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.

From New World to New Worlds

The ‘discovery’ of the New World made it possible for Europeans to imagine new worlds. It also allowed Europeans to see themselves in new ways. They now were ‘Europeans’, in a way they weren’t before. This had diverse consequences, good and bad. It was the beginning of both utopianism and racism.

* * *

Lies My Teacher Told Me:
Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong
by James W. Loewen
Kindle Locations 1390-1414

Columbus’s voyages caused almost as much change in Europe as in the Americas. Crops, animals, ideas, and diseases began to cross the oceans regularly. Perhaps the most far-reaching impact of Columbus’s findings was on European Christianity. In 1492 all of Europe was in the grip of the Catholic Church. As the Encyclopedia Larousse puts it, before America, “Europe was virtually incapable of self-criticism.” 80 After America, Europe’s religious uniformity was ruptured. For how were these new peoples to be explained? They were not mentioned in the Bible. American Indians simply did not fit within orthodox Christianity’s explanation of the moral universe. Moreover, unlike the Muslims, who might be written off as “damned infidels,” American Indians had not rejected Christianity, they had just never encountered it. Were they doomed to hell? Even the animals of America posed a religious challenge. According to the Bible, at the dawn of creation all animals lived in the Garden of Eden. Later, two of each species entered Noah’s ark and ended up on Mt. Ararat. Since Eden and Mt. Ararat were both in the Middle East, where could these new American species have come from? Such questions shook orthodox Catholicism and contributed to the Protestant Reformation, which began in 1517.81

Politically, nations like the Arawaks— without monarchs, without much hierarchy— stunned Europeans. In 1516 Thomas More’s Utopia, probably based on an account of the Incan empire in Peru, challenged European social organization by suggesting a radically different and superior alternative. Other social philosophers seized upon American Indians as living examples of Europe’s primordial past, which is what John Locke meant by the phrase “In the beginning, all the world was America.” Depending upon their political persuasion, some Europeans glorified American Indian nations as examples of simpler, better societies from which European civilization had devolved, while others maligned them as primitive and underdeveloped. In either case, from Montaigne, Montesquieu, and Rousseau down to Marx and Engels, European philosophers’ concepts of the good society were transformed by ideas from America. 82

America fascinated the masses as well as the elite. In The Tempest, Shakespeare noted this universal curiosity: “They will not give a doit to relieve a lambe beggar, they will lay out ten to see a dead Indian.” 83 Europe’s fascination with the Americas was directly responsible, in fact, for a rise in European self-consciousness. From the beginning America was perceived as an “opposite” to Europe in ways that even Africa never had been. In a sense, there was no “Europe” before 1492. People were simply Tuscan, French, and the like. Now Europeans began to see similarities among themselves, at least as contrasted with Native Americans. For that matter, there were no “white” people in Europe before 1492. With the transatlantic slave trade, first Indian, then African, Europeans increasingly saw “white” as a race and race as an important human characteristic. 84


80 – Marcel Dunan, ed., Larousse Encyclopedia of Modern History (New York: Crescent, 1987), 40.
81 – Crosby, The Columbian Exchange, 11-12. See also Calder, Revolutionary Empire, 13-14; Dunan, ed., Larousse Encyclopedia of Modern History, 40, 67; Crone, Discovery of America, 184.
82 – Morgan, Nowhere Was Somewhere; Marble, Before Columbus, 73-75; Calder, Revolutionary Empire, 13. Lowes, Indian Giver, 82, regarding Montaigne. Also Sanders, Lost Tribes and Promised Lands, 208-9. The direct influence of the anthropologist L. H. Morgan on Marx and Engels is described by Bruce Johansen, Forgotten Founders: How the American Indian Helped Shape Democracy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Common Press, 1982), 122-23. Sale, The Conquest of Paradise. See also Crone, Discovery of America, 184.
83 – Quoted by Peter Farb, Man’s Rise to Civilization (New York: Avon, 1969), 296. The Tempest shows Shakespeare’s own fascination: he modeled its Native character, Caliban, after the Carib Indians, who were cannibals, according to what the Arawaks had told Columbus.
84 – For that matter, Europe isn’t a continent, unless the word is defined Eurocentrically! Europe is a peninsula; the division between Europe and Asia is arbitrary, unlike the divisions between other continents.


Freedom and Public Space

Along the Upper Mississippi River and on the Iowa side, there is Fort Madison.

It is a medium-sized town, not exactly thriving but far from being in decline. It is an old river town that once had much wealth and still has many well-kept old houses. Some of the nicest and largest houses are located around a couple of parks in the center of town, just north a couple blocks from the downtown shopping area.

My brother moved there not too long ago and so I’ve since visited the town several times. He lives only a few blocks from these parks and only a few blocks from the river. It is a long and narrow strip of a town and so I guess everyone there lives within blocks of the river.

It is one of those places where you can sense the history. It is fairly quiet town now, but it had to have been a bustling at one time, back when the Mississippi River was more of a major transportation route. The old buildings still standing are of a wide variety of architecture. It has made me curious.

Much of the town has a standard Midwest feel, although of a river town variety. For example, there are the kinds of alleys I knew from my Midwestern childhood. Most of the houses wouldn’t be out of place in any other Midwestern smaller town. Still, there is much else that stands out. There are old federalist style houses. There are also quite a few houses with a clear Southern influence. One house across the street from Old Settlers Park reminds me of the houses in Charleston, SC, although it isn’t as narrow along the front.

Fort Madison was once a trade town. So, that allowed more diverse cultural influences for an old town so far north into the far reaches of the Midwest. Out of curiosity, I looked at the 1850 census, when Fort Madison was a young city and Iowa was a young state. In that census, there were people from diverse places within the United States (Washington DC, Missouri, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Delaware, Rhode Island, Maryland, Maine, New York, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina) and from diverse countries (Canada, England, Scotland, France, Germany, and Switzerland).

Before being a trade town, it was the location of a major fort and hence the name. It was one of three forts in the new Louisiana Territory and the first permanent fortification on the Upper Mississippi. That touches upon the sense of history of the place.

The Mississippi River was the last natural boundary for the frontier. It is a massive river that back then would have been treacherous to cross. Iowa was one of the last areas Native Americans tried to hold ground to stop Westward expansion. Fort Madison was seen as an incursion and so immediately became a target of attacks.

One of the most famous Native leaders was Chief Black Hawk. He sided with Canada during the War of 1812. His first battle against US troops happened in Fort Madison and it was the only battle of the War of 1812 that happened West of the Mississippi. More than three decades later in 1838, he gave his farewell speech in Old Settlers Park, where today there is a plaque with a quote from that speech:

“I have looked upon the Mississippi since I have been a child. I love the great river. I have dwelt upon its banks from the time I was an infant. I look upon it now.”

As he described, just down the hill flows the mighty Mississippi. However, today the surrounding houses entirely block the view.

I walked to this park with my sister-in-law and niece. It has a large gazebo for bands and a playground. It’s quite beautiful with many old trees. The place is peaceful and it is hard to imagine the sadness Black Hawk must have felt as he gave that speech. As I stood before the plaque reading his words, I looked out across the park at the kids playing. It wasn’t lost on me that the park was filled with white kids. In fact, I never saw anyone who looked Native American in Fort Madison. The diversity the town once had never included the native population.

Where I live in Iowa City, there are two locations of former Native American villages. One of them was that of the tribe of Black Hawk’s medicine man. Iowa City was first settled by free blacks, many of whom were likely escaped slaves. Those free blacks sought the frontier for obvious reasons and I’m sure they were living there at the invitation of the local tribes.

In the pedestrian mall of downtown Iowa City, there is a small area that is called Black Hawk Mini Park. It also once was known as the People’s Park. It was the product of a fight for public space. On the side of the adjacent building there was a mural called “The Spirit of Black Hawk” that depicted the face of a Native American.

It’s telling that the freedom of public space often gets symbolized by Native Americans who lost their freedom and lost the very land they lived on, of which these parks represent a tiny portion.

Six Degrees of Separation or Less

I was thinking about how relationships connect us… ya know, the whole 6 degrees of separation kind of thing.  Specifically, I was thinking about how relationships connect us to history.

Obama mentioned an old black lady who voted for the first time in her life.  She was born a mere generation after the ending of slavery and saw all the conflicts of the civil rights movement which led up to this moment in history of a black man being elected president.  The elderly are living history.  Some other examples: the last surviving veteran of the Indian Wars died in 1973 (2 yrs before I was born), and the last Civil War veteran died in 1959 (the last known widow of a Civil War veteran died in 2004).

My grandmother (my mother’s mother), who is slightly younger than the aforementioned old black lady,  was also born in the early part of the last century when some Native Americans were still fighting for their independence.  The last of the Apache fought until 1900 and Geronimo died in 1909.  The US Cavalry had their last battle with the Yaqui in 1918, but the Yaquis continued fighting the Mexicans until 1927.  Ishi was one of the last Native Americans who lived entirely free from contact with settlers until he was discovered in 1911 and he died in 1916.

American history isn’t very long and even the earliest generations of Americans aren’t that far beyond the living memory of our culture.  The last Founding Father to die was Madison in 1836.  An older person alive today is potentially only one degree of separation away from the Founding Fathers.

This reminds me of another thing.

My great grandfather (my father’s father’s father) was born poor.  After his mother died, his father sent him to a Shaker orphanage.  As a point of interest, the Shakers no longer exist and the last Shaker died in 1992.  The Shakers were a popular group during the Civil War and they were the leaders in Agricultural technology.  My great grandfather learned a great deal about agriculture before leaving the community.  Because of his talent with plants, he was hired by an extremely wealthy family to be the caretaker of their estate.

My grandfather grew up on the estate with the rich kids which made him envious of the good life but strangely he became a minister.  Despite his meager salary, he raised his children with an appreciation for the good things in life.  His children grew up to have respectable careers and could afford to live a comfortable upper middle class lifestyle.  One of my cousins got in to the computer industry where he makes even more money and married a princess from banished Middle Eastern Royalty.

So, it only took a few generations to go from poor farmer to marrying into royalty.  Ahhh, the American Dream.  From the immigrant perspective, how many generations does it take to go from royalty to marrying a descendent of a poor farmer?  🙂

Access: Public 7 Comments Print Post this!views (215)
about 4 hours later

Nicole said

yes, we live in very young countries. I was pondering this the other day with a friend of mine who grew up in England – for them, things aren’t really old if they are only a few centuries in age, and people are still uncovering Roman ruins from time to time.

From the immigrant perspective, how many generations does it take to go from royalty to marrying a descendent of a poor farmer?  🙂

Indeed! 🙂

about 11 hours later

Marmalade said

I hadn’t thought about it but Canada’s history is equally young.  Or rather its young if you don’t consider the thousands of years of native history… but that doesn’t count because history are the words of the victors.

Part of what I was thinking about is how history influences us on a personal level.  That is why I shared the story of my great grandfather.  As the Shakers didn’t believe in procreation, I wouldn’t be here if he hadn’t left the community.  And his leaving created a chain of not only events but also a chain of psychological tendencies.  His poverty led to generations of my family to seek out greater wealth.  I’ve personally chosen not to follow in this family tradition.  I must be a maverick.

1 day later
1Vector3 said

Yep, you look like a maverick to me, LOL !!!! Talk like one, too.

It rocked me back on my heels to realize my mother was born well before women could vote. She was born in 1909. I could have talked with her about the suffragettes, while she was alive, but my close connection to them was not in my awareness.

And her mother was the first woman dentist in the state of Massachusetts. I’m not sure of the year of her birth, but it must have been shortly after the Civil War. I never realized how close I am to that !

Some time back, Time magazine did an article on 6 degrees of separation, picking a bunch of prominent people and tracing out the friendship/acquaintanceship connections between pairs of them. It was amazing.

Applying that concept in a historical timeline, which you are doing, adds a whole new dimension to the concept !!!

One thing a connecting-place like Gaia Community does is rapidly increase our degrees of contact, with folks over all the world. That’s an awesome angle to contemplate, as well.

Thanks for another thoughtful blog !!

Blessings, OM Bastet

1 day later

Marmalade said

The internet in general (and the fact that people move around so much these days) has increased the interconnectivity of the world.  Social Networking sites such as Gaia are becoming extremely popular.  I belong to maybe a dozen or so discussion boards and blogging sites.  Over time, I start seeing some of the same people across various sites.  For all the vastness of the web, its in some ways still a small world.

There are all kinds of people I’ve met on the web that I probably wouldn’t have met in my everyday life.  One interesting thing is the ability to sometimes connect with people you’ve previously admired only from a distance.  For instance, a few years ago I was reading a lot about the Bible, Christianity and Gnosticism.  I found forums on the web where some of my favorite writers would have open discussions about these topics.

3 days later

Nicole said

that’s fascinating, the access we now have to people all over the world, even favourite writers. Certainly unprecedented.

5 days later

Amazume said

“but that doesn’t count because history are the words of the victors.” This is probably why attending history classes used to have a sleep inducing effect on me. However, this has changed. The internet certainly too has its role in the way history is written today. Cyberspace certainly has its advantages. It’s where I found this poem:

History of the Victors, No More by Raymond A. Foss

It has been said that history
isn’t written by who was in the right;
but by who was left, after the battles;
Filtered by scribes of the conquerors
or so it has been in the world
before the current age.

Today, however, greater variety of voices
contradictory, contrary voices
each tell a different, competing truth
spread equally around the world
in mere milliseconds
about war, about struggle, of the acts
the commissions, the omissions,
of nation states, rogue groups,
each one being catalogued,
accumulated for the telling
of the history of this age,
unscripted and uncontrolled
by the victors anymore

June 16, 2007 16:24,
edited June 17, 2007 18:25

5 days later

Marmalade said

Nicole – Yep, unprecedented indeed.

Amazume – Thanks for the poem.  I must admit I found school in general boring, but especially history.  The internet definitely helped to teach me how much fun learning actually can be.  I’m envious of kids growing up today with so much more interesting info easily available to them.

Here is something else about history and degrees of separation:

Presidents who are royally descended are:

J.Q. Adams
William H. Harrison
Benjamin Harrison (his grandson)

Additionally the following first ladies were royally descended:

Mrs. John Adams
Mrs. Thomas Jefferson
Mrs. Franklin Pierce
Mrs. Ulysses Grant
Mrs. James Garfield
Mrs. Chester Alan Arthur
Both Mrs. T. Roosevelts
Mrs. Taft
Both Mrs. Woodrow Wilson
Mrs. F.D. Roosevelt
Mrs. Truman
Mrs. Eisenhower
Nancy Reagan
Mrs. Bush

So 18 presidents + 8 additional presidents whose first ladies were royally descended (a total of 26 out of 41–remember to count Cleveland twice so that Clinton is the 42nd president, but the 41st man to hold the office). That’s more than half.
That should go a long way to proving were all related in some way.

Some other interesting info about presidents:
List of United States Presidents by genealogical relationship

List of notable distant cousins of Barack Obama

Obama, Clinton and McCain have some famous relations

Obama has a prolific presidential lineage that features Democrats and Republicans. His distant cousins include President George W. Bush and his father, George H.W. Bush, Gerald Ford, Lyndon Johnson, Harry S. Truman and James Madison. Other Obama cousins include Vice President Dick Cheney, British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill and Civil War Gen. Robert E. Lee.