The creativity with which Native American groups brought ingredients together reflected an awareness of and respect for the environment. When it comes to what kind of foods Native Americans ate in the past, their meals were often about both sustenance and ceremony.
Native American groups thrived on staple foods like corn, beans, and squash. When available, meat, fruit, and other vegetables were mixed in, not to mention roots and greens. Many foods Native Americans ate were high in fat, protein, and carbohydrates - intentionally loaded with nutrients in order to combat potential hardship and struggle. Food was also used for celebrating and bringing people together - a social tool that strengthened communal bonds. What Native Americans ate is still very much a part of culture and life today - traditional foods that have endured for centuries.
Navajo kneel-down bread, traditionally called "ntsidigo'i," was named for how it looks after preparation. The bread was made of corn, a staple of the Navajo diet. Ground corn was wrapped in corn husks and then boiled or baked. Because the ends of the husks were tucked in or folded, the whole thing looked like the legs of a kneeling individual.
Kneel-down bread was soft once it was cooked, often with a crispy outside layer. Sometimes kneel-down bread was given to medicine men in payment for services or for a blessing. It was offered to tribal elders, as well. Kneel-down bread is also known as a Navajo tamale, but this isn't a universally accepted identifier.
"Pashofa," a mixture of pork, corn, and water, was a dish that required numerous hours of preparation. Pashofa was also a soup that needed to be made in large quantities because it was served to bring together members of the Chickasaw community.
To make pashofa, corn was cracked and put into boiling water. Hours upon hours of stirring allowed the corn to soften and, when the corn was halfway cooked, pieces of pork were added in.
It was important to keep the corn from sticking to the pot, something that necessitated paddles just for that purpose. Paddles made of hickory or oak were passed down for generations to stir pots of pashofa.
As a general term for stew, soup, and mush, "atoo'" often included meat from wild game like rabbit. Stews, soups, and mushes incorporated vegetables such as celery, onion, and wild spinach with squash, corn, and potatoes, as well.
As Native American tribes transitioned from hunting to animal husbandry, meat from goats, cows, and sheep found their way into atoo'. Mutton atoo' was made by sautéing the meat before adding it to a pot of boiling water. Once vegetables were added, the mixture was cooked for a short time, after which seasoning and more water were added. More cooking time then followed and, when served, it was often accompanied by some sort of bread or tortilla.
As another commonly found item among Navajo groups, frybread found many uses. Simply made using flour, milk, water, and shortening, frybread consisted of unleavened dough fried in a pan. Once the mixture was fried on both sides, it was topped with cheese, tomatoes, beans, or vegetables. In many ways, Navajo frybread served in this fashion resembled a taco.
Frybread was also served with atoo' - soups and stews - but could be drizzled with honey to sweeten it, as well.
Once Native Americans were relocated to substandard lands on reservations, they became increasingly dependent upon rations provided by the United States government. Frybread was one of the few foods that could be made using the lard, flour, and other supplies to which Native Americans had access.