, and chocolate. What do these things have in common? Sure, they are some of our favorite foods, especially in the States; but what many of us might not recognize is that they are also rooted in a culture that existed long before the land we walk on today was known as the United States of America.

Much of what we consider American, Mexican, or Latin food is actually Indigenous food; from cornbread and turkey to tamales and tortillas to beans, corn, tomatoes, cacao, etc. These foods were initially discovered through the First Nations, originating from their crops. Now, they’re used in a variety of modern cuisines.

The Three Sisters: Beans, Corns, and Squash

There are 574 federally-recognized Native Nations in the USA. While food varies from each, this is a trio that many have in common across the continent.

Known as the “Three Sisters”, beans, corn, and squash were all grown together in one large crop. A bean plant would grow up the cornstalk while squash covered the ground to protect the root system. This popular trio has withstood time and is widely used in a variety of American cultural cuisines.

There is even a soup that utilizes all three of these ingredients, appropriately called Three Sisters Soup. This healthy veggie stew is not only flavorful and nutritious, but was also a great choice during cold winter months because its ingredients could be stored. Whether the ingredients are fresh or canned, the soup is easy and delicious. 

The most popular sister would obviously have to be corn, also known as maize.

Corn is a primary ingredient for the meals of many Nations. Even those that did not grow it themselves would trade for it. Today, corn is a staple across cultures. Indigenous people also use blue corn meal or flour for the making of many other dishes.

Essentially a porridge, tanaashgiizh or blue corn mush is a beloved dish from the Navajo Nation. It is nutritious and can be enjoyed either sweet or savory. As one of the most versatile ingredients, corn provides us with a number of dishes; including hominy, acorn cake, hushpuppies, cornbread, and popcorn, which was eaten not just as a snack but also like cereal.

Another popular Native American dish is frybread, although it originated from a traumatic experience. When they were forced to relocate to land that did not support their traditional crops, the Navajo people created it out of necessity, using government-provided ingredients. 

The OG Plant-Based Dietitians 

The Three Sisters aren’t the only family members here. There are many relatives throughout the Nations. Although protein and meat were a big part in Native American diets, there are several plant-based dishes as well.

Many Indigenous persons were quite skilled as farmers and enjoyed crops of squash and pumpkins, celery, wild onion, tomatoes, sunflowers, mushrooms, yucca bananas, cabbage, berries, melons, peppers, nuts, tomatoes, papayas, and, yes, chocolate.

So many of our favorite foods are rooted from Native cuisine and culture. A few that utilize some of these ingredients are succotash, butternut squash and wild rice; which is actually not rice but a grass seed.

Even fried green tomatoes, known as a “Southern” comfort food, has been eaten by Native American people long before there was ever a movie with that title. 


I’m sure you’re all thinking of turkey about now. As mentioned, the Native American diet contained a variety of proteins. Venison has historically become associated with Native recipes; however, it’s important to remember that there are many Native Nations across the Americas and not everyone’s diet consisted of the exact same items.

Sometimes these protein-packed diets consist of elk, rabbit, buffalo, mutton, pork, geese, and duck. Some even ate snakes, squirrels, groundhogs, porcupines, rabbits, and monkeys. Seafood was eaten by a few Nations, such as both saltwater and freshwater fish, and a variety of shellfish. In Alaska, natives also ate seal and whale meat. Although for some Nations, such as the Navajo, eating fish and fowl was considered taboo.

A selection of traditional meat focused recipes include pine nut-crusted catfish, tanka-me-a-lo (a buffalo or beef stew), and poyha (meatloaf). We can learn a lot from Native Americans as they lived zero-waste lifestyles; and are well-equipped when it comes to utilizing the entirety of an animal. For example, not only was the meat eaten, but bones could be used for tools, hides as drums, and fur as covering for the cold. 

Herbs & Spices

What is a good meal without proper seasoning and herbs? Herbs are not only an essential element of Native American cuisine but also are especially vital to maintaining the health of the people.

Herbal remedies are nature’s medicine. This includes teas and poultices with bases of clove, sage, mints, and rosehip. Today, even non-Natives recognize the health benefits of such herbs that were initially discovered by the Indigenous people.

Spices vary greatly based on the geographical location and Nation. While the United States is the largest spice-buyer in the world, three key ingredients found in many of our cabinets are native to the Americas: chili, vanilla, and cacao. 

Traditionally, in Native culture, one was taught how to hunt, grow, gather, utilize, and preserve their food.

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Who is Sean Sherman? Sean Sherman, a member of the Oglala Lakota subtribe of the Great Sioux Nation and founder of The Sioux Chef, the Indigenous Food Lab and the nonprofit North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems (NATIFS), is on a mission to revitalize Native American cuisine. In the process, his work is re-identifying North American cuisine, reclaiming an important culinary culture long buried and often inaccessible. Read the full interview with him and indulge yourself in several Indigenous recipes like Amaranth Crackers and Smoked Whitefish and White Bean Spread – available now in our profile link. #edibleindy #siouxchef #oglalalakota, #amaranth #smokedwhitefish #indigenous #seansherman #nativeamericancuisine #readit #makeit #dailyrecipes #thefeedfeed #ediblecommunities #huffpost #todayshowfood #food52 #midwest #foodnetwork

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Chef Sean Sherman of The Sioux Chef researched more about Native American history before Europeans arrived; saying to The New York Times, “In piecing together so much of the story that has been lost, I learned that the original North American food system was based on harvesting wild plants for food and medicine, employing sophisticated agricultural practices, and on preserving seed diversity. My ancestors used all parts of the animals and plants with respect, viewing themselves as part of our environment, not above it. Nothing was wasted.” 

Ben Jacobs, co-founder of Tocabe and Osage Nation member, stated in Food & Wine, “On this continent, we have the oldest culture, but in many ways we have the youngest cuisine.”

Due to colonization and assimilation, what is Native cuisine has become so blurred that it’s actually now unknown to the American population.

Many times, we sit down to enjoy a meal and take the ingredients for granted. It’s important that we recognize the roots of “American food” and not treat Indigenous cuisine as the next ethnic food trend. Despite centuries of difficulties, First Nations have sought to preserve and value the culture and history of their ancestors. For many, such as the Cherokee, community is especially important. Every cuisine represents a culture and people.

Let’s join together with respect and appreciation for this valuable heritage.

What brings people together more than food?

Header: Nadine Primeau

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