Insecurity on Modern Reservations

Not sure if this is where I should post this, but I have a great belief in the power of forums as information generators…

If someone would be so kind as to answer my (probably naive) questions, I’d be very grateful to them.

It is no secret that poverty and need plague today’s NA communities. One study of South Dakota reservations showed an average income of less than 3,800$ a year per household- far below the acknowledged American line of 5,000$ (which would be difficult enough to live on! Trust me, I know!)

Poverty is the enemy of progress anywhere- it saps the strength of a people, disallows them the advantages of a full life, and has unfortunately been used as a dark method of social control in history. It still enslaves members of ‘developed’ countries, trapping the masses in a struggle for basic survival. I think that’s wrong, wherever it’s happening: India, Oklahoma, or inner Chicago. And apathy from those higher up on the chain only perpetuates inequality’s grip.

A child in need anywhere is a blemish on the face of anyone capable of providing help… And it’s something I’ve promised my life to rectifying.

In this vein, I’d like to pose a few questions to the NA community here about what they know of need on modern reservations.

(I ask both for an economics project I am heading for a class, and out of sincere respect for our brothers and sisters who have suffered too long from desperate want. Knowledge is power- and this may turn out to be very strong in determining my life direction.)

Please address any of these with your thoughts and recollections:

1. Do you know a child growing up on a reservation or in a predominately poor area? What are the biggest difficulties in growing up, receiving an education, and staying safe?

2. What services are provided where you live/lived to help people in the Native American community cope with poverty, need, and the like? How heavily does availablity of assistance vary from community to community?

3. In your experience of the last 5-10 years, please describe the education system available to children and teens from reservations and needy areas. What can be improved, both in regards to their culture and the quality of their education?    

4. How do programs that would provide social assistance form in your communities, and where do they get the funding? Do you know of any programs that have had success where you live?

5. What in your opinion is the greatest challenge to providing basic neccessities (decent food, clean water, health care, etc.) to reservation communities?

Thank you for reading~

Information sources:……


A Taste of Native America (Photo Diary)


During 2012, the Clark County Historical Museum in Vancouver, Washington had a display exploring the food and related cultural artifacts of the Native American people throughout Washington. Indian people traditionally harvested, prepared, and shared meals together and thus food was, and still is, an integral part of cultural unity.  

The traditional Indian diet was diverse and based on the seasons. According to one of the displays:

“Our ancestors ate more complex foods and received a greater variety of vitamins and minerals in their diet. Eating many types of foods also preserved the diversity of the environment, which helped uphold the entire ecosystem by avoiding overharvesting of any one resource.”

Shown below are some of the items from this display.










Berries were an important part of the diet of the Indians of the Lower Columbia River area. Shown above is a basket used for gathering berries and some dried Huckleberries (Vaccinium membranaceum). Huckleberries are small to medium sized shrubs which are found in the moister mountain areas, particularly in areas with acidic soils and areas which have been burned by forest fires. Women usually did the gathering of the huckleberries and could gather one or two basketfuls in a day’s work (about 2-4 liters). Huckleberries were often dried over a slow fire that had been set in a rotten log. This drying created a raisin-like product that could be kept indefinitely.


Shown above is an old photograph of an elder filleting salmon so that it can be cooked on a plank.


Shown above is an old photograph of an elder drying the huckleberries in the traditional way.



Another important food was bitterroot (Lewisia rediviva), shown above with a gathering bag (known as a sally bag). In the Upper Chinook Kiksht language bitterroot is known as ibi-uk-ee. The taste of the bitterroot (it’s “bitterness”) is determined by where it is grown. The stored starch in the root makes the roots both nutritious and tender. The white fleshly interior (seen in the photos above) is easily exposed by peeling the outer root coverings. The white interior is then boiled, baked, or powdered to make meal.



Camas (shown above) was also an important food plant. Camas (Camassia quamash) is a lily-like plant whose bulb can be fire-baked to make a sweet and nutritious staple. Camas is very high in protein: 5.4 ounces of protein per pound of roots. In comparison, steelhead trout (Salmo gairdneri) has 3.4 ounces of protein per pound.


Wapato or Indian potato is shown above.


Shown above is a digging stick used in gathering root plants such as bitterroot and camas.


Shown above is an open weave Salish basket which was used for gathering clams and mussels.


Fish were an important food source and shown above is a model of a traditional fish drying rack.


Shown above is an old photograph of a fish trap.


Shown above is an old photograph of the fish being cooked in the traditional manner.


Shown above is a drawing of Governor Isaac Stevens at a traditional meal with the Nez Perce in 1855.  

Hidatsa Pumpkin (Food Diary)

Five centuries ago, at the beginning of the European invasion of this continent, a majority of Indian people in what is now the lower 48 states of the United States got a majority of the calories which they consumed from plants which they raised. While the popular stereotype of Indians sees them as big game hunters, meat was actually more of a supplement to their agricultural diet.  

The most common Indian crops were what the Iroquois called the Three Sisters: corn, beans, and squash. In addition, they raised many other plants for food, fiber, and medicinal uses.

The Hidatsa lived in permanent villages along the Missouri River in North Dakota. The village tribes of the upper Missouri River Valley, such as the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara, were farming people who raised corn, beans, sunflowers, tobacco, pumpkins, and squash. These tribes produced not only enough agricultural products for their own use, but also a substantial surplus which was traded to other tribes, and later to the Europeans and Americans.

Sensitive to the ecological demands of the Northern Plains, they established fields in the fertile bottomlands where the tillable soil was renewed annually by flooding. The brush which was cleared for the planting was spread over the fields and burned. This practice softened the soil and added nutrients. Hidatsa elder Buffalo Bird Woman, in a converstation in about 1910, said:

“It was well known in my tribe that burning over new ground left the soil soft and easy to work, and for this reason we thought it a wise thing to do.”

In addition, fields were taken out of production and allowed to lay fallow for two years in order to let the land rejuvenate.

Among the Hidatsa, as with other American Indian agriculturalists, the women did the farming. In preparing the fields for planting, rakes and digging sticks were used. Some of the rakes were made from deer antler and some were made from long willow shoots. In cultivating the fields they used a hoe that was often made from the shoulder-blade of the buffalo or elk, which was attached to a long wooden handle.

Sunflowers – black, white, red, sand striped – were the first crop planted in the spring and they were the last crop harvested in the fall. The sunflowers were planted around the edges of the field. The Hidatsa name for April is Mapi’-o’ce-mi’di which means Sunflower Planting Moon.

Sunflower seeds were parched in a clay pot and then made into meal. Some of this meal was used to make sunflower balls which were an important item in the diet. Warriors would carry a sunflower-seed ball wrapped in a piece of buffalo-heart skin. When tired, the warrior would then nibble at the ball. Hidatsa elder Buffalo Bird Woman describes the effects of nibbling on a sunflower-seed ball:

“If the warrior was weary, he began to feel fresh again; if sleepy, he grew wakeful.”

Corn planting began after the sunflower seeds were planted. When the gooseberry bush began to leaf it was time to plant. Corn was planted in hilled rows with the hills about four feet apart. This spacing was tuned to the local rainfall. Closer spacing would bring higher yields only if the growing season were unusually wet. A second planting of corn was done when the June berries were ripe.

Most families kept enough seed corn for two years. After two years the corn would not come up well and after four years the corn seed was dead and worthless.

One of the main varieties of corn was flint corn which was well-adapted to the semi-arid Northern Plains climate. This corn took about 60 days to mature and, because of its short stalk, was able to withstand winds fairly well. Flint corn is high in protein and the grain is very hard and heavy.

The tribes also grew flour corn which is softer and lighter. It is largely composed of starch and is deficient in protein. The advance of this species of corn, however, was that it could be easily crushed or ground and it was much softer than the flint corn when eaten parched.  

The village tribes of the northeastern Plains planted between nine and eleven different varieties of corn. The Indians also observed some basic plant genetics. According to Hidatsa elder Buffalo Bird Woman:

“We Indians knew that corn can travel, as we say; thus, if the seed planted in one field is of white corn, and that in an adjoining field is of some variety corn, the white will travel to the yellow corn field, and the yellow to the white corn field.”

Squash was planted in late May or early June. To prepare the seeds for planting, they were first wetted, then placed on matted red-grass leaves and mixed with broad leaved sage. Buffalo skin was then folded over the squash bundle and it was hung in the lodge to dry for two days. During this time the seeds would begin to sprout. The sprouted seeds were then planted in hills about four feet apart.

Immediately after planting the squash, the beans were planted in hills about two feet apart. The beans were often planted between the rows of corn. Five different varieties of beans were planted.

Hidatsa Pumpkin:

(additional comments and clarification have been added throughout by Ojibwa’s wife, who has used this recipe–)

1   4- to 5-pound sugar pumpkin

2 teaspoons salt

½ teaspoon dry mustard

1 to 2 tablespoons vegetable oil or rendered fat

1 pound ground venison, buffalo, or lean beef

1 medium onion, chopped

1 cup wild rice, cooked (or brown and wild rice)

3 eggs, beaten (or egg beaters or egg whites)

1 teaspoon crushed dried sage (the cooking kind)

¼ teaspoon pepper

Preheat oven to 350 F. Cut the top from pumpkin (like you would for a jack o’lantern) and remove seeds and strings from cavity. Prick cavity with a fork all over and rub with 1 teaspoon of salt and the dry mustard. Heat oil in large skillet. Add meat and onion and sauté over medium-high heat until browned. Off the heat, stir in wild rice, eggs, remaining salt, sage, and pepper. Stuff pumpkin with this mixture. Place ½ inch of water in the bottom of a shallow baking pan.

Put pumpkin (and the lid) in the pan and bake for 1 ½ hours, or until tender. Add more water to the pan as necessary to avoid sticking. When done, bring to table with lid askew on top of pumpkin at a jaunty angle-it looks really nice. Cut pumpkin into wedges, giving each person both pumpkin and stuffing. ( The skin is tough and bitter and should not be eaten, but the flesh of the pumpkin will scrape away easily.)

This would also make a good vegetarian recipe by leaving out the meat. It can be rather bland, however, and you may wish to add additional seasoning and cook your rice in a vegetable broth or stock instead of water.

The pumpkin seeds you pulled out can be toasted for a snack.

Indians 101: Pine Nuts

For thousands of years Indian people have lived and prospered in the Great Basin by exploiting the natural resources of the area. For Indian people in the Great Basin-the Shoshone, Paiute, Washo, and Ute-one of the important traditional resources of the region was the piñon pine whose nuts provided them with nutrition.  

The Great Basin:

The Great Basin includes the high desert regions between the Sierra Nevada and the Rocky Mountains. It is bounded on the north by the Columbia Plateau and on the south by the Colorado Plateau. It includes southern Oregon and Idaho, a small portion of southwestern Montana, western Wyoming, eastern California, all of Nevada and Utah, a portion of northern Arizona, and most of western Colorado. This is an area which is characterized by low rainfall and extremes of temperature. The valleys in the area are 3,000 to 6,000 feet in altitude and are separated by mountain ranges running north and south that are 8,000 to 12,000 feet in elevation. The rivers in this region do not flow into the ocean, but simply disappear into the sand.

Great Basin Map

The Great Basin is an ecologically sparse environment which includes by small areas where water, game, and plant life are abundant. The summers are often hot and the winters cold. This is an area which seems inhospitable to human habitation, yet Indian people have lived here for thousands of years. For Indian people to live in the Great Basin, they had to have a rather intimate knowledge of a fairly large territory of several hundred square miles: a territory would often encompass the full range of desert biomes.

Traditional Subsistence:

Much of the subsistence of the Great Basin Indian tribes depended on the gathering of wild plants. It is estimated that 30 to 70% of the Great Basin diet was based on plants. Several major groups of plants were important to the subsistence of the Great Basin peoples. These include piñon nuts, mesquite, acorns, agave, camas, sego lily, tobacco root, yampa, biscuitroot, bitterroot, cattails, and berries (wolfberry, buckberry, chokecherries). In general, the gathering year was divided into four periods:

Early Spring: at this time the stored foods were running low and the people were facing some hunger. The first edible plants would appear along streams, near lakes, and in the low hills where the snow first disappeared.

Early Summer: at this time a number of plants would begin to ripen, particularly in the moist hills, but some in the desert valleys. To gather these plants the people would have to leave their winter villages. As the seeds would begin to ripen in the mountains, they would then move into these areas.

Late Summer: at this time the edible roots would mature. These plants could be dug at leisure.

Late Fall: at this time the pine nuts would ripen. However, pine nuts tend to be erratic as each tree yields only once in 3-4 years: in some years there are virtually none in some areas while they are abundant in other places. The harvest period for pine nuts can be 2-3 weeks in some areas and only 10 days in others.

Traditional Use of Piñon Nuts:

Among the Western Shoshone of Nevada, piñon nuts were the staple winter food. Pine nuts are high in fat and this means that less meat would be required in the diet. Pine nuts have about 3,000 calories per pound, which means that they not for the calorie-conscious. Piñon nuts are also high in carbohydrates and protein.

The pine nuts are gathered in September and October. The cones require two years to mature, so careful observation of the cones means that the scarcity or abundance of the crop can be predicted a year in advance.

One of the common ways of collecting the pine nuts was to collect the cones just before they were about to break open. Using poles, the men would beat the trees to get the cones to drop. Then, using a stone hammer or a stick, the cones would be broken open to collect the seeds. Another way of collecting the pine nuts was to pick the seeds from the forest floor after the cones had dried and opened on the tree. This was, however, both labor intensive and time consuming.

Once the seeds were removed from the cones, the seeds were parched on a basketry tray with coals, winnowed, and then either stored in woven sacks or pits, or ground into a flour from which bread or soup could be made.

Prior to European contact, a typical Shoshone family could gather about 1,200 pounds of pine nuts in the fall and this would last the family for about four months. Most frequently the pine nuts were ground with a metate and mano. The resulting meal was then mixed with cold water and stirred. Most frequently the mush was eaten cold. Among some of the tribes the pine nut mush was boiled by placing hot stones in a basket container with the mush until it boiled. In the winter, some of the tribes also made a cold treat out of the mush by setting it outside to freeze.

In some parts of the Great Basin, such as the Steptoe Valley, enough pine nuts to last for two years could be gathered during a good year. In order to preserve the nuts, they were roasted and then buried in a cold place in the mountains.

Among the Owens Valley Paiute, the pine nut gathering areas were divided into family plots. If a family were to trespass on pine-nut areas claimed by another family, violence would ensue. This was especially true if the families were from different bands.

Among some groups, such as the Shoshone of the Ione and Reese River Valleys, the pine nut tracts were owned by the villages. The tracts were in the mountains behind the villages and were bounded by natural boundaries known to everyone.

Piñon Nuts Today:

The Indian people of the Great Basin still gather piñon nuts. Today the gathering of the piñon nuts is an affirmation of their cultural heritage rather than for their physical survival. The nuts are still used in traditional foods and some are sold to supplement the family income. In Nevada, their right to gather the piñon nuts is protected by both state law and by treaty rights.  

Native American Foods: Huckleberries

The most important berry crop for most of the Plateau people of Washington, Idaho, and Montana was the huckleberry (Vaccinium membranaceum), a type of blueberry. These berries were collected in August and September for winter consumption. Huckleberries plants are small to medium sized shrubs which are found in the moister mountain areas, particularly in areas with acidic soils and areas which have been burned by forest fires. The Indians of the Plateau traveled to huckleberry sites where they gathered and dried the delicious, sweet berries.  

Women usually did the gathering of the huckleberries and could gather one or two basketfuls in a day’s work (about 2-4 liters). Huckleberries were often dried over a slow fire that had been set in a rotten log. This drying created a raisin-like product that could be kept indefinitely. They were also sun dried.  The dried huckleberries were used in the winter. The dried berries were prepared for eating by boiling, either by themselves or with roots.

Huckleberries were also used for medicine. A tea made from the roots and stems of the plant were used for heart trouble, arthritis, and rheumatism.

Huckleberry gathering was also a social event. During gathering time, people from many different bands would come together and often engage in horse racing, singing, dancing, and spiritual ceremonies.  

Indians carefully managed the huckleberry ecology. Using fire to manage the land, the Indians were master burn ecologists who knew which part of the forest to burn for an abundant return of the huckleberries. Using planned fires, they would establish huckleberry fields.

The importance of huckleberries to the Indian nations of the Plateau region can be seen in the sacred rituals which were traditionally associated with the gathering of this berry. This included a first fruits ceremony in which the first berries collected were blessed and sung over.  

Native American Food: Camas

( – promoted by navajo)

The Plateau Culture Area is the region which extends east from the Cascade Mountains in Washington to the Rocky Mountains in Montana. It extends from the Fraser River in British Columbia to the Blue Mountains in Oregon. The Indian tribes which inhabited this area have historic and cultural ties with the tribes on the Pacific Coast as well as with the tribes on the Northern Plains. The Plateau tribes gathered and used over 130 different wild plants. It is estimated that from 40% to 60% of their calories came from the plant foods which they gathered. One of the most important root crops for the Plateau tribes was camas, which provided a major source of carbohydrates for their diet.

Camas is a lily-like plant whose bulb can be fire-baked to make a sweet and nutritious staple. In some places in the Northwest, camas was so common that non-Indian travelers would mistake the plant’s blue flowers for distant lakes.

Camas 1

Camas is very high in protein: 5.4 ounces of protein per pound of roots. In comparison, steelhead trout (Salmo gairdneri) has 3.4 ounces of protein per pound.

The proper time to gather camas is when the lower half of the flowers begins to fade. Indian people generally gathered camas in June, but this varied according to altitude and seasonal weather conditions. Some of the tribes, such as the Flathead, designated June as Camas Moon.

The camas was often dug up using digging sticks made from elk antlers. A woman could dig up about a bushel of roots in a day from a site that was about half an acre in size.

At the camas digging camps, the camas was usually cooked in earth ovens before eating it or storing it. Since the same camps were used each season, the pit ovens used for roasting the camas were also reused.

Although the men gathered the wood for the ovens, men were not allowed near the roasting pits for fear that the camas would not be roasted properly.

The oven (a roasting pit dug into the ground) was preheated by building a fire in it and placing small rocks (about 5″ in diameter) in with the wood. In addition to the small rocks, some pits had large flat stones on the bottom which were also heated by the fire. When the rocks were hot, they were covered with wet vegetation such as slough grass, alder branches, willow, and/or skunk cabbage leaves. Then the camas bulbs were placed on top of the vegetation. Sometimes Douglas onions (Allium douglasii) were placed in with the camas. The camas was then covered with bark and earth and a fire was built on top of the oven. Cooking usually took between 12 and 70 hours, depending on the number of camas bulbs in the oven.

The camas which was intended for storage was then dried for about a week. Dried camas can be preserved for many years. Some American explorers report eating camas that had been prepared 36 years earlier.  

The early Europeans in the area, such as Lewis and Clark, occasionally consumed camas after they were shown how to harvest it and prepare it. One Jesuit missionary fermented camas to make alcohol. Another Jesuit missionary observed that the consumption of camas by those unaccustomed to it is “followed by strong odors accompanied by loud sounds”.

In order to increase the camas yield, the camas areas, as well as other root gathering areas, were occasionally burned over.  

Mohegan Succotash

( – promoted by navajo)

The oral history of the Mohegan tells that they came from “west by north” of another country, that they passed over great waters, that they had once lived beside a great body of water affected by tides, and from this they obtained their name – Muh-he-con-nuk – which means “great waters which are constantly moving”. They faced great famine and migrated toward the east where they found many great bodies of water, but none which flowed and ebbed.

As with other eastern tribes, corn was one of the principal foods of the Mohegan. Corn was prepared in a number of ways, including making hominy of the kernels and making a stew of beans and corn called succotash. Succotash is a basic American Indian dish. Among the Indian nations of the Northeast, succotash was kept simmering at all times so that any hungry visitor or family member could be fed.  

Since agriculture was an important economic and subsistence activity, some ceremonies were conducted during the harvest. The Green Corn Ceremony was usually held in August when the first corn ripened. For a period of about two weeks, the community leaders would eat only at night. As a part of the thanksgiving for the harvest, the Green Corn Ceremony included feasting.

Mohegan Succotash

4 ears of fresh sweet corn

3 to 4 cups of fresh lima beans (frozen may be substituted)

1 ½ cups of water

½ cup of butter (to be really authentic, you should use bear grease instead of butter)

1 ½ cups of sliced green onions

1 green and 1 red bell pepper, sliced and diced

With a large, sharp knife cut corn cobs into 1 ½ inch lengths. Place corn, beans, water, and butter (or bear grease) in a large saucepan. Salt and pepper to taste.

Cover and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for 10 minutes. Stir in green onions and peppers and continue to simmer for 6 to 10 minutes, until beans are tender and peppers are tender-crisp. Remove lid and cook over high heat for 3 to 4 minutes, until liquid is reduced to about ½ cup.

About bear grease: bears were often hunted and their skins were tanned using a mixture of animal brains, bird livers, and fish oil. In addition, bear grease was applied directly to the body and in this way provided additional warmth in the winter and in the summer it served as an insect repellent.

With regard to hunting, deer provided about 90% of the meat consumed by the New England tribes. The Indian nations managed game resources by hunting only one quarter of their territory at a time. This practice not only allowed animal populations in previously hunted quarters to make a comeback, it also reduced the wariness that is characteristic of animals which are under more or less constant pressure from hunters.

Indian hunters also used fire as a form of game management. Areas were regularly burned over and this was then followed by a renewal of shrubby vegetation which then served as both food and cover for the game animals. The burning increased the rate in which forest nutrients were recycled into the soil and thus plants tended to grow more luxuriantly following burning. As a consequence, they supported more game animals. Thus, hunters were actually harvesting food sources which they had been consciously instrumental in creating: they were not simply “gathering” wild resources.