By any standards, the Native Americans have always been known for their harmony with nature and their efficiency with using foods and products of the land. In that way, of course, almost all of the Native Americans are similar. However, many cultural and gastronomic differences exist between Natives all across the North American continent. To the left are the 10 different regions that associate similar American Cultures. Each of these regions' meals, foods, and traditions all differ widely. Here, we'll tour the continent.
We'll begin in the northeast (green) region. Here, the Native Americans primarily farmed corn, beans, and squash. They called those three staple crops the "three sisters" because each crop helped the others to grow. Corn was used as a stake to support the bean plants. Squash grew expansively, and covered the ground in shade. This kept the moisture in, and kept the weeds out. The Native Americans here grew 15 types of corn, which could provide 75 % of the body's nutritional needs. They prepared the corn by soaking it in lye (as to soften the kernel). Then, they ground it up to cook it to make porridge, cakes, or to eat it with maple syrup, money, or fat. As in many other cultures, the women did this farming and the men hunted. Deer were plentiful in the northeast, but even so, the Native Americans prayed after each deer slaying. The bow-and-arrow was the chief weapon of the northeast Natives, but a stone club was also used to deal the final blow. To cook these foods, the Native Americans of the northeast went back to their houses. For the Iroquois tribes, the houses (called longhouses) were 80 100 feet long and held about 12 families. These families shared a communal kitchen in the center. Other tribes of the northeast had separate family dwellings, and each family had a grove of maple trees to drain the sap and the sugar. It would then be eaten with ground-up corn.
Further south is the southeast region (dark blue on the map above). These Natives were descendants of the mound builders, who constructed large hills for unknown purposes. These Native Americans also adored corn as a crop, and celebrated it in a festival called busk. A priest would light a ceremonial fire, and surround it with logs and green corn. It was celebrated during the late summer for four days. This happened when the corn was ripe, and the priests gave thanks. To protect their crops (once again mostly corn, beans, and squash), they would employ human scarecrows. Humans would construct gigantic platforms and stand atop them to yell, wave their arms, and scare away pests. These Natives also hunted deer, and clothed themselves in entire deerskins.
To the west is the plains culture, shown as tan on the above map. Agriculture was highly efficient in this region. A few women were able to cultivate 3 acres of crops each year, while men cleared the land and harvested the crops. The farmers used deer antlers as rakes to hoe out the weeds. They used antler instead of wood, because wood could rot and contain worms that could destroy the crops. Along with corn, beans, and squash, the plains natives grew melons and sunflowers. Hunting in this region was mostly achieved on horseback, to traverse the wide open distances. The different cultures usually followed life around their main prey, bison. They lived in tepees, cone-shaped huts that were easy to pack up and move to a different location, in case they had to follow the herd. A few times a year, the hunters would dress up as wolves and chase entire herds of bison over the ledge of a cliff, thus maintaining a steady food supply. They used every part of the bison as well: from food to clothing to construction of tepees. Even after members of the culture died, they were wrapped in bison skin and placed on a tall altar to be far removed from the wild animals. Bison meat was also used in emergencies. The plains Natives cooked pemmican, which was a combination of dried bison meat, boiled fat, and bitter berries, to use as emergency rations.
To the south of the plains is the southwest region. Here, in the driest of deserts, agriculture was necessary to survive. Corn, beans, and squash were again their main source of food. To get the most out of the little irrigation they had for these crops, the Native Americans of the southwest used a technique called dry farming, in which they buried the seeds as deep as possible. This allowed the plants and roots to soak up as much ground water as was available. The Native Americans there also performed ceremonies for the rain, such as the snake dance. The Papago tribe drank cactus wine to drive out the evil spirits and to please the rain god. Here, they also prayed to Kachina dolls (shown at the left) for a bountiful harvest. There was not much to hunt, but rabbits were the main target. Hunters would encircle the rabbit, and get closer, until finally, the attack was sprung and the rabbit was vanquished.
In a similar region north of the southwest is the basin (brown above). Here too, the Native Americans had few resources and had to be constantly on the move, following pine nuts and rabbits. Their main source of food was insects and seeds that they could find. To hunt, the Native Americans of this region used duck decoys that were made out of bundles of bulrushes, and could actually float.
Farther west was the California region (fuschia above). Far different than the neighboring regions, farming and agriculture were virtually unheard of, and was hardly necessary because of so many resources available to them. Seeds, especially acorns, were widespread and eaten frequently. Women shook and beat trees to make the acorns fall into baskets waiting at the base of the tree trunk. When Europeans observed these Native Americans for the first time, they called them "Root Diggers" because the Natives often dug for roots to eat, as well. Fish and game were eaten sparingly, because the vegetation surrounding the Native Americans there was so plentiful.
To the north of California is the plateau (orange) region. The plateu region is known for its trade and commerce with the surrounding cultural regions. Horses, although only introduced to the region in the early 1700's, also became a hallmark of the plateau region. They were used frequently in hunting excursions. To hunt, the Native Americans of the region used bows made out of sheep horn, because it was much more durable than wood. On the sides of their saddles, the Natives made foldable sacks called Parfleches, which could easily hold food and clothing if the tribe was on the move. They mostly consumed salmon and edible roots.
West of the plateau is the purple northwest region. Here, there were wealthy families that liked to display their riches by constructing totem poles and hosting ceremonies. The most famous ceremony of the region is called a Potlatch. At these ceremonies (more like parties), many unrelated families celebrated under one roof. Gifts were given to everyone that attended. Often, the potlatch often held a practical purpose. The various tribes and families were often on the brink of going to war with one another, and a potlatch served to cool everyone down and warm relations. Even so, the Canadian government banned potlatches from 1884 until 1951. Potlatches have since made a startling rebound. These potlatches often consist of a twelve day feast, containing food like salmon and other fish, berries, seal, vegetables, and all cooked in fish oil.
Even farther north is the extremely cold subarctic region, shown as light blue above. In this region, the Native Americans were nomadic, following herds of Caribou, moose, and beaver. To hunt their prey, hunters donned snowshoes, to allow them to glide easily on the snow. Bears were regarded with awe by the cultures of the subarctic. The bear spirits were believed to remain in the skull of the bear for eternity. Bears were killed rarely, but when they were, a prayer would be recited promising good and efficient use. Caribou were also widely used. The women of the tribes prepared the hide of the caribou by first using broken caribou bones to scrape off the fur and the flesh. Then, the women rubbed in a mixture of soupy, rotting caribou brains to tan the hide. Finally, the skin was streched over a board and worked by hand to make it durable. The final step was to smoke and preserve it.
In the farthest frigid north (pink), the Native Americans were perhaps the most adapted to their climate. They knew that the brightness of the snow could blind them temporarily during hunts, so they built black sunglasses, with a horizontal slit to peer through. Since agricultural work was futile in the bleak seasons, the Natives in this region lived mostly off of seal, walrus, whale, and caribou. Walrus hunting was a major event among these cultures. A harpoon was used as a lever to drag the walrus in, and it was killed on the boats. They used the meat, hide, and ivory, similar to the use of bison in the plains. The hunts were centered around the seasons. In the mild "summer" season, hunters used their kayaks to trap wading herds of caribou in ponds. In the summer, tribes would move out to the ice sheets and live in igloos, ingenious hut made out of blocks of ice.
Many of the Native American cultures share a common thread: each of them adapted to their own region's climate and resources. However, until very recently, the Native Americans' diversity was not recognized by other outside governments, and they had exterminated many cultures. However, now the Native Americans are making a comeback, and preaching a message of harmony and efficiency that should well be heeded by others.