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Wisconsin’s Indigenous Food Systems

Ask most Wisconsinites to share some traditional Wisconsin foods and you hear a great deal about fish fries, cheese curds, beer brats, Booyah and the brandy Old Fashioned. What you typically do not hear about are the traditional foods of Wisconsin’s indigenous people that lived off of the prairies, marshes and forests long before settlers arrived, bringing the native foods of their homeland. While the local food movement is alive and thriving in Madison, little of those goods focus on indigenous foods and the region’s historically local foods. Do I sensean opportunity for a new food trend? 


The food system of the Great Lakes tribes (often called the Woodland tribes) was based on hunting, fishing and the gathering of a wide range of wild edibles. Although there was some farming, agriculture was supplementary to hunting and gathering, and consisted mostly of corn, beans and squash. This heavy reliance on the prairie, forest and streams for sustenance demanded a lot of time and energy. These were people that were one with the Earth and were very much aware that they were part of a much greater system that sustained them. The seasonal fluctuation of the land and the life cycle of native plants and animals kept them constantly n the move. Finding and nurturing reliable food and water sources were a large part of daily life. 

Villages were fairly permanent but the quest for food made mobility a priority. Temporary camps were set up as the seasonal cycle pushed tribes between different harvesting areas and processing points. Often tribes would traveled hundreds of miles within the radius of their villages to hunt and gather food, as well as to trade and meet with neighboring tribes. The Woodland tribes circled back around to their villages in the fall to harvest what little crops they had and prepare for the long winter. 

The connection to and the knowledge of the native plants and animals of the Great Lakes region was of vital importance. The Woodland tribes’ understanding of the use and properties of native plants was far beyond that of Western science of the time (some might argue that it is still superior today). The wisdom of natural cycles taking only what you need and working with the environment, not against it, created the backbone to the Woodland tribes’ food system. The Great Lakes region had an abundance of wild foods such as wild rice, nuts, berries, tubers and countless others. Not only did plants make up an essential part of their diet, but numerous medicines and remedies were also crafted from the great variety of native plants. Farming was not a priority since Mother Nature provided everything they needed to sustain themselves. When the berries were past their prime, then on to the wild onion fields and then on to the wild potatoes and so forth and so on, always only taking what they needed and wasting nothing. 

Hunting and fishing were also full-time engagements. Deer, moose, bison and many other smaller animals made up a considerable part of the Woodland diet. Fishing was an all-year affair. There is no shortage of water in the Great Lakes region and the tribes took full advantage of this bounty with nets, traps and lures. Aside from providing much-needed nutrition in the harsh winters, many of the furs and coats of these animals helped the Natives stay warm. Again, nothing went to waste. 



Before American settlers began to appear in larger numbers in the early-to-mid nineteenth century, numerous Native people were the original stewards of this beautiful land we now call Wisconsin. For centuries, indigenous tribes fished, hunted and gathered a wide range of wild edibles in harmony with the seasons and its natural systems. That all changed dramatically as Americans flooded into Wisconsin chasing mining opportunities and the “American dream.” This was unlike the arrival of the first few white settlers from France and England. 

Displaced tribes such as the Oneida Nation shared stories of the American Revolution, the annihilation of entire tribes, the empirical creation of reservations and the fear of the unknown. The Oneida Nation was once a part of the Iroquois Confederacy (Haudenosaunee) centered in present-day New York state until they were forced to either live on a reservation or flee west to Canada and Wisconsin. The concept that the United States acquired present-day Wisconsin from the Treaty of Paris (1783) and now “owns” the land was lost on the Native people. How could you own the land?! If anything, you are bound to the land and it is your duty to respect and care for the Earth and all the plants and animals that dwell upon it. 

Not only did settlers force the indigenous people off of their native land, but they destroyed their entire way of life by disrupting the balance and sustenance of their food system. Wild rice, fish, bison and countless wild edibles were replaced with processed wheat, sugar and alcohol, eventually leading Native people away from their traditional foods and to having some of the highest rates of heart disease, diabetes and alcoholism in the world. Much like the rest of the American population, these completely preventable diseases proliferate through unconscious actions, the challenges of modern life, and our current destructive food system. Thankfully that is beginning to change in a large way as people are waking up and realizing that the indigenous people the settlers oppressed, destroyed and stole from, had it right all along. 


There is so much to talk about on this subject that it pains me to leave out so much vital information regarding indigenous food systems, its destruction and consequences, as well as its rebirth. I urge you all to explore the wealth of information there is out there regarding Wisconsin’s Native inhabitants and those of all Native Americans. Even with the brutality and injustice Native people of the Americas had to face and persevere, they are still to this day the greatest advocates for the environmental movement, food sovereignty and their people’s traditions that were all but wiped out. I’ll end this with one of my favorite quotes from Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce: “You must teach your children that the ground beneath their feet is the ashes of your grandfathers. So that they will respect the land, tell your children that the Earth is rich with the lives of our kin. Teach your children what we have taught our children, that the Earth is our mother. Whatever befalls her, befalls the sons and daughters of the Earth. If men spit upon the ground, they spit upon themselves.” 

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