Indigenous Foods

November is National Native American Heritage Month, an opportunity to highlight and learn more about the traditions associated with food, ingredients and the methods of preparation that are common to Native Americans as the Indigenous Peoples of the continental United States. On Wednesdays during the month of November, the McNamara HQC Café will offer Native American themed entrees.

Indigenous Foods

by Michael Grant, DLA Headquarters EEO Operations Division

November is National Native American Heritage Month, an opportunity to highlight and learn more about the traditions associated with food, ingredients and the methods of preparation that are common to Native Americans as the Indigenous Peoples of the continental United States.1    

On Wednesdays during the month of November, the McNamara HQC Café will offer Native American themed entrees.

With 573 Indian Nations, tribes, bands, pueblos, communities, and Native villages recognized by the U.S. Government as well as additional state-only recognized tribes, the range of foods, ingredients used, methods of preparation, and traditions observed across Indian Country are extensive.2,3  This post will touch on just a few.

The Mitsitam Café in the National Museum of the American Indian (National Mall location) offers seasonal foods from the Western Hemisphere using a regional approach. Those five regions are Northern Woodlands (from Southern Canada to the Chesapeake, east of the Mississippi River to the Atlantic Ocean); Mesoamerica (the American Southwest, Mexico, and Central America); Northwest Coast (Southern Alaska to Northern California); Great Plains (Alberta, Canada to Texas); and South America.4

Three indigenous foods you can prepare or learn more about include: pemmican, sofkey, and salmon.

Pemmican is a concentrated mixture of fat and powered protein. The source of the protein would have been lean, dried meat and the rendered fat of the bison, deer, elk, or beef that supplied the meat.  Crushed, dried berries might be added.  The following guide to preparing pemmican uses grain fed beef and its author provides rich detail in its preparation.

Sofkey, corn drink or soup or mush, was enjoyed primarily by Native tribes who once lived primarily in the southeastern United States.  

The significance of salmon to tribes represented by the Columbia River Inter-Tribal River Commission.  Native American salmon cooking, smoked salmon5 and  An ulu, or Aboriginal Knife, is used to  filet salmon in this video.  Note how the design minimizes the need to reposition the blade while cutting.

Links to the menu of the Mitsitam Café and recipes at NativeTech, a website dedicated to Native Technology and Art, may be found in Sources of Additional Information. 

Some in Indian Country will take issue with food and recipes that include commodities issued by the [U.S.] Government including pork, beef, dairy, wheat flour, and processed cane sugar following forced migrations and concentration onto reservations.  Wheat flour frybread is an example.  Made and consumed to stave off starvation, frybread became a common dietary feature across far flung peoples. It continues to be prepared generations later in some quarters. Frybread is on the menu of the Mitsitam Café. A recipe is available as published in Smithsonian magazine.

Don’t overlook the items you may find in your own pantry, root cellar, or readily stocked by your local grocer such as berries, chili peppers, hominy, maple syrup, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, sage, squash, tomatoes, and yams.  Perhaps turkey or venison should a hunter’s aim be true. 

Interested in learning more?  Corn, beans, and squash are collectively known as the “Three sisters.”  The plants complement each other both during cultivation when grown together and as dietary components.  As a polyculture, the beans drawing nitrogen from the air do not compete with the corn and use the corn as a trellis.  Squash is tolerant of the irregular sun and shade due to the corn.  The squash leaves and sprawl reduce loss of ground moisture and inhibit growth of weeds.  Its spiny vines would discourage raccoons going after the corn.  As for yields,

Mt. Pleasant (2016) concluded Three Sisters yielded higher energy and higher protein per hectare than monoculture plantings; and as a cropping system it supported the dietary needs of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois).  Furthermore, cooking maize in a high alkaline solution, a widespread traditional processing technique among Indigenous Peoples in North America and Mexico, increased calcium and niacin levels in maize as well as increased protein quality.  

For more information, see:

Three Sisters and heirloom seeds project

Iroquois White Corn

Iroquois White Corn Project

Heirloom seeds & seed stewardship

Food sovereignty

Learn more about wild rice harvested on Nett Lake in Minnesota by the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa (also called Ojibwe or Anishinaabeg).

Even this cursory look would not be complete without a mention of Water Walk, walks around the Great Lakes started by Anishinawbe grandmothers calling attention to the importance of water and water quality to all life.  

A final encouragement, see Bruhac (2016) to pique your curiosity about Tom Porter, an Akwesasne,, who established a Mohawk community near Fonda, NY in 1993 to preserve, teach, and hand down his People’s language, spirituality, and traditions in their ancestral homeland.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.  Inclusion of links to select web sites, articles, and videos does not signify nor imply the endorsement of the DLA or DoD. 

Author’s Note

I am responsible for any factual errors in this post.  I appreciate that language is not neutral.  I settled on use of indigenous and not aboriginal.  Aboriginal is more widely used in Canada.  While many readers will be native born and indigenous I would expect far fewer to be descendants of Pre-Columbian Peoples.  It is those Indigenous Peoples in the continental U.S. collectively referred to as Native Americans, American Indians, and Alaskan Natives that we celebrate.  Peoples who identify themselves by their tribe or clans. This post only hints at their diversity and their continuing efforts to live by and hand down their traditions.  Thank you to those who shared their insights in the preparation of this post. 

End Notes

1 Various naming conventions for National Native American Heritage Month or National American Indian Heritage Month or American Indian / Alaska Native Month have been used over time by the U.S. Government. and and

2 Of the 573 tribes, 229 are in Alaska with the remaining 344 spread across 35 of the Lower 48 or contiguous states.  List by tribe name Listings include tribe website, if any.  See tribes.aspx for a 2016 list of federally recognized and state recognized tribes.  The term ‘Alaska Natives’ encompasses the Yupik, Inupiat, Aleut, Athabaskan, Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian peoples who speak 20 different languages.  (Korsno, 1994)

3 Colloquially, “Indian Country” is a term that nowadays refers collectively to American Indians and Native Alaskans.  For example, “Indian Country Counts” is a National Congress of American Indians campaign addressing on-going concerns as to historical undercounting of Native people on reservations and in Alaska Native Villages and the pending 2020 census and the consequences for resource distribution.  Indian Country Today, a digital news platform, seeks to cover an “Indigenous world” that includes American Indians and Alaska Natives while covering tribes and “Native people” throughout the Americas for a national audience.  More formally, Indian Country is made up of lands of the peoples in the 573 tribes recognized by the U.S. Government and additional tribes or groups recognized by some states under state authority in acknowledgement of a tribe’s status.  Statutorily, Indian Country is defined in 18 U.S.C. § 1151 does not include the land holdings of tribes not recognized by the Federal Government.  Nor does the definition include Alaska Native Villages.    

4 A comparable geographic region orientation for the Indigenous Peoples would be Alaskan and tribes of the Northeast, Southeast, Plains, Great Basin, Plateau, Southwest, and California.  The tribal directory of the National Congress of American Indians is searchable by the following areas:  Alaska, Eastern Oklahoma, Great Plains, Midwest, Navajo Region, Northeast, Northwest, Rocky Mountains, Southeast, Southern Plains, Southwest, and Western.

5 For the differences between Native American and commercial fish smoking methods on dietary exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and possible risks to human health,

Sources of Additional Information

Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. (n.d.) Store outside your door.  Note:  A project promoting knowledge and use of traditional foods and traditional ways.

Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. (n.d.) Nellie’s recipes: An Alaska Native traditional food cookbook for assisted living homes.  Retrieved from

Bruhac, J. (2016).  Speaking for creation: Tom Sakokwenionkwas Porter, Voices, 42. Retrieved from

Deruy, Emily. (2016, June 30). Why isn’t Native American food hip? The Atlantic. Retrieved from

Divina, F., Divina, M., & Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian (NAMI). (2004). Foods of the Americas: Native recipes and traditions.  Co-published by NAMI and Ten Speed Press. or or

Fears, Darryl. (2015, July 30). As salmon vanish in the dry Pacific Northwest, so does Native heritage. The Washington Post. Retrieved from

Forsberg, N.D., Stone, D., Harding, A., Harper, B., Harris, S., Matzke, M.M., Cardenas, A., Anderson, K.A. (2012, July 11). Effect of Native American fish smoking methods on dietary exposure to polycyclic Aromatic hydrocarbons and possible risks to human health.

Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 60(27), 6899-6096. DOI: 10.1021/jf300978m

Hetzler, Richard. (2010). The Mitsitam Cafe cookbook: Recipes from the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian. Co-published by NMAI and Fulcrum Publishing.

Indian Country Today.

Jones, A. 2006. Iqaluich niġiñaqtuat, Fish that we eat. United States Fish and Wildlife Service, Office of Subsistence Management, Fisheries Resource Monitoring Program (Final Report No. FIS02-023). Anchorage, Alaska.  Retrieved from,_Fish_that_we_eat_final.pdf

Judkis, Maura. (2017, November 22). ‘This is not a trend’: Native American chefs resist the ‘Columbusing’of indigenous foods. The Washington Post. Retrieved from

Kornsno, F.L. (1994). The Alaska Natives. In Minority Rights Group (Ed.), Polar Peoples: Self-determination and development. Retrieved from

Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians (Gun Lake Tribe).

Menu of the Mitsitam Native Foods Café at the National Museum of the American Indian.

Mt.Pleasant, J. (2016). Food yields and nutrient analyses of the Three Sisters: A Haudenosaunee cropping system. Retrieved from

National Congress of American Indians.

National Museum of the American Indian.

NativeTech Recipes,

Native Wild Rice Coalition.

Nez Perce Tribe.

North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems.

The People’s Path.

Pemmican Protein Bar,

Rao, Tejal. (2016, August 16). The movement to define Native American cuisine.  The New York Times. Retrieved from

The Sioux Chef.TM  

Sherman, S. & Dooley, B. The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen

Smoking salmon.  Non-indigenous recipe, using a pellet grill your Homeowner’s Association (HOA) permit,  Another non-indigenous smoked salmon recipe,