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5 Foods Natives Hunted Before Europeans

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What do you call a Native American vegetarian?

A bad hunter. 

Heid Erdrich, a cook and author from the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe in present-day North Dakota, references this old joke in her recent "locavore" cookbook, Original Local: Indigenous Foods, Stories, and Recipes From the Upper Midwest.

She adds that this witticism used to make her mad, because it implies Indians are strictly carnivores, and she herself abides by a sort-of quasi-vegetariansim, as she puts it. But as a non-purist raised near the Great Lakes and Great Plains, where her family hunted animals, in addition to cultivating plants and gathering wild foods, Heid dedicates an entire section of her book to indigenous fish and game animals, or their domesticated descenants: bison, duck, venison, rabbit, turkey and small wild fowl.

Last week, Indian Country Today Media Network featured 10 foods that Natives had long before European contact. As a follow-up, we are highlighting animals that Natives hunted pre "discovery." Next week, read about the five foods our ancestors fished and caught, and how those culinary traditions carry on today. 

RELATED: 10 Foods Natives Had Before Europeans

1. Turkey, Goose, Duck and Small Fowl

After Indians introduced Europeans to turkey, the bird was quickly adopted as a banquet food, soon serving as the centerpiece of many holiday meals. Pre-contact, however, wild turkey was everyday fare. Some Native cultures though, like the Maya, did use the meat, broth and blood in ceremony to heal sickness, help with planting and to pray for rain.

Heid E. Erdrich recommends hunting wild turkey (no easy feat, she acknowledges) or ordering a heritage turkey, which are much leaner and smaller than sedentary commercial birds. This means fast cooking at high temperatures is a better method than slow roasting, she notes. Local Harvest (, an online service where you can order wild turkey, even offers yummy ways to baste the bird, such as with rosemary and maple.


Erdirch clarifies:

"Just as the term Indian was mistakenly applie to the people of an entire hemisphere, the turkey, it is said, was named for the middle eastern country. Turkey was once Mizise in Anishinaabemowin. No doubt the bird has hundreds of names in other indigenous languages, some of which must have meant really, really tasty."



Alaska Natives regularly cook goose, explains Navajo Chef Freddie Bitsoie, who tried his culinary skills at preparing it for the first time in October 2011 while visiting the northwestern-most U.S. state, where he was filming a preliminary episode of the show Reservations Not Required. The cooking and travel program, told through the unique perspective of indigenous cultures, is hosted by Bitsoie.

The rich-tasting, dark meat bird is oily and greasy like duck, "so you have to trim a lot of the fat off before roasting it."

The bird should also be cooked on a baking rack in a roasting pan to drain off excess fat. "Otherwise it will be swimming in goose fat, and you don't want that," Bitsoie says.

Bitsoie offers a basic recipe: rub down the goose with three table spoons of melted butter mixed with a lot of fresh herbs: three tablespoons of chopped rosemary, parsley and thyme, and two tablespoons of tarragon. Before it solidifies, brush it on the goose as well as under the skin, Bitsoie says. Put extra rosemary stems on top of the goose and season it very well with salt and pepper.

He also recommends stuffing the goose with a 1/2 cup of dried apricots, a cup of dried berries, three chopped onions, two stems of chopped celery and one chopped carrot.

"This will give it a sweetness. Once you plate it, you can remove the berries and celery for garnish. They serve an aromatic purpose; they're not a side dish," Bitsoie explains.

The typical rule of thumb is to roast the goose approximately 10 minutes for every pound. "Once you remove it, it’s going to have a very nice amount of flavor," he says. "Goose is something I think everybody should try; I absolutely fell in love with it."


Ducks are also Turtle Island native birds. Migrating wild ducks provided indigenous peoples along the Pacific Northwest with their first fresh meat in the annual food cycle, The Mitsitam Cafe Cookbook states. "Native communities had varying techniques for capturing the ducks. The S'Klallam people of the Olympic Peninsula in present-day Washington State erected 40-foot-high poles strung with fine net into which flocks of ducks would lfy in th edim light of dawn or sunset. Other Coast Salish hunters tied nets between trees, and the Makah submerged netting covered with salmon eggs in lakes and streams where the ducks typically fed," author Chef Richard Hetzler writes. 

Small game birds traditionally eaten by the Plains region indigenous peoples include quail, partridge (timber chicken) and grouse, some now protected from hunting. Erdrich describes small game birds as lean and distinct in flavor.

2. Elk

A bull elk in the woods

Elk meat is a traditional, staple food of many indigenous cultures. “A lot of our elders, that’s all they’ll eat - the traditional Indian food that we give them,” Chester Cayou Jr., a respected Swinomish tribal hunter, told

Elk, and other wildlife, remains a significant element of feasts for funerals, naming ceremonies and potlatches, NWIFC states. It's not just the meat that is cherished. The hdes, hooves, antlers and other wildlife parts are used for traditional ceremonial items and regalia. 

Hunting elk also mean sustaining its future by protecting its habitat. And tribal hunters are only taking about 1 percent of the total combined deer and elk harvest in the state. 

“We don’t impact the resource like some people think - we just take what we need,” said Edwards. “Last year, we took one elk. That’s hardly anything.”

“Hunting was and is a way of life to us,” said Edwards. “It’s important to us to preserve that tradition.”

Elk meat has a rich, slightly sweet flavor that is milder than other venison like caribou, deer or moose, explains Salish Country Cookbook: Traditional Foods & Medicines from the Pacific Northwest.


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Elk meat stew is a coveted, traditional dish on cold Northwest winter nights. Salish Country Cookbook offers a recipe for elk meat stew, which is thickened with cattail flour (or brown rice flour) and arrowroot. It also combines quamash roots (if available), wild or conventional carrots, onions, and is seasoned with juniper berries, sage, rosemary and thyme. 

3. Buffalo

Buffalo are the spirit of the Indian people, a reminder of when our ancestors once lived, free and in harmony with nature, as the InterTribal Buffalo Council puts it.

“The Indian was frugal in the midst of plenty,” says Luther Standing Bear, a member of the Lakota tribe. “When the buffalo roamed the plains in multitudes, he slaughtered only what he could eat and these he used to the hair and bones.” 

Settlers recognized the reliance Indian tribes had on the buffalo, and began the systematic destruction of the species to cripple the indigenous people.

American Indians are veterans of the struggle to pull the American bison back from near extinction, wrote Steve Russell for ICTMN. Gen. Philip Sheridan famously stated the motive: “You kill the buffalo, you destroy the Indian’s commissary.”

Russell described: And so the colonists attacked the giant herbivores with repeating rifles, stripped off their hides and left tall stacks of malodorous meat to rot on the prairies until the iconic beasts were reduced by nature’s scavengers to piles of bones. The population of American bison has been estimated by biologists at 60 million in 1492. By the end of the shooting part of the Indian wars in 1890, that population was reduced to 750.

A bull elk in the woods

Today American Indians continue their efforts to revive the bison population, with great success. 

The Rapid City, South Dakota-based InterTribal Buffalo Council (ITBC), formed in September 1992, is committed to reestablishing buffalo herds on Indian lands in a manner that promotes cultural enhancement, spiritual revitalization, ecological restoration, and economic development.

ITBC has a membership of 56 tribes in 19 states with a collective herd of over 15,000 bison. Bison meat can be purchased through ITBC member tribes: the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in Montana, the Comanche Indian Tribe of Oklahoma, the Modoc Tribe of Okalahoma, the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe in South Dakota. 

Bison meat lends a hearty, sweet, rich flavor. The lean protein is low in fat, cholesterol and calories. 

Dale Carson recommends a recipe for buffalo pot roast here

Another popular use of buffalo meat, particularly among the Great Plains, Lakota, Cheyenne, Crow and other tribal cooks, is drying the buffalo and pounding it with berries and fat to make pemmican, an earlier version of today's jerky. Hunters and warriors carried the protein-rich snack to provide sustenance and stamina when meat was difficult to find.

RELATED: Jerky: The Bread of the Wilderness

4. Venison 

Venison medallions

For millennia, deer has been among the most abundant game animals in the Northern Hemisphere and Mesoamerica.

Deer meat can be grilled, fried, stewed or roasted. Beyond its culinary potential, the animal has many practical and spiritual uses. 

As Dale Carson, Abenaki, puts it: "While preparing venison, I think of my ancestors. When they cooked, the animal’s skin became clothing and covered dwellings. Antlers become many things: ornaments, tools or rakes. American Indians never waste any part of these animals, nor do they fail to thank its spirit for the gift of its life."

RELATED: Healthy Comfort Food: Tricks to Making Flavorful Venison Meatballs

The Mitsitam Cafe Cookbook underscores the Pueblo tribes spiritual connection to the animal. "The Pueblo tribes of the Southwest incorporate deer into their winter dances, and the Hupa of northern California perform a 10-day White Deerskin Ceremony to dissipate evil." 

RELATED: VIDEO: Hoopa Home-Chef Meagen Baldy Dices and Fries Deer Meat and Veggies

5. Rabbit

Braised rabbit

"This is a far cry from the tough times when my mother and grandmother would send my uncles out to hunt dinner," Dale Carson says about the ability to buy domesticated rabbit today. "They would bring back one or two rabbits, skin and hang them in the cold back hallway of grandma’s house. I remember seeing them there once as a child, never realizing they were for dinner, nor did I realize that a gift made of soft grey fur was a bunny bag." 

RELATED: Dale Carson Shares the Truth Behind Rabbit Folkcore and Recalls the Family Hunt

Les LaFountain, a faculty member in the social science department at Turtle Mountain Community College, who now "dabbles" with raising domestic rabbits, can relate to Carson's culinary experience. As he told Erdrich in Original Local:"Wild bush rabbits were snared or shot and eaten as a mainstay during more difficult times on and near the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation."

Nephi Craig, a half Navajo, half White Mountain Apache chef, demonstrated the potential of rabbit, an indigenous food, prepared with traditional French-cooking technique at one Native food festivalhosted by TOCA, Tohono O’odham Community Action, at the Heard Museum in Phoenix. Craig prepared the Native food in three ways, with very French culinary presentations:

1) Stew: braised leg meat with winter squash, root vegetable, and brussel sprout leaves, chives and rabbit jus.

2) Dumpling: rabbit tortelinni, tomato confit and wilted greens, EVOO and Apache salt.

3) Roast: pan roasted bacon wrapped loin of rabbit, braised baby turnips, young carrots and pearl onions, garnished with a rack of rabbit and yellow Apache salt.

RELATED: Nephi Craig Cooks Native American-French Fusion