Grafting the Grape: Indigenous Use of Grapes

Grafting the Grape: American Grapevine Rootstock in Missouri and the World is currently installed in the Stephen and Peter Sachs Museum, which is open for visitors Tuesday-Sunday, 11:30am-4:30pm; all visitors over age 5 must wear masks indoors and on the grounds of the Garden. The exhibition content is available online through the Garden YouTube channel here, and the Museum Twitter account here. Please check the Museum site here for updates and future online events.

The Grafting the Grape exhibition explores the various American grape species that are most used in viticulture, grafting, and winemaking, and how they were and continue to be used by the Native peoples of Missouri. The Stephen and Peter Sachs Museum was built on the ancestral and occupied land of the Chickasaw Nation, Illini Tribe, Ioway tribe, Kickapoo Tribe, Osage Nation, Otoe-Missouria Tribe, and the Quapaw Nation. We acknowledge the ongoing relationships these Nations have with this land and urge non-Native people to educate themselves about this history and about the contemporary work of tribal sovereignty within these Nations. Through this acknowledgement, we honor the Elders and their descendants of these Indigenous Nations in order to bring visibility to these long silenced histories while working toward a more just and equitable future.

Native Grapes, Indigenous People

The American Vitis species have an ancient history of use by humans. These grapevines and berries were first harvested by the Indigenous peoples who inhabited the North American continent, and who lived or traveled through the lands that are now designated as the boundaries of the state of Missouri. Today, these native grapes are one of many native American plants that play a role in Indigenous culture and foodways, and the use of different species is documented in many diverse Native American nations.

Archaeological investigations in North America have recovered plant food remains that include grape plant seeds. Grapes appear to have been part of the Indigenous North American diet for over 10,000 years, and have been found in sites of this age, including the Dust Cave site in northwestern Alabama, which dates to the Late Paleoindian period (8500-8000 BCE). During the American Archaic period (8000–1000 BCE) in the American Bottom region, which is the wide floodplain across the Mississippi River from modern-day St. Louis, the people living here consistently gathered and consumed grapes, persimmons, and wild seed grasses. In the Mississippian city of Cahokia (today a site you can visit in Illinois https://cahokiamounds.org/ ), there were over 400 grape seeds (possibly Vitis aestivalis) found with abundant amounts of other plant and animal food remains in a deposit (AD 1050–1100 CE) that has been interpreted as refuse from multiple feasting events at the site, and likely represent an important point on the landscape since a ritual platform mound was later built over top of it.

Concord grapes (Vitis labrusca ‘Concord’) growing at Kemper Center; photo by Nezka PfeiferConco

Indigenous Foodways as Acts of Resistance to Colonialism

Once European explorers and settlers arrived, though they greatly disrupted Indigenous life, these colonizers documented the continued use of wild grapes as a common and ritually important food. They detailed the food preparations and cuisine, with grape species being eaten raw or made into jam or into small cakes, sometimes after the frost preserved the berries; some Indigenous peoples dried the grapes for winter use. Others used the grapes or leaves to make tea for different medicinal purposes, such as post-childbirth healing, gastrointestinal and kidney ailments, or reproductive and fertility aids. The plants’ fibers, vines, and roots could also be made into baskets, animal traps, thread, or cordage. 

Accounts by early colonizers also provide some interesting clues about the special contexts and meanings of grape consumption to the Indigenous groups of the Upper Midwest. These wild foods have been interpreted as signs of the agency of Indigenous peoples attempting to maintain their native identities through continued consumption of traditional native foods and rejection of cultivated European-oriented crops. Therefore, wild grapes may have been used as a culinary symbol of resistance to Euro-American colonization. Many Indigenous celebrations today—such as weddings—continue to feature harvest and feasting dishes that include grapes, such as dumplings cooked in grape juice, from native grapes that have been foraged.

Display of American grape species in Grafting the Grape exhibition; photo by Virginia Harold

Indigenous Uses of Grapes

One of the best known American grapes, Vitis aestivalis, (well known as the Norton wine grape) is called telû΄latĭ in the Cherokee language and is native to the eastern and Midwestern regions of the United States and Canada. As a perennial plant, V. aestivalis can exist for many growing seasons, and blooms from May to June. The Seminole Nation used it for various medicinal applications, such as aids for gastrointestinal ailments, and alleviating fever, body pains, and vomiting; it was also used in a Seminole remedy mixed for chronically ill babies that included the grape, water, ferns, and wild pennyroyal (Piloblephis rigida). 

Summer grape (Vitis aestivalis var. aestivalis) has three known variants, that grows through the Midwest and Eastern regions of the United States and Canada; photo from MBG Herbarium

Canyon grape (Vitis arizonica), called ‘Iceaqa by the Havasupai Nation located within Arizona, has been used by many Indigenous nations throughout what is today the Southwest United States, including the Nations’ lands of the Pueblo, Apache, Chiricahua, Mescalero, Havasupai, Isleta, Jemez, and Navajo. This grape tolerates drought conditions and cold temperatures, and is found most often in the canyons of southwestern mountain ranges, rarely though on valley floors. Most often used for food, canyon grape was also used by the Havasupai to make toys, the Navajo to make medicines, and the Jemez to make items for rituals and ceremonies. 

Canyon grape (Vitis arizonica Engelm.) was described by Dr. George Engelmann in 1871; photo from MBG Herbarium

Called huuwas by the Amah Mutson Tribal Band, the California wild grape (Vitis californica) was documented as food, and other uses by several Indigenous nations in what is today California. The Karok people used the roots to create the bottoms of baskets, with stems for lashings; they also used the leaves to line firepits; the larger stems were used in building footbridges across the Klamath River and in cordage making. The Pomo Nation used the sap from the wood to bind materials in their cone-shaped baskets; and in addition to eating the berries raw, the Pomo also turned the grapes into jelly.

Vitis californica; photo from MBG Herbarium

Khe’lati, called Possum’s or Bailey’s grape in English (Vitis cinerea var. baileyana), is native to the southeastern United States and found in wet mountain areas. The Cherokee Nation make a drink of Possum grapes in the winter, with the grapes stewed in water then mashed in the same liquid; this mixture sits so that the seeds settle, then the juice is poured off and placed over the fire until boiling. Cornmeal is added to thicken it and the mixture is cooked until done, and can be served hot or cold.

Vitis cinerea var. baileyana; photo from MBG Herbarium

Desert wild grape, called makwit in Luiseño, is native to southern California, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, Channel Islands, and northern Mexico’s Baja California. Vitis girdiana has been used in a variety of foodstuffs in Native American nations. The Cahuilla used the vine by drying into raisins, put in stews and porridge mush, and eaten fresh. The Diegueño used the vine as a dermatological aid, as they would rub the sap on their thin or falling hair to try to keep it healthy; they also ate the fruit fresh, as raisins, and cooked with them. The Luiseño also cooked the fruit for eating.

Vitis girdiana; photo from MBG Herbarium

The Fox grape (Vitis labrusca) is a climbing, woody vine native to the eastern United States, Utah, and Canada, and prefers full to partial sun; it will produce sweeter fruit when it has more sun exposure. The Cherokee used the vine kwalúsĭ medicinally to aid oral, liver, urinary, blood, antidiarrheal, gastrointestinal, and gynecological issues; they also ate the grapes raw, made juice, and made dumplings. Members of the Mohegan Nation used the vine to as a febrifuge (fever reducer) and an analgesic aid.

Vitis labrusca; photo from MBG Herbarium

Vitis riparia is the Riverbank grape, házi in the Omaha language, which grows native to 34 states in the United States and five Canadian provinces—it has the largest continental distribution of any North American grape species. The Omaha Tribe dried the fruit for winter use, and they also ate it fresh off the vine. The Omaha originally lived throughout the Midwest, in an area of up to 35,600,000 acres, inhabiting land near present-day Cincinnati, Ohio. The original tribe split into the Omaha and Quapaw Tribes, with the Omaha moving to Iowa and the Quapaw settling in Arkansas. As with many other tribes, they were forced to cede their lands by treaties signed with the federal government during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Today the Omaha reservation is in Macy, Nebraska. 

Vitis riparia; photo from MBG Herbarium

Native Americans used the Muscadine grape (also called scuppernong grape and southern fox grape), Vitis rotundifolia, for food, medicine, and ceremonial practices. Today residing in Florida and Oklahoma, Seminoles used the grapes for a snakebite remedy and as medicine for chronically ill children, and in ceremonial use for the dead. The Cherokee called the grape oonee tayluhn’dee andused the grape’s juices to make dumplings, mixing it with other fruit juices and adding cornmeal.

Vitis rotundifolia; photo from MBG Herbarium

The Seminole Nation uses the little muscadine grape (Vitis rotundifolia var. munsoniana) for medicine and food, as a pediatric aid for babies and as a snakebite remedy. This grape also has ceremonial uses, including as an emetic during rituals or eaten after a death in the community.

Vitis rotundifolia var. munsoniana; photo from MBG Herbarium

For the Lenape, a Delaware nation, wisahkim is often used as a tonic for women. The sand grape (Vitis rupestris) was intended to fortify women and increase their fertility. The vine would be combined with bloodroot, “star root,” peppermint, sarsaparilla, and other plants.

Vitis rupestris; photo from MBG Herbarium

The Miccosukee/Mikasuki Seminole Nation used cokasî to make a deer snare, which is a simple trap that consists of a loop with an adjustable knot that was set up along deer trails or other areas that deer frequented. As a woody vine, Vitis shuttleworthii is flexible and quite strong to be used for this tool. Native to the southern portion of peninsular Florida, this grape is also called the calloose or Calusa grape.

Vitis shuttleworthii; photo from MBG Herbarium

Named for a female fox, the vixen grape (also called winter or frost grape) has many documented uses among Indigenous peoples across the North American continent. The Cherokee Nation used Vitis vulpina for gynecological, liver, and urinary aids. The Iroquois in New York state and Canada used the vine for urinary, gastrointestinal, and pediatric aids; it was also eaten in a dried form and in breads and cakes. Midwestern Indigenous peoples in the United States had a variety of uses for the grape; the Menominee Nation utilized it as a dried and preserved food, and the Pawnee Nation used the fruit in a beverage, as well as a dried food. The Ojibwe utilized the plant as gastrointestinal and gynecological aids, and the Meskwaki used it as analgesic, antidote, and as psychological aids.

Vitis vulpina; photo from MBG Herbarium

You can learn more about prehistoric use of North American grapes and contemporary Choctaw foodways using grapes in the recordings of talks given as part of the Grafting the Grape online series, found on the Garden’s YouTube channel; this series was funded by the Missouri Humanities Council. To learn more about ancient Indigenous foodways (including grapes), I highly recommend reading Gayle J. Fritz’s book Feeding Cahokia: Early Agriculture in the North American Heartland that was published in 2019; it’s a highly readable presentation of the history of use of different foods at Cahokia and the region that is today known as St. Louis. A item to remember is that while many of the uses of grapes listed here are historical, Indigenous peoples are here living today, and these plants are important cultural expressions of their contemporary foodways practices and social connections. 

Nezka Pfeifer
Museum Curator, Stephen and Peter Sachs Museum

Grateful thanks to the sponsors of the exhibition: The Thomas A. Kooyumjian Family Foundation, Tony & Cindy Kooyumjian, National Science Foundation Plant Genome Research Program 1546869, and Missouri Botanical Garden’s Corporate Council.

Special acknowledgments to the contributions of Dr. Susan Kooiman and Emma Warner on the research of precontact history of use of native American grapes, Dr. Ian Thompson of the Choctaw Nation for sharing his knowledge of grapes in Choctaw foodways, and to all of the Sachs Museum remote interns who contributed to the research of each species: Alexandra Lebovitz, Megan Rossman, Anne Farrell, Natalia Granquist, Heather Sheppard, Danielle Griffin, Elias Larralde, Isobel Abbot-Dethrow, Eleanor Schulz, Kyra Tani Little, Edina Krantic, Charlotte Filiciotto, Anna Wachtel, Kimberly Schwartz, Yukeria Haywood, Mackenzie Shields, and Alex Arata.

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