Native Americans Feasted Some But Mostly Fasted

“There are to be found, among us, a few strong men and women — the remnant of a by-gone generation, much healthier than our own — who can eat at random, as the savages do, and yet last on, as here and there a savage does, to very advanced years. But these random-shot eaters are, at most, but exceptions to the general rule, which requires regularity.”
~William Andrus Alcott, 1859

Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal
by Abigail Carroll, pp. 12-14

Encountering the tribal peoples of North America, European explorers and settlers found themselves forced to question an institution they had long taken for granted: the meal. “[They] have no such thing as set meals breakfast, dinner or supper,” remarked explorer John Smith. Instead of eating at three distinct times every day, natives ate when their stomachs cued them, and instead of consuming carefully apportioned servings, they gleaned a little from the pot here and there. English colonists deplored this unstructured approach. They believed in eating according to rules and patterns—standards that separated them from the animal world. But when it came to structure, colonists were hardly in a position to boast. Though they believed in ordered eating, their meals were rather rough around the edges, lacking the kind of organization and form that typifies the modern meal today. Hardly well defined or clean-cut, colonial eating occasions were messy in more ways than one. Perhaps this partially explains why explorers and colonists were so quick to criticize native eating habits—in doing so, they hid the inconsistencies in their own. 3

Colonists found Native American eating habits wanting because they judged them by the European standard. For Europeans, a meal combined contrasting components—usually cereals, vegetables, and animal protein. Heat offered an additional desirable contrast. Swedish traveler Peter Kalm noted that many “meals” consumed by the natives of the mid-Atlantic, where he traveled in the mid-eighteenth century, consisted simply of “[maple] sugar and bread.” With only two ingredients and a distinct lack of protein, not to mention heat, this simplistic combination fell short of European criteria; it was more of a snack. Other typical nonmeals included traveling foods such as nocake (pulverized parched cornmeal to which natives added water on the go) and pemmican (a dense concoction of lean meat, fat, and sometimes dried berries). Hunters, warriors, and migrants relied on these foods, designed to be eaten in that particularly un-meal-like way in which John Williams ate his frozen meat on his journey to Québec: as the stomach required it and on the go. 4

Jerked venison and fat, chewed as one traversed the wilderness, was not most colonists’ idea of a proper meal, and if natives’ lack of sufficient contrasting components and the absence of a formal eating schedule puzzled colonists, even more mystifying was natives’ habit of going without meals, and often without any food at all, for extended periods. Jesuit missionary Christian LeClercq portrayed the Micmac of the Gaspé Peninsula in Canada as a slothful people, preserving and storing only a token winter’s supply: “They are convinced that fifteen to twenty lumps of meat, or of fish dried or cured in the smoke, are more than enough to support them for the space of five to six months.” LeClercq and many others did not realize that if natives went hungry, they did so not from neglect but by choice. Fasting was a subsistence strategy, and Native Americans were proud of it. 5

Throughout the year, Native Americans prepared for times of dearth by honing their fasting skills. They practiced hunger as a kind of athletic exercise, conditioning their bodies for the hardships of hunting, war, and seasonal shortages. According to artist George Catlin, the Mandan males in what are now the Dakotas “studiously avoided . . . every kind of excess.” An anthropologist among the Iroquois observed that they were “not great eaters” and “seldom gorged themselves.” To discourage gluttony, they even threatened their children with a visit from Sago’dakwus, a mythical monster that would humiliate them if it caught them in the act of overeating. 6

Native and European approaches to eating came to a head in the vice of gluttony. Many tribal peoples condemned overeating as a spiritual offense and a practice sure to weaken manly resolve and corrupt good character. Europeans also condemned it, largely for religious reasons, but more fundamentally because it represented a loss of control over the animal instincts. In the European worldview, overindulgence was precisely the opposite of civility, and the institution of the meal guarded against gluttony and a slippery descent into savagery. The meal gave order to and set boundaries around the act of eating, boundaries that Europeans felt native practices lacked. As explorers and colonists defended the tradition of the meal, the institution took on new meaning. For them, it became a subject of pride, serving as an emblem of civilization and a badge of European identity. 7

Europeans viewed Native Americans largely as gluttons. Because whites caught only fleeting glimpses of the complex and continually shifting lives of Native Americans, they were liable to portray the native way of life according to a single cultural snapshot, which, when it came to food, was the posthunt feast. It was well known that natives ate much and frequently during times of abundance. John Smith recorded that when natives returned from the hunt with large quantities of bear, venison, and oil, they would “make way with their provision as quick as possible.” For a short time, he explained, “they have plenty and do not spare eating.” White witnesses popularized the image of just such moments of plenty as typical. 8

Although Native Americans were hardly gluttons, Europeans, fascinated by the idea of a primitive people with a childlike lack of restraint, embraced the grossly inaccurate stereotype of the overeating Indian. William Wood portrayed the natives of southern New England as gorging themselves “till their bellies stand forth, ready to split with fullness.” A decidedly strange Anglo-American amusement involved watching Native Americans relish a meal. “Why,” asked George Catlin, “[is it] that hundreds of white folks will flock and crowd round a table to see an Indian eat?” With a hint of disappointment, William Wood recorded the appetites of tribes people invited to an English house to dine as “very moderate.” Wood was uncertain whether to interpret this reserve as politeness or timidity, but clearly he and his fellow English spectators had not expected shy and tempered eaters. 9

One culture’s perception of another often says more about the perceiver than the perceived. Although settlers lambasted natives for gluttony, whites may have been the real gluttons. According to more than one observer, many a native blushed at Europeans’ bottomless stomachs. “The large appetites of white men who visited them were often a matter of surprise to the Indians who entertained them,” wrote a nineteenth-century folklorist among the Iroquois. Early anthropologist Lewis Morgan concluded that natives required only about one-fifth of what white men consumed, and he was skeptical of his own ability to survive on such a paucity of provisions. 10

Through their criticisms, exaggerations, and stereotypes, colonists distanced themselves from a population whose ways appeared savage and unenlightened, and the organized meal provided a touchstone in this clash of cultures. It became a yardstick by which Europeans measured culture and a weapon by which they defended their definition of it. They had long known what a meal was, but now, by contrast, they knew firsthand what it was not. Encountering the perceived meal-less-ness of the natives brought the colonists’ esteemed tradition into question and gave them an opportunity to confirm their commitment to their conventions. They refused to approve of, let alone adapt to, the loose foodways of Native Americans and instead embraced all the more heartily a structured, meal-centered European approach to eating.