I spent 10 years working as a nurse before pursuing degrees in earth science and geology. I'm interested in traditional diets.
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 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|
tahca sinte sapela
the mule deer
tahca sinte ska
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.
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
- Add the cooked meat to the broth in a stockpot.
- Add carrots, potatoes, and Worcestershire sauce.
- Simmer over low heat for 45 minutes.
- If using bison, add the meat to the pot in the last 15 minutes of cooking.
- Season with salt and pepper to taste.
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:
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- First, the meat would be braised or wagagayapi.
- Every woman had an inyan gmegmela, or round cooking stone that she used to cook on.
- The meat would then be wakapapi—pounded to a pulp on an inyan blaska, or large, flat stone with a smaller stone.
- When it was the consistency of powder, the meat would be wasnayapi, or mixed with marrow fat and poured into rawhide bags.
- 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|
round cooking stone
pounded to a pulp
large, flat stone with a smaller stone
mixed with marrow fat and poured into rawhide bags
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
- Shred the jerky and berries in a food processor.
- Mix in the tallow or shortening and stir until incorporated.
- 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.
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||Notes|
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.
Would be traded from the Ojibwes to the East
corn (cooked and dried)
A popular ingredient in wohanpi or soup (along with papa and timpsila).
The most popular berry of the Lakota
Grows wild in the Black Hills
Later soaked to rehydrate
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.
- 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
- Put the frozen berries in a stock pot with water and simmer uncovered until softened (about 1 hour).
- Mash the berries with a potato masher or immersion blender.
- Add the dissolved cornstarch slowly, stirring, until incorporated.
- 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.