Guts and Grease: The Diet of Native Americans
Sally Fallon Morell and Mary Enig
The hunter-gatherer's dinner is front page news these days. Drawing from the writings of Dr. Boyd Eaton and Professor Loren Cordain, experts in the so-called Paleolithic diet, columnists and reporters are spreading the word about the health benefits of a diet rich in protein and high in fiber from a variety of plant foods 1,2. It's actually amusing to see what the modern food pundits come up with as examples of the "Paleolithic Prescription." Jean Carper offers a Stone Age Salad of mixed greens, garbanzo beans, skinless chicken breast, walnuts and fresh herbs, mixed with a dressing made of orange juice, balsamic vinegar and canola oil.3 Elizabeth Somer suggests wholewheat waffles with fat-free cream cheese, coleslaw with nonfat dressing, grilled halibut with spinach, grilled tofu and vegetables over rice, nonfat milk, canned apricots and mineral water, along with prawns and clams. Her Stone Age food pyramid includes plenty of plant foods, extra lean meat and fish, nonfat milk products, and honey and eggs in small amounts.4
Above all, the food writers tell us, avoid fats, especially saturated fats. The hunter-gatherer's diet was highly politically correct, they say, rich in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids but relatively low in overall fat and very low in that dietary villain-saturated fat. This is the one dietary factor that health officials tell us is responsible for all the health problems that plague us-everything from cancer and heart disease to obesity and MS.
That the hunter-gatherer was healthy there is no doubt. Weston Price noted an almost complete absence of tooth decay and dental deformities among native Americans who lived as their ancestors did.5 They had broad faces, straight teeth and fine physiques. This was true of the nomadic tribes living in the far northern territories of British Columbia and the Yukon, as well as the wary inhabitants of the Florida Everglades, who were finally coaxed into allowing him to take photographs. Skeletal remains of the Indians of Vancouver that Price studied were similar, showing a virtual absence of tooth decay, arthritis and any other kind of bone deformity. TB was nonexistent among Indians who ate as their ancestors had done, and the women gave birth with ease.
Price interviewed the beloved Dr. Romig in Alaska who stated "that in his thirty-six years of contact with these people he had never seen a case of malignant disease among the truly primitive Eskimos and Indians, although it frequently occurs when they become modernized. He found, similarly, that the acute surgical problems requiring operation on internal organs, such as the gall bladder, kidney, stomach and appendix, do not tend to occur among the primitives but are very common problems among the modernized Eskimos and Indians.
Growing out of his experience in which he had seen large numbers of the modernized Eskimos and Indians attacked with tuberculosis, which tended to be progressive and ultimately fatal as long as the patients stayed under modernized living conditions, he now sends them back when possible to primitive conditions and to a primitive diet, under which the death rate is very much lower than under modernized conditions. Indeed, he reported that a great majority of the afflicted recover under the primitive type of living and nutrition."6
The early explorers consistently described the native Americans as tall and well formed. Of the Indians of Texas, the explorer Cabeza de Vaca wrote, "The men could run after a deer for an entire day without resting and without apparent fatigue. . . one man near seven feet in stature. . . runs down a buffalo on foot and slays it with his knife or lance, as he runs by its side."7 The Indians were difficult to kill. De Vaca reports on an Indian "traversed by an arrow. . . he does not die but recovers from his wound." The Karakawas, a tribe that lived near the Gulf Coast, were tall, well-built and muscular. "The men went stark naked, the lower lip and nipple pierced, covered in alligator grease [to ward off mosquitoes], happy and generous, with amazing physical prowess. . . they go naked in the most burning sun, in winter they go out in early dawn to take a bath, breaking the ice with their body."
Greasy and Good
What kind of foods produced such fine physical specimens? The diets of the American Indians varied with the locality and climate but all were based on animal foods of every type and description, not only large game like deer, buffalo, wild sheep and goat, antelope, moose, elk, caribou, bear and peccary, but also small animals such as beaver, rabbit, squirrel, skunk, muskrat and raccoon; reptiles including snakes, lizards, turtles, and alligators; fish and shellfish; wild birds including ducks and geese; sea mammals (for Indians living in coastal areas); insects including locust, spiders and lice; and dogs. (Wolves and coyotes were avoided because of religious taboos)8.
According to Dr. Eaton, these foods supplied plenty of protein but only small amounts of total fat; and this fat was high in polyunsaturated fatty acids and low in saturated fats. The fat of wild game, according to Eaton, is about 38 percent saturated, 32 percent monounsaturated and 30 percent polyunsaturated.9 This prescription may be just fine for those who want to promote vegetable oils, but it does not jibe with fat content of wild animals in the real world. The table below lists fat content in various tissues of a number of wild animals found in the diets of American Indians. Note that only squirrel fat contains levels of polyunsaturated fatty acids that Eaton claims are typical for wild game. In a continent noted for the richness and variety of its animal life, it is unlikely that squirrels would have supplied more than a tiny fraction of total calories. Seal fat, consumed by coastal Indians, ranges from 14 to 24 percent polyunsaturated. The fat of all the other animals that the Indians hunted and ate contained less than 10 percent polyunsaturated fatty acids, some less than 2 percent. Most prized was the internal kidney fat of ruminant animals, which can be as high as 65 percent saturated.
Sources of Fat for the American Indian10
Politically correct paleodieters also ignore the fact that the Indians hunted animals selectively. The explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson, who spend many years with the Indians, noted that they preferred "the flesh of older animals to that of calves, yearlings and two-year olds. . . It is approximately so with those northern forest Indians with whom I have hunted, and probably with all caribou-eaters." The Indians preferred the older animals because they had built up a thick slab of fat along the back. In an animal of 1000 pounds, this slab could weigh 40 to 50 pounds. Another 20-30 pounds of highly saturated fat could be removed from the cavity. This fat was saved, sometimes by rendering, stored in the bladder or large intestine, and consumed with dried or smoked lean meat. Used in this way, fat contributed almost 80 percent of total calories in the diets of the northern Indians.11
Beaver was highly prized, especially the tail because it was rich in fat. But small animals like rabbit and squirrel were eaten only when nothing else was available because, according to Stefansson, they were so low in fat. In fact, small animals called for special preparation. The meat was removed from the bones, roasted and pounded. The bones were dried and ground into a powder. Then the bones were mixed with the meat and any available grease, a procedure that would greatly lower the percentage of polyunsaturated fatty acids, while raising the total content of saturated fat.12 When a scarcity of game forced the Indians to consume only small animals like rabbits, they suffered from "rabbit starvation."
"The groups that depend on the blubber animals are the most fortunate, in the hunting way of life, for they never suffer from fat-hunger. This trouble is worst, so far as North America is concerned, among those forest Indians who depend at times on rabbits, the leanest animal in the North, and who develop the extreme fat-hunger known as rabbit-starvation. Rabbit eaters, if they have no fat from another source-beaver, moose, fish-will develop diarrhoea in about a week, with headache, lassitude and vague discomfort. If there are enough rabbits, the people eat till their stomachs are distended; but no matter how much they eat they feel unsatisfied. Some think a man will die sooner if he eats continually of fat-free meat than if he eats nothing, but this is a belief on which sufficient evidence for a decision has not been gathered in the North. Deaths from rabbit-starvation, or from the eating of other skinny meat, are rare; for everyone understands the principle, and any possible preventive steps are naturally taken."13
The Whole Animal
Ruminant animals, such as moose, elk, caribou, deer, antelope and, of course, buffalo were the mainstay of the Amerindian diet, just as beef is the mainstay of the modern American diet. The difference is that the whole animal was eaten, not just the muscle meats.
Beverly Hungry Wolf describes the preparation and consumption of a cow in The Ways of My Grandmothers, noting that her grandmother prepared the cow "as she had learned to prepare buffalo when she was young." The large pieces of fat from the back and cavity were removed and rendered. The lean meat was cut into strips and dried or roasted, pounded up with berries and mixed with fat to make pemmican. Most of the ribs were smoked and stored for later use14.
All the excess fat inside the body was hung up so the moisture would dry out of it, recalls Beverly Hungry Wolf. It was later served with dried meat. Some fats in the animal were rendered into "lard" instead of dried.
All the insides, such as heart, kidneys and liver, were prepared and eaten, roasted or baked or laid out in the sun to dry. The lungs were not cooked, just sliced and hung up to dry. Intestines were also dried. Sapotsis or Crow gut is a Blackfoot delicacy made from the main intestine which is stuffed with meat and roasted over coals. Tripe was prepared and eaten raw or boiled or roasted. The brains were eaten raw. If the animal was a female, they would prepare the teats or udders by boiling or barbecuing-these were never eaten raw. If the animal carried an unborn young, this was fed to the older people because it was so tender. The guts of the unborn would be taken out and braided, then boiled too. The tongue was always boiled if it wasn't dried. "Even old animals have tender tongues," she recalls.
The hooves were boiled down until all the gristle in them was soft. The blood was also saved, often mixed with flour or used to make sausages in the guts.
The second stomach was washed well and eaten raw, but certain parts were usually boiled or roasted and the rest dried. "Another delicacy is at the very end of the intestines—the last part of the colon. You wash this real good and tie one end shut. Then you stuff the piece with dried berries and a little water and you tie the other end shut. You boil this all day, until it is really tender and you have a Blackfoot Pudding."
According to John (Fire) Lame Deer, the eating of guts had evolved into a contest. "In the old days we used to eat the guts of the buffalo, making a contest of it, two fellows getting hold of a long piece of intestines from opposite ends, starting chewing toward the middle, seeing who can get there first; that’s eating. Those buffalo guts, full of half-fermented, half-digested grass and herbs, you didn’t need any pills and vitamins when you swallowed those."15
The marrow was full of fat and was usually eaten raw. The Indians knew how to strike the femur bone so that it would split open and reveal the delicate interior flesh. Eaton and others report that the marrow is rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids but Stefansson describes two types of marrow, one type from the lower leg which is soft "more like a particularly delicious cream in flavor" and another from the humerus and femur that is "hard and tallowy at room temperatures."16
According to Beverly Hungry Wolf, the grease inside the bones "was scooped out and saved or the bones boiled and the fat skimmed off and saved. It turned into something like hard lard." More saturated fat the professors have overlooked!
Samuel Hearne, an explorer writing in 1768, describes the preparation of caribou: "Of all the dishes cooked by the Indians, a beeatee, as it is called in their language, is certainly the most delicious that can be prepared from caribou only, without any other ingredient. It is a kind of haggis, made with the blood, a good quantity of fat shred small, some of the tenderest of the flesh, together with the heart and lungs cut, or more commonly torn into small shivers; all of which is put into the stomach and toasted by being suspended before the fire on a string. . . . it is certainly a most delicious morsel, even without pepper, salt or any other seasoning."17
Sometimes the Indians selected only the fatty parts of the animal, throwing the rest away. "On the twenty-second of July," writes Samuel Hearne, "we met several strangers, whom we joined in pursuit of the caribou, which were at this time so plentiful that we got everyday a sufficient number for our support, and indeed too frequently killed several merely for the tongues, marrow and fat."
Certain parts of the animal were considered appropriate for men or women. The male organs were for the men, as well as the ribs towards the front, which were called "the shoulder ribs, or the boss ribs. They are considered a man’s special meal." For women, a part of the "intestine that is quite large and full of manure
All of the foods considered important for reproduction and all of the foods considered sacred were animal foods, rich in fat. According to Beverly Hungry Wolf, pemmican made with berries "was used by the Horns Society for their sacred meal of communion." Boiled tongue was an ancient delicacy, served as the food of communion at the Sun Dance. A blood soup, made from a mixture of blood and corn flour cooked in broth, was used as a sacred meal during the nighttime Holy Smoke ceremonies.19
Bear was another sacred food-altars of bear bones have been found at many Paleolithic sites. Cabeza de Vaca reports that the Indians of Texas kept the skin of the bear and ate the fat, but threw the rest away. Other groups ate the entire animal, including the head, but recognized the fat as the most valuable part. According to colonist William Byrd II, writing in 1728, "The flesh of bear hath a good relish, very savory and inclining nearest to that of Pork. The Fat of this Creature is least apt to rise in the Stomach of any other. The Men for the most part chose it rather than Venison." Bear grease was thought to give them resistance by making them physically strong. "We eat it sometimes now and everybody feels better."20
Bear was also considered an important food for reproduction. When Byrd asked an Indian why their squaws were always able to bare children, the Indian replied that "if any Indian woman did not prove with child at a decent time after Marriage, the Husband, to save his Reputation with the women, forthwith entered into a Bear-dyet for Six Weeks, which in that time makes him so vigorous that he grows exceedingly impertinent to his poor wife and 'tis great odds but he makes her a Mother in Nine Months."
Indians living in coastal areas consumed large amounts of fish, including the heads and roe. Price reported that in the area of Vancouver, the candle fish was collected in large quantities, the oil removed and used as a dressing for many seafoods. Shell fish were eaten in large amounts when available.
Animal fats, organ meats and fatty fish all supply fat-soluble vitamins A and D, which Weston Price recognized as the basis of healthy primitive diets. These nutrients are catalysts to the assimilation of protein and minerals. Without them minerals go to waste and the body cannot be built tall and strong. When tribes have access to an abundance of fat soluble vitamins, the offspring will grow up with "nice round heads," broad faces and straight teeth.
Certain fatty glands of game animals also provided vitamin C during the long winter season in the North. The Indians of Canada revealed to Dr. Price that the adrenal glands in the moose prevented scurvy. When an animal was killed, the adrenal gland and its fat were cut up and shared with all members of the tribe. The walls of the second stomach were also eaten to prevent "the white man's disease."
A variety of plant foods were used throughout the North American continents, notably corn (in the temperate regions) and wild rice (in the Great Lakes region). Dry corn was first soaked in lime water (water in which calcium carbonate or calcium oxide is dissolved), a process called nixtamalizacion that softens the corn for use and releases vitamin B3, which otherwise remains bound in the grain. The resulting dough, called nixtamal or masa, can be prepared in a variety of ways to make porridges and breads. Often these preparations were then fried in bear grease or other fat. Many groups grew beans and enjoyed them as "succotash," a dish comprised of beans, corn, dog meat and bear fat. As an adjunct to the diet, corn provided variety and important calories. But when the proportion of corn in the diet became too high, as happened in the American Southwest, the health of the people suffered. Skeletal remains of groups subsisting largely on corn reveal widespread tooth decay and bone problems.21
Tubers like the Jerusalem artichoke (the root of a type of sunflower) were cooked slowly for a long time in underground pits until the hard indigestible root was transformed into a highly digestible gelatinous mass. Wild onions were used to flavor meat dishes and, in fact, were an important item of commerce. Nuts like acorns were made into gruel or little cakes after careful preparation to remove tannins. In the Southeast, pecans contributed important fat calories. In the southern areas, cactus was consumed; in northern areas wild potatoes.
Staples like corn and beans were stored in underground pits, ingeniously covered with logs and leaves to prevent wild animals from finding or looting the stores. Birch bark was used to make trays, buckets and containers, including kettles. Water was boiled by putting hot rocks into the containers. Southern Indians used clay pots for the same purpose.
In general, fruits were dried and used to season fat, fish and meat-dried blueberries were used to flavor moose fat, for example. Beverly Hungry Wolf recalls that her grandmother mixed wild mint with fat and dried meat, which was then stored in rawhide containers. The mint would keep the bugs out and also prevent the fat from spoiling.
The Indians enjoyed sweet-tasting foods. Maple sugar or pine sugar was used to sweeten meats and fats. In the Southwest, the Indians chewed the sweet heart of the agave plant. In fact, the Spanish noted that where agave grew, the Indians had bad teeth.22
Use of sour-tasting fermented foods was widespread. The Cherokee "bread" consisted of nixtamal wrapped in corn leaves and allowed to ferment for two weeks.23 Manzanita berries and other plant foods were also fermented.
The Indians also enjoyed fermented, gamey animal foods. The Coahuiltecans, living in the inland brush country of south Texas set fish aside for eight days "until larvae and other insects had developed in the rotting flesh.24 They were then consumed as an epicure's delight, along with the rotten fish." Samuel Hearne describes a fermented dish consumed by the Chippewaya and Cree: "The most remarkable dish among them. . . is blood mixed with the half-digested food which is found in the caribou's stomach, and boiled up with a sufficient quantity of water to make it of the consistence of pease-pottage. Some fat and scraps of tender flesh are also shred small and boiled with it. To render this dish more palatable, they have a method of mixing the blood with the contents of the stomach in the paunch itself, and hanging it up in the heat and smoke of the fire for several days; which puts the whole mass into a state of fermentation, which gives it such an agreeable acid taste, that were it not for prejudice, it might be eaten by those who have the nicest palates."25
A number of reports indicate that broth and herbed beverages were preferred to water. The Chippewa boiled water and added leaves or twigs before drinking it.26 Sassafras was a favorite ingredient in teas and medicinal drinks.27 Broth was flavored and thickened with corn silk and dried pumpkin blossom. California Indians added lemonade berries to water to make a pleasantly sour drink.28 Another sour drink was produced from fermented corn porridge.29 In the Southwest, a drink called chichi is made with little balls of corn dough which the women impregnate with saliva by chewing. They are added to water to produce a delicious, sour, fizzy fermented drink.30
Guts and Grease in a Glass
Modern food writers who assure us we can enjoy the superb health of the American Indian by eating low fat foods and canned fruits have done the public a great disservice. The basis of the Indian diet was guts and grease, not waffles and skimmed milk. When the Indians abandoned these traditional foods and began consuming processed store-bought foods, their health deteriorated rapidly. Weston Price vividly described the suffering from tooth decay, tuberculosis, arthritis and other problems that plagued the modernized Indian groups he visited throughout America and Canada.
Modern man has lost his taste for the kinds of foods the Indians ate—how many American children will eat raw liver, dried lung or sour porridge? How then can we return to the kind of good health the Indians enjoyed?
Price found only one group of modernized Indians that did not suffer from caries. These were students at the Mohawk Institute near the city of Brantford. "The Institute maintained a fine dairy herd and provided fresh vegetables, whole wheat bread and limited the sugar and white flour."31 So the formula for good health in the modern age begins with the products of "a fine dairy herd"—whole, raw, unprocessed milk from cows that eat green grass, a highly nutritious substitute for guts and grease and one that every child can enjoy, even native American children who are supposedly lactose intolerant. Add some good fats (butter, tallow and lard), aim for liver or other organ meats once a week (but don’t fret if you can’t achieve this with your own children), make cod liver oil part of the daily routine, eat plenty of meat and seafood, and augment the diet with a variety of plant foods properly prepared, including a few that are fermented. Keep sugar and white flour to a minimum. It's a simple formula that can turn a nation of hungry little wolves into happy campers.
Meanwhile, be skeptical of government guidelines. The Indians learned not to trust our government and neither should you.
The authors are grateful to Don Coté for his help with this article.
Native Americans and Diabetes
American Indians know all too well the havoc that Type II Diabetes can wreak on the human body. What they may not know is that Uncle Sam is to blame.
Thousands of American Indians depend on the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR). What do participants receive? It should come as no surprise that the commodities are loaded with carbohydrates with very little protein on the menu and even less fat. And the fats Indians do receive are loaded with trans fats. These foods are cheap and the multinational giants that produce them are equipped with lawyers and lobbyists to ensure that their products are the ones our government buys. The federal government feeds 53 million people per day. Is it any wonder they're out to cut costs, whatever the consequences to our health?
Even in light of the latest research on the ill effect of excess carbohydrates on the human body, federal agencies have no choice. The National Nutrition Monitoring and Related Research Act of 1990, also known as Public Law 101-445, states that all federal agencies shall promote the current US Dietary Recommendations in carrying out any federal food, nutrition or health program. The USDA Food Pyramid is more than a recommendation; it's a federal prescription written in stone. And it's speeding the death of most if not all Americans.
The Indians are hit harder and faster than the rest of us because they are only two generations away from the "old way" of life, based on game animals and fish. Uncle Sam will never admit that the Indians were tall, lean and healthy just two generations ago. If ever someone wanted proof that humans weren't designed to eat a grain-based diet, look at the American Indian population-almost all of them are battling overweight, diabetes, and heart disease. Addictions are common. Yet many Indians have vivid memories of life before federal handouts, a time when diabetes and other diseases of civilization were unheard of among the Indians.
The US government has failed miserably when it comes to treating its native peoples. But without a change in US law, Indians will continue to receive a recipe for death. One possible remedy is the Tribal Self-Governance Project, created by Congress in 1988, which allows tribal governments more flexibility in the decision-making and administration of their contracted programs. Indians must take a stand and demand that government subsidies reflect their native diet. Better yet, Indians who can should refuse their "gift" from the government and return to hunting and fishing-the only way to reclaim their health.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Spring 2001.
About the Authors
Mary G. Enig, PhD is an expert of international renown in the field of lipid biochemistry. She has headed a number of studies on the content and effects of trans fatty acids in America and Israel, and has successfully challenged government assertions that dietary animal fat causes cancer and heart disease. Recent scientific and media attention on the possible adverse health effects of trans fatty acids has brought increased attention to her work. She is a licensed nutritionist, certified by the Certification Board for Nutrition Specialists, a qualified expert witness, nutrition consultant to individuals, industry and state and federal governments, contributing editor to a number of scientific publications, Fellow of the American College of Nutrition and President of the Maryland Nutritionists Association. She is the author of over 60 technical papers and presentations, as well as a popular lecturer. Dr. Enig is currently working on the exploratory development of an adjunct therapy for AIDS using complete medium chain saturated fatty acids from whole foods. She is Vice-President of the Weston A Price Foundation and Scientific Editor of Wise Traditions as well as the author of Know Your Fats: The Complete Primer for Understanding the Nutrition of Fats, Oils, and Cholesterol, Bethesda Press, May 2000. She is the mother of three healthy children brought up on whole foods including butter, cream, eggs and meat.