From Alaska to Florida, from Maine to California, our ancestors enjoyed an abundance of healthy foods. Sometimes they had to work very hard, even risk their lives, to land the game, but the meat was fresh, healthy, hormone- and antibiotic-free. There was a variety of vegetables and grains as well as fruits and berries available in different areas. If we were able to return to a strictly traditional diet, in most cases it would be far more healthy for us than the diets most of us are eating today.
Because we are much less physically active these days, we don't need as much energy from our foods as our ancestors did. So maybe we would need to eat less fat (from whales, for example) and fatty meat as well as add less fat (suet) to certain foods.
But if we learned more about our native foods, learned what was healthy about them and, as much as possible, incorporated them or similar modern foods into our diets, we would have fewer problems with overweight, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol - and some cancers..
Fish and game
Fish, wild game, poultry and shellfish offered important body-building protein to our ancestors. Today it is still true that the protein is perfect for our bodies, but we have to know where to fish and hunt, what may be in the wild meats, and how to prepare them.
Know your rivers, streams, lakes and oceans. You may be eating fish with toxins from farming, manufacturing or just waste-dumping. The streams that used to be pristine are now usually contaminated (by humans and other animals) with germs, especially giardia, which can cause severe diarrhea and weight loss.
It is important to know how to handle, dress and cook the game as well. Tularemia (rabbit fever) can be caught from dressing infected rabbits with the bare hands (so wear gloves). Bears of all kinds can carry trichinosis. So it is very important to cook bear meat until it is well done, to at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit. The trichinosis is not killed when bear meat is frozen. Likewise rabbit meat needs to be cooked till well done to prevent transmitting the infection.
These wild sources of protein are healthy whether cooked or dried.
Berries and fruits
Those who live in the northwest know of the abundance of blackberries. Different regions of the country have their local berries, which while time-consuming or prickly to pick in many cases, are excellent sources of vitamins and natural sugars. Many of our cultures combined berries with dried meat (and often fat) to make foods such as pemmican. These foods had all three basic food groups (protein, fat and carbohydrate), were easily portable and stayed nourishing for weeks, long past the natural availability of fruits in winter climates.
Special treats in some areas are the huckleberries, blueberries and cranberries.
If you're Indian, you know about beans! Beans of many kinds, especially when boiled (not refried with lard) are very healthy foods.
What kinds of beans? Red beans, navy, kidney, black-eyed peas, white, lima, green, black and peanuts (they are not nuts!) are common examples of beans. These beans are excellent sources of protein and carbohydrate as well as vitamins and minerals. But they're not as good as meats, eggs and dairy for protein - but they can be made better by combining foods.
If you're a vegetarian or just can't afford meat, here are some healthy combinations (some that you will see Indians have been eating for hundred of years) that give you better quality protein together than when these foods are eaten alone:
- Corn tortillas and beans
- Corn bread and beans
- Succotash (lima beans and corn)
- Chili (or other bean soup) with whole grain bread
These beans are also all excellent sources of fiber.
Nuts of many kinds are excellent sources of protein. That would include acorn and the acorn soup often made from them. Acorns have protein, carbohydrate and fat - all in one. Nuts more commonly available to us these days include almonds, pecans, walnuts. They contain some protein (walnuts have more than the other two types), but are best combined with other protein sources for good quality protein. But they do contain healthy sources of fats (unlike the fats from animals which promote heart and blood vessel disease), as well as important vitamins and minerals. Plus they are great sources of fiber.
Vegetables, raw or cooked, are important ways to get healthy carbohydrate with an assortment of vitamins and minerals, as well as fiber.
One of the best known vegetable combinations is the 'three sisters,'corn, beans and squash. These were special to some of our ancestors because they not only were healthy and tasty, but they were a good combination for the soil they grew together in, keeping it fertile.
There are many examples of vegetables used in our cultures for centuries. Common examples include pumpkins, tomatoes and potatoes.
Vegetables grilled, steamed, boiled or broiled offer excellent nutrition while providing color and interesting flavors to our diets.
There are many root foods which are diet staples. They include yucca (cassava plant), turnips, sweet potatoes, beets, even the common carrot to name a few. Most of them are rich in carbohydrates and each has their own array of vitamins and minerals.
Wild rice and maize
Both wild rice and Indian corn are really grains, meaning that they are related to grasses. With wild rice we cook the seeds like other commercially grown rices. With Indian corn, which comes in white, yellow, blue, red or multicolored ears, its the seeds which we harvest and either roast or boil; dry; or grind into meal. The meal is for such delicious foods as tortillas, breads, puddings. Or it is also blessed and used for ceremonies in some of our cultures.
Corn soup is a healthy mix of corn, broth and a little meat (sometimes salt pork or bacon, lean pork or beef). Corn soup is Indian "chicken soup for the soul."
Herbs and spices
There are some examples of plants which are used for extra flavor, such as wild onions and chilis. Much like the traditional boiled meats and vegetables we see at today's feasts in some areas, our ancestors seem to have preferred to eat their foods plain, appreciating the flavor of the original food itself.
Plants which are used by other cultures for flavoring, for example, sage, are more likely to have medicinal and ceremonial use in Indian country.
Mushrooms are definitely a delicacy in many Indian communities. But as with mushrooms everywhere, it is critical to mushroom hunt with someone who is very experienced and knows the difference between the edible ones and the poison ones. Learn from your elders.
We can't talk about Indian food without talking about soups. Soups have been a staple for a long time and still appear at most powwows to feed the dancers, if not the whole crowd.
Soups may be just corn or wild rice and a few other vegetables. Add a corn tortilla or some whole grain bread and you have good protein, plus the vitamins from the veggies.
Or the soup may be meat and the broth, with or without some added vegetables. In either case it's a good source of protein and even better with the extra vitamins of some veggies.
These simple soups are wholesome sources of protein,
Healthy Cooking Methods
Another really important thing we can learn from our ancestors is healthy cooking. Our ancestors roasted meats over a fire or boiled them. Likewise most vegetables were simply boiled. Tortillas, other breads and some puddings were baked. It seems there was little, if any, fat or oil added. Exceptions were to the dried wintering-over foods such as pemmican, where the fat provided an important source of energy. The other exception is the whaling of the people in the north, who need lots of energy from fatty foods to withstand the cold temperatures.
Until commodities with refined flour and lard came along, and, of course, before people were moved from their traditional hunting, gathering and cultivating lands, there was no deep-fat frying that we know of.
There is much we can learn and adopt from studying the foods and food preparation ways of our ancestors. Incorporating some of these foods and these cooking methods into our daily diets will be healthier for many of us than how we are eating now.