Traditional Lakota Foods

Updated on March 14, 2018
There are many stories and ceremonies surrounding traditional Lakota foods.
There are many stories and ceremonies surrounding traditional Lakota foods.

The Lakota Believe That Food Is Sacred

In Lakota tradition, food is given proper respect because without food, there is no life. The Lakota people developed many ways to obtain food in the unique environment in which they lived. Men and women each had separate, well-defined roles in obtaining food.

Their primary food source was North American bison, which provided healthy, low-fat protein. They supplemented their diet with other game, fish, fruits, and vegetables that were gathered or traded. Food and food customs are so important to the survival of the people, that there are many stories and ceremonies surrounding traditional Lakota foods.

The most important food source for the Lakota was the buffalo or American bison.
The most important food source for the Lakota was the buffalo or American bison. | Source

The Importance of Bison to the Lakota

The most important food source for the Lakota was the buffalo or American bison. Pte Oyate is the Lakota name for the Buffalo Nation. Pte hcaka is the true bison, and the Lakota tell many stories about these massive creatures. It was not until 2004 that outsiders began to believe stories of these enormous creatures after a skull (7-8 feet across the horns) was found in the Missouri River.

In pre-contact times, it was said that bison were so abundant that you could walk on their backs across the Great Plains from Mexico to Canada. There are at least 17 different Lakota words for various kinds of buffalo. Some of the names classify buffalo by age, sex, and special qualities:

  • Pte heste is a two-year-old
  • Pte he yuktan is a four to six-year-old
  • Pte tabloka is a bull
  • Pte winyela is a cow
  • Pte wiyela Iyauhapi is the lead cow

Knowledge of the lead cow was very important to hunters. The lead cow of a herd would be watched very intently by scouts prior to a hunt. The scouts could determine where the herd would be in 2-3 days by watching the lead cow's movements. The scouts would then go back to camp and round up the people for a big communal hunt. Although buffalo were the primary food source, the Lakota hunted other animals as well.

Staple Game of the Lakota Diet

Lakota Term
English Term
pte hcaka
bison
hehaka
elk
mato
bear
nigesan
antelope
tahca sinte sapela
the mule deer
tahca sinte ska
white-tailed deer
mastin sapa
jack rabbit
pahin
porcupine
pispiza
prairie dog

Traditional Wahonpi Soup Recipe

Wohanpi is a traditional soup that is still very popular in Lakota country today. In years past, wohanpi would have been made with bison meat, prairie turnips, and blo (wild potatoes). Today, it is made from bison or beef, potatoes, and other vegetables. If using bison, remember to decrease the cooking time. Bison has much less fat than beef and if overcooked, it can get very tough and hard to eat.

Wohanpi would have been made with bison meat, prairie turnips, and blo (wild potatoes).
Wohanpi would have been made with bison meat, prairie turnips, and blo (wild potatoes). | Source

Wahonpi Soup Ingredients

  • 3 cups cooked, cubed beef or bison meat
  • 6 cups beef broth
  • 3 medium potatoes, peeled and cubed
  • 3 medium carrots, cut in half
  • 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
  • salt and pepper to taste

Instructions

  1. Add the cooked meat to the broth in a stockpot.
  2. Add carrots, potatoes, and Worcestershire sauce.
  3. Simmer over low heat for 45 minutes.
  4. If using bison, add the meat to the pot in the last 15 minutes of cooking.
  5. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

How Did You Like the Wahonpi Recipe?

4 stars from 3 ratings of Make Your Own Wohanpi

Wasna (Pemmican) Preserved Meat

Wasna is a sacred food that is still used in certain ceremonies today, and is a traditional energy food that was used when fresh meat was not available. It was also used "on the road" when Lakota were hunting or moving camp; it is dense and filling, but also light, portable, and requires no cooking. Traditional wasna was made by combining dried, pounded bison meat with dried chokecherry patties. Tallow held the mixture together.

Wasna is still a popular way to preserve meat:

  1. First, the meat would be braised or wagagayapi.
  2. Every woman had an inyan gmegmela, or round cooking stone that she used to cook on.
  3. The meat would then be wakapapi—pounded to a pulp on an inyan blaska, or large, flat stone with a smaller stone.
  4. When it was the consistency of powder, the meat would be wasnayapi, or mixed with marrow fat and poured into rawhide bags.
  5. Melted fat would be used to seal these bags and this way, the wasna could keep for 3-4 years. The meat would sometimes be mixed with ground berries or even tinpsila (breadroot) to make other variations of wasna.

I have made dried, pounded meat the traditional way, and the whole process takes about a month. Give it a try if you'd like, or save yourself a lot of time by finely shredding beef or bison jerky in a food processor.

Lakota Cooking Tools and Techniques

English Technique/Tool
Lakota Term
braised
wagagayapi
round cooking stone
inyan gmegmela
pounded to a pulp
wakapapi
large, flat stone with a smaller stone
inyan blaska
mixed with marrow fat and poured into rawhide bags
wasnayapi
Wasna (pemmican) is still a popular way to preserve meat.
Wasna (pemmican) is still a popular way to preserve meat. | Source

Wasna (Pemmican) Ingredients

  • 2 cups shredded beef or bison jerky
  • 1 cup tart berries (chokecherries, tart/sour cherries, or cranberries work best), chopped
  • 6 tablespoons beef tallow or vegetable shortening

Instructions

  1. Shred the jerky and berries in a food processor.
  2. Mix in the tallow or shortening and stir until incorporated.
  3. Form the mixture into patties and dry them in a dehydrator or refrigerate and consume within 3 days.

Buffalo and Berry Energy Bars

If making your own wasna isn't your cup of tea, but you'd still like to try it, you can purchase Tanka bars and Tanka bites. These are bison and cranberry wasna bars made on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

Corn removed from the cob is referred to as wagnu, and corn dried on the cob is wahunwapa.
Corn removed from the cob is referred to as wagnu, and corn dried on the cob is wahunwapa. | Source

Staple Fruits and Vegetables in the Lakota Diet

The Lakota people gathered fruits and vegetables from the local environment as well. They didn't cultivate crops themselves, but they traded with other groups who did.

  • Wild Potato: Blo or hognut is a small, bluish root that grows abundantly along Potato Creek on the Pine Ridge Reservation. There are actually three types of timpsila plant. The primary type is the breadroot or scurf pea, and was gathered in June. Once the plants flowered, they were braided and hung to dry. The mato timpsila was also similarly used. This is the tall scurf pea, and the roots of this plant resemble fingers. The Cheyenne timpsila is called the desert biscuitroot.
  • Corn: Corn removed from the cob is referred to as wagnu, and corn dried on the cob is wahunwapa. The ears of corn were wacokin or roasted in the ground, then the ends were braided together and hung on the south side of the lodge to dry. When ground up after drying, corn can be used to make another variety of wasna.
  • Berries: Berries were popular with the Lakota people and there are several varieties available in the local environment. The berries were picked in July. After picking, the berries are pounded into flat cakes and then dried for future use. Berries would also be made in to wojapi, or berry gravy. This gravy was traditionally thickened with timpsila flour, buffaloberry, or huckleberry leaves.

Lakota Terminology for Fruits and Vegetables

Lakota Term
English Term
Processing
timpsila
wild turnips
After drying, the timpsila would be ground to a powder for future use. Traditional bread was made from timpsila cakes and dried marrow stuffed in intestines.
blo
wild potatoes
 
psin
wild onions
Would be traded from the Ojibwes to the East
wagmiza
corn
 
wastunkala
corn (cooked and dried)
A popular ingredient in wohanpi or soup (along with papa and timpsila).
canpa
chokecherry
The most popular berry of the Lakota
wipazutkan
juneberry
Grows wild in the Black Hills
uja
dried berries
Later soaked to rehydrate
mastinca pute
buffaloberries
 
waziskeca
strawberries
 
takanhecala
raspberries
 

Make Your Own Wojapi

Wojapi is a traditional berry soup enjoyed by the Lakota. Before European contact, wojapi was made with dried chokecherry patties, and dried/powdered timpsila (prairie turnip) was used as a thickener. These days, wojapi is made from a variety of berries (either fresh, frozen, dried, or canned), and most people use cornstarch as a thickener. This recipe uses frozen berries.

Wojapi is a traditional berry soup enjoyed by the Lakota.
Wojapi is a traditional berry soup enjoyed by the Lakota. | Source

Wojapi Ingredients

  • 5-pound bag of frozen berries (cherries, cranberries, blueberries, or mixed berries)
  • 2 cups of sugar or to taste
  • 8 cups of water
  • 4 tablespoons of cornstarch dissolved in cold water

Instructions

  1. Put the frozen berries in a stock pot with water and simmer uncovered until softened (about 1 hour).
  2. Mash the berries with a potato masher or immersion blender.
  3. Add the dissolved cornstarch slowly, stirring, until incorporated.
  4. Wojapi can be enjoyed warm or cold. A favorite way to eat wojapi in Lakota country is with fry bread.

Chokecherry Wojapi Demonstration

The Benefits of Returning to a Traditional Diet

As we can see, the Lakota people developed many methods to obtain food from their unique environment. The bulk of their diet consisted of meat sources, primarily buffalo, and was rounded out with vegetables, fruits, and other plant foods.

This traditional diet sharply contrasts with the commodity foods the U.S. government began sending to the reservations to fulfill treaty obligations. With no more bison left to hunt and only commodity foods to subsist on, the Lakota were forced to move from a healthy, natural, high-protein diet, to an unhealthy, unnatural, high-carbohydrate diet.

Prior to the 1930s, diabetes was unknown in Indian country. After this time, consumption of the new, unhealthy diet led to the epidemic of diabetes that is seen in Indian country today. It would be a great benefit if people were able to move back to eating a healthier, traditional diet.

The bulk of the Lakota diet consisted of meat sources, vegetables, fruits, and other plant foods.
The bulk of the Lakota diet consisted of meat sources, vegetables, fruits, and other plant foods. | Source

Questions & Answers

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      • Yawapi profile image

        Yawapi 5 weeks ago from the Lakota Homelands

        THIS IS MY ORIGINAL WORK AND IT WAS PUBLISHED ON THIS WEBSITE WITHOUT MY PERMISSION. A DMCA TAKE DOWN NOTICE HAS BEEN SENT TO THE ISP.

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        Uhma Ruth 2 months ago

        I would like to know if I could include your Wojapi recipe in a cookbook produced by WIOV., a radio station in Ephrata, Pa. Every year for the past 10 years I have provided a Native recipe. This year their theme is desserts. The cookbook is free to all their listeners. Please get back to me ASAP as the recipes have to be submitted by the 13th of this month. I have made wojapi and served it with Lenape corn bread. e-mail me at hbpysknk@ptd.net please. Thank you.

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        2219 2 years ago

        I argee with guest 234

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        guest 344 3 years ago

        What is wrong with you guest 56?talk about the page only

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        Guest 234 3 years ago

        Thank you for the delightful webpage and i love that the the lakotas didn't eat crazy like us but they watched them self thx for your time and information

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        guest106 3 years ago

        Are you two crazy! The comment section is for talking about the website only! Guest 56 and kitty26 should not be a loud on this website! :(

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        guest 56 3 years ago

        ill have u know i don't care what you think but still thank u at least u care.

      • profile image

        kitty26 3 years ago

        Guest56 is nothing compared to guest106

      • profile image

        guest 56 3 years ago

        kitty 26 that was very rude but thanks for nothing.

      • profile image

        kitty26 3 years ago

        Guest56, I so agree with you, but guest106has a better comment, because she said why this website is useful

      • profile image

        Guest 56 3 years ago

        This webpage was very inspiring and thank you for your information.

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        guest106 3 years ago

        My friend and I were working on a project and this was very useful

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        mauvette-hardwick 5 years ago

        Thank you for sharing this very informative. I gave up eating cow 15 yrs. ago and replaced it with buffalo. I feel so much better. I don't do fast foods and have been trying to go organic with regional foods and preserving all that I can for winter months. I will be able to use some of the reciepes you included thanks.

      • SteenBiilmann LM profile image

        SteenBiilmann LM 5 years ago

        Wow great lens about traditional indian foods - I am especially curious about the chokecherries. Thanks for posting!

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        ashleychastain 5 years ago

        Wado cousins! thank you so much, i was never taught these eating habits and i want to start eating healthier so my future children know that they don't have to eat the white man's food. they can eat the foods their ancestors ate. i kno i dnt want no diabetes or cancer or none of that.

      • captainj88 profile image

        Leah J. Hileman 5 years ago from East Berlin, PA, USA

        Lovely lens, really interesting recipes. Thanks for sharing!

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        Tamara14 6 years ago

        Very informative and really eye-opening lens. I couldn't agree more on the point that foods should be treated with respect. I've learned something new and thank you for that. It's nice to see someone writes with passion like you do :)

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        anonymous 6 years ago

        So impressive. I can feel the sacredness that you speak of with Lakota traditions and love the historical information you provide here...as well as some excellent recipes, perfection!

      • Yawapi LM profile image
        Author

        Yawapi LM 6 years ago

        @aesta1: Thank you and I'm glad you enjoyed it. I agree that traditional diets are more healthy.

      • aesta1 profile image

        Mary Norton 6 years ago from Ontario, Canada

        Am happy I found your lens. This is really interesting. Traditional diet is I think more healthy.

      • Yawapi LM profile image
        Author

        Yawapi LM 6 years ago

        @SaintFrantic: Thank you! Let me know if you try the recipe out - would love to hear what you think of it.

      • Yawapi LM profile image
        Author

        Yawapi LM 6 years ago

        @satewas: Are you from the Haudenosaunee lands? Deer meat is very healthy too! I bet you could make wasna with deer meat, although I've never tried it.

      • satewas profile image

        satewas 6 years ago

        Nia:wan (Thankyou) I love to eat Buffalo but we don't have any in our territory! We i do get some I will be sure to try your recipe.

        Peace and Friendship

        Satewas

      • SaintFrantic profile image

        SaintFrantic 6 years ago

        Thank you for this great Lens.Great recipe

      • Yawapi LM profile image
        Author

        Yawapi LM 6 years ago

        @LadyFlashman: Thanks for the feedback, I'm glad you liked the recipes. I'm not sure what berries grow in the UK, if you don't have chokecherries the closest approximation would be cranberries. Or if you want sweet berries, I've made wojapi with blackberries, blueberries and strawberries too. Hope you get a chance to try some!

      • LadyFlashman profile image

        LadyFlashman 6 years ago from United Kingdom

        What fantastic and interesting recipes! Being from the UK I have never heard of this food before, it sounds great and has got me wondering if I can try to make them here in England!

      • Demaw profile image

        Demaw 6 years ago

        Let's hope that all of us can get back to eating healthier.

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