American Indian Spices

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American Indian tribes use spices for many purposes.

Native American tribes have long utilized spices for culinary, medicinal and ceremonial purposes. Regionally, American Indian groups vary widely in their uses of spices as food flavorings; North American tribes have traditionally eaten food fresh and with minimal spices, whereas tribes throughout Mexico and Central America are known to have utilized spices including cumin, chocolate and chile peppers in their food preparation. Medicinally, the use of herbs and spices is well-recorded among tribes across the Americas.


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The sassafras is a tree that is native to North America whose leaves, bark, roots, shoots and branches were used for a variety of medicinal and culinary purposes by at least 13 known Native American tribes. Infusions were ingested to treat a number of maladies including rheumatism, diarrhea and fever, and used topically to treat eye sores and worms. Fresh sassafras leaves were used by American Indians as a seasoning for meat soups, and dried leaves were ground and added to thicken and flavor stews and soups. Roots were brewed into savory teas as well. Today sassafras is widely used in Cajun foods, listed as "file."



Sage is a sacred herb that has been used by American Indians for sacred ceremonies, prayer, purification and healing. Lyre-leaf sage, also known as cancerweed, was used by Native American tribes to treat colds and coughs, and was infused into salves used on sores. White sage is often bundled and used for smudging or smoke purification among American Indians. Prairie sage has long been used among native peoples as a seasoning for meats and stews.


An evergreen shrub or tree that grows throughout cool temperate climates in the United States, the juniper's berries have been used by American Indians to season food and for medicinal purposes. Native American tribes utilize juniper to treat arthritis and flatulence, as a diuretic, and as a topical remedy for skin conditions including psoriasis and eczema. Juniper is also widely used as a flavoring agent in stews and soups.



Rich in vitamins A and C, spicy chiles have long been used by American Indians throughout Mexico and South America as condiments and stimulants. Chiles appear in dishes including meats and breads, as well as in drinks such as atole.


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