By - Kyle Malinowski
Report on the Health, Diet, and Old Ways of the Blackfeet
The Blackfeet Indians or the Siksikauw (black-foot-people) have a long and rich history in North America. The Blackfeet people were nomadic hunter/gatherers of the Great Plains who relied heavily on the buffalo as their main source of food as meat constituted 90% of their daily diet. The remaining 10% of their diet was filled with roots and bulbs, eggs, and an assortment of wild berries and vegetables. Prior to reservation policy, the Blackfeet’s vast domain stretched from Montana all the way up to northern Alberta Canada offering them tremendous resources and vast hunting grounds. (Wissler 7) Despite being moved to a reservation, the Blackfeet people today feel very fortunate to be one of the six Native American tribes who were allowed to have their reservation on their native lands, as the current reservation is located in Northern Montana by Glacier National Park. (The Blackfeet Today)
Current Health of the Tribe
With the move to the reservations, the establishment of boarding schools, and the eradication of the buffalo as a food source for the Blackfeet, the traditional good health of the tribe was greatly affected. The establishment of a Western diet along with alcohol among the Blackfeet people has contributed to the rise of coronary heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, cancer, diabetes, obesity, osteoporosis, dental caries, periodontal disease, and diverticular disease. According to a medical study, “Recent studies show that the prevalence of heart disease and the percentage of associated premature deaths are higher among American Indians and Alaska Natives than among any other U.S. racial or ethnic group.” (Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention)
Another recent study documents that only 10% of Native Americans have a healthful diet, while 90% have a poor quality diet that needs improvement. The majority of Native Americans have diets that are too high in fat (62%). The study also found that only 21% eat the recommended amount of daily fruit, 34% eat the recommended amount of daily vegetables, 24% eat the daily amount of grains, and 27% consume the recommended amount of dairy products. Native Americans are also four times more likely to report not having enough to eat than other U.S. households. (Christina Flaminiano Garces, Lisa A. Sutherland) This deterioration of the Blackfeet health and diet can arguably be linked to the drastic changes from a traditional tribal diet replaced with unhealthy store-bought food. The addition of daily mental and physical stressors also reinforces a lack of proper nutrition and food imbalance.
Pre-Contact Health and 5 Foods
The Blackfeet pre contact with the Western world had a very healthy way of life as they were a very active tribe due to their hunter/gathering lifestyle, however according to A Blackfoot Source Book published in 1986, “No one seems to have made an exhaustive study of the food of the Blackfoot when they were living their free life.” (Wissler 20) The Blackfeet largely avoided an agricultural lifestyle as they were nomadic, but they still managed to consume large amounts of vegetables and berries in their diet. An observer of the Blackfeet noted, “Their chief subsistence is the flesh of the buffaloes, the deer species, and likewise vegetables.” (Wissler 20)
1. Bison Meat
Bison as mentioned above were the main source of food for the Blackfeet as well as being utilized for a plethora of other important needs such as clothing items, decorations, tools, bowls, cups, utensils, weapons, and medicine. The Blackfeet used every inch of the buffalo for a purpose because they believed it would go against their creator who supplied them with the buffalo to waste any part of one. While the Blackfoot as hunters would kill game all year long, they believed the male buffalo were best to kill in June and the females in October. (Wissler 41)
The hunt of the buffalo was a very special event for the Blackfeet. The men of the tribe would set off in hunting parties with the women and children following behind with the tools necessary to clean and transport the kill. (Lacey 24) The Blackfeet hunters used three different methods to kill the buffalo. The first method was firing arrows into them on horseback, second luring them to fall to their deaths by stampeding them off of a cliff, and finally they would also sometimes lure the buffalo onto ice where the buffalo would fall through and die from the freezing water. The Blackfeet, because of their dependence on buffalo would never build permanent camps, but always be on the move as they had to follow the bison herds in order to survive. This active lifestyle was thus reflected in their diet as the food choices were always simplistic and nutritious. (Lacey 24)
Preparing and Cooking the Bison Meat
The Blackfeet used the meat from a bison for many different purposes; however, for the meat that would be eaten in stews or the ribs for example, there were a few methods for cooking. First, all the meat would be cut up into thin slices and hung up to be cured by the sun and to keep out of the reach of dogs. Once, they were ready to cook the meat it could be prepared either by boiling the meat, roasting the meat on a spit, or broiling the meat on hot coals. To boil the meat which was the preferred method of meat cooking for the Blackfeet, a hole was dug in the ground, and the skin of the animal was then laid flesh side up inside the hole. The meat and water were then placed in the hole followed by red-hot stones which heated the water and cooked the meat.
2. Pemmican- Ingredients- Choice Cut Bison Meat, Wild Cherry Paste (Optional)
Pemmican was a very important food to the Blackfeet because it is very dense, hearty, and nutritious. Pemmican is a mixture of choice cut bison meat and occasionally crushed wild cherries gathered by the Blackfeet women. Once prepared, pemmican was a staple food taken on hunting trips by the Blackfeet men as it is a very filling food. One pound of pemmican is equal to five pounds of meat. The berry form of Pemmican is prepared by first crushing the berries into a paste, then selecting the best cuts of bison meat to dry. The marrow from boiling bison bones is collected and used to prevent burning the meat. The meat is then minced and mixed with the berry spread and sometimes peppermint for flavor and then held over a fire. Once cooked, the meat goes into a bag for storage and is edible at any point forward for the hunter for many months. (Wissler 22-3)
3. Depuyer-Ingredients- Fatty substance taken from a bison’s backbone
Depuyer is the substitute for bread of the Blackfeet. The Blackfeet would usually eat Depuyer in conjunction with lean or dried meats. Depuyer weighs 5 to 11 pounds and can best be described as a fatty substance taken from the backbone of bison. Once the Blackfeet cleaned the Depuyer, it was cooked by being dipped into hot grease for 30 seconds. Once this was done, the Blackfeet women would hang it up in a smokehouse to allow it to smoke up to 12 hours. Once smoked, Depuyer is described as being very tender, sweet, and nourishing. The essential quality of Depuyer though for the Blackfeet was not its taste; but that once the Depuyer was smoked it would last almost indefinitely and satisfy the Blackfeet hunters’ appetite while on hunting campaigns. (Wissler 24)
Haploporus odorus is found above 52 degrees latitude in Canada and Northwestern Europe. It is a polypore – a stalkless shelf-like fungus with pores on its undersurface. It is white, hoof-shaped, and grows on willow trees in conifer forests. Upon close observation one can easily notice the unique characteristic of H. odorus – its smell. The fruiting bodies have a strong odor of anise, kind of like licorice. This smell is strong and persistent, and dried specimens retain their odor. Blackfeet appreciate the smells of plants like sage and sweet grass and used these plants for purification rituals. Because of its strong fragrance and other medicinal properties, Haploporus odorus has been an important fungus in the culture of Aapaisitapii.
We use H. odorus as a spiritual symbol, a decoration of sacred objects and a healing tool. The fungus was used to stop wounds from bleeding, made into an infusion to treat diarrhea and dysentery, and combined with another fungus in an infusion to treat coughs. It was burned to produce healing perfumed smoke, and some elders wore necklaces of pieces of the fungus strung on a leather thong as protection against becoming ill. Indians took this fungus from the willow tree, carved it into smooth ovals, and then decorated them with burnt line patterns. Some pieces of fungus were strung onto leather thongs to create necklaces–have a look at this Blackfeet Plains necklace and ermine ornament Other pieces were used to create medicine bundles – powerful collections of sacred objects. So revered was this fungus that the Aapaitsitapii even used it as an adornment on sacred war robes and scalp necklaces. It’s clear that it was associated with protection and power.
5. Camas Root
The camas root was an important part of the Blackfeet diet that was not meat. The root grows abundantly in certain locations on the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains; once found they were dug up, cooked, and then dried. Camas Root is gathered while in the bloom June 15 to July 15, so a relatively short period of time. The Camas Root is cooked in a large pit with stones on the bottom to which a fire is built upon. (Blackfeet Tribe: How They Lived)
The fire is then stoked for several hours until the stones are properly heated. Once the ashes are removed the pit is lined with grass, and is filled almost to the top with camas bulbs. Four inches of grass, dirt, and twigs are then placed on top of the bulbs. Finally, another fire is built upon the dirt and stoked from one to three days. Once the roots are done, the syrup gathered on the twigs is given to the children, while the roots are spread out in the sun to dry and then are stored away. When consumed the Camas Root is said to resemble the taste of sweet potatoes. (Blackfeet Tribe: How They Lived)
6. Waterfowl Eggs
In the spring, the Blackfeet would collect eggs from ducks and other waterfowl to eat. To cook the eggs, a hole was dug in the ground and filled with water. The eggs were then rested on platforms of sticks. Next to the larger hole, a smaller hole was dug which connected to the larger hole. The Blackfeet would simultaneously also have a fire going in order to heat up hot stones. Once the stones were heated, the large hole was covered and red hot stones were dropped into the water and thus cooked the eggs by steam.
In conclusion, it can be seen as evidenced by the diet of the Blackfeet pre contact why the modern Blackfeet’s diet hardly resembles it in any fashion. The biggest reason for this I believe stems from the fact that bison are no longer an available food source for the Blackfeet which amounted to a substantial part of the traditional Blackfeet diet. Another difference was that the diet of the Blackfeet reflected their nomadic lifestyle, in that all of the food was very nutritious and filling, could keep a long time, and was easily accessible making it a perfect diet for people constantly on the move. Pemmican for instance, while being very nutritious is most likely not on the dinner tables of modern Blackfeet because it was consumed more for its high nutrition than its great taste. The Blackfeet diet was perfectly formed to fit their active lifestyle; therefore, it is unsurprising that modern Blackfeet choose to eat unhealthier food. While the modern Blackfeet can learn how to eat healthier, the new diet most likely won’t include many of their ancestors’ staples.