George Catlin, the famous nineteenth century Indian historian, described the Choctaw lands of southern Oklahoma in the 1840's this way: "…the ground was almost literally covered with vines, producing the greatest profusion of delicious grapes,…and hanging in such endless clusters… our progress was oftentimes completely arrested by hundreds of acres of small plum trees…every bush that was in sight was so loaded with the weight of its…fruit, that they were in many instances literally without leaves on their branches, and quite bent to the ground… and beds of wild currants, gooseberries, and (edible) prickly pear." (Many of the "wild" foods Anglo explorers encountered on their journeys were actually carefully cultivated by Indians.)
More tribes were like the Choctaws than were different. Aztec, Mayan, and Zapotec children in olden times ate 100% vegetarian diets until at least the age of ten years old. The primary food was cereal, especially varieties of corn. Such a diet was believed to make the child strong and disease resistant. (The Spaniards were amazed to discover that these Indians had twice the life-span they did.) A totally vegetarian diet also insured that the children would retain a life-long love of grains, and thus, live a healthier life. Even today, the Indian healers of those tribes are likely to advise the sick to "return to the arms of Mother Corn" in order to get well. Such a return might include eating a lot of atole. (The easiest way to make atole is to simmer commercially produced masa harina corn flour with water. Then flavor it with chocolate or cinnamon, and sweeten to taste.)
It is ironic that Indians are strongly associated with hunting and fishing when, in fact, "nearly half of all the plant foods grown in the world today were first cultivated by the American Indians, and were unknown elsewhere until the discovery of the Americas." Can you imagine Italian food without tomato paste, Ireland without white potatoes, or Hungarian goulash without paprika? All these foods have Indian origins.
An incomplete list of other Indian foods given to the world includes bell peppers, red peppers, peanuts, cashews, sweet potatoes, avocados, passion fruit, zucchini, green beans, kidney beans, maple syrup, lima beans, cranberries, pecans, okra, chocolate, vanilla, sunflower seeds, pumpkin, cassava, walnuts, forty-seven varieties of berries, pineapple, and, of course, corn and popcorn.
Many history textbooks tell the story of Squanto, a Pawtuxent Indian who lived in the early 1600's. Squanto is famous for having saved the Pilgrims from starvation. He showed them how to gather wilderness foods and how to plant corn. There have been thousands of Squantos since, even though their names are not so well-known. In fact modern day agriculture owes its heart and soul to Indian-taught methods of seed development, hybridization, planting, growing, irrigating, storing, utilizing and cooking. And the spirit of Squanto survives to this day.
One example is a Peruvian government research station tucked away in a remote Amazon Indian village called Genaro Herrera. University trained botanists, agronomists and foresters work there, scientifically studying all the ways the local Indians grow and prepare food. They are also learning how to utilize forests without destroying them, and how to combat pests without chemicals. The trend that moved some North American Indian tribes away from plant food-based diets can be traced to Coronado, a sixteenth century Spanish explorer. Prior to his time, hunting was a hobby among most Indians, not a vocation.
The tribes who depended little or not at all on animal exploitation for their survival, like the Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, and Chickasaw, are thriving and growing, having assimilated without surrendering their culture. In the past, and in more than a few tribes, meat-eating was a rare activity, certainly not a daily event.
Excerpts of an Article by: Rita Laws, Ph.D.
(Rita Laws is Choctaw and Cherokee. She lives and writes in Oklahoma. Her Choctaw name, Hina Hanta, means Bright Path of Peace, which is what she considers vegetariansim to be. She has been vegetarian for over 14 years.)
This article first appeared in the Vegetarian Journal, September 1994, published by The Vegetarian Resource Group