Flickr/Creative Commons/Charlie Day
Wild Turkey in the Grass. Sunol Regional Park, Sunon, California

5 Foods Natives Hunted Before Europeans

What do you call an Indian 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. 
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

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.
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. 


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fslafountaine's picture
Submitted by fslafountaine on
Native Americans ate bears too. You don't need to hunt bears, because they will find you. The Native Americans would build/dig bear pits (which had stakes at the bottom of the pits) around their villages/settlements, and eventually the bears would fall into the pits and die. Bear meat is very greasy to eat and produced a lot of valuable lard.

ReneeH's picture
Submitted by ReneeH on
Not all Native American ate bear. Many in fact believe that the bear is a relative and is not to be eaten in any way.