When Christopher Columbus dropped anchor on the shores of San Salvador in the Caribbean Sea, he believed he had reached India. Because he believed he was in India, Columbus named the inhabitants Indians, a term that was soon used to refer to all the native inhabitants of North America. Today, the term Native American is more commonly used. The Native American diet refers to foods and food practices adhered to by this population.
New settlers in North America had a difficult time learning how to grow food and harvest crops to sustain their colonies through the land's harsh winters. The Native Americans, on the other hand, were accustomed to the climate and the land's nuances, and were familiar with what types of food were available to them during the different times of the year. They did not go hungry as the settlers did. The Native Americans were skilled agriculturists, nomadic hunters, and food gatherers who lived in relatively egalitarian communities where both the women and men had equal responsibilities.
The portal that Columbus opened when he first stepped foot on the soil of the New World in 1492 triggered a steady influx of European settlers, indelibly affecting the lives of Native Americans. However, it was Thomas Jefferson's purchase of the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803 that fundamentally changed the course of Native Americans' future in North America. Hoping to expand the nation's size, Jefferson urged the Creek and Cherokee nations of Georgia to relocate to the newly acquired land. This began an era of devastating wars over land. The many years of struggle between Native Americans and the U.S. government resulted in the near extinction of many Native American tribes.
The most widely grown and consumed plant foods were maize (or corn) in the mild climate regions and wild rice in the Great Lakes region. A process called nixtamalizacion (soaking dry corn in lime water) was used to soften the corn into dough, called nixtamal or masa. This was prepared in a variety of ways to make porridges and breads. Many tribes grew beans and enjoyed them as succotash, a dish made of beans, corn, dog meat, and bear fat. Tubers (roots), also widely eaten, were cooked slowly in underground pits until the hard tough root became a highly digestible gelatin-like soup. It is estimated that 60% of modern agricultural production in the United States involves crops domesticated by Native Americans.
Maple sugar comprised 12% of the Native American diet. The Native American name for maple sugar is Sinzibuckwud (drawn from the wood). Sugar was a basic seasoning for grains and breads, stews, teas, berries, and vegetables. In the Southwest, the Native Americans chewed the sweet heart of the agave plant.
Many tribes preferred broth and herbed beverages to water. The Chippewa boiled water and added leaves or twigs before drinking it. Sassafras was a favorite ingredient in teas and medicinal drinks. Broth was flavored and thickened with corn silk and dried pumpkin blossoms. Native Americans in California added lemonade berries to water to make a pleasantly sour drink.
At marriage ceremonies, the bride and groom exchanged food instead of rings. The groom brought venison or some other meat to indicate his intention to provide for the household. The bride provided corn or bean bread to symbolize her willingness to care for and provide nourishment for her household.
The Native American population, including American Indians and Alaska Natives, once totaled nearly 24 million, with over 500 tribes. The diets of Native Americans varied by geographic region and climate. They lived in territories marked by specific natural boundaries, such as mountains, oceans, rivers, and plains. Hunting, fishing, and farming supplied the major food resources. Native Americans survived largely on meat, fish, plants, berries, and nuts.
Historically, individuals from this population were able to take advantage of freshly caught food and food plucked from the ground, rather than consuming processed food containing additives.
Native Americans' diets are generally too high in fat (62%). Only 21% of Native Americans eat the recommended amount of fruit on any given day, while 34% eat the recommended amount of vegetables, 24% eat the recommended amount of grains, and 27% consume the recommended amount of dairy products. Native Americans are also four times more likely to report not having enough to eat than other U.S. households.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death among Native Americans. Risk factors, such as high blood pressure, cigarette smoking, high blood cholesterol, obesity, and diabetes, are health conditions that increase a person's chance for having heart disease. The more risk factors a person has, the greater chance a person may have for developing heart disease. Sixty-four percent of Native American men and 61% of the women have one or more of these risk factors.
Type 2 diabetes is one of the most serious health problems for Native Americans in the United States. It is estimated that 12.3% of Native Americans over 19 years of age have type 2 diabetes, compared to about 6% of the general U.S. population—a statistic that has caused health experts to say diabetes has reached widespread proportions. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service's Indian Health Service Division, Native American adults are 2.3 times more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes than non-Hispanic whites. The incidence of diagnosis in teenagers (aged 15–19) increased 110% from 1990 to 2009. Diabetes is a major cause of health problems and deaths in most Native American populations. The death rate for diabetes among Native American populations is 34.5 per 100,000 people, which is 1.6 times higher than that of the U.S. general population (21.8 per 100,000). Diabetes rates for Native Americans vary by tribal group.
The diets and food practices of Native Americans have most likely changed more than any other ethnic group in the United States. Although the current diet of Native Americans may vary by tribe and by personal traits such as age (e.g., young versus old), it closely resembles that of the U.S. white population. Their diet, however, is poorer in quality than that of the general U.S. population. Studies have found that only 10% of Native Americans have a healthful diet, while 90% have a poor quality diet that needs improvement.
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U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Indian Health Service, The Reyes Bldg., 801 Thompson Ave., Ste. 400, Rockville, MD, 20852, http://www.ihs.gov .
M. Cristina Flaminiano Garces
Revised by Laura Jean Cataldo, RN, EdD