What Native American Tribes In The Old West Were Eating
Photo: Pierce, C.C. (Charles C.), 1861-1946 / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

What Native American Tribes In The Old West Were Eating

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. 

  • Ntsidigo'i: Navajo Kneel-Down Bread
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Ntsidigo'i: Navajo Kneel-Down Bread

    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: Chickasaw Corn And Pork

    "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.

  • Atoo': Navajo Mutton Stew

    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. 

  • Dah Díníilgaazh: Navajo Frybread

    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. 

  • 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.