By Jamie Solis
Before the arrival of Europeans to North America, Native Americans lived in harmony with nature, graciously taking only what they needed from the land in order to sustain their lives. Bound into slavery and onto reservations, many customs and traditions were forcibly stripped away from Native Americans, including their ability to access indigenous and healthy foods. In the spirit of Native American Heritage Month, we’re highlighting the native tribes that currently live in the Inland Empire, with a focus on honoring their customs surrounding indigenous foods. Native Americans continue to have a strong connection with food and the environment, which is a lifestyle modern Americans can learn from—we tend to be disconnected from our Earth and under the illusion that we in fact own it.
November is Native American Heritage month, so there’s no better time to honor those native to this beautiful land. As you sit down to feast with your family for Thanksgiving and participate in traditions like sharing what you’re thankful for, you may be reminded of the first Thanksgiving. Your history book was filled with pictures of pilgrims and Native Americans smiling from ear to ear in front of a plethora of the same food you’re currently enjoying. If you choose to take a more analytic look at the origins and tales that surround the stories of America’s rediscovery, then you can break out from the fantastical myth of this holiday. Only then, you’ll be able to face the harsh reality that the relationship between Native Americans and Puritans was often non-peaceful and brutal.
Your History Lesson
Long before Europeans settled into what is now called the United States, Native Americans lived a simple life, where they hunted and gathered meals as-needed and used simple methods of preparation. Main dishes consisted of a local protein, whether it was fowl, fish or a variety of wild game. When hunting provided an overwhelming supply of food, they would preserve the meat by the means of dehydration or smoking—sure to never waste what they had taken. Often vegetables and meats were mixed together to make stews, and they prepared special dishes for cultural celebrations. The Inland Empire is home to many groups of Native Americans, including Cahuilla, Serrano and Cherokee tribes—all of whom have roots deeper in this soil than the century-old trees. Their food customs are unique, as the regions of each tribe dictate which ingredients are accessible. While corn is the most typical representation of the Native American cuisine, there are many other integral items that make up traditional dishes.
Many modern-day Cahuilla Indians have lived in Cathedral City, Rancho Mirage, Riverside County and the mountains of Palm Springs for thousands of years. With more than 31,500 acres of ancestral lands, the Cahuilla preserve a habitat for Bighorn sheep. According to Michael Hammond, the director of the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum, time-honored foods of the Cahuilla Tribe aren’t typically consumed today. Their indigenous cuisine includes, “Mesquite beans, acorns, chuckwalla, rabbits, quail, sphinx moth larva, chia [and] cactus blossoms to name a few.” Their environment provided a plethora of fresh resources. A food that is customarily used in cultural celebrations is called weewish. This is ground up acorn leached with water. Its resulting texture resembles the mashed potatoes you’d find on your Thanksgiving table, but its unique flavor does not taste anything like potatoes.
The Serrano Tribe also resides within the IE. The valleys, passes, mountains and highlands of San Bernardino, as well as west into the San Gabriel Mountains, North Baldy and Big Bear Lake were all within the territory of the Serrano. A traditional Serrano food called wiic, which is made from the acorns of the black oak tree is still prepared today, especially in celebrations surrounding renewal. The blooms and stocks of the yucca plant are harvested annually. Deer, rabbit, pine nuts and Manzanita berries are also foods native to this tribe and region.
While those of Cherokee heritage living in the Inland Empire are residing outside of the traditional Cherokee boundaries, a non-profit community that is dedicated to preserving the cultural heritage of the Cherokee Nation can be found within the Inland Empire, with a presence most heavily centered in San Bernardino and Riverside. The Cherokee Nation publishes an online cook book that highlights cooking traditions, indigenous dishes and current renditions of time-honored Native cuisine. Simple foods that are commonly found on the Cherokee table are hominy, dried corn, dried fruits, bean bread and wild meats.
Feeding Your Soul
Food isn’t just for nourishing one’s body—it is also an important element for spiritual celebration, social fabric and maintaining a connection with nature. Men are typically responsible for bringing in rabbits and other game animals, while cooking food for the family is largely a duty held by women in Native American families. These largely matrilineal societies are set up where it’s the mother’s role to provide nourishment for her family. She provides the infant’s first meal through nursing, and she continues to lovingly nourish anyone who comes into her home. Therefore, many ancient tribal stories relate food with their familial and spiritual ties.
One tale from the Serrano tribe, specifically the Yuhaviat clan, maintains a connection of Big Bear Lake to their people. This is because the water, plants and trees that supply food in the area are all part of their creation story. They believe their creator, Kruktat, was ill and dying high in the mountains of Big Bear Lake. When he died, the first people mourned his death, and their grief turned into pine trees. These trees began to provide nuts and acorns that fed the families of the Yuhaviat clan. This area still provides the pinon nuts and other foods from the plants that were traditionally harvested by the Serrano people.
Another traditional story that represents the intrinsic connection between nature, family and food comes from the Cherokee Nation. The first woman of the Cherokee people was named Selu, also known as the “Corn Woman.” She lived with her husband and two sons. In the story, her boys discovered the unbelievable origin of the abundance of corn their mother returned home with. They witnessed her placing a basket on the ground, shaking herself, and the corn falling into the basket from her body. They thought she had to be a witch, and they decided to put her to death. Selu read her son’s thoughts and told them precise instructions they must follow after killing her to ensure they still received corn. However, the boys executed Selu’s instructions incorrectly and because of that, corn now needs to be planted and tended to in order to grow. These stories demonstrate how deeply food is integrated into the belief systems and social fabric of Native American communities. They are sure to practice respecting nature, and they always leave enough resources behind to ensure next year’s harvest.
Although the Serrano people use animals for food, they treat nature and animals with the upmost respect, because they believe that animals and plants were once people who have transformed into other forms. According to a Serrano legend, the origin of deer (a staple in Serrano’s diet) came from people who had transformed into deer by their Lord’s request. The appreciation of the sacrificing of each animal’s life was not taken lightly. Large game was only killed after special ceremonial rituals were performed. Often the rituals included prayers, singing and dancing that lasted throughout the night and into dawn. Plants were given this same type of respect because of ancient stories and traditions. According the Cahuilla people, medicinal plants also came to be through a transformation of people at the request of their Lord. You’ll see that in Native American culture, nothing is taken from the land without a sense of gratefulness.
There are many events where you can celebrate ancient and modern traditions of Native American culture in the IE. Next week, the Cabazon XXXII Indian Powwow is happening at Fantasy Springs Resort Casino. Rain or shine, this powwow is being held inside their event center, starting on National Native American Heritage Day, Friday, Nov. 29th and going throughout the weekend. Contrary to popular belief, Powwows are not just for Natives, non-Natives are more than welcome to come and join in on the celebration as well. There will be arts and crafts, food, shopping and traditional singing and dancing, as well as inner-tribal, which is an opportunity for non-Natives to join the circle and dance alongside Native Americans to the drum beats.
Celebrating with singing and dancing has always been a way for Native Americans to show their thanks for the harvest—it’s a colorful way to show gratefulness for a successful hunt and abundance of crops. The Director of Cultural Affairs for the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians, Judy Stapp, shared with the Weekly, “Native Americans have always have taken care of Mother Earth. They would never over-harvest. They knew they had to take care of Mother Earth, because Mother Earth took care of them.” If you’re interested in giving thanks for a lifetime of great food, and maybe even trying out some new Native dishes, Stapp informed us that this celebration would not be complete without some favorites.
Food booths will be selling many Native foods, including fried bread. This Native American tradition in California and throughout the United States somewhat resembles a puffy tortilla that is then filled with meat, honey or modern fillings like strawberry shortcake. There are plenty of meats prepared over an open fire, as well as a vendor selling buffalo burgers, buffalo being a very traditional Native meat. Another booth specializes in Navajo food, which usually consists of lamb with green and red chili. Bring the family to experience the food and dance, and leave with an understanding of Native cultural values.
American culture is vastly different from the traditional ways of the Native Americans. While they had a strong appreciation for nature and its many gifts that sustain life, modern day Americans tend to take Mother Earth for granted, with an abundance of travesties to our environment—including industrialized “necessities” that pollute the air and water and factory farms that exploit billions of animals that are treated as commodities instead of living beings. Part of the Native American culture that still exists today is utilizing natural resources, without taking more than what’s needed to sustain life. It is important to appreciate and emulate these fading cultural values in our modern society. With Thanksgiving just around the corner, take the time to give thanks for Mother Earth’s life-sustaining gifts.