In my previous post, I suggested that I wrote my novel, The Spirit Keeper, with the understanding that in 1492 the cultures of Europe and North America were essentially separate but equal, with the differences between them resulting from lifestyle choices made by the different peoples. I know it’s pushing credulity to suggest that mostly naked savages were the exact equivalent of well-clad socialites, but hear me out. In this blog, I intend to explore one of the most fundamental differences between the cultures, which is, as it happens, the most important lesson I’ve learned from the First People of North America.
Are you ready? Here it is: You are what you eat.
Doesn’t really sound like an Indian aphorism, does it? But it’s a truth the First Americans understood perfectly in 1492, a truth unknown to the equivalent cultures of Europe, and a truth which many 21st century Americans still struggle with today. But there ain’t no doubt about the truth of this truth. You are what you eat. Literally.
In Europe in 1492, food consumption, like everything else, was a feature of class. Wealthy, powerful people had all the food they wanted whenever they wanted it, without lifting a finger to raise it, kill it, prepare it, or clean up after it. The more involved you were with food production, the lower your social standing, and those who scavenged scraps left behind by others truly were the bottom feeders of the European class system.
How different was the experience of eating in America in 1492! In general, food consumption, like everything else in pre-Columbian North America, was a fairly democratic process. Food was there to be hunted, gathered, or grown, pretty much by whoever was hungry. Who fed you, whom you fed, and whom you ate with helped establish key relationships in the community, but not at all in the way food reflected social class in Europe. Native peoples feasted or famined as a community, not as individuals. When one person felt the pinch of hunger, everyone in the community felt the exact same pain.
Of course, lean times are inevitable for all people, and the European solution to feast/famine cycles was the development of new technologies to produce more and better food, as well as the rise of a central authority to carefully stockpile and distribute those precious resources. This system has been so successful for Western Civilization that we now regard it as the only reasonable way to insure a reliable food supply for a large population.
But the First Americans chose a completely different sort of system which worked just as well. Instead of developing technology to dominate the environment and a central authority to control the food supply, the First Americans worked with Nature to conserve resources to ensure there would always be enough, not just for them, but for future generations as well. They did not kill or gather more than they needed to eat. They regularly relocated their villages so as to give the depleted environment a chance to recover. They trusted the earth to feed them, and, if for whatever reason it didn’t, then their scrawny bodies fed the earth instead. It was a system which respected the inevitable balance of Nature, and though agonizing losses were inevitable, the remaining populace was generally far healthier and hardier than their counterparts in Europe.
Ah, but there’s one North American aspect of eating that even the most open-minded Westerners have trouble swallowing—the report from multiple sources, multiple locations, and multiple generations of occasional acts of cannibalism. Details vary, but what it boils down to is that Indians were known to cook and serve the flesh of a victim of torture or to take a bite from the raw heart of a vanquished enemy. To European sensibilities, this was the ultimate example of brutal savagery, proof positive that the naked primitives had a lot to learn before they could be called civilized.
The more I’ve thought about it, especially in light of what we Westerners now understand about nutrition, the more these gruesome acts of cannibalism begin to make sense. I mean, if we ARE what we eat, then why shouldn’t we snarf down the heart of a worthy opponent who died bravely and well? His still-beating heart would be filled with endorphins, hormones, enzymes and amino acids that would stimulate our own internal juices, thus providing nutrients we can’t get in any other way. On a moral level, by eating our victim’s heart we convert the core chemicals that were once him into the core chemicals that are now us, thus offering him a resurrection. You are what you eat. So eat only those you honor and respect.
I have come to realize that I regularly participate in a similar ritual in my own garden. I plant my carrot seeds in spring with loving care and tend them through their sprouting and growing. I protect them, water them, and mulch them like babes in cozy swaddling, and, when the time comes, I rip them from the soil and consume them with as much savage gusto as any of the First Americans. I hate to do it, but I have to, and since I have to do it, I honor my beloved babies by transforming them into me. I try to assuage my guilt by reminding myself I need that vitamin A for my skin, the beta-carotene for my eyes, but I never lose sight of the fact that I am killing another life form so that I might live.
This concept is not unlike the one Jesus espoused when he passed out bread, said it was his body, and urged us all to wash it down with the wine that was his blood. His act was symbolic, while the actions of the First Americans were literal, but the point is the same. No one gets to eat with a clear conscience and clean hands. We all kill to eat. In order for you to live, many other things, including other people, simply have to die.
Because of the psychologically devastating nature of this undeniable truth, we humans have had to find ways to accept our guilt without going mad. Western civilization has coped with the truth by whitewashing it, sterilizing it, and ignoring it. The First Americans coped with it by reveling in the blood of their foes as it dribbled down their chins.
Which is the “right” way to fill our bellies? Well, here in 21st century America, most of us live like the European kings of old. With a few notable exceptions, most of us have all the food we want whenever we want it, without lifting a finger to raise it, kill it, prepare it, or clean up after it. And so it comes as no surprise that here in 21st century America far too many of us are obese—many morbidly so—and way too many people are pretty much miserable all the time. And why not? We eat food we have no relationship with, produced by people we don’t know, packaged, transported and dumped upon us in such overwhelming abundance that it’s no wonder we’re all so horribly fat and miserable—we eat nothing but horribly fat and miserable food!
Maybe we should’ve paid more attention to the primitive savages 500 years ago when they tried to show us that we are what we eat.
Next time: Why Should Modern Americans Care about Something That Happened Over 500 Years Ago?