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What Native American Tribes In The Old West Were Eating

Updated September 23, 2021 19.5k views10 items

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. 

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  • Wasna: Lakota Dried Meats And Fruits

    "Wasna" roughly translates to "anything mixed together," and the Sioux people - made up of the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota - believed in both its nutritional and spiritual importance. According to legend, wasna (also known as pemmican) was the lifeblood of the Sioux people, a mixture of dried meat, fruit, and fat.

    Due to its high caloric value, wasna was highly valued because it could keep warriors and hunters going for days on end. To make wasna, Native Americans took dried meat, most often beef, buffalo, or venison, and mixed it with dried berries. It was coated in melted kidney fat or lard and eaten with a spoon or by hand. Wasna was also put into pouches or bladders, but is now often shaped into balls, patties, or squares for easy travel.  

  • Wiiwish: Miwok Acorn Mush

    Common among the Payómkawichum (called Luiseños by the Spanish) of California, "wiiwish" was also associated with Miwok peoples native to the northern part of the state. Wiiwish was a stew made out of acorns, the highly nutritious nut that falls from oak trees. With more than 10 kinds of acorns prevalent in Northern California, wiiwish blended different types of flavors while giving its eaters essential fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, and protein. 

    The first step to making wiiwish involved collecting acorns each autumn. Once gathered, acorns were dried and stored until needed. In preparation for making wiiwish, the acorn was broken open and the kernels were removed from the shells. Their skin was peeled and the acorn kernels were ground into flour. The flour was mixed with water, leached to remove bitterness, and then cooked into a mush, bread, or stew. 

    When Charles F. Saunders traveled to the American West during the early 20th century, he ate some wiiwish and commented on its taste:

    In taste it is rather flat but with a suggestion of nuttiness that becomes distinctly agreeable even to some white palates. Judging from my own experience with it, I should pronounce it about as good as an average breakfast- food mush. Cream and sugar and a pinch of salt are considered needful concomitants by most white consumers.

    Acorns were also eaten by members of other tribes including the Apache and the Yavapai. 

  • Tiswin: Apache Corn Beer

    According to archeological findings, members of the Pueblo tribes in the American Southwest were drinking a corn-based beer some 800 years ago. "Tiswin," however, is often associated with the Apache, a separate group that had extensive contact with Pueblo groups

    According to Dahteste, a member of the Apache who was with Geronimo when he surrendered in 1886, tiswin was relatively easy to make:

    You grind corn fine on metate (a mealing or grinding stone). Build a big fire, boil meal twenty minutes. Take it out, squeeze mash out good. Throw grounds away. Put in jar and let ferment with yeast twenty-four hours. 

    Dahteste indicated the fermentation process took longer without yeast. Often, weeds and roots were added and the grinding process could be done several times.

    Another type of tiswin involved using the mescal plant or other cacti, a process that took days or weeks of crushing, boiling, and fermenting.

    The role of alcohol in Apache society - much of the literature on the tribe refers to "tiswin drunks" - has been dismissed by members of the tribe. Tiswin had a relatively low alcohol content and, from the perspective of men like Victor Randall of the Mescalero Apache, "It takes a lot of drinking to get drunk on tiswin." 

  • Photo: Pierce, C.C. (Charles C.), 1861-1946 / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Piki: Hopi Cornmeal Bread

    "Piki," a thin cornbread made by the Hopi, was similar to Navajo paperbread. Piki was made using blue or red corn that was mixed with ash and water. While the dough was often thick, the piki itself was very fine and thin. Women would take handfuls of piki dough and spread it over a hot, flat stone.

    Once cooked, the piki could be folded, left flat, or rolled and served with a variety of other foods. It could also be left plain, sometimes flavored and brightly colored, as well.

    The art of making piki was something women acquired over years of practice ,and the piki stone was located in a small room or house reserved for making piki.