Flavored Water, Teas, and Juices Noted Historically to Be Consumed by the Northeastern Woodland Indian Peoples
By Jessica Diemer-Eaton (First Published Under Yahoo!Voices in 2011)
Some early Virginia and New England observers often declared that the Native Peoples' usual drink was water (Russell, 1980:85). Indeed, for those Europeans, whose many water sources were polluted, were quick to notice the clean water resources of the New World - a resource demonstrated by the Native Peoples consuming of water not infused with grain or fruit alcohol as was common in the Western World. Fresh cool water, and even warm water was a usual drink (85), however, blinded by Old World "water problems," these observers probably didn't give due credit to the amount of flavored waters, teas, and juices consumed by the Native Peoples. Densmore points out the Ojibwa (Chippewa) of the western Great Lakes did not commonly drink plain water when traveling. She states they were more likely to boil their water with vegetable substances, and noted several twigs and leaves used in making tea, as well as sweetening their beverages with maple sugar (Densmore, 1974:317). In general, teas made of brewing specific barks (like willow), twigs (such as chokecherry), leaves (like spruce), roots (such as sassafras), etc. were perevalent among Native cultures, whether for flavoring or medicinal reasons. Maple syrup/sugar was also added to water alone to make a refreshing drink, and during the sugar season, fresh maple sap was consumed as is, tapped from the tree (Nearing, 2000:33-34). Parker states that the Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) "were not fond of drinking water and preferred various beverages prepared from herbs and corn" (Parker, 1968:71).
Among the Iroquois, blackberry infused water was noted to be a winter drink, made from dried blackberries. It was said to frighten away the cold. "Do not even bears eat berries all summer and defy the blasts of winter?" (99). It is worth noting here that the Cayuga (Iroquois) Bear Society Rite uses berry juice in their curative ceremonies (Speck, 1995:65). During the Cayuga's Midwinter Rites Ceremonies, berry juice was provided to those who were thirsty, and berry juice represented a "sacramental" drink during the skin dance (41). Freshly picked strawberries were pressed for their juice, and the juice was consumed by participants of the Strawberry Ceremony (36). Dried strawberries mixed with water and seasoned with maple sugar served as a refreshment for the Guardians of the Little Water Company during their rite (Parker, 1968:97). The juice of corn and squash were noted to be used for beverages among the Huron (Russell, 1980:85-86). Grape juice was consumed by a Native community in New York, while the Native Peoples of New England drank the pleasant tasting sap of the wild grape vine. These same Peoples also made teas of raspberry leaves and root bark, chokecherry bark, spruce and wild cherry twigs, and elderberry blossoms (Russell, 1980:85).
Liquids in which foods were previously cooked were commonly consumed as beverages. The Iroquois saved the water they boiled cornbread in for beverages, and drank the water from boiling nut meats (Parker, 1968:100). Their Iroquoian relatives to the south, the Cherokee, were also noted historically in consuming cool temperature nut broth, specifically made of hickory nuts - a historic mention of what is now known commonly as the soup broth “kanuchi” (Cherokee Nation Website). The Iroquois also "brewed" a hot beverage known as parched corn coffee. To produce this brew, cob corn was parched directly on hot coals, after which the burnt kernels were scraped into a vessel with water and set over a fire to boil for a time (77). Corn flavored drinks in general were noted historically and were likely very common among the horticultural Northeastern Native Americans.
Note: This article does not cover the Black Drink.