I’m currently studying a subject for my food and anthropology focused Masters course on the way that people celebrate with food. I wanted to share a little of the readings that were for this week in a few blog posts because the information they covered were really fascinating. What follows is a series of quotes and my reflections on the connections between Native American Indian religious beliefs and their environmental landscape. The exerpts are from Linda Murray Berzok’s book American Indian Food, 2005.
“Land, religion and life were one; agriculture was sacred and hunting holy” (p143)
“Agriculture became a holy labour, capable of bringing the people into profound contact with the powers of life” (p144)
“The act of gathering plants and roots was considered a sacred ritual and celebrated with ceremonies, both when the women first set out … and when they returned to prepare their gleanings” (p151)
As a Christian who believes in a God who made a land for His people to enjoy, tend to and be blessed by, I wonder if recognition of the holiness the land and obtaining nourishment from it would change our gratitude for life and food in important ways.
“Sustenance crops, particularly maize, beans and squash, were considered gifts from sacred beings” (p144)
With amazing and hugely advanced technology it is easy for our food to be something we produced, we become ‘self made’ people and loose our gratitude. We quickly forget the miracle of species, seeds, shoots and seasons that really we only have a small amount of control over …
“sought the blessings of the spirits for this endeavour, oversaw planting at the right time, recited prayers when planting seeds, conducted ceremonies that linked the life cycle of maize and sacrificed sacred foods at the beginning of each year’s harvest.” (p144)
They also had deep convictions about cycles of time; that if they did not uphold “rituals [that] revolved around the cyclical processes that sustained life – hunting, gathering, fishing, planting, growing and harvesting” (p147), “the world would die” (p147).
In our efforts to feed more, grow more and earn more, we have lost our sence of seasonality, the blessing of the (perhaps somewhat inefficient, thankyou Kirk Patston) cycles built into our world that provide for us.
“‘For a people so intensely agrarian for so many centuries of their existence, all of life does result from happenings within the earth, from the union of earth, water and sun.'” (p144)
In many ways this remains true today. Our actions indicate that we, perhaps, just don’t believe it!
They have a “belief that we are what we eat” (p150) which expressed itself a little differently to our understanding of this concept, they thought those eating meat of an animal took on qualities of the animal whose meat was consumed. However, this did engender a respect for the environment and for life given for life that we would do well to better emulate!
Feasting and celebration marked both events in the human life cycle and events in the yearly agricultural cycle; “observing the appearance of the first fruits in the season” (p152). “The … Iquoquois Confederacy – Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca – held five feasts in a year; at the time of making maple syrup after planting when they gave thanks for the season and learned from the chiefs how to ensure a good harvest, the Green Corn Feast, the harvest thanksgiving, and at year’s end at the time of the Old Moon around the end of January” (p154).
This made me wonder how and what we celebrate … life in all its stages or only the attractive parts? The birth of babies and 18th Birthdays, engagement and anniversaries but do we really celebrate growing older? Lost of fertility? In some societies these occasions are marked! And then, do we even bother to think beyond occasions that pertain to us and our lives and on to the (now unseen) events that bring us food and sustenance – the beginning of the strawberry harvest? The bringing in of the wheat? These matter to our lives but we live as though they don’t because of our wealth and the increasing distance between the modern western life and the land that sustains it. Those new, autumn mandarins in my fridge definitely deserve celebration I think!
When first food ceremonies were held, these were “ritual preparation for the [harvest] … The food’s spiritual and physical necessity was acknowledged, and forgiveness asked from the spirits assuring them that the food had not been taken wantonly” (p154).
And what if we were constantly aware of not taking food wantonly … would our shopping lists grow shorter? Or involve different shops (perhaps independent stores and local green grocers) or products (perhaps fairtrade or sustainably and compassionately farmed items)? Would we grow more ourselves so we realised just how much work was involved? I don’t have all the answers but I think that they deserve pondering!
Interestingly the author, Linda Murray suggested that the Native American Indian “spiritual beliefs evolved from the need to ensure the food supply” (p143). As a Christian, I see the world a little differently. I see a God who has lovingly created a good, fertile world that was the perfect environment for human flourishing. A place where people ruled under Him, trying to bless the environment He had made for them – to follow Him was not to coerce food from Him but to live full lives as people part of His story.
“He makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for people to cultivate– bringing forth food from the earth: wine that gladdens human hearts, oil to make their faces shine, and bread that sustains their hearts.” Psalm 104: 14-15