Lakota Traditional Foods
Food is Sacred
The Lakota believe that food is sacred. Without food there is no life, and food is therefore given proper respect.
The Lakota developed many ingenious ways to obtain food in the unique environment in which they lived. Men and women each had separate, well-defined roles in obtaining food.
The primary food source was American bison, an excellent source of healthy, low-fat protein. The traditional diet was supplemented with other game, fish, fruits and vegetables that were gathered or traded.
As foods and the customs surrounding them are so important to the survival of a people, there are many stories and ceremonies concerning Lakota traditional foods.
The Importance of Bison to the Lakota
The most important food source for the Lakota was the buffalo, or American bison. Pte Oyate is the Lakota name for the Buffalo Nation.
The Pte Hcaka is the true bison. The Lakota tell many stories about these massive bison, but it was not until the year 2004, when an enormous skull, ranging 7-8 feet across the horns, was found in the Missouri river by divers that outsiders began to believe these stories as well.
In pre-contact times, bison were so abundant that it was said that you could walk on their backs across the Great Plains from Mexico to Canada.
There are at least 17 different Lakota words for various kinds of buffalo. Some of the names classify buffalo by age, such as Pte heste (a two year-old) and Pte he yuktan (a four to six year-old).
Other words refer to a buffalo's sex; Pte tabloka is a bull, and Pte winyela is a cow. Buffalo are also classified by special qualities. Pte wiyela Iyauhapi is the lead cow, whom all her herd follow.
Knowledge of the lead cow was very important to hunters. The lead cow of a herd would be watched very intently by scouts prior to a hunt. The scouts could determine where the herd would be in 2-3 days by watching the lead cow's movements. The scouts would then go back to camp and round up the people for a big communal hunt.
Although buffalo were the primary food source, the Lakota hunted other animals as well. Big game included Hehaka or elk, Mato (bear), Nigesan (antelope), and 2 types of deer - tahca sinte sapela, the mule deer, and tahca sinte ska, the white tailed deer.
Smaller games included such animals as jack rabbit (mastin sapa), Pahin (porcupine) and pispiza (prairie dog).
Wohanpi is a traditional soup, still very popular in Lakota Country today. In years past, wohanpi would have been made with bison meat, prairie turnips and blo (wild potatoes). Today it is made from bison or beef, potatoes and other vegetables. If using bison, remember to decrease cooking time. Bison has much less fat than beef and if overcooked, it can get very tough and hard to eat.
- 3 c. cooked cubed beef or bison meat
- 6 c. beef broth
- 3 medium potatoes
- peeled and cubed
- 3 medium carrots
- cut in 1/2" slices
- 1 T. Worcestershire sauce
- salt and pepper to taste
- Add the cooked meat to the broth in a stock pot. Add carrots, potatoes and Worcestershire sauce. Simmer over low heat for 45 minutes. If using bison, add the meat to the pot in the last 15 minutes of cooking. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Wasna (pemmican) was and still is a popular way to preserve meat.
First the meat would be braised or wagagayapi. Every woman had an Inyan gmegmela, or round cooking stone that she used to cook on.
The meat would then be wakapapi, pounded to a pulp on an Inyan blaska or large, flat stone with a smaller stone.
When it was the consistency of powder, the meat would be wasnayapi, or mixed with marrow fat and poured into rawhide bags.
Melted fat would be used to seal these bags and in this way the wasna could keep for 3-4 years.
The meat would sometimes be mixed with ground berries or even tinpsila (bread root) to make other variations of wasna.
Wasna is a sacred food that is still used in certain ceremonies today.
Make Your Own Wasna
Wasna is a traditional energy food that was used when fresh meat was not available. It was also used "on the road" when Lakota were hunting or moving camp as it is dense and filling but also light, portable and requires no cooking.
Traditional wasna was made by combining dried, pounded bison meat with dried chokecherry patties. Tallow held the mixture together.
I have made dried, pounded meat the traditional way and the whole process takes about a month. Give it a try if you'd like, or save yourself a lot of time by finely shredding beef or bison jerky in a food processor.
- 2 c. shredded beef or bison jerky
- 1 c. chopped tart berries (chokecherries tart (sour) cherries or cranberries work best)
- 6 T. beef tallow or vegetable shortening
- Shred the jerky and berries in a food processor. Mix in the tallow or shortening and stir until well incorporated. Form the mixture into patties and dry in a dehydrator or refrigerate and eat within 3 days.
Buffalo and Berry Energy Bars
If making your own wasna isn't your cup of tea but you'd still like to try it, you can purchase Tanka bars and Tanka bites. These are bison and cranberry wasna bars made on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
Fruits and Vegetables
The Lakota people gathered fruits and vegetables from the local environment as well. They didn't cultivate crops themselves, but did trade with other groups who did. Some foods that were gathered include timpsila (wild turnips), blo (wild potatoes) and psin (wild onions).
Wild potato (blo) or hog nut is a small bluish root that grows abundantly along Potato Creek on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
There are actually three types of timpsila plant; the primary type is the bread root or scurf pea. These would be gathered in June after the plants flowered, braided and hung to dry. After drying the timpsila would be ground to a powder for future use.
The Mato timpsila was also used, similar to regular timpsila. This is the tall scurf pea and the roots of this plant resemble fingers. The Cheyenne timpsila was also used; this is called the desert biscuit root. Traditional bread was made from tinpsila cakes and dried marrow stuffed in intestines.
Psin or wild rice would be traded from the Ojibwes to the East. Wagmiza or corn was used in many ways. Wastunkala was corn that was cooked and then dried. This was a popular ingredient in wohanpi or soup (along with papa and timpsila, which comprise the classic wohanpi).
Corn removed from the cob is referred to as wagnu and corn dried on the cob is wahunwapa. The ears of corn were roasted, usually wacokin or roasted in the ground, then the ends were braided together and the braids hung on the south side of the lodge to dry. When ground up after drying, corn can be used to make another variety of wasna.
Berries were popular with the Lakota people and there are several varieties available in the local environment. Perhaps the most popular in the canpa or chokecherry. The berries were picked in July. After picking, the berries are pounded into flat cakes and then dried for future use.
Berries would also be made into wojapi, or berry gravy. This gravy was traditionally thickened with timpsila flour, buffalo berry or huckleberry leaves.
Wipazutkan is a berry like a blueberry (called the service berry or June berry). It grows wild in the Black Hills. Uja refers to dried berries that are later soaked in water to rehydrate. Other berries include Mastinca pute (buffalo berries), Waziskeca (strawberries), and Takanhecala (raspberries).
Make Your Own Wojapi
Wojapi is a traditional berry soup enjoyed by the Lakota. Before European contact, wojapi was made with dried chokecherry patties. Dried/powdered timpsila (prairie turnip) was used as a thickener. These days, wojapi is made from a variety of berries either fresh, frozen, dried or canned. Most people use cornstarch as a thickener nowadays. This recipe uses frozen berries.
- 5 pound bag of frozen berries (cherries
- blueberries or mixed berries)
- 2 cups of sugar or to taste
- 8 cups water
- 4 T. cornstarch dissolved in cold water
- Put the frozen berries in a stock pot with water and simmer uncovered until softened (about 1 hour). Mash the berries with a potato masher or immersion blender. Add the dissolved cornstarch slowly, stirring, until well incorporated. Wojapi can be enjoyed warm or cold. A favorite way to eat wojapi in Lakota country is with fry bread.
Give chokecherries a try
The Benefits of Returning to a Traditional Diet
As we can see, the Lakota people developed many methods to obtain food from their unique environment. The bulk of the diet consisted of meat sources, primarily buffalo. The diet was rounded out with vegetables, fruits, and other plant foods.
This traditional diet is in sharp contrast with the commodity foods the U.S. government began sending to the reservations to fulfill Treaty obligations. With no more bison left to hunt and only commodity foods to subsist on, the Lakota were forced to move from a healthy, natural, high protein diet to an unhealthy, unnatural high carbohydrate diet.
Prior to the 1930s, diabetes was unknown in Indian country. After this time, consumption of the new, unhealthy diet led to the epidemic of diabetes that is seen in Indian country today. It would be a great benefit if people were able to move back to eating a healthier, traditional diet.
Learn More About Traditional Foods
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