Native American Diet: How It's Still a Part of our Diet Today - A Lesson Plan

Native American Diet: How It's Still a Part of our Diet Today - A Lesson Plan
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Fun with Food


Start with some of the Basics:

Corn, Beans, Squash, Sunflowers, Tomato, Potato, Yam, Strawberry, Wild Onions, Peppers

Have students see which foods they can think of that they see at the grocery, at school, home and in restaurants that have their origins in Native Culture.

Test their knowledge and have each student bring a food package from home, preferably empty. Chips, bread, ice cream, nuts, eggs, chicken, ketchup, maple sugar, cereal, snacks, popcorn, jelly, soda pop can, hot chocolate package, frozen dinner carton, etc.

*Make sure the ingredients list is still intact.

Make a list on the computer, overhead, or chalkboard using the two categories below.



Have students see how many foods from the packages brought in (first without looking at the ingredients), they will select for each category

Now have students exchange packages and look at the ingredients. Which ones contain something like high fructose corn syrup, etc. that now changes the number of items in each list?

If there is an ingredient in a sauce or packaged food that had its origins among Native Americans, if that was taken out, would the product be the same? Is it really a product of Native origin then, if there is only one ingredient in it?

Objective: To make students aware of how much impact the origin of Native foods have had on our modern diet and economy.

High School students:

Select a Native American Food from this list: Corn, Beans, Tomato, Potato

Have them research the possible origins of the food, how was it discovered, cultivated, developed, and how did it travel from its place of origin to the Ohio Valley and Great Lakes Region?

Have them see what impact that food has on our culture- such as which foods we would most likely not have or would be flavored differently, or look differently from what we know.

Example: Selection: Tomato

How many modern food products do we use tomatoes in?

Soup, BBQ, Food Coatings, Pizza, Pasta, Stews, etc.

What world impact does this product have? How many countries now grow this product? What are the exports of this product and where do they get exported to?

What would you suggest we substitute for tomatoes if we did not have them?

If corn is chosen, have students find out how many products, food and non-food items are created with by-products of corn.

Native Ingredients

Which of these foods are Native or have an ingredient that is from the Native people**? Circle those that apply.**

Coca Cola, Peanuts Roast, Beef Corn, Flakes, Corn Chips

Macaroni, Cornbread, Potato Chips, Spaghetti Sauce, Strawberries

Mashed Potatoes, Turkey, Chocolate Cake, Hamburger. Sweet Potatoes

Chicken, French Fries, Venison, Pizza, Popcorn, Maple Sugar

Pumpkins, White Bread, Vanilla Ice Cream, BBQ Ribs, Taco Shells, Cocoa Puffs

Pop Corn, White Rice, Sweet and Sour Chicken, Cheetos, Ketchup (Catsup)

Mayonnaise, Beans, Bagels, Lettuce, Tomatoes, Baby Formula, Yogurt, Sirloin Steak

Food of the Native Woodland Indians


Depending on time period and location, plants provided as much as 60-70% of the food supply. Wild herbs and nuts were collected from the woods where corn, beans and squash were grown in gardens.

Flint Corn Was Used to Make Hominy

Maize or Corn, several varieties of beans, squash, pumpkins, lettuce, onions, and carrots were grown in Native Woodland gardens beginning around 2,000 years ago. The Miami were known for a special white corn that they grew. Natives grew peanuts in the southeast. The women of the upper Wabash and southern Great Lakes cultivated potatoes, sweet potatoes, cranberries, and planted apple and peach trees. They also raised gourds for use as utensils, water containers, and rattles.


Men caught fish, trapped small game, and birds as well. Long distance hunts were a family matter in the 17th century when entire villages moved into the western prairies to look for large animals such as Bison, Elk, Deer, and Bear. Smaller animals such as skunks, raccoons, beaver, otter, wild cats, coyotes, and muskrats were used for feasts, and the pelts for trade.


Trading the surplus of any crop was a goal of the Piankeshaw, Potawatomi, Miami, and Shawnee who gained material goods such as obsidian, copper, and shells from distant locations. Later, those same skills that were used by native women to grow crops and share the surplus proved to be the salvation of the St. Joseph Potawatomi, many of whom migrated to the northern half of the Wabash Valley in the 19th century. The women who had been nurtured in the arts of gardening and plant rotation nurtured another form of revenue from the surplus. They became exceptional in the trade, and bartered very successfully for cloth, iron kettles, sewing supplies, beads, silver jewelry, tools, and firearms. From records left by William Burnett concerning his business trade in the St Joseph Valley of Michigan, it is clear that when the Potawatomi did not go on their winter hunt and remained close to their villages, surplus agricultural produce paid for trade goods. His wife, Kakima was instrumental in supervising these activities among her Potawatomi relatives.

More Information

To find more information on Native foods, you can go to these websites: This is an excellent site for teachers and students to go to when getting started in researching information on Native Americans, especially those of the Northeast. They have a very large selection of Native Amerian receipes that probably will not be found elsewhere. The resources utilized are good to excellent and can be trusted for classroom use. This is the site of Jessica Diemer-Eaton. She came to Indiana and worked for Piankeshaw Trails Educational Park for several years. She specializes in Native Woodland foods, and food preparation. Trusted source. - A history of the potato. - Information about the three sisters.

Books on Native Foods:

Densmore, Frances, how Indians Use Wild Plants for Food, Medicine and Crafts, Dover 1974

Divina, Fernando, and Marlene, Foods of the Americas: Native Recipes and Traditions, Ten Speed Press, 2004, 240 pages

Hartman, Sheryl, Natives Along the Wabash & Ohio Teacher Resource Book, Piankeshaw Trails Publishing 2010, 188 pages of illustrated activities, reproducibles, background on Native Woodland Cultures, wigwams, longhouses, crafts, and more. Order from

Nearing, Helen and Scott, The Maple Sugar Book, (A Goodlife Center Book) Chelsea Green Publishing,2000 , 305 pages (Maple Sugar played a vital role in Native Woodland Culture. It has ancient roots but the exact origins are a bit of a mystery. There is academic debate as to whether true maple syrup could have been produced by Natives only using clay pottery and bark containers. Many scholars believe that the sugar was in granulated and caked forms only prior to the introduction of brass and iron kettles. There is a great deal of research that still needs to be done on the subject.)

Weatherford, Jack, Indian Givers, How the Indians of the Americas Transformed the World,Crown Publishers 1988

Suggestions for Video or DVD

History Channel, Modern Marvels, Corn, Aired Thursday,February 18th, 5pm 2010

Discovery Channel, How Suff Works, Corn