Manataka American Indian Council








By H. H. Smith, circa 1924


PART IV - Vegetal Foods of the Menomini


Introduction, Medicine Overview, Medicine Details 


Fibers and Dyes






In the early history of the Menomini, they were known as great hunters and as an agricultural tribe. They made good use of nearly every native plant that was edible, except some of the mushrooms that grew in northern Wisconsin. As previously mentioned, even the name Menomini is derived from their native name for wild rice.  Several Menomini still gather the old time foods in the woods and fields and along the streams and ponds, and prize them above store food. Many old Menomini took pride in telling about the palatable, dishes they used to make from native herbs and berries. In aboriginal times, they say that the food of the Menomini was closer to nature, and that their food then was the same as medicine, too, in that the acids, salts and minerals occurring in nature were found in their food. The old Menomini explains that, now that they have taken up the use of white man's food, they have thus inherited the white man's diseases.


Especially in the spring, the Menomini gather native foods after the long winter, and consider that they are taking a tonic as well as a food.  With encroaching civilization, these foods are becoming harder to find, and are becoming of great value to the Menomini. Even wild rice cannot be gathered in sufficient quantities to last all winter. Small wonder, then, that they do not want to sell any to the white man, and when they do sell get ninety cents a pound. Then, too, last year, the game warden who patrols the reservation warned them that they could not gather their wild rice as before, for he said it was against the law, and that he would arrest them and throw them in jail, if they did. Imagine a whole tribe of 1800 Indians, named after the wild rice and forbidden to gather it on their own reservation. The truth of the matter probably was that this game warden knew that wild ducks would not be so plentiful if the rice was gathered, and that hunting would not be as good. He therefore profited by their ignorance, and played this peanut politics game to further his own ends.


The Menomini are fond of mixtures in their cooked foods, just as they seem to prefer compounds in their medicines. Usually the dishes are combinations such as corn with blueberries, or acorn meal with beans, etc. However, botanically, we are interested in naming the various species utilized, in their various families, indicating as we progress such combinations as we found. It was much easier to get discussion on the matter of aboriginal foods than on medicines, for everyone seems to be fond of food and loquacious when talking about good things to eat. Only the families in which known foods occur will be listed alphabetically.




Tree Lichen (S. glomulerifera), "waku'n," or plural, "wakn'k." The literal translation would be "moss or eggs dangling or hanging on tree." Lichens are supposed to be the scabs from the head of M'npus. He has said that he put them there for his uncles and aunts to eat to keep them from starving. Another version was that these lichens are the scabs from M'npus' buttocks, after he had given the "M'npus ot'te" to the Menomini. His buttocks were still scabbed from the fire at this time, so he slid down a slanting rock and left these lichens on the rocks. These are to eat and to sustain life. In olden times, these lichens, with no reference to any particular species, were boiled in the broth of deer or pork, and eaten for their flavor as well as for their medicinal qualities. The moss on the trees which is similar in appearance to the lichens is called "onx'komk" and is also used to cook and eat. It is likewise a medicine.  


"Wa'kun" is gathered at any season of the year and put away dried. When wanted for use it is put into soups where it swells somewhat as Irish Moss, and is eaten with a relish. There is probably no more nourishment in it than in the general run of fleshy fungi, or about five percent of food value, but it is highly esteemed by the Menomini for its tonic effect on the system and the blood. This curious use as a food suggests the lichen, Lecanorea esculenta, which was the manna of the children of Israel during their forty years in the wilderness. However, there is much more flesh to Lecanorea than to this species. The Menomini speak of this moss or lichen as being a food for the deer, much as Cladonia rangiferina is eaten by the reindeer in Alaska. The deer of northern Wisconsin are fond of "wa'kun."



So far as was known to my informant only puffballs are regarded as food by any of the Menomini. He was surprised to learn that there were many edible fungi around him. Even after seeing the writer eat them without harm, he was still unconvinced, for undoubtedly in the past the Menomini have suffered from mushroom poisoning. Yet, evidently they have learned what the white man knows that all puffballs are edible.





Hard Maple (Acer saccharum Marsh.), "sopoma'-xtik." Maple sugar, "sopoma'xtik so'pomo," is one of the most important of Menomini foods and is used in almost every combination of cookery.   It takes the place of salt in Menomini cuisine, for the aboriginal people did not use salt, and most of them do not use it today. The legends of sugar making have been told in Mr. Skinner's "Material Culture of the Menomini.6 However, it is not out of place here to give a brief resume of the process. In the latter part of March and the first week in April, the Menomini visit their sugar camps, the men repairing the camps and boiling vats, and cutting wood, the women washing the birch-bark dishes and recaulking them with pitch of the fir tree. During the sap flow, a man chops and taps from two hundred to three hundred trees a day. Sap is collected an hour before dark, as they believe that the night flow turns the sap bitter. Gathered sap is stored in a hollowed basswood tree trunk vat. The boiling in metal kettles proceeds the same as with the white man, except that the syrup is strained through a cloth and recooked in two or three quart quantities, until it is ready to sugar. It is then, while still warm, poured into a wooden trough, where it is pounded and crushed with a heavy wooden paddle as it hardens. It is stored in birch-bark baskets called mokoks, of from 25 to 75 pounds capacity. The sugar is graded according to its whiteness and stored away. Sap is added to the dregs in the kettles and a second grade sugar is made. It would be considered an insult to M'npus to waste or spill any sap and the sugar would shrink in amount as a punishment.




Arum-leaved Arrowhead (Sagittaria arifolia Nutt.), "wapisi'pinik" [White potatoes]. Curiously enough, the rhizomes of a similar species in California were formerly used as a food under the name of Wappate or Wapatoo, by the Indians there. It was also called Tule root. This is one of the Menomini valued wild potatoes and hard to get on their reservation. Not far from the reservation, near Oconto, is a lake bordered by these plants, which is accordingly named "White Potato lake." They also grow sparingly along the banks of the reservation streams. These rhizomes are very white inside and out. The Indians usually see them in the water, washed out by the current, or see them near the burrow of a muskrat or home of a beaver, where these industrious animals have carried them for a food cache. These white potatoes are boiled, then sliced and strung on a string of we'kop (Basswood) for winter use.



Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina L.), "kaka'kium'nuka" [raven berries]. The sumac berries are dried and stored for winter use. When they are wanted, an infusion in water produces a drink very similar to lemonade. They are drunk as a beverage.




Indian Spikenard (Aralia racemosa L.), "kwt'xcia kopn" [crane root and like a potato].  This medicinal root is also edible. An aboriginal Menomini dish was spikenard root, wild onion, wild gooseberry and sugar, This is described as being very fine.




Swamp Milkweed (Ascepias incarnata L.), and Common Milkweed

(Asclepias syriaca L.), are both called "nnawi'tca" [thread material]. When these milkweeds are in bloom, or even better, in bud, the heads are highly esteemed as a food, much like the asparagus tips of the white man. They are made into soup with deer broth or fat of some sort. They are often added to cornmeal mush. They are also cut and dried and stored for winter use.




May Apple (Podophyllum peltatum L.), "mskatmn."  The fresh ripe fruits of the Mandrake are prized as a food. The writer has seen them gathered by the peck and taken home to eat or preserve.




Hazelnut (Corylus americanus Walt.), "pakae'sk" [little nuts]. The Menomini are very fond of these when they are in the milk stage, and also gather and dry them for winter use.




Nannyberry (Viburnum lentago L.), "weatcime'nn."  Although the name means "bitter poisonous berries," it was said that some Menomini eat them. We well know that many white men eat and enjoy them.


High-bush Cranberry (Viburnum opulus L. americanum (Mill.) Ait.), "pawa'hime'nn."  These are rather scarce on the Menomini reservation, but are favored as a fruit whenever they can be found.




Bittersweet (Celastrus scandens L.), "m'npus otte" [the entrails of M'npus]. My informant had quite a story about the gift of this food to the Menomini. Bittersweet is abundant on the reservation, and is found in dense woods climbing to the tops of trees thirty feet or more in height. The curled and twisted liane stems curiously resemble the intestines of a man, and doubtless inspired the story. It is recognized by the Menomini that the inner bark is palatable and will sustain life when food is hard to get. Although the story may seem a bit vulgar to the white man, the Indian does not consider it so, being more a child of nature and apt to call a spade, a spade. This, then, is their origin story of bittersweet. One day M'npus, their cultural hero, unclothed as always in the aboriginal days, was roasting wild geese and turkeys in the embers of a long fire he had built. He had put them down in the ashes, leaving only the feet sticking out, in a fine straight row. Becoming weary with waiting for them to cook, he decided to lie down and take a nap. Before going to sleep he addressed his anus, as if it were a person, and charged it to watch the fowls and allow no one to take them. He was to awaken M'npus should anyone come. So he went to sleep with his back to the fire. While he slept, some Winnebago Indians saw the smoke and were curious. As they crept up to see what was going on, they saw the legs of the fowls sticking up above the ashes. 


They cautiously pulled on the legs and at once Anus began to work at his appointed task of awaking M'npus But M'npus did not waken at the first trial, and the Winnebago fearing that he might be wakened, bargained with Anus to be quiet, giving him a fine beadwork sash to bind the bargain. Then they took all the fowls, cutting off the legs and rearranging them just as they had found them. Finally M'npus awoke and feared that he had overslept and let the fowl burn. So he took hold of the legs of one to try it, but it came up easily. Then he tried all with the same result, and concluded that someone had come while he slept and stolen them. He questioned Anus, who professed to have tried to waken him. Then, spying the sash, M'npus accused Anus of accepting a bribe not to waken him, which Anus finally admitted. This made M'npus very angry at Anus as well as at the Winnebago, and he pronounced a curse on the Winnebago, saying that they should be thieves from that time on as long as they lived. Next he bethought himself of a proper punishment for Anus. He built a small fire and squatted over it, exposing Antis to its flames. As the fire began to scorch Anus, he complained in hisses and crackled with agony. He was reminded by  M'npus that his orders were not to be disobeyed and that this was his punishment. Finally, Anus was subdued and cooked so he could complain no more, so M'npus walked away. As he walked, the flesh cracked open and blood spurted forth staining the bushes ("kinnikinik") which are red to this day. Feeling something dragging as he walked, M'npus turned around and discovered that his intestines were coming out and dragging on the ground. He broke these off and flung them on a tree, and told them to stay there and grow for his uncles and aunts (the Menomini people). "Now," he said, "when the chase is in vain, and food is scarce in the wigwam, you, my uncles and aunts, may eat this vine, and you will not starve. This will save your life." And to this day the Menomini call the bittersweet vine "M'npus otte." He rid himself of the scabs which he felt on his buttocks by sliding down a slanting rock, and these too became a food, the lichen or "wa'kun" of the Menomini. Bittersweet has another name that is rarely used, "aia'pta mama'tcetau," meaning "half Indian." After giving this food to the Menomini, M'npus told them that he would go to the east and remain seated there and whenever his people talked to him, he would hear them. By the cast, they understand out over Lake Michigan and toward Detroit. Near Detroit there are rocks sticking up which he left there.  There too may be seen his cane.




Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale Weber), "wsanow'k wasakana'wt."  The vinegar, made from the last run of sap in the maple tree, is used to cook the leaves of dandelion for a dish of greens.




Large Tooth Cress (Dentaria maxima Nutt.), "tapkp'nik" [long potato].  The running rootstock of this cress literally mats the ground where there is a rich forest loam, wet by a spring. The tiny thread root that connects the main stem with the rootstock is so frail that it is difficult to associate the subterranean root with the leaf and flower, but finally we were able to dig one in the spring of the year, with a flower that had just withered and determined its genus and species.  It is a "potato" much relished by the Menomini, but has a pungent, acrid taste when it is freshly dug. The mass of cleaned roots is accordingly heaped on a blanket and covered closely to exclude the air. Then there is a natural process of fermentation for four or five days, following which the roots are found to be sweet. The Menomini cook it with corn, and say that, besides being good to eat, it is a good medicine for the stomach.




Squash (Cucurbita Pepo var.), "winamakwu'asn." The native Menomini squash appears to be a cross between a summer crookneck and a pattypan squash. They are prepared in two ways for winter use. The more common way, at least so far as the writer observed, was to cut them horizontally into circles and dry them, hanging them on poles on the rafters of the house. Some cut them into strips and braid them after a partial drying, then dry them stiff and hang up the braids for winter use. They also grow and exhibit at their Indian annual fair, the pumpkin, "wisa'uwikwi nama'kwn" and a Hubbard squash, "oka'xmakumu'n."




Cranberry (Vaccinium oxycoccus L.), "pawahim'nuka." This is a Menomini food that is sweetened with maple sugar and eaten in the same way as the blueberry.


Blueberry (Vaccinium pennsylvanicum Lam.), "pawahime'nn" or simply "me'nn."  Blueberries are a favorite food with the Menomini. They gather them in large quantities and dry them in the sun as raisins or currants are dried for winter use. They are dried on a scaffold thatched with rushes. Dried blueberries and dried sweet corn are eaten together, sweetened with maple sugar, as a special dish.




Beechnuts. (Fagus grandifolia Ehrh.), "sw'nimn" [beech nuts]. Beechnuts are gathered and stored for winter use, as are all of the native nuts.


White Oak (Quercus alba L.), "oske'xtmi," the acorns being called "oske'xtem'nn." Any kind of acorns that were available were eaten in aboriginal times. The hulls were flailed off after parching, and the acorn was boiled till almost cooked. The water was then thrown away. Then to fresh water, two cups of wood ashes were added. The acorns were put into a net and were pulled out of the water after boiling in this. The third time, they are simmered to clear them of lye water. Then they are ground into meal with mortar and pestle, then sifted in a birch-bark sifter. The fourth time, the meal is cooked in soup stock of deer meat until finished and ready to eat, or made into mush with bear oil seasoning. The old Indians never made pie, but the Menomini now make pie of them. 


Hill's Oak (Quercus ellipsoidalis E. J. Hill) called Pin Oak by the Menomini or "ap'simnn." The pin oak acorns were roasted and ground up for coffee. The hulls were removed by flailing, and the parched acorn ready to grind was called "ape'smenun" [black berry].




Corn (Zea mays L.), "apesa'pimn." The native varieties of corn are variegated in the color of the grain on the same cob, ranging from cream color to blue and black. Corn has been more or less cultivated by the Menomini from aboriginal times, and they possess an origin myth about it which is described by Mr. Skinner in his "Material Culture of the Menomini.Their use nearly parallels the white man's uses, even to the roasting ears and hominy, which is made substantially the same way. But their various ways of curing and drying it for winter use differ from the white man's way. Their after use and the combinations of it with other foods are also different. The women gather the corn in the field when it is nearly ripe and parboil it. When half cooked, they cut off or shell the kernels and dry them in the sun. They also make more use of popcorn than does the white man. Popcorn, "nanisa'pimn" [mouse corn], was prepared by roasting or parching and pounding it to a meal, adding dried venison, maple sugar or wild rice or all three. This made a very sustaining ration for the hunter, taking very little space to carry and being very nourishing. Another trail ration was parched ordinary corn ground and mixed with bear oil. Scorched or parched corn was often used as a substitute for coffee.


Wild Rice (Zizania aquatica L.), "m'no'mn." This is the plant from which the Menomini tribe derived its name and is, of course, their chief and best aboriginal food. The whole story of wild rice has been carefully worked out in Mr. Skinner's "Material Culture of the Menomini8 and has been made the topic of one of the first Public Museum exhibition groups. The writer has seen the present day camp  and methods of gathering, preparing and storing, and will give a brief account of the same. The Indians go to the lakes where it grows, while it is still in the milk, and set up camp to wait for it to ripen, as time is no object to them. When this time arrives, all of the spirits connected with the rice are addressed in prayer and are feasted, so that a good harvest may be had. The next morning, if ripe rice is to be gathered, the Indians go to the rice beds, three in a canoe, two women to gather the rice and one man to pole the boat. The women pull the heads over the boat and beat off the grains into the bottom of the boat. On the return loaded trip, the women trample the rice to break off the spiny beards or awns. The unhulled kernels are next parched in a dry kettle. A small hole is dug and fitted with a candy bucket or lined with cloth for the threshing floor. A small quantity is poured in and a man wearing moccasins that are new, steps in to trample and thresh it. He has a stake driven into the ground near the hole, to grasp and help him keep his balance, while tramping up and down on the rice. The next operation is winnowing. A large shallow birch-bark tray is shaken up and down by a woman to allow the chaff to be removed by the wind or to bring it to the top to be removed by hand. Next the rice is washed to clean it of foreign matter and of the smoky flavor of parching. Then it is ready to cook or store. One part of this rice to six parts of water, gives one the notion of how greatly it swells in cooking. The kernels are about six times as long as they are broad and in cooking the ends curl back till both are brought back to the middle, thus differing from Oryza sativa, the white man's rice. The proper way to cook it is with deer broth and season it with maple sugar. Failing this, nowadays, pork or butter is used, with maple sugar.




Virginia Waterleaf (Hydrophyllum virginianum L.), "pit'pitci'pa."  The leaves of this plant are eaten as greens. First they are wilted like lettuce in vinegar made from the last run of maple sap, then simmered in a kettle. The first water is thrown away. They are then boiled with pork and fine meal until ready to serve.




Shellbark Hickory (Carya ovata (Mill.) K. Koch), "nano'tckopkan." The use of these nuts parallels that of the white man, with no uses peculiar to the Menomini, so far as we could learn.


Butternut (Juglans cinerea L.), "pka'nawe" and the nuts "pka'nawe paka'n."  No black walnuts were found on the reservation, but butternuts were plentiful. The Indians use them in the same way that the white man does.




Groundnut (Apios tuberosa Moench.), "ma'tcetaup'nik" [Indian potatoes].  It was difficult to connect the root of this very important "potato" with its above ground portion. Only on a fourth trial was it definitely seen to be the groundnut. It usually grows in low-lying rich soil and in such a tangle of other vegetation that it is difficult to work out the connection between the root and the stem. If one knew in advance what species to seek, then the connection would be easily found. The root-stocks are moniliform, that is, like a chain of beads, running in every direction for from fifteen to twenty-five feet, at five or six inches below the surface. The tuberous enlargements or beads are very numerous with no definite intervals between them, usually from six to twenty inches apart. They run from marble size to three inches in diameter. These "potatoes" are sweet, starchy and quite palatable raw. They are peeled, parboiled, sliced and dried for winter use. When cooked, maple sugar is used until it thickens to a sticky syrup and the resulting flavor is superior to candied yams.


Cranberry Bean (Phaseolus vulgaris L.).  Our present day red Cranberry pole beans originally came from the Indians, and this is the variety that the Menomini grew in aboriginal times. It is a staple article of food with them and has been cultivated so long that it is really not known how old it is. It enters into many combinations of  Menomini food, which would seem queer to the white man.




Wild Leek (Allium tricoccum Ait.), "pikwu'tc sikaku'shia" [the skunk].  The word for skunk in Menomini as well as other Algonkian Indian tongues in different parts of the country is "sika'k." The word "shika'ko" or "skunk place" is the origin of the word Chicago, which in aboriginal times was the locality of an abundance of these wild leeks. This is the larger wild onion known as the hero's onion, or the one pointed out by M'npus for food. It is very highly esteemed by the Menomini and is sought especially in the spring. It is then much rounder and plumper than in the fall when it is shrunken. It is also gathered and dried for future use. It is somewhat bitter to the taste. The smaller wild onion is sweeter.


Wild Onion (Allium canadense Roth), "sikaku'sia."  The smaller wild onion is sweeter in flavor than the one above mentioned, and is much sought by the Menomini for food. It is too small to be a very large addition to their menu.




Yellow Water Lily (Nymphaea advena Ait.), "waka'tamo." The root as a vegetable is called "wa'kepn." The large fleshy rhizomes are starchy and firm. They are cooked in the same manner as rutabaga.




Cinnamon Fern (Osmunda cinnamomea L.), 

"nonakona'ws" [milk or breast of woman], a general name for ferns, because of their medicinal value to the Menomini in promoting a flow of milk and in curing caked breasts. The young coiled fronds as they are opening are comparable to asparagus tips and are much relished by the Menomini. The frond tips are simmered for an hour to rid them of ants.  This water is discarded. The fern is then put into soup stock and thickened with flour. It is widely eaten by the tribe and has a flavor similar to wild rice. 


When these fronds are unfolding, it is the time of the year that fawns are being dropped, and as the doe feeds upon these shoots, the intending hunter must eat nothing else while he is hunting for deer. Then he will not give off any other scent than that of the fern, and the deer will not be frightened away. The hunter takes his bow and arrow and his "squaker," along with his deer charm, "pitcime'ws," and, hiding himself, imitates the sound of a fawn in distress. The doe comes and, not scenting anything but the fern, is easily shot with the arrow. After killing the deer, the hunter may eat whatever he wants.




Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris L.), "wsasipu'kwa" [a leaf that is slippery].  The Menomini use this as greens in the spring and many know it under the name of Cowslip, the white man's name.




New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus L.), "kit'ki mnitu" [spotted manitou].  The dried leaves of New Jersey Tea are used as a  substitute for Ceylon black tea by the Menomini. Although my informant could not say, it is quite possible that the tribe learned this use from the civil war veterans among their number, who discovered it during the war.




Juneberries (Amelanchier huronensis Wieg.), (Amelanchier laevis Wieg.) and (Amelanchier canadensis x laevis), "oskwikominu'ka" and "ane'pimnun." The Juneberry or service-berry is a favorite food of the Menomini, seemingly as important as blueberries. It is gathered and dried for winter use the same as blueberries.


Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana Duchesne). There is nothing quite so full of flavor as the wild strawberry and the Menomini are very fond of eating them on the spot.


Sand Cherry (Prunus pumila L.), "naxno'emn." The large sand cherries are eaten out of hand and are sometimes gathered and preserved.


Black Cherry (Prunus serotina Ehrh.), "iw'skpi me'nn," These cherries, if eaten when they have been picked and allowed to stand some time, are said to make the Indian drunk. They are also eaten fresh.


Choke Cherry (Prunus virginiana L.), "pna'nowe me'nn" [puckering berry], "tt'kimenm" and "wiki'shimenn" [birchbark berry]. The writer has observed women and children working on baskets, and keeping a continual stream of choke cherry seeds dropping from their lips as they stripped small branches of cherries to eat. The bark of the choke cherry is boiled to furnish a regular tea which is drunk with meals.


Blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis Porter), "onakana'ws." The Menomini gather and eat the blackberries in pies, and also dry and store them for winter use.


Red Raspberry (Rubus idaeus aculeatissimus (C. A. Mey) Regel & Tiling), "mak'nitu onakanaw."  This berry is not as abundant as the blackberry and is only eaten fresh, so far as my informant knew.


Black Raspberry (Rubus occidentalis L.), "onakana'ws." On the Menomini reservation, this is the least frequently seen of the three Rubus species, and it is not important as a fresh fruit. 




Prickly Gooseberry (Ribes cynosbati L.), "nom'kimn" [beaver berry], and "kawime'nn" [the thorny berry]. Gooseberries are one of the staple berries gathered by the Menomini and are preserved and stored for winter use. Previous reference has been made to its use in a favorite aboriginal Menomini dish.




Indian Potato (Solanum tuberosum L.), "wakikp'nik." These "Irish potatoes" were referred to in English by some of the Menomini as "nigger toes." They were an odd looking sort of early "potato," with suggestions in color of the Early Rose, but a deeper purple hue. They grow differently in the hill from our Irish potato, standing upon end, or being vertically dependent. The Menomini grower said that his grandfather grew this same kind of potato and that so far as he knew, the Menomini had always grown them. They produce heavily in new ground and attain a length of eight inches, with a diameter of possibly two inches. The writer had never seen anything like them and sent back some to be modeled for the Museum exhibit collections. 




Woolly Sweet Cicely (Osmorrhiza claytoni (Mx.) Clarke), "mno'na hsenu'kwost" [the one that looks like wild rice]. This is not so much a food as a medicine. For one that is losing flesh, this is a fattener. It has the taste of a carrot and must be eaten cautiously, eating one branch or piece of the root at a time.




Frost Grape (Vitis cordifolia Mx.), "sewa'nn." Wild grapes are esteemed by the Menomini in exactly the same way that the white man likes them.  They eat them fresh, preserve them, dry them or make jelly from them.


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