Indigenous Cuisine

Clay-Baked Trout from Kachina Southwest Grill
Clay-Baked Trout from Kachina Southwest Grill Kachina Southwest Grill

Native American chefs and food producers are taking the U.S. dining scene back to its true roots.

To find the real origin of the words local and sustainable, we should dig deeper into the native culture of the Americas—an ancestral heritage that includes the foods that are truly indigenous to our country. Native American cuisine focuses on the “pre-contact” or “pre-colonization” foods that naturally existed in this country before Spanish and other immigrants introduced new crops and other goods, which in some areas changed the agricultural landscapes and natural ecosystems dramatically.

“We have the ‘magic eight’ indigenous ingredients coming from the Americas that were very important in the Old World and that impacted other cuisines: corn, beans, squash, chili, tomato, potato, vanilla, and cacao,” says Lois Ellen Frank, a chef, caterer, cookbook author, college professor, certified diabetes educator, and cultural diplomat for the U.S. She holds a Ph.D. in culinary anthropology and regularly speaks and writes about Native American culture and food. “In 1491, none of those ingredients existed anywhere outside the Americas,” she notes.

Although cacao was an indigenous ingredient, “It was the French who made it into lovely decadence, but it came from Native Americans,” Frank says. And vanilla, a highly prized item, originated in Vera Cruz, Mexico.

Naturally, because of the expanse of our country, indigenous foods vary wildly by region. Frank explains how academics break up the indigenous food regions into different nations, starting with the Acorn Nation in what is now California; the Salmon Nation in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest; the Piñon Nut (or pine nut) Nation spanning Nevada, Idaho, Colorado, and other parts of the Southwest; the Chili Pepper Nation in parts of California, New Mexico, and Arizona; the Buffalo Nation in the middle of the country, including Texas; the Cornbread Nation in the Mid- and Southwest; the Gumbo Nation along the Gulf Coast; the Wild Rice Nation in Minnesota and Michigan; the Maple Syrup Nation in the upper Eastern states; and the Clambake Nation along the Northeastern coast.

“You can’t say what is a typical Native American dish because there is too much variety in culture and terroir across tribes and nations,” says Chef Sean Sherman, a South Dakota native and Oglala Lakota tribe member. Known as the Sioux Chef, he has become a successful caterer, food truck operator, and educator in the Minneapolis area. He is focused on teaching the culinary curious about “pre-reservation” indigenous foods.

Traditional Ecological Knowledge

Native American cuisine should not be assumed to be local, necessarily; tribes did travel and build extensive trading networks to supplement their diets with new and exciting foods from different regions, says Frank. Call it indigenous or ancestral, or better yet, sustainable in the truest sense of the word.

Frank, who has ties to the Kiowa Nation on her mother’s side and now lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, explains that Native American food culture and preservation revolves around what academics refer to as Traditional Ecological Knowledge, or TEK, a cumulative body of knowledge, beliefs, and practice about working with the foods of your region and being good stewards of the land. TEK is handed down through the generations orally, through songs and stories.



I live in Santa Fe and am very interested in indigenous cuisine. We have a very good indigenous restaurant at the Hotel Santa Fe which is owned by the members of Picaris Pueblo. It is very well liked but I would appreciate any additional articles on First Nations cooking you might publish in the future so that I too would be able to serve these dishes.

I love the North American Native Culture and very interested in more information that you could pass on to me. Thank You


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