Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Food and the Indians of Canada



[This text was originally published in 1907 by the Bureau of American Ethnology as part of its Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico . It was later reproduced, in 1913, by the Geographic Board of Canada. The work done by the American Bureau was monumental, well informed and incorporated the most advanced scholarship available at the time. In many respects, the information is still useful today, although prudence should be exercised and the reader should consult some of the contemporary texts on the history and the anthropology of the North American Indians suggested in the bibliographic introduction to this section. The articles were not completely devoid of the paternalism and the prejudices prevalent at the time. While some of the terminology used would not pass the test of our "politically correct" era, most terms have been left unchanged by the editor. If a change in the original text has been effected it will be found between brackets [.] The original work contained long bibliographies that have not been reproduced for this web edition. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]


[Consult the article on food and cuisine at the Encyclopedia of North American Indians.]



The areas occupied by the Indians may be classed as supplying, predominantly, animal food, vegetal food, and mixed diet. No strict lines separate these classes, so that in regions where it is commonly said that the tribes are meat eaters exclusively, vegetal food is also of importance, and vice versa. Vegetal food stuffs are (1) pre-agricultural, or the gathering of self-sown fruits, nuts, seeds, and roots; and (2) agricultural, or (a) the raising of root crops, originating in the harvesting of roots of wild plants, and (b) of cereal products, consisting chiefly of maize, grown by the majority of the tribes, and wild rice in the area of the upper lakes, where a sort of semi-agriculture was practised to some extent.


Animal food was obtained from the game of the environment, and the settlement and movements of some tribes depended largely on the location or range of animals, such as the buffalo, capable of furnishing an adequate food supply; while on the other hand, the limit of habitat of water animals, as the salmon, tended to restrict the range of other tribes to the places where the supply could be gathered. No pure hunter stage can be found, if it ever existed, for while the capture of animals devolved on the man and the preparation of food on the woman, the latter added to the diet substances derived from the vegetal kingdom. Similarly no purely agricultural stage with exclusively vegetal diet existed, and no aboriginal domestication of animals N. of Mexico is found except in the case of the turkey and the dog.


In general, in the N. portion of the continent the diet was three-fourths animal food; in the S. part it was three-fourths vegetal; while with the tribes of the coast, mountains, lakes, and plains, it varied according to the food supply. The absence of milk food, other than the maternal lactation, to a considerable extent limited the natural increase of the population. The food supply also changed with the seasons, causing the diet at different periods of the year to vary in its ratio of animal to vegetal constituents, and another feature depended on religious customs and habits which modified or regulated the food used.


Vegetal food comprised a vast array of the products of plant life, of which roots and seeds were the most valuable. The most important food plant possessed by the Indians was maize which formed and still forms their principal subsistence. Following maize in order of importance came beans, peas, potatoes, squashes, pumpkins, melons and chile, which were grown in variety. Uncultivated plants also entered into the dietary, as seeds, roots, and flowers of grasses and other plants, or parts of plants used as greens, for flavouring, etc. In numberless cases wild plants have preserved tribes from starvation when cultivated crops failed. In the S. W., cactus and yucca fruits, mesquite beans, and the agave were most important elements of the food supply. As in Mexico, the roasted fleshy leaves and leaf matrix of the agave were prized as sweet, nourishing food. Tuckaho and other fungi were used for food by the eastern Indians; "tuckaho bread" was well known in the S. The N. Pacific tribes made much use of the sweet inner bark of the hemlock and spruce. Savours, flavours, and condiments, as well as sweets, were valued by the Indian, who was also fond of chewing gum. While salt was tabued by the Onondaga and lye substituted by some of the southern Indians, the former was in general use. In some cases salt was made by the evaporation of the water of salt springs; in other localities it was obtained in crystal form from salt lakes and springs, and commerce in this product was widespread. Chile , which is of Mexican origin, became known throughout the S. W , and saffron, an introduced plant, is still in use there to flavour and colour food, as are also the yellow flowers of the squash vine. Throughout New England and S. E. Canada sugar was produced by the evaporation of maple sap; in the S. W. it was derived from the willow and the agave. In some localities clay was eaten, either alone or mixed with food or taken in connection with wild potatoes to mitigate the griping effect of this acrid tuber. In general, buffalo, the deer family, and fish were the animals most useful for food. Some woodland tribes depended on deer, while the coast and river tribes usually made special use of fish and other products of the waters. Amphibious mammals sustained the [Inuit], while the porcupine is said to have been the chief food animal of the Montagnais. The range of game animals influenced the range of man in America quite as much as the distribution of food plants predetermined his natural diffusion.


Contrary to popular belief, the Indians, as a rule, preferred cooked food. The [Inuit], whose name signifies 'eaters of raw flesh', ate uncooked meat only when absence of fuel prohibited cooking, or as a side dish. Vegetal food especially requires the agency of fire to render it fit for human digestion, whereas animal food may be consumed in a raw state, certain parts, as the liver, often being eaten in this way. All the edible portions of the animal were put to use, and in many cases both animal and vegetal substances advanced toward putrefaction were preferred, as salmon eggs which were stored in sand, by the Alaskans, and immature corn in the ear, which the Hurons are said to have soaked in water until it became putrid, when soup was made of it.


Among the Pueblo Indians cooking is carried to a remarkable degree of proficiency, approaching in variety and methods the art among civilized peoples. Most tribes knew how to prepare savoury and nourishing dish, some of which have been adopted by civilized peoples. The methods of cooking among the meat-eating tribes were, in order of importance, broiling, roasting, and boiling, the last-named process often being that known as "stone boiling." The tribes whose diet was approximately vegetarian practised all the methods.


The preparation of maize as food involved almost numberless processes, varying with the tribes. In general, when maize reached the edible stage the ears were roasted in pit ovens, and after the feasting the surplus of roasted ears was dried for future use. The mature grain was milled raw or parched, the meal entering into various mush, cakes, pones, wafers and other bread. The grain was soaked in lye obtained from wood ashes to remove the horny envelope and was then boiled, forming ­hominy; this in turn was often dried, parched and ground, reparched and reground, making a concentrated food of great nourishing power in small bulk, which was consumed dry or in water as gruel. Pinole, consisting of ground parched corn, forms the favorite food of S. W. desert tribes. The fermentation of corn to make beer was not generally practised, and it is doubtful if the process was known in America before the discovery. A yeast formed by chewing corn has long been known to the Zuñi and Hopi, at least, and the former know how to preserve it through the agency of salt.


The Iroquois and other eastern tribes cooked maize with beans, meat, or vegetables. The Pueblos add wood-ash lye to their "paper bread," and prepare their bread and mushes with meat, greens, or oily seeds and nuts, besides using condiments, especially chile.


Vegetal food stuffs were preserved by drying, and among the less sedentary tribes were strung or tied in bundles for facility of transportation or storage. The preservation of maize, mesquite beans, acorns, etc., gave rise to granaries and other storage devices. Animal food, from its perishable character, was often dried or frozen, but at times was preserved by smoking. Dried meat was sometimes pulverized and mixed with berries, grease, etc., forming pemmican, valued for use on journeys on account of its keeping properties. Fruits were pulped and dried for preservation. Nuts were often ground before being stored, as were also maize, grass seeds, and the legumes. Tubers were frequently stored in the ground or near the fireplace; the Virginian tribes preserved tubers for winter use in this way.


Infusions of leaves, roots, etc., of various herbs were drunk by the Indians as medicine, but no stimulating beverage of the character of tea or coffee has been observed. Drinks made from fruit, as cider from manzanita berries, used by the tribes of California , and a beverage made from cactus fruit by the Pima and neighbouring tribes of Arizona , are the fermented beverages best known.


Source: James WHITE, ed., Handbook of Indians of Canada , Published as an Appendix to the Tenth Report of the Geographic Board of Canada , Ottawa , 1913, 632p., pp. 169-171.



© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College