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Native American Food

A Healthier Way of Living

Guts and Grease: The Diet of Native Americans

by Sally Fallon and Mary G. Enig, PhD

Politically correct paleodieters also ignore the fact that the Indians hunted animals selectively. The explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson, who spent many years with the Indians, noted that they preferred “the flesh of older animals to that of calves, yearlings and two-year olds. . . It is approximately so with those northern forest Indians with whom I have hunted, and probably with all caribou-eaters.” The Indians preferred the older animals because they had built up a thick slab of fat along the back. In an animal of 1000 pounds, this slab could weigh 40 to 50 pounds. Another 20-30 pounds of highly saturated fat could be removed from the cavity. This fat was saved, sometimes by rendering, stored in the bladder or large intestine, and consumed with dried or smoked lean meat. Used in this way, fat contributed almost 80 percent of total calories in the diets of the northern Indians.11

Beaver was highly prized, especially the tail because it was rich in fat. But small animals like rabbit and squirrel were eaten only when nothing else was available because, according to Stefansson, they were so low in fat. In fact, small animals called for special preparation. The meat was removed from the bones, roasted and pounded. The bones were dried and ground into a powder. Then the bones were mixed with the meat and any available grease, a procedure that would greatly lower the percentage of polyunsaturated fatty acids, while rasing the total content of saturated fat.12 When a scarcity of game forced the Indians to consume only small animals like rabbits, they suffered from “rabbit starvation.”

“The groups that depend on the blubber animals are the most fortunate, in the hunting way of life, for they never suffer from fat-hunger. This trouble is worst, so far as North America is concerned, among those forest Indians who depend at times on rabbits, the leanest animal in the North, and who develop the extreme fat-hunger known as rabbit-starvation. Rabbit eaters, if they have no fat from another source—beaver, moose, fish—will develop diarrhoea in about a week, with headache, lassitude and vague discomfort. If there are enough rabbits, the people eat till their stomachs are distended; but no matter how much they eat they feel unsatisfied. Some think a man will die sooner if he eats continually of fat-free meat than if he eats nothing, but this is a belief on which sufficient evidence for a decision has not been gathered in the North. Deaths from rabbit-starvation, or from the eating of other skinny meat, are rare; for everyone understands the principle, and any possible preventive steps are naturally taken.”13

THE WHOLE ANIMAL

Ruminant animals, such as moose, elk, caribou, deer, antelope and, of course, buffalo were the mainstay of the Amerindian diet, just as beef is the mainstay of the modern American diet. The difference is that the whole animal was eaten, not just the muscle meats.

Beverly Hungry Wolf describes the preparation and consumption of a cow in The Ways of My Grandmothers,14 noting that her grandmother prepared the cow “as she had learned to prepare buffalo when she was young.” The large pieces of fat from the back and cavity were removed and rendered. The lean meat was cut into strips and dried or roasted, pounded up with berries and mixed with fat to make pemmican. Most of the ribs were smoked and stored for later use.

All the excess fat inside the body was hung up so the moisture would dry out of it, recalls Beverly Hungry Wolf. It was later served with dried meat. Some fats in the animal were rendered into “lard” instead of dried.

All the insides, such as heart, kidneys and liver, were prepared and eaten, roasted or baked or laid out in the sun to dry. The lungs were not cooked, just sliced and hung up to dry. Intestines were also dried. Sapotsis or Crow gut is a Blackfoot delicacy made from the main intestine which is stuffed with meat and roasted over coals. Tripe was prepared and eaten raw or boiled or roasted. The brains were eaten raw. If the animal was a female, they would prepare the teats or udders by boiling or barbecuing—these were never eaten raw. If the animal carried an unborn young, this was fed to the older people because it was so tender. The guts of the unborn would be taken out and braided, then boiled too. The tongue was always boiled if it wasn’t dried. “Even old animals have tender tongues,” she recalls.

The hooves were boiled down until all the gristle in them was soft. The blood was also saved, often mixed with flour or used to make sausages in the guts.

The second stomach was washed well and eaten raw, but certain parts were usually boiled or roasted and the rest dried. “Another delicacy is at the very end of the intestines—the last part of the colon. You wash this real good and tie one end shut. Then you stuff the piece with dried berries and a little water and you tie the other end shut. You boil this all day, until it is really tender and you have a Blackfoot Pudding.”

According to John (Fire) Lame Deer, the eating of guts had evolved into a contest. “In the old days we used to eat the guts of the buffalo, making a contest of it, two fellows getting hold of a long piece of intestines from opposite ends, starting chewing toward the middle, seeing who can get there first; that’s eating. Those buffalo guts, full of half-fermented, half-digested grass and herbs, you didn’t need any pills and vitamins when you swallowed those.”15

The marrow was full of fat and was usually eaten raw. The Indians knew how to strike the femur bone so that it would split open and reveal the delicate interior flesh. Eaton and others report that the marrow is rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids but Stefansson describes two types of marrow, one type from the lower leg which is soft “more like a particularly delicious cream in flavor” and another from the humerus and femur that is “hard and tallowy at room temperatures.”16 According to Beverly Hungry Wolf, the grease inside the bones “was scooped out and saved or the bones boiled and the fat skimmed off and saved. It turned into something like hard lard.” More saturated fat the professors have overlooked!

Samuel Hearne, an explorer writing in 1768, describes the preparation of caribou: “Of all the dishes cooked by the Indians, a beeatee, as it is called in their language, is certainly the most delicious that can be prepared from caribou only, without any other ingredient. It is a kind of haggis, made with the blood, a good quantity of fat shred small, some of the tenderest of the flesh, together with the heart and lungs cut, or more commonly torn into small shivers; all of which is put into the stomach and toasted by being suspended before the fire on a string. . . . it is certainly a most delicious morsel, even without pepper, salt or any other seasoning.”17

Sometimes the Indians selected only the fatty parts of the animal, throwing the rest away. “On the twenty-second of July,” writes Samuel Hearne, “we met several strangers, whom we joined in pursuit of the caribou, which were at this time so plentiful that we got everyday a sufficient number for our support, and indeed too frequently killed several merely for the tongues, marrow and fat.”

Certain parts of the animal were considered appropriate for men or women. The male organs were for the men, as well as the ribs towards the front, which were called “the shoulder ribs, or the boss ribs. They are considered a man’s special meal.” For women, a part of the “intestine that is quite large and full of manure

. . . the thicker part has a kind of hard lining on the inside. My grandmother said that this part is good for a pregnant mother to eat; she said it will make the baby have a nice round head. Pregnant mothers were not allowed to eat any other parts of the intestine because their faces would become discolored.”18

SACRED FOODS

All of the foods considered important for reproduction and all of the foods considered sacred were animal foods, rich in fat. According to Beverly Hungry Wolf, pemmican made with berries “was used by the Horns Society for their sacred meal of communion.” Boiled tongue was an ancient delicacy, served as the food of communion at the Sun Dance. A blood soup, made from a mixture of blood and corn flour cooked in broth, was used as a sacred meal during the nighttime Holy Smoke ceremonies.19

Bear was another sacred food—altars of bear bones have been found at many Paleolithic sites. Cabeza de Vaca reports that the Indians of Texas kept the skin of the bear and ate the fat, but threw the rest away. Other groups ate the entire animal, including the head, but recognized the fat as the most valuable part. According to colonist William Byrd II, writing in 1728, “The flesh of bear hath a good relish, very savory and inclining nearest to that of Pork. The Fat of this Creature is least apt to rise in the Stomach of any other. The Men for the most part chose it rather than Venison.” Bear grease was thought to give them resistance by making them physically strong. “We eat it sometimes now and everybody feels better.”20

Bear was also considered an important food for reproduction. When Byrd asked an Indian why their squaws were always able to bare children, the Indian replied that “if any Indian woman did not prove with child at a decent time after Marriage, the Husband, to save his Reputation with the women, forthwith entered into a Bear-dyet for Six Weeks, which in that time makes him so vigorous that he grows exceedingly impertinent to his poor wife and ’tis great odds but he makes her a Mother in Nine Months.”

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