Give thanks for what we have received from Native Americans

November 25, 2004
Victoria County Master Gardener


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It's hard to believe that today is Thanksgiving - and there are just a few more weeks until year-end holidays. Where does the time go?

Thanksgiving always seems to get the short end of the stick somehow as everyone gears up for our most beloved holidays of the year - Christmas and Hanukkah. But this year, as in every year since the dreadful events on 9/11/01, we as Americans will hopefully be a little more cognizant of being truly thankful. That being said, I would like to share some of the history of the food of this great holiday and give my thanks to the Native Americans for providing us with the food that we enjoy on Thanksgiving Day.

For most Americans, a "traditional" Thanksgiving meal includes a turkey with stuffing, cranberry sauce, potatoes and pumpkin pie. While there are numerous regional and ethnic variations, the basic menu has not changed much in the last couple of hundred years. The standard menu is not much older than that. Our modern holiday fare bares little resemblance to the food eaten at the three-day 1621 harvest celebration at Plymouth Colony, the event now referred to as the "First Thanksgiving."

A Native American by the name of Squanto was the person responsible for teaching the Pilgrims how to grow foods for survival. Squanto had been kidnapped by an English sea captain and sold as a slave in Spain. Aided by friars, he had escaped, spent two years in London, and finally made his way back to his Indian village of Patuxet in 1619 where he found no living members of his tribe. They had all died of disease.

Squanto had learned to speak English, which made him specially qualified to help the English settlers who arrived in his homeland in 1620 and established Plymouth Colony. He was an invaluable interpreter, and promoted peace between the native people and the Pilgrims, teaching settlers survival skills needed to survive a second winter. He showed them what foods could be gathered or grown in the new land, the most important of which was corn. It was more productive than any cereal crop the Pilgrims knew. (Most of the crop seeds they brought from their country were not suitable for the new climate and soil.) The corn grew well, and was harvested and eaten in the three days of Pilgrim and Indian feasting that we recall today as the first Thanksgiving. Squash, beans, fish, venison and various fowls were also on the menu. There's some suspicion that the "feast," in fact, may have been the Indians' idea.

The Pilgrims, who had nearly starved their first winter, were thankful for the abundance of food. They were especially grateful for Squanto.

As more Europeans came to America, they learned of other native foods from the Indians, including maple sugar, cranberries, clams, pecans and persimmons. Few people today know that more than 50 percent of the foods we eat today were used by the Indians centuries ago. Corn and turkey were only a fraction of the Indian's diet. In addition to hunting wild game, they were also excellent farmers, often cultivating crops in high, arid desert regions that required elaborate irrigation systems. Wild plants were also used abundantly to supplement the diet.

Following is a list of the many foods used by the Indians that we enjoy today: artichoke, garlic, smoked meat, wild rice, peas, potatoes, pecans and other nuts, onions, peppers, turnips, pumpkin, beans, sweet potatoes, oils from nuts, papaya, gourds, peanuts, cucumber, cranberries, popcorn, tomatoes, hominy, squash, sassafras and melons.

The Iroquois believed that the spirits of three beautiful sisters lived in the fields and protected the crops. One sister guarded the corn plants; her hair was like cornsilk. Another sister looked after the bean plants, and the third sister watched over the squash.

Like three close sisters, corn, bean and squash seeds were planted together in one mound. The corn plants grew tall and straight, providing a pole for the bean vines to climb up and around. The squash plants sprawled at the ground. Many Native Americans grew these same three plants together this way.

Native American farmers also made gardening tools out of wood and bone. Digging sticks, which resembled stilts, were used like spades and shovels. A shoulder bone of a large animal was bound to a stick for a hoe. In the Southwest, a bucket of water and a gourd dipper were brought to the field for watering.

Little space is needed to plant a Native American garden. Hoe the soil and make small hills about 2 feet apart, dig several holes in the center of each mound about an inch deep. Drop a few dried corn kernels, several beans, and some seeds from squash, pumpkin or gourd. If there's space, don't just limit the garden to the sister plants. Grow some of the plants that were available to the Native Americans in the wild. Plant green onions, a patch of strawberries or a few sunflowers. While we are on the subject of plants, listed below are a few plants and the ways the Indians used them.

CATTAIL - Nevada Indians used the leaves for chairs and mats. The roots were used in making salads and as cooked vegetables. Root stocks were dried and ground into meal.

JOSHUA TREE - Indians made red dye from the roots of the Joshua tree. The rootlets were also used for weaving patterns in baskets. Flower buds were eaten hot or cold after roasting. They have a high sugar content and were eaten as candy.

WATERCRESS - Indians used watercress for liver and kidney trouble. The juice was used to dissolve gallstones also. The stems grow from wet places or in water - hence the name "watercress," which is now commonly used in salads and to garnish other dishes. It is a member of the mustard family.

CREOSOTE BUSH - The creosote bush was a "cure-all" to the Indians. It was used for stomach disorders, colds and kidney trouble. Powdered dry leaves were used for sores. Strong tea was a tonic.

YUCCA - Indians ate the flowers. The stalks are rich in sugar, and the leaves produce fiber used to make baskets and mats. The Indians also used part of the yucca for soap and cleaning hair.

Native Americans developed extensive irrigation and terracing systems, cross-pollination and various fertilization methods, which are still practiced today. Indian people domesticated more than 150 plants, including six species of corn and five species of beans. Over hundreds of years, native people improved their crops, many of which we enjoy today.

Thanksgiving is about the sharing of meals, friendships and family. Sharing food is also an integral part of Native American culture. Just as our Thanksgiving meal is held to give thanks, the Native American ceremonies are often held to give thanks for the life-giving food, to remember the origin of these gifts, to receive the Creator's continued blessing in providing food and to share nature's gifts.

This Thanksgiving, as we all sit down to the traditional Thanksgiving dinner of turkey, dressing and all the trimmings, celebrate the bounty that we as Americans have enjoyed, and also the American Indian culture that gave this bounty of foods to us.

Happy Thanksgiving from all of us at Victoria County Master Gardener Association!