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Native American Heritage Month: Indigenous Foodscapes

Native American Heritage Day is Friday, November 27, 2020.

This month has been a celebration in honor of Native American Heritage Month. We pay tribute to the indigenous people of the United States which includes Native Americans, Native Alaskans, and Kanaka ʻŌiwi (Native Hawaiians).

These indigenous cultures and tribes have contributed deep ancestral knowledge and wisdom to our modern society. Knowledge that was acquired through hundreds and thousands of years of observation and practice. Weʻre blessed to live in Hawaiʻi, a place that is enriched with native culture and tradition. The ancient Hawaiians were sophisticated navigators, resource managers, and storytellers. You could say that many of ʻAkahiaoʻs values, concepts, and ideas originated from indigenous thinking. From agricultural practices, reverence for nature, to the sacredness and connectedness of life. These are instilled into ANI and the programs that we offer.

Food is the primary focus during the holidays, aside from gathering with family. It brings people together and many memories are made at the dinner table. We want to take this time to share gratitude for the blessings and the challenges weʻve all endured this year. May we be thankful for the small moments that make up this sacred space we call life. In honor of food and the sustenance that sustains us, this blog is dedicated to Native American Foodscapes.

If you're interested in learning more, check out PBS and the many films they offer for Native American Heritage Month.

Indigenous Foodscapes of Native Hawaiians

Ancient Ahupuaʻa System

The ancient ahupuaʻa system was a complex socioeconomic, geologic, and climatic subdivision of land. Each island was subdivided into many ahupuaʻa (land divisions) that typically ran from mauka (upland) to makai (sea), and can sometimes be likened to a watershed. Each ahupuaʻa encompassed necessary resources for the community to survive and thrive. Kanaka (people) would trade resources between mauka and makai, such as iʻa (fish) for wood, to build waʻa (canoes) or hale (house).

Biocultural Resource Management

The kapu (taboo) system distinguished certain prohibition periods throughout the year for fishing, gathering, and growing. This was done to ensure that certain species had time to thrive, and that resources were able to replenish. In this sense, Hawaiians were practicing sustainability long before it became a trend; it was their way of life.


Farming provided the majority of the sustenance; and therefore, was the most important activity and way of life for the mahi ʻai (farmer). Due to the many microclimates across the islands, mahi ʻai had wetland and dryland agricultural methods.

The most important of the staple foods was kalo (taro). Kalo was grown in the valley in wetland loʻi patches with extensive irrigation from nearby streams and rivers. There was also dry-land kalo which was grown on terraced slopes. The second most important crop was ʻuala (sweet potatoes), because it required less water and provided an abundant harvest.

Other crops were grown around the homestead such as maiʻa (banana), niu (coconut), ʻulu (breadfruit), ʻawa (kava), ʻōlena (turmeric), kō (sugarcane), pia (arrowroot), ipu (gourds), and kī (ti plant).


It is also worthy of mentioning that kanaka maoli (native hawaiians) lifestyle was very spiritual in nature and reflected the interconnectedness of all beings animate and inanimate. They prayed and made offerings to deities to ensure an abundant harvest.


The Makahiki festival begins when Makaliʻi (Pleiades) rises over the horizon at sunset. This four month season is dedicated to Lono-i-ka-makahiki, the god of rain, fertility and agriculture. This time coincides with strong winds, heavy rains, and storms. All war activities were kapu and people were encouraged to rest, play games, and dance. For religious purposes, things like deep sea fishing were considered kapu, because it was dedicated to the war god Ku.


Hawaiians were very much a part of the sea. Fish and seafood provided most of the protein in their diet. They honed their skills to develop different fishing methods from diving, hook + line, spearing, trapping, and casting nets. Hook + line was efficient to catch medium size catch like sharks, octopus, and squid.

Loko iʻa

Hawaiians developed aquaculture and the loko iʻa (fishpond) system of raising fish. It was a major project that required tens of thousands of men. Rock walls enclosed shallow bays or inlets and were designed with a mākāhā (sluice gate), that would allow smaller fish to swim into the pond, where they were protected and could feed on limu. Once they reached a certain size, they would no longer fit through the gate and would be trapped. Fish ponds were stocked with awa (milkfish), ʻamaʻama, `anae (mullet), ʻāhole (sea-pig), ʻōpae (shrimp), ʻoʻopu (guppies), and puhi (eels).


Gathering consisted of many varieties of edible limu (seaweed), which was used to add flavor to the diet, ʻOpihi (limpets), and paʻakai (salt) to name a few.

Raising Domesticated Animals

Farmers also raised puaʻa (pig), moa (chicken), and ʻīlio (dog) for food.

Indigenous Foodscapes of Native Americans

Methods of Finding Food

  • Hunting and Fishing

  • Farming

  • Gathering

  • Raising Domesticated Animals

Hunting & Fishing

Most tribes relied on hunting and fishing as their primary food source. Hunting was done with much appreciation and gratitude for the animal and the creator. They utilized as much of the animal, as they could to ensure there was no waste.

In large groups theyʻd ambush and drive large game mammals such as bison and caribou into man-made pits or sometimes over cliffs. Other tribes would stalk, snare, or trap deer, rabbits, and other game.

Fishermen would catch fish and other marine mammals from their canoe, with the use of fish nets or wooden traps.


The most advanced agricultural systems in the United States were in the southern region, and included tribes such as the Hopi, Navajo, and the Cherokee.

Farming techniques that were used included: irrigation, terracing, crop rotation, windbreaks, and companion planting such as the "three sisters".

The "three sisters" method of companion planting included maize (corn), squash, and climbing beans. Each crop would benefit the other. The maize gave the beans a structure to climb on, the beans provided nitrogen to the soil, and the squash served as a living mulch that would help retain moisture in the ground, and suppress weeds from growing in.


Gathering was generally done by women in surrounding areas. Food from the wild ranged from picking berries, nuts, seeds, herbs, and roots; to more advanced methods such as tapping for maple syrup and grinding acorns to make flour.

Raising Domesticated Animals

There were few domesticated animals in North America prior to European arrival. Some of those included turkeys, ducks, and dogs. Dogs were rarely eaten by tribes.

Indigenous Foodscapes of Native Alaskans


Native Alaskans make up a number of different indigenous cultures from Inuit to Athabaskan. Generations upon generations and for thousands of years, native Alaskans have lived a nomadic lifestyle, following the movement and migration of animals, that they hunted for clothing and sustenance. Due to extreme climate conditions hunting and trapping was their main source of survival.


Each native group is slightly different, but hunting was the core of their culture, agriculture was not an option. Generally, weapons consisted of harpoons, spears, and bow and arrow. During the winter theyʻd hunt seals, whales, and other sea mammals on the coast. During the summer theyʻd move inland to fish and hunt herds of caribou, muskox, and other mammals.


Gathering consisted of berries, wild roots, seaweed, and other vegetable resources.

Modern Subsistence

In 1978 Alaska created laws to protect traditional subsistence practices, and to allow the community to have priority over the resources. Today, it has become a political issue and controversy between non-subsistence hunters and fishermen, who have commercial interests in using those precious resources.


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