It’s Native American Heritage Month, Thanksgiving is right around the corner and people across the U.S. are partaking in their annual resurgence of interest in Indigenous cultures, often discussing “traditional Native American foods.”
George Ironstrack, assistant director of the Myaamia Center at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and citizen of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, said the popular conception of native foods, such as acorn bread and the “three sisters,” or corn, squash and beans grown together, comes from lumping hundreds of tribes together.
He said the Miami only ate acorns during starvation times. They did eat corn, beans and squash, but since Miami agriculture was based on the fertile floodplains of the Wabash and Maumee river valleys, they did not need to grow them together to replenish the soil as other tribes did.
The valleys also were home to wetlands that Ironstrack refers to as huge stockpiles of nutrition, paradises for hunting and for gathering vegetables such as lily roots. Other foods included black walnuts, hickory nuts, beechnuts, berries, pawpaws and persimmons.
Dani Tippman, director of the Whitley County Historical Museum in Columbia City, Indiana, and a citizen of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, said they also gathered plants such as rabbit grass, red buds, violets and plantain leaves. Milkweed leaves can be boiled like spinach and cattail sprouts and are similar to asparagus in the spring or can be roasted and grilled like corn after they’ve matured a little more.
Tippman raised her 10 children eating “weeds” because they were free and had other benefits.
“The plants take care of you before you ever eat them. When you’re walking in the woods you’re exercising, you’re relaxing, your blood sugar goes down,” she said. “There’s all this goodness that comes even before you taste the plant.”
Tippmann and Ironstrack said the Miami hunted squirrels, rabbits, deer, bears, beavers, turkey, bison and elk and fished for the now-endangered lake sturgeon.
A typical beaver preparation involves stuffing the belly with pears and other fall fruit and roasting it, Tippmann said.
“The meat tastes a lot like roast beef,” she said. “The tail is really tasty. You scorch both sides and peel off the outside. The meat inside is like bacon, it’s delicious.”
The Shawnee and Miami are two of several tribes pushed out of Indiana and the Midwest in the 1800s, ultimately ending up largely in Oklahoma. They, and the Potawatomi and Delaware people, were resident on lands now occupied by Indiana University before the removal.
Joel Barnes, the Delaware County, Oklahoma-based culture and language director for the Shawnee Tribe, said prior to colonization, the Shawnee, like the Miami, ate a lot of corn, squash and pumpkins.
The Shawnee also ate squirrel meat and hunted bison, which existed in Indiana until the last one was shot in 1830. Jeremy Turner, an Indianapolis firefighter and member of the Shawnee Tribe’s cultural preservation committee, said they also ate acorns, hickory nuts and various woodland berries.
The Miami diet included more deer and less squirrel, said Ironstrack, evidence that even tribes in close geographical proximity had unique cuisines.
Both the Shawnee and Miami gathered maple syrup for sugar, which Ironstrack said was the preferred flavoring for Miami food, serving a similar role to salt and pepper in mainstream American cooking.
Removal changed these diets.
“Throughout that process of forced removal and land loss we lost a lot of knowledge, including foodways,” Ironstrack said.
All but one Miami corn variety was lost, leaving only miincipi, a white flour corn that was saved by one of the very few Miami families that were able to stay in Indiana. Federal food rations to displaced natives introduced non-traditional foods like wheat flour and lard, replacing the food they had grown, hunted and gathered before.
These rations are the origin of a now widespread native dish, fry bread, which is made of wheat flour fried in bacon fat, lard or oil.
Another example of this change is Shawnee grape dumplings, which Turner said were originally cornmeal dumplings in a forest fruit broth but today are usually made from wheat flour and condensed grape juice.
As far as Thanksgiving goes, Ironstrack said the mythology of the pilgrims needs to be re-examined, but his family celebrates — the idea of gathering together and giving thanks is really resonant to his people.
“To eat and gather together is an amazing thing for any culture,” Tippmann said. “Even if it is at a fast food restaurant, we have to look at all that went into that chicken nugget in front of you — the flour, the seasoning, the living being — and be thankful and respectful of it as well.”