Native American traditions in food consumption varied greatly, owing much to the diversity of habitats.
For example, the Alaskan Athabascans had very different diets than the Brazilian tribes in the Amazon rainforest. There were also a variety of lifestyles for different tribes as well. Some tribes settled into one place year round, farming the land and being very agricultural, while others were semi-nomadic, following the herds and moving with the seasons as they hunted and gathered their foods. But one constant in both tribal lifestyles was a need for meat accumulation and preservation for use in the winter months and during long hunting and trading expeditions.
In the days before supermarkets, Native Americans in these ancient societies found food for their families in four basic ways: hunting and fishing, gathering, farming, and raising domesticated animals.
So, what types of meat did the Native Americans eat? It varied, depending on the tribe. Buffalo, deer, caribou, elk and rabbit were popular. Raising domesticated animals in North America before Europeans arrived was limited primarily to turkeys, ducks and dogs. Most tribes did not eat dog meat, although there are cases of some who did. In the documented travels of famous explorers Lewis & Clark in their 1803-06 expedition, they spoke of consumption of dog meat all across the continent (although Clark abstained). When their own supply of dog meat ran low they acquired more from the Paiutes, Clatsop, Teton Sioux, Nez Perce and the Hidatsas. The Kickapoo (in present day Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Mexico) still consume puppy meat in their ceremonies and festivals to honor their chief deity.
Here are four ways Native Americans preserved meat:
Smoking it – Northwest tribes and those in the extreme north relied heavily on fish to carry them throughout the year, making use of annual salmon spawning to capture massive amounts of fish. They would then dry and preserve the fish for use throughout the winter. Ancient methods of preserving fish included drying, salting, pickling and smoking, but in the absence of large quantities of salt and other preservatives, smoking alone was sufficient.
The smoking process involves exposing salmon or other fish fillets directly to smoke from smoldering wood for anywhere from several hours to two to three days.
Smoking can be done in both open and enclosed structures. Traditional smoking structures include smoke sheds and tipis large enough to smoke entire hides, many salmon, or large quantities of game.
Enclosed structures contain a smoke source in the bottom, and raw foods to be smoked are arranged on racks or on hanging lines inside the shed or tipi.
Jerky — The term “jerky” derives from the Peruvian Quechua tribe’s word “ch’arki” meaning “dried” or “burned” meat. Jerky is a form of meat preservation in which fresh meat from large game is carefully defatted, cut into slices, sometimes pounded flat, and dried in the sun or smoked over a fire to prevent it from spoiling. Salt was not usually used in the preservation process due to its inland scarcity. Small game meat was primarily consumed immediately, but larger game was preserved and utilized as a long-term source of protein.
Pemmican – A high-energy concentrated mixture of fat and protein used as a nutritious “shelf stable” traveling food, pemmican is made from the lean meat of large game such as buffalo, moose, elk or deer. The meat is cut in thin slices and dried over a slow fire, or in the hot sun, until it is hard and brittle. The picture below is a demonstration of traditional meat-drying techniques at the annual Calgary Stampede in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
Roughly five pounds of fresh meat is required to make one pound of dried meat suitable for preparing into pemmican. Once the meat is dried, it is pounded into very small powder-like pieces. The pounded meat is then mixed with fat in an approximate 1:1 ratio. In some cases, depending on availability and geography, native dried fruits such as Saskatoon berries, cranberries, blueberries, or choke cherries, were pounded into powder and then added into the meat and fat mixture.
Some preparations also included bone marrow. Cranberries and choke cherries are both indigenous to North America, and both have acids that help to naturally preserve buffalo meat. The resulting mixture was then packed into rawhide bags for storage and even shipped and stored at the major fur posts.
Wasna – This is the Lakota version of pemmican, although the meat is specifically buffalo. One modern-day Lakota told the Native American company Tanka Bar that the “best wasna comes from choke cherries beaten with a special stone, which gives them a special flavor, and made into dried patties. The patties are then mixed with bapa, or dried buffalo, and a small amount of buffalo kidney fat.” That “special stone” is found in a local river. The Lakota discourage people from using beef fat, as it would make the wasna spoil quicker. The Tanka Bar in South Dakota actually sells wasna and other Native Americans foods.
Learning and practicing these traditional techniques is a great idea for homesteaders and survivalists. While carbohydrate-rich energy food may be great to have on hand for short-term use, it’s better to both familiarize yourself with the flavors of protein-rich native foods and gain the valuable food preparation skills needed.
Have you ever made pemmican or other types of Native American foods? What advice would you add? Share it in the section below: