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Food The Indians Ate

SASKATCHEWAN INDIAN      AUGUST 30 1975      v05 n16 p16  
Indians of long ago obtained their food mostly by hunting, fishing and gathering. Some groups, like the Navaho in the States, the Pacific Coast Indians of British Columbia and the Micmac and Algonquin people of eastern Canada learned to grow vegetables and to domesticate some animals. They usually had a supply of food on hand and were not as tied down to searching for food as were most of the other Indian groups.

This early type of agriculture was not like modern farming because methods were crude and simple. There were no implements, no fertilizer, nor registered seed. The early farmer would simply dig holes into which seeds were planted. Apart from the occasional weeding, everything else was left up to nature. When the land was no longer fit for growing crops, the whole camp would move to a more suitable location.

The Indians of Saskatchewan were not farmers. They were nomads who followed the herds of buffalo and caribou. These and other larger animals such as the moose, elk and deer not only were a source of food. Their hides were used to make clothing and shelter as well.

In addition to the large animals, smaller game like rabbits, squirrels and porcupines were also hunted for food. Game birds, which include ptarmigan, grouse, geese, and duck, also added to the Indian's food supply. Fishing was done in areas where there are many lakes and rivers. It is interesting to note that Cree men did not like to fish. Fishing required no courage and very little skill and so was a task not worthy of their attention. Times have changed though and nowadays, there are many fishermen among the Crees.

All kinds of plants and berries were gathered for food. Raw or cooked, they added to the Indian's diet. They could be cooked alone, boiled with meat to make "Indian soup; or mixed with the dried and pounded up meat to make pemmican.

Many plants were also gathered to be used as medicine. There are still many people today who rely on herbs to cure their oilnesses.

Hunting of large game was a job for the men. Until the arrival of the horse, the men had to stalk and hunt on foot. There were several ways of hunting. The animals' were either chased over cliffs, thus crippling them and making them helpless. Or, they were driven into a closed-in area called a pound. After the animals were trapped, it was an easy task to kill them using bows, arrows, spears and clubs.

The arrival of horses and guns made hunting a lot easier, but they also caused the near extinction of many of these animals. The hunting of smaller animals and game birds, the fishing and gathering of plants and berries was usually left- up to women, older boys and the old people. There were many types of snares and traps which enabled the Indian people to add to their food supply. Gathering was a time-consuming job. The people had to search and gather those plants which could be eaten or used for medicine.

The Indian people's closeness to and respect for nature was shown in the ways they handled their food. Nothing was wasted. What could not be eaten right away was dried and stored away for the future, to be eaten in the winter and when hunts were not successful.

When an animal was killed or plant picked, a small offering of tobacco was put in its place and a prayer said to Kesai Manito (Good or Kind Spirit) thanking him for giving them food. An apology was also directed to the animal, it had been killed out of need and not for sport. As well, a part of an animal's body was offered so the spirit of the animal would give the hunter continued good fortune.

Many of the foods which Indians have always eaten were unknown to Europeans until after their arrival in the Americas. Corn on the cob which is so popular, especially at this time of the year was never grown in Europe. Neither was there any Christmas turkey, not jack-o-lanterns until explorers introduced turkeys and pumpkins to the Old World.

Painting by Ray McCallum