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Tribal Thanksgiving - legends and recipes by Ron Skaar


Tribal Thanksgiving
Legends & Recipes by Ron Skaar

by Ron Skaar

Photo by Jon Russo

Three great Indian nations, the Incas of Peru, the Mayans of Central America and the Aztecs of Mexico had refined agriculture long before the Europeans arrived. Wild plants and grasses were cultivated into corn, potatoes, beans, squash, tomatoes, avocados, tapioca, fruits and (thank the gods) cocoa. The Incas excelled at farming while creating some of our most important food plants.

When Columbus “discovered” America he uncovered this treasure trove of new food resources. Native people had been fishing off the New England coast as long ago as 3,000 B.C. While many North American tribes were primarily hunters, other tribes like the Iroquois, had well-tended fields. Southwestern Native American tribes had long been farming corn, beans and squash using an early system of irrigation. Across the land, Native Americans were harvesting up to 100 different crops.  

Indians from Chili to Canada were growing many varieties of beans, including kidney, navy, limas and the scarlet runner. In northeastern Montana the dried beans were cooked by adding hot rocks to the pot by the native “stone boilers”. Further south the Hopi would burn plant species and use the ashes to color foods, such as cornbreads. Rich in essential minerals, these “culinary ashes” added more than just decoration. 

The Northwest Native Americans developed an elaborate nonagricultural society, relying on the rich resources of the area for centuries. Potlatch, the Chinook Indian word for “gift” is a feasting ceremony, where in the past the meal consisted of salmon, along with clams, mussels, wild greens and berries. The goal of this ceremony was to use up as much of the hosts bounty as possible. Enjoy it all now, for you could be the master of ceremonies next year!

Many tribes summered in New England, where they enjoyed huge feasts of lobsters, oysters and steamed clams. Indians around the Gulf of Mexico searched for oysters in great canoes made from hollowed-out tree trunks. When the canoes returned, baskets of oysters were spread on fires which had been prepared in their absence. The Southern tribes impressed the newly arriving Spanish soldiers with the great oyster bake. But the newcomers thought it was foolish to damage so many pearls with the smoke and heat. 

The natives helped the European colonists learn how to harvest these crops, plus hunt and fish. Our immigrant’s lives were entwined with the traditions of the Native Americans, who had inhabited these abundant lands for centuries. The colonists incorporated all this new bounty into their lives and their cuisine that we enjoy to this day.

Other foods the Indians gave us include strawberries, first cultivated by the tribes of New England and now farmed in all fifty states. North American Indians gathered-up about 15 different kinds of berries, including blueberry, cranberry, raspberry and blackberry, to eat fresh or dry for the winter. Wild plums and wild cherries were a part of their diet. They enjoyed nuts everywhere, often subsisting on them when other foods were scarce.

Algonquians produced maple syrup for a food source and drank the solution as an energy building medicine. Along the shores of the Great Lakes, wild rice has been a basic Indian food for hundreds of years. In honor of “National American Indian Heritage Month” the following recipe for a creamy wild rice soup, incorporating left-over turkey, is included. 

Recipe for Cream of Turkey and Wild Rice Soup by Ron Skaar