Joe Donnell is a member of the Lakota Sioux tribe in South Dakota. He is also the executive director of Warriors Circle, a ministry that trains indigenous people to be leaders in their communities. As we drove to Eagle Butte reservation, I picked his brain about the Native American diet.
He told me how his forefathers subsisted on gifts from the land such as buffalo and freshwater fish. A favorite in this area is walleye, a fish native to the northern U.S. and Canada.
“I’ve been living off fish for the last couple of months,” Joe said, describing his efforts to improve his health. “And I still cook it in the traditional way — over an open fire. We put a stick through the mouth of the fish and place it whole on the fire. The scales and skin act as a natural barrier to allow the heat to cook the meat without burning it. I cook it until the guts start to boil out of the mouth. Once that happens, cook it for another 5 minutes and then all that’s left on the inside is the meat.”
We laughed about how this might be interpreted in a cook book. And I of course took note that our native brothers and sisters get a healthy dose of omega-3 fats in each bite of their fire-roasted walleye.
He then told me about wild turnips (“timpsila” in Lakota) that were traditionally harvested and eaten raw or boiled into soups. According to the USDA National Nutrient Database, these wild prairie turnips provide protein and energy with minimal fat. And they are a good source of vitamins and minerals including calcium and iron.
“They still grow wild out here but fewer and fewer people pick them now,” Joe lamented.
I found it interesting that Joe’s ancestors were true locavores; they made good use of food sources around them. He described how early tribes would dry buffalo meat into jerky and mix it into a ball with chokecherries — berries native to the northern U.S. These meat-berry snacks required no refrigeration and were convenient high energy foods for long journeys.
“And do you know about bitter root?” he asked. “Pow Wow singers still use it for their throats.”
Sure enough, according to information from the National Library of Medicine, bitterroot (Lakota name, “Sinkpe tawote") is the bitter-tasting root from a plant that was used by native cultures for food and medicinal purposes. It was one of the delicacies eaten by Lewis and Clark on their expedition in 1805 and is the official state flower of Montana.
Although not much research has been able to prove its effectiveness, concoctions of bitter root have been used for centuries for sore throats, coughs and other health conditions.
Sometimes it pays not to ignore the goodness in our simpler basic foods. Thanks for the reminder, Joe.