Published on August 20, 2014 by Amy
In a Wampanoag story about the Circle of Life, the Great Sprit tells the giant Maushop that he must let his tribal brothers learn to take care of themselves. Left to their own devices, the Wampanoag quickly learn how to survive. One of their first discoveries is rockweed; they dry the seaweed and use it to build their first fire. The Wamponoag weren’t the only American Indians to find “sea herbs” useful for survival. Tribes from the Gulf Coast to the Pacific Northwest to the Eastern seaboard have used seaweed for everything from fire starter to foodstuff.
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America’s red algae (not to be confused with harmful algal bloom, or red tide) tend to be large and easy to see. You will usually find them on rocks, shells and piers. While they thrive in warm climates, red laver and dulse are two forms of red algae that are commonly found on the Pacific coast. Dulse is sweet. Red laver is potassium-rich. Native Americans used both types of seaweed for cooking.
Brown algae include kelps, sargassum weeds and rockweed. Early American Indians had many uses for these algae, and they weren’t always food-related. Bull kelp is the fastest growing seaweed in the world and grows up to 200 feet in one year, according to the Washington State Department of Ecology. Indians dried the stype, or stem, and used it to make fishing line; the bull kelp bulb was hollowed out and used to hold fish oil.
One of the most popular blue-green algae is spirulina. It is considered a superfood and provides a wealth of important proteins, minerals, vitamins and cartenoids and is currently used as a natural remedy for many ailments, including protection against liver disorders. Although science has yet to prove these claims, American Indians appreciated these properties. Spirulina is known for being cultivated by Aztecs in Mexico, but tribes indigenous to the U.S. also dredged it from the ocean floor and used it as a protein source.
Green algae grows well in water that receives a lot of sunlight. It thrives in shallow water and can often be found on beaches or attached to rocks. Sea lettuce (ulva lactuca) is one of the most common green algae found near shores. The Kashaya Pomo and other Native American tribes appreciated its peppery taste; they dried it and used it as a salty accompaniment to food and soups or fried it in fish oil and ate it like spinach.