Growing up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in the 1970s, I ran wild with my cousins through my grandparents’ cattle ranch, over the hot, sandy South Dakota land of burrs and paddle cactus, hiding in the sparse grasses and rolling hills. We raced over the open plains, and through shelter belts of tall elm trees, the air full of dust and sagebrush. Our dogs chased prairie dogs, pheasants, grouse and antelope, and alerted us to rattlesnakes and jack rabbits.
In late summer, we’d harvest chokecherries and timpsula, a wild prairie turnip, and pick juniper berries off the prickly trees. We camped in the Badlands, sleeping under the stars, and gathered in our family’s rustic log cabin deep in the Black Hills.
Back then, there were no restaurants on Pine Ridge, just one grocery store and a couple of gas stations dotting the immense reservation. Our kitchen cupboards were stocked with government commodity food staples — canned fruit, canned meat, powdered milk, bricks of yellow government-issued cheese, and dry cereals and oats packaged in white cardboard boxes with black block lettering.
Luckily, we also had the birds we hunted, beef from the ranch and eggs from the chickens my grandmother raised. As members of the Oglala Lakota Oyate, part of the Great Sioux Nation, we took part in many celebrations and gatherings like powwows, sun dances, birthdays, weddings, naming ceremonies and cattle brandings, and our moms, aunts and female cousins cooked up contemporary and traditional dishes, like taniga, the Lakota intestine soup with timpsula. The sweet aroma of simmering wojape, the Lakota chokecherry dish, time-warps me back to my 6-year-old self.
I often think of my great-grandfather, who was born in the late 1850s and grew up like any other Lakota boy, riding horses bareback to hunt with a bow and arrow. At the age of 18, he witnessed the Lakota and Cheyenne victory against the United States government at the Battle of the Little Bighorn; he also encountered the aftermath of the Wounded Knee massacre, where hundreds of Lakota men, women and children were viciously slaughtered.
Later, his children were forced into boarding schools, forbidden to speak their Native language, required to learn English and to become Christians. Through the 20th century, these harsh efforts at assimilation began to erase thousands of generations of Indigenous traditions, wisdom and ceremonies.
As soon as I was 13 and legally eligible to work, I got my first job, at a steakhouse in Spearfish, S.D. I knew a little about cooking: As the oldest child of a busy working mom, I was often the one who got dinner on the table for my sister and me. I swept floors, bussed tables, washed dishes, prepped food and eventually became a line cook. In college, I picked up work with the United States Forest Service as a field surveyor, identifying plants and trees in the northern Black Hills, and learning their medicinal and culinary properties.
Through my career as a professional chef, opening restaurants and cafes in Minneapolis, I gained experience cooking Italian, Spanish and other European cuisines. But it wasn’t until I spent time in Mexico, observing how closely Indigenous people live to their culinary traditions, that I realized I had very little idea of what my own ancestors ate before colonization.
So I began to research the history of our land before the Europeans arrived. How did my Indigenous ancestors grow, hunt, fish and then preserve and store their food? Who did they trade with, and where did they obtain their salts, fats and sugars? I met with community elders and connected with Native chefs, historians and academics, such as the ethnobotanist Nancy J. Turner, and the Lakota author Joseph Marshall III, while also discovering rare historical accounts like “Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden,” the memories of a 19th-century Hidatsa farmer who lived in what is now North Dakota.
In piecing together so much of the story that has been lost, I learned that the original North American food system was based on harvesting wild plants for food and medicine, employing sophisticated agricultural practices, and on preserving seed diversity. My ancestors used all parts of the animals and plants with respect, viewing themselves as part of our environment, not above it. Nothing was wasted.
There are 573 federally recognized tribes in the United States alone, and 634 First Nations — Aboriginal groups — in Canada. About one in five Mexicans identifies as a member of an Indigenous group, according to recent figures from the Mexican government.
In 2014, I started a business, The Sioux Chef, with a focus on identifying, sharing and educating people on the authentic Indigenous foods of North America, from Mexico to Alaska, with dishes free of the colonial ingredients Europeans introduced: wheat flour, dairy, cane sugar and even beef, pork and chicken.
Our team connected with Indigenous chefs, farmers, seed keepers, academics and leaders to create menus for feasts that we served in tribal communities. We worked with Indigenous chefs on the West Coast who use wild manzanita berries and acorn to add tang and substance to berry compotes and puddings. We obtained seaweed from Maine to season Atlantic oysters, and white cedar in Duluth, Minn., for a venison roast. Elders tell us they haven’t tasted these flavors since childhood.
Make no mistake: This is not survival fare. These are bright, bold, contemporary flavors for today’s palate.
The Times asked me to choose dishes that, viewed together, form a portrait of Native American food in the United States. The 10 recipes here reflect my team’s work over the past five years, traveling across the country and working in tribal communities.
I am not interested in recreating foods from 1491 — rather, I hope to celebrate the diversity that defines our communities now. And so these recipes offer a glimpse into the range of dishes Indigenous chefs and cooks are making today, and highlight ingredients from the regions they reflect.
For example, in the recipe here from the Pacific Northwest — home of many Indigenous groups, including the Muckleshoot tribe — blackberries add an assertive tang that cuts through the rich flavors of the salmon that has sustained communities there for generations. The contrasting colors are stunning. These two iconic regional and seasonal foods seem so right together.
Through this work, I have become increasingly aware of how much food and history surrounding us goes unnoticed. The greens typically called weeds that get ripped out of backyards make a delicious salad and can be a bold garnish — think of purslane, or wood sorrel. A sprig or two of cedar adds zing and aroma to braised meat and game, as in the bison pot roast with hominy, flavors from the Dakota plains.
The true foods of North America may not be available at every grocery store or even online, and they are not coming from industrial farms: They are seasonal and vary from region to region. To experience true Indigenous foods is to explore the many different ecosystems of plants and animals wherever you are. In many of these recipes, I offer substitutions, but hope readers will want to experiment with true regional ingredients, sustainably harvested.
Chicago, New York and Los Angeles, known for their thriving food cultures, have zero Native American restaurants that represent the same land they are built on. My team and I are working tirelessly toward the day we will be able to drive across this continent in any direction, stopping at Indigenous restaurants and experiencing all the richness of the varied original American cultures.
The 10 Essential Recipes
The American bison that once roamed the Great Plains were considered sacred animals by the Lakota and other people of the region, and served as a critical food source that was celebrated in ceremonies and honored in prayers. According to numbers published by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, there were 30 million to 60 million bison in North America in the 1500s. By the end of the 1800s, settlers had decimated the population. In the late 1990s, the number of bison in North America had grown again, to nearly 300,000 animals in public herds and on ranches. It’s exciting we now have access to this vitally important meat. When it’s slowly braised, the lean, mild bison becomes fork tender; hominy brings substance and a subtly sweet, nutty corn flavor. A small branch of foraged white cedar adds a woodsy note, but juniper berries achieve a similar effect. (View this recipe in NYT Cooking.)
Traditionally, this dish, also from the Great Plains, would include timpsula, the wild turnip that grows in patches across the region. (Old Lakota harvesting stories tell of how the timpsula point the forager from one plant to the next.) In Lakota homes, the turnips are often braided and dried for use throughout the winter. Unless you live in the region, fresh timpsula is difficult to come by, as it’s not sold commercially. It’s also milder and slightly denser than the garden turnips we’ve substituted in this traditional pairing. The agave glaze adds a touch of sweetness to the vegetables, and the toasted sunflower seeds add crunch. (View this recipe in NYT Cooking.)
The flavor of heritage turkey breeds is richer and more pronounced than that of commercial turkeys sold at supermarkets nationwide. Put plainly, these breeds taste more like turkey. Heritage birds are raised outside, pecking at a varied diet. They tend to have meatier thighs and smaller breasts, and a higher ratio of dark meat to white meat. The Onondaga tribe, among others from the Northeastern United States, would have been able to serve them with forest berries, perking up the rich, dark meat with color and flavor. Sparked with mint, this berry sauce is bright and fruity, with just enough acid to complement the richness of the turkey. (View this recipe in NYT Cooking.)
The small tepary beans that grow in the harsh, dry American Southwest are an heirloom variety that has been cultivated and harvested wild by countless generations of Native people in the region. The Diné (more commonly known as the Navajo) seed savers even protected them during the Long Walk of 1864, a brutal forced march to eastern New Mexico, hiding the beans in their clothing. This is an amazing bean that can withstand and even prosper in the most extreme heat and drought. The white variety I use here is slightly sweet and nutty, while the brown variety has an earthier flavor. (View this recipe in NYT Cooking.)
Whole trout makes for a stunning presentation, especially when it is topped with delicate pink roe, which sparkles like gems on top of the fish and imparts a salty, mineral flavor. Trout from the icy Rocky Mountain streams are at their best in late spring, when the ice has just melted. Cooks from the Shoshone tribe, among many others, make delicious meals using the entire fish, wasting nothing: Cheeks and eyes are considered a delicacy, as is the roe harvested from the females, which is prized for its distinct flavor and its relationship to renewal. (View this recipe in NYT Cooking.)
Based on flavors from the Ohlone tribe, this simple pudding doubles as both breakfast and dessert, and gets its silky texture from chia seeds. Though optional, the wild manzanita berries that grow abundantly throughout California make a wonderful addition to this dish. When the berries are ripe, they turn a burned-red hue and become slightly sticky. The flavor is often likened to sour apple, which adds a nice tang when crushed with milder mixed berries, though any combination of mixed berries lends plenty of acidity. Toasted amaranth seeds gives it all a nutty crunch. (View this recipe in NYT Cooking.)
A traditional staple on the Pacific Northwest coast, salmon is considered a sacred food. This dish is often slow-roasted on cedar or redwood spikes near an open fire, giving the fish a beautiful smoky flavor. In the kitchen, searing the salmon in a skillet allows the true flavor of wild-caught fish to shine through. Seaweed harvesting goes back countless generations, and so the salty seaweed is a great accompaniment here, along with the sweet local blackberries, a combination that is natural for the Muckleshoot and other tribes of the region. (View this recipe in NYT Cooking.)
As delicious simmered until tender as it is popped until puffy and crisp, real hand-harvested wild rice, available from a few vendors online, is unlike any commercial paddy rice. Nutty and woodsy, it cooks in half the time of commercial wild rice and tastes of the piney forests and clear northern lakes. In the Anishinaabe language, wild rice is “manoomin,” or “good berry,” and is served at many ceremonies in the Great Lakes region, from holiday celebrations to weddings and funerals. (View this recipe in NYT Cooking.)
There are quite a few legends within various Indigenous communities involving the three sisters: corn, bean and squash. The ancient and advanced farming techniques from the Cherokee and so many other tribes throughout the East Coast yielded countless strains of these ingredients, in many sizes, colors and flavors. These diverse seeds are not only a direct connection to the past, but a symbol of resistance to the destruction of our cultures. This recipe showcases the simplicity of these flavors. (View this recipe in NYT Cooking.)
Plentiful throughout the Gulf Coast, crawfish and shrimp are Choctaw staples and traditional seasonings like filé, the spice ground from dried sassafras bark, and spicy chiles are a perfect accompaniment. Here, the crustaceans rest on a bed of spicy sweet potatoes, in a dish that calls back to traditional feasts and community gatherings. The sassafras adds a grassy, slightly sour note, and the berries bring more color and tang. You can vary the shellfish depending on the season and your locale in this festive dish, which is easily doubled to serve a crowd. (View this recipe in NYT Cooking.)
Beth Dooley assisted in developing the recipes for this feature.
10 Essential Recipes is an occasional feature that explores different cuisines.