Native Foods

By Rita Bober

When I began adding native plants, shrubs and trees to our homestead and identifying edible and medicinal plants while studying herbalism, I wondered what Native People from the Midwest ate when they were the sole inhabitants of this region. This article will share some of my findings on Native food.

The Anishinabe People first lived on the shores of the "Great Salt Water in the East." Prophets came to the People and told them that to survive, they must move west. As they traveled west, they would know where to settle when they found "the food that grows on water." So when they reached the Great Lakes area, they did find "the food that grows on water" — Mano'min or wild rice1. Since that time, wild rice has been one of the main foods of the Anishinabe People especially the Ojibway.

Another important food of this area is the sap from Ninautig, the Maple tree. At one time, all the maple syrup in North America was produced by Native people. Sap was also gathered from birch, poplar, and basswood trees.

Native people of the Great Lakes area were hunters and gatherers. They survived on what they could find in the woods and lakes around them. They ate according to the seasons. To the People, all this was given to them by the Great Spirit and their lifestyle reflected a gratitude for all of life's bounty.

Their diet included meat or fish, when it was available. This was supplemented with greens, herbs, berries, and roots. In an unpublished paper, Grandmother Keewaydinoquay2, an Ojibway Elder, listed the unique foods that had been used in earlier times. Meat included: venison, porcupine, goose, wild turkey, partridge, quail, pigeon, buffalo, elk, bear, rabbit, squirrel, beaver, groundhog, muskrat, raccoon, turtle, bull frogs, and ducks.

Fish included: trout, smelt, whitefish, pickerel, bass, fish eggs, salmon, catfish, perch, carp, muskie, pike and more. Grandmother had been raised in a traditional Native family but was also trained in the Western tradition as an ethno-botanist and was familiar with many local plants.

She stated that the People gathered a variety of foods from the woods, fields, and lakes to supplement their meals. These included: cattails, wild leeks and onions, wild greens, mushrooms, rose hips, sumac, water lily, wild cranberries, cactus, wild cucumber, nettles, serviceberry, raspberries, wild crabapples, elderberries, blackberries, blueberries, wild cherry as well as nuts — acorn, chestnuts, walnuts, hazelnuts and hickory.

Along with meat, wild rice, maple syrup and eggs gathered from bird nests, they enjoyed a great variety of foods. Native people did not have dairy products such as butter, milk, or cream but they did have a variety of fats including animal fats, particularly bear, and nut oils from acorns, beechnuts, butternuts, hazelnuts, sunflower seeds, and black walnuts. Traditional calcium and mineral sources included eating whole fish, making bone soup or broths and eating greens. Babies were breast fed for several years.

Frances Densmore, an ethnologist, detailed the uses of nearly 200 plants in her book about the Chippewa Indians (another word for Ojibway) How Indians Use Wild Plants for Food, Medicine & Crafts. Along with the items listed above, Densmore included: juneberry, bearberry, wild ginger, common milkweed, aster, creeping snowberry, wild bean or hog peanut, wintergreen, Jerusalem artichoke, mountain mint, Labrador tea, bugleweed, chokecherry, bur oak acorns, red and wild currant, arrowhead, bulrush, basswood bark, hemlock leaves, and wild grapes.

Carolyn Raine of Seneca heritage wrote about historical references to Native foods in her book, A Woodland Feast: Native American Foodways of the 17th & 18th Centuries. Her book is based on primary source documentation, from over one hundred original 17th and 18th century journals, captivity narratives, and ethno-botanical research.

Additional foods to consider include: skunk, snake, otter, tree bark, rendered tallow, sturgeon, gull's eggs, swans, organ meats and blood, broths of dried frogs and beaver tails. The general rule for any meal was to cook some meat in a large pot and whatever greens, roots, nuts or berries were in season. Plants and animals were honored and all parts were used either for food, clothing or utensils. Raine describes methods of food preparation and cooking including roasting, boiling, drying, as well as making soups and stews. Today, many Native foods are still available. You can gather meat by hunting and fishing or you can raise buffalo, turkey, rabbits, ducks, and quail yourself. Many of the green plants Natives used are still growing today. You can grow many of these plants in your own yard. It is commonly thought that edible plants like lamb's quarters, purslane, chickweed, red clover, and sheep's sorrel are native but they were brought here by European settlers.

Native people of the Midwest acquired seeds of pumpkin, corn, beans and squash from Mexico and South America which they often grew in round gardens. Europeans referred to "corn" as grain while Natives called "corn" maize. Maize came in many varieties. They included a soft variety known as bread maize, an 8-rowed flint, dent, and even popcorn. They came in many colors: white, yellow, red, black, purple or blue, and calico or multi-colored. The Grandmothers had many ways to cook or use maize. It was boiled, roasted, dried, parched, pounded into meal, and boiled with wood ashes to make hominy.

Natives used maize or hominy, fresh or dried, for bread. Pounded meal was mixed with water, and this was made into small cakes that were either baked in hot ashes (ash cakes) or dropped into boiling water, soup or stew to make boiled maize bread or dumplings.

Many varieties of beans were also brought up from the south. Both shelled and edible pod varieties such as cranberry, navy, arrow, "snap" or "string" as well as several types of kidney beans were grown. The beans were usually boiled with meat or vegetables and were also mixed with cornmeal to make cakes and dumplings. They were often dried so they could be stored and used during the winter.

Different varieties of squash and pumpkins were also grown in the gardens. The Grandmothers would boil, bake or roast them near the fire, and dried them for use in winter. Although maize (corn), beans, and squash were not native to this area, they were grown here before European explorers arrived.

If you are interested in growing some of the foods that the Native People ate, first check around your area. You will often find sites that have black elderberry and blackberry bushes. Trees to look for include sugar maple, black walnut, wild black cherry, mulberry, and white oak. Each of these has "a gift" to share with you. If you live by water, you may find cattails and water lilies. In the woods, violets, mature Mayapples, ramps (wild leeks); and in your fields, there may be Jerusalem artichokes and milkweed plants. There are even plants that grow in our native prairie's that are edible. For example, you can make tea with the leaves from monarda, mountain mint, and New Jersey tea.

Check out the resources below for more ideas. Many of the fruits and greens that we grow in our gardens today are variations of those that were used by Indigenous people. Eating things that grow in the wild, could save you money. Just make sure they have not been sprayed or are close to the road where salt and car emissions have polluted them.

Native seeds for maize, dry beans and squashes can be found through Seed Savers Exchange. There are too many people today for all of us to eat "wild" food all the time, so growing some of them in our "wild" places or in our gardens is a great idea.

Native People lived for years off what they harvested in the wild and were very strong and healthy. Perhaps it is time for us to consider including "native wild foods" into our everyday cuisine. Be sure to thank the plant for its gift and save some for the next generation.


  1. Chapter 14 from The Mishomis Book: The Voice of the Ojibway. Edward Benton-Banai, Indian Country Communications, Inc., Hayward, Wisconsin, 1988.
  2. Keewaydinoquay Margaret Peschel grew up in Northern Michigan. She was a teacher, storyteller and ethno-botanist. See her website to learn more about her legacy.


Published in the Wild Ones Journal, Vol. 22, No. 4, May/June, 2009.