Potawatomi Native Foods
The Potawatomi tribe is among the Algonquian-speaking people who occupied the great lakes in the early 1800’s. Over time the Potawatomis migrated to Ontario, Kansas, and Oklahoma. Numerous Potawatomi members claimed their identities within the states of Wisconsin and Michigan. These lands offered the tribes’ rich soil, prosperous water, and dense forests full of edible berries and nuts. The Potawatomis lived in harmony with the land by moving with the seasons to allow replenishment of plants and animals. They practiced agriculture extensively and took pride in their staple agriculture products.
Maple sugar was one of the Potawatomi’s most cherished foods. Since they didn’t have salt until contact with the Europeans, maple sugar was used as the main seasoning. For example, maple sugar was added into water, meat dishes, and wild rice for flavor. Although maple tapping was a strenuous process, the Potawatomis anticipated its season. Maple tapping began in the spring during the months of February through April. Families moved near the yellow birch trees and made camp for about a month. In preparation for harvest, men cut wood for the boiling of the syrup and the woman gathered the materials. The process started by cutting holes into the yellow birch trees to start the flow of syrup. Woman collected the syrup by placing their birch bark vessels close to the openings. Once the vessels were full, they were brought back to camp to be boiled. After boiling, the syrup was drained into a cloth and re-cooked in quantities of two to three quarters until it crystallized into sugar.
The newly formed sugar was placed into a wooden trough were it was pounded and pressed with heavy wooden paddles. The crystals were pressed in order to create soft white sugar. The gathering of maple sugar was more than a priority, but also a social event. During maple tapping neighboring Potawatomis exchanged knowledge, traded goods, and arranged marriage ceremonies. The traditions of maple tree tapping are still valued and practiced by the present Potawatomi tribes.
In addition to maple sugar, the Potawatomi tribes frequently harvested wild rice, another of their staple crops. The rice grew in great abundance in shallow waters of lakes. The gathering and preparing of wild rice is hard work. The process begins in late summer from August to September. Men and women journeyed out in the morning in long canoes to collect the rice. Men stood in front directing the canoe with an eighteen-foot forked pole. To propel the canoe forward the pole had to be long and pointy. Women wielded curved sticks to hit ripened rice seeds into the canoe and small paddles to dislodge the grains at the bottom of the canoe. Couples gathered forty pounds of rice a day to bring back to shore. On shore the Potawatomi put the rice into a zinc tub that they leaned over a fire and stirred until baked.
Wild rice initially had a dark brown color that eventually pealed off to reveal its white insides after heat treatment. This process protects it against insects. This allows the Potawatomi to store the rice over winter. Once the rice is baked its moved into a trampling pit where a member with new moccasins stomps the chaff from the grain. The final process separated the rice grains from their chaffs; women performed this task by placing the rice onto trays. The trays were then flipped into the air allowing the chaffs to blow away and the grains to sink. The wild rice has a slightly burnt taste that is usually seasoned with maple sugar. The Potawatomis often ate the rice with corn, beans, squash, and meats. As a treat, they sometimes parched the rice like popcorn. Today, rice fields are protected by the federal government and shared by neighboring tribes. The process has become more modernized with new equipment but traditional harvesting still exists.
The Potawatomis practiced agriculture routinely. Their homes were built next to their crops and gardens for easy access. The Potawatomis cultivated many crops, including “present corn” and their own corn called “Calico corn.” This corn has a sweet taste and is amongst the early sweet corns. Woman gathered the corn in the fall seasons. They used bags made out of elm bark to hold the corn. The corn was boiled, roasted or dried for winter. They collected the corn in bags made of elm bark so they could be buried for the winter. The Potawatomis generally mixed corn with meats and other vegetables. Sweet corns made into bread by soaking the cobs in liquid. Just before the kernels ripened they were sliced off and mashed into paste. The liquid softens the kernels so the paste can be formed into cakes. The cakes are then enclosed in leaves of the basswood tree and placed on hot embers to bake.
Although the Potawatomis were mostly farming tribes, they incorporated meats into their diets. Men were the hunters and responsible for providing their family with meat. They would leave the tribe during the winter seasons and camp within the forest to study animal’s habits and set up traps. In order to guarantee success, the hunters fasted and scarified before going into the forest.
They often hunted animals such as deer, bear, moose, and foxes. The hunters used stone tipped spears and bow and arrows to kill their prey, then wrapped the meat for the return home.
The most prevalent animals hunted by the Potawatomi were deer and buffalo. They hunted deer mostly at night but would lure them by day through various charms. Buffalo and deer played a significant role in supplying the tribe with food, clothing, and tools. Deerskins fashioned into shirts, leggings, and moccasins for men.
Their hooves were sometimes made into rattles for children. Deerskin was often traded with the Europeans, who eventually gave the Potawatomi’s cotton clothing. Buffalo posses a burly fur coat, which satisfied the Potawatomi’s through out the winter. Both Buffalo meat and dear meat were boiled and roasted. The Potawatomi’s boiled the meat by suspending it over a bucket of hot water that sat on top a low fire. Every so often the bones of both animals were crushed up and mixed with dry meat and grease to be eaten later. Deer and Buffalo were used resourcefully amongst the Potawatomi tribes and remain valued.
Today, the Potawatomi own big corporations such as grocery stores, casinos, and health centers. The time changes have influenced the Potawatomi diets. Now they consume more fried products and less traditional foods. Their preparation of meals is less extensive causing a lack of exercise amongst the tribe. The animal meats they once relied on are now contaminated with toxins and high in fat; thus are a poor contribution to their diets. Current Members have recognized these changes in diet and are trying to curb them by educating their community, offering health resources, and promoting a healthy lifestyle.
Potawatomi History." Citizen Potawatomi Nation. 2011. Web. 17 Sept. 2011. <http://www.potawatomi.org/>.
2 Smith, Huron. 1933. Ethnobotany of The Forest Potawatomi Indians. In: Bulletin of The Public Museum of The City of Milwaukee. Vol. 7, No. 1, pp. 1-230. Milwaukee, WI
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6 "Indian Country Wisconsin - Traditional Culture Main Menu." Milwaukee Public Museum. Web. 21 Sept. 2011. <http://www.mpm.edu/wirp/ICW-03.html>.
7 "Potawatomi History." Citizen Potawatomi Nation. 2011. Web. 17 Sept. 2011. <http://www.potawatomi.org/>.
8 Potawatomi History." Citizen Potawatomi Nation. 2011. Web. 17 Sept. 2011.
9 "Indian Country Wisconsin - Traditional Culture Main Menu." Milwaukee Public Museum. Web. 21 Sept. 2011. <http://www.mpm.edu/wirp/ICW-03.html>.