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Cultural Lessons from American-Indian Cuisine

Learn more at Milwaukee’s Indian Summer Festival

Sep. 2, 2009
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In a culture like ours, where, for many, the extent of planning a meal is opening a wallet to make sure there’s enough money for takeout, to simply consider the time and energy needed to make a traditionally prepared American-Indian meal is exhausting. The cuisine is as expansive as the tribes who prepare it, with recipes that have been in families for generations, and others that reflect the native people’s ability to adapt to new situations.

Supplying all their needs, the land was (and for some, still is) the American Indians’ supermarket. They had to be attuned to their environment to build a mental database of the plants and animals with which they shared their world. This information had to be precise, detailed and applicable to changing situations and inhospitable conditions. Falling outside the small margin for error could mean a family or tribe would be without a particular food, supply of seeds or needed tool for an entire year. Accountability was key in traditional American-Indian culture. If you couldn’t find dinner, there was no one to blame but yourself.

At the end of the 17th century, Sauk, Potawatomi, Ojibwe (Chippewa), Odawa and Menominee families were living within at least nine self-contained villages in the Milwaukee area. Few of these families were year-round residents, for their lives followed the seasons. In fall, extended family groups disbanded for the winter hunt. In early spring, they returned to the region’s maple tree groves and harvested sap for maple syrup. They were back in their Milwaukee villages by the start of the growing season to seed small plots of corn, beans, squash, melon and potatoes. The natives had already established their villages close to the area’s three rivers—Milwaukee, Menomonee and Kinnickinnic—to make use of the clean flowing water, the canoe trails and the abundance of fish. The rivers had created a sprawling marsh full of ducks and wild rice to eat and reeds and rushes for making baskets and mats. The wild rice was harvested at the end of the summer and, by fall, the gardens would be picked and nuts and berries would be gathered.

As the food was brought in, it was either eaten right away or stored in baskets for the months ahead. In a rolling forest of beech, sugar maple , basswood and oak trees, the men hunted elk, black bear and white-tailed deer, and trapped beaver, otter and other fur-bearing animals. It wasn’t until they had a dependable supply of game that the tribes moved on to their winter camp.

For maximum harvest, picking and gathering had to be done quickly and intensively. It was common for a big group of people to tackle these projects together, which made their society particularly cohesive. Cleaning and grinding grains and seeds was tedious and time consuming, so women often toiled at it together. By chatting and gossiping while they worked, they were keeping everyone up to speed with the daily news and carrying their ancient culture into modern times.

In many circles, food was shared among several families. One woman would prepare a large supply of a certain vegetable and then portion it out to all the other women preparing meals, and they would bring her whatever they were making. These weren’t complicated recipes or elaborate meals. It was often a mush or succotash made of a dominant staple like corn or beans. Whatever the day’s gathering brought in—greens, seeds, berries—was added to the dish for a little variety and flavor. It was essential for the family to dry and store enough food to last until the next season. And after generations of accumulated knowledge, the American Indians were pros at boiling, roasting, half-broiling and drying foods for storage.

The so-called “primitive” native people were reverent toward the animals and plants that satisfied their need for food, clothing and shelter. They considered them to be part of themselves. Therein lies a valuable lesson: If we take ownership of all the food and resources we consume, we could start reversing the sweeping damages of industrialized agriculture. Sometimes looking backward is the best way to move forward.

Milwaukee’s Indian Summer Festival
Sept. 11-13 200 N. Harbor Drive/ Milwaukee/ 414- 604-1000/ www.indiansummer.org


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