3 Living Well on the Edge

It was noted in the Introduction that the Kasota Prairie is wedged between two other environments: the Minnesota River flood plain and the Big Woods. These two areas, and the prairie itself, provided three distinctive food resource areas for Native Americans. According to Optimal Foraging Theory as formulated by Ritt MacArthur and E.R. Pinaka,[1], natural selection favors animals whose behavioral strategy maximizes their unit energy intake per unit time spent foraging. Anthropologists have applied this theory to hunting and gathering societies, assuming humans will also seek to maximize food resource return/unit of foraging time. In other words, the amount of resources they will hunt and gather within an area depends on the amount of time and effort utilized. In a review of some of these anthropological applications, Eric Alden Smith[2] describes a number of studies using Optimal Foraging Theory or some derivative of it, i.e. how optimal foraging is part of hunting territory management on animal populations and overhunting. In a recent presentation, David Hurst Thomas[3] of the American Museum of Natural History looked at the foraging behavior of Native Americans who inhabited St. Catherine’s Island, Georgia. He concluded that their foraging lifestyle was enhanced dramatically by the confluence of island maritime forests, salt marshes, and artesian fresh water. These varying environments had varying food resources. Thus, living on the edge of these environments provided a diet rich in variety. This kind of diverse environmental juxtaposition is exactly what we find on the Kasota Prairie as well. Here, Native Americans could hunt and gather and maximize their food resources/time within a diverse and restricted geographical area. As a consequence, they lived well.

“What’s for Lunch”?

Unless you look closely, many prairie plants are difficult to see and identify. But not for Ward Tanner, Jr. Professor Tanner, a former Biology teacher at Gustavus Adolphus College, not only knew his prairie plants, but he was also knowledgeable in how these plants were used by the Native Americans. He and some students in the summer of 1972 did a  botanical field study of the Kasota Prairie.[4] On one study site, called Survey Area #1, a total of 73  plant species were identified, and of those, 97% were native species. A great variety, indeed.  To name only a few of these plants, chokecherries, strawberries, and hackberries ripened at different times, so this source of Vitamin C would be available on a fairly continuous basis for the Native Americans. Turnips and arrowroot were dug and preserved for the winter months. Added to this, deer, pheasant, and turkey could be had throughout the year. And all could be cooked and seasoned with an array of prairie spices. A sample of these are listed below:

Bergamot- a member of the mint family.

Sage- a seasoning for meats and soups. Also, a required element of cleansing at burials

Juniper- these berries act like pepper for seasoning.

Staghorn Sumac- a source of aromatic, medicinal tea.

Wild Mustard- its leaves have a pepper flavor and its seeds are used as a spice.

In addition, muskrats lived in the flood plain. Their houses of cattails and brush cemented together with mud, dotted the marshes. Muskrat ham was a favorite food. Spearing the “rats” was a regular hunting activity in the fall and winter. An old trapper I knew when I was growing up along the Kankakee River marshes in Indiana was just as interested in muskrat “hams” as he was in the pelt itself. He would skin my “rats” for free provided I gave him the carcass. He said there was no better meat than the hams (or legs) of muskrats. He said his dogs liked them too.

Spring in the Big Woods was the time for sugar-making. The Dakota people had numerous so-called “sugar bush” camps. When the temperature got above freezing during the day, the sap in the maple trees started to run.They were tapped and a raw sugar was produced. It became a key ingredient in their diet.

The marshes and lakes also provided wild rice and cattails. Harvesting, threshing, and storing wild  rice is still an important activity for Native Americans. The river provided a variety of fish and mollusks.

In summary, the Kasota Prairie and its nearby environments were a veritable storehouse of food. In fact, these varied food resources were so important that seasons (moons) were named after them. There are thirteen full moons throughout the year with a food resource indicative of each one. For example, the September Moon of the Cherokee is the Moon of the Nut Harvest. That same moon for the Shawnee is called ‘the Moon of the Pawpaw.” For the Dakota, June was the wild strawberry moon. In July when the chokecherries were ripe and the geese shed their feathers, there was another moon. In September and October, the wild rice moons prevailed.

Indigenous Cooking

Today, many people are learning to eat more healthy with wild foods. There is a even a trend to cook Native American cuisine. The so-called “Sioux Chef,” Sean Sherman, along with Mary Dooley, offer multiple recipes in their recent cookbook.[5] Here is one of them:

Wild Rice With Wild Mushrooms, Roasted Chestnuts, and Dried Cranberries

Ingredients include: wild rice and mushrooms, wild onion, sage to taste, sunflower or walnut oil, cranberries, and chestnuts.

Preparation: In a large pot, heat sunflower or walnut oil over medium heat; add mushrooms, sage, and wild onion.Cook until the mushrooms are brown and the onion is soft. Stir wild rice in a stock, and cook until the liquid is almost evaporated. Then, stir in cranberries with maple syrup to taste.

This trend toward collecting and eating wild food is not new. In his book, Stalking the Wild Asparagus,[6] Euell Gibbons taught us how to scavenge the environment for wild things to eat. Euell said a marsh was nature’s supermarket. One of his most versatile plants was the cattail. The entire plant was useful. I put cattail roots in my salad,  just like Euell did. I tried making cattail flour for pancakes using his recipe, topped with home-made maple syrup from the trees in the Big Woods. The pancakes were barely edible, but the maple syrup was unbelievably good. I even tried to make cattail coffee by drying,  then grinding the roots. My favorite wild drink was dandelion wine. I collected the yellow tops and let them steep in a glass container for three months. I tried it and was surprised how much better the cattail pancakes tasted with the wine. After 30 years, I still have some aging in the basement. I am afraid to imbibe, but keep it as a reminder of how, even today’s in modern world, you can still forage and prepare many foods from wild plants. And probably have a richer and more healthier diet.

Indian Old Fields

The Mississippian Culture and, obviously, the historic Dakota people were not just hunters and gatherers but also farmers, particularly corn farmers. In fact, it is thought that as time went on, the Mississippians became more and more dependent on the cultivation of corn at the expense of wild food in their diet. Anthropologists Holley and Michlovic[7] think, however, that corn farming was at most a secondary activity. It is difficult to know to what extent the the Kasota Prairie was cultivated by the Native Americans. There is one tantalizing bit of evidence, however. The historical geographer, William Trygg, made a composite map of Minnesota land use based on the Surveyors’ Original Plats and Field Notes.[8] These surveys, from the 1840s, were done on the eve of Anglo settlement of the Minnesota Territory. They recorded the presence of “Natural Features” such as prairie, marsh, river bottoms, woods, lakes, rivers, and springs. They also showed what were called “Artificial Features” such as trails, Indian villages, sugar camps, and old fields. Trygg’s map shows an Old Field on the Kasota Prairie. The term Old Field refers to land formerly cleared and used by Indians for farming. Clearly, it is not possible to know how frequently this field was used for corn planting, but it does show that Native Americans to some extent were farming the Prairie. Thus, in addition to the array of wild prairie plants, they had corn too.

Migratory Living

The river flood plain and the nearby Big Woods offered a more secure and safe home during the winter months than the Prairie itself. As you have learned, the Kasota Prairie is largely an open elevated space. It was nearly treeless. Therefore, it is more exposed to the physical elements, particularly to the snow and blizzards of a Minnesota winter. It would be difficult living on the Prairie during this time. Yet if a village moved at the end of the fall season from the prairie to one of the numerous stream valleys that drain into the Minnesota River or into a campsite in the Big Woods, a certain amount of protection from the elements could be afforded. There are also trees and brush here for house or tipi construction. Many of these stream valleys also have springs for available fresh water. It’s not quite like you’re as “snug as a bug in a rug” in one of these so called “nick” valleys during the winter, but while the wind and snow rages mostly overhead, you are afforded some protection. Remember one of the last scenes in the movie “Dances With Wolves” set in a wooded ravine winter camp?

The late Ray Sponberg, who lived in the Minnesota River Valley on the Judson Bottom Road a few miles west of Mankato, told me that local legend has it that Chief Sleepy Eye (Ištáȟba) had his winter village near Ray’s home.[9] The Chief’s summer village was on the prairie on the southwestern shore of Swan Lake in what is now Nicollet County, about five miles west of the Minnesota River Valley. Sleepy Eye was, according to the historian Thomas Hughes,[10] the chief of the Sisseton Band of the Dakota. During the winter months, his village relocated down to one of the aforementioned stream valleys draining into the Minnesota River. There is archeological evidence in one of these valleys where Minnimishiona Falls County Park is now located that an Indian village and burial mounds were located here. Was  this possibly the site of Sleepy Eye’s winter encampment?

In conclusion, remember what “Ka-so-ta means in the Dakota language? That’s right: “to use up.” I believe the Kasota Prairie had been extensively used by the Native Americans for thousands of years. It was not only likely created by them, but managed successfully by them. It was an area of abundant food and water resources afforded by three juxtaposed  environments of prairie, river flood plain, and Big Woods. It provided an ideal home for Native Americans.

Rather than living on the edge, hand to mouth, they lived well on the edge. When the Kasota Prairie was encountered by white settlers, it was also “ used up,” but for different purposes. That is the subject of the next chapters.

  1. Robert H. MacArthur and Eric R. Pianka, “On Optimal Use of a Patchy Environment,” The American Naturalist, Vol.100, No.816, November-December, 1966.
  2. Eric Alden Smith,”Anthropological Applications of Optimal Foraging Theory: A Critical Review," Current Anthropology, Vol.24,No. 5,December,1983.
  3. David Hurst Thomas, “Five Millennia of Human History on the Georgia Sea Islands: Unique in the World,” Coastal Nature,Coastal Culture:Environmental Histories of the Georgia Coast-A Symposium, February 18-20, 2016.
  4. Ward Tanner, Jr., An Ecological Survey of the Flora of the Kasota Site: 1 June through 15 August, 1972. Gustavus Adolphus College, St.Peter, MN.
  5. Sean Sherman (with Beth Dooley), The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen. The University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN., p. 181.4.
  6. Euell Gibbons, Stalking the Wild Asparagus,D.McKay Co.,N.Y. 1962.
  7. George R.Holley and Michael G. Michlovic, The Preshistoric Village Cultures of Southern Minnesota, Department of Anthropology and Earth Science, Minnesota State University Moorehead, Moorhead,MN, p. 153.
  8. William Trygg, Composite Map of U.S. Land Surveyors’ Original Plats and Field Notes, Wm. Trygg, Ely, MN. 1964.
  9. Interview with Ray Sponberg, March, 1997.
  10. Thomas Hughes, Indian Chiefs of Southern Minnesota, Ross & Haines, Minneapolis, 1969. Chapter 5.


Two Praries, One Place Copyright © 2019 by Bob Douglas. All Rights Reserved.

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