Food as Pre-Colonial Pedagogy

Bison outside of Fort Wayne IndianaBy Ross Ringenberg

This article was the result of an AMBS class entitled “Theology, Ethics and Spirituality Of Creation Care” taught by Malinda Berry, PhD. The class examined theological aspects of environmental studies, ethical dilemmas we face in pursuing environmental justice, the intersection of place and spirituality, and how these themes shape our creation care practices.

In recent years I have become interested in learning about the people that inhabited my watershed directly before white settlers arrived. The Pokegan Potawatomi lived, and still have a presence in my watershed of Northern Indiana and Southern Michigan. There are many different ways you can educate yourself about native peoples. This past year I’ve been learning about what the Potawatomi ate and the food that nature produced in my watershed (my foodshed) before white settlers arrived not only by reading, but also by cooking!

Three Sisters Rice dishI’ve gained a new appreciation for native foodways, while also trying not to idealize or imperialize native culture. It’s been a fun learning process to try new recipes like campfire roasted squash, acorn flour bread, and a “three sisters rice” (left) recipe inspired by the native combination of corn, squash and beans.

Our myth of the “noble savage” has survived and can extend to Native American foodways. Contrary to the narrative that many of us learned in grade school, native people across North America were not characterized by small communities foraging and hunting wild game. On the contrary, they left a significant footprint on the land that they inhabited and the sources of food they consumed.

Before the arrival of Europeans and their diseases that ravaged Native American society killing tens of millions, Native Americans transformed large swaths of North America. Beginning in the 1100′ s they burned and cleared thousands of acres of land to make way for maize. On the cleared land they also planted fruit and nut orchards. Native Americans on the East Coast also used fire to clear land for bison. At one point, these imported animals were hunted all the way from Georgia to New York.

These examples demonstrate that Native American societies, and particularly their foodways, were more advanced than we often give them credit for. Just because they cultivated land to such a large extent though, doesn’t mean that they abused the earth. The myth of a virgin wilderness reported by the first Europeans is due in part to how gracefully Native Americans integrated agriculture with the environment. (For more details on pre-colonial America I recommend the revealing book 1491 by Charles C. Mann.)

Relearning the history of North America and its native peoples has been a humbling experience. What, if anything, am I doing to make sure that the inaccuracies I was taught in school are not perpetuated for today’s generations? What does it mean that Europeans – for many of us our ancestors – brought disease and violence, not only to people but to the land and foodways. Plants, like the American chestnut, have suffered from blight brought by foreigners. Bison, an important food source for Native Americans, were systematically slaughtered as a way to force those people off their land. Further violence was done to native foodways by the US government, which replaced produce and meats traditional to Native Americans, with government-rationed provisions of refined grains and fat (the origin of Native American fry bread, as well as many diet-related illnesses still faced by Native Americans today.).

Researching and trying to cook – as faithfully as possible – Native American recipes gave me a deeper understanding of this history. It reminded me of how, even in subtle ways, our watersheds have changed in respect to food in the last 500 years. What we know about native diets is a heritage of what this land provides, but also a reminder of what has been lost. Cutting of old-growth cedar forests and the development of sweeter, but sterile corn makes me wonder if the pre-colonial Potawatomi would recognize these ingredients in my recipes for cedar tea and the three sisters rice.

Pursuing a native, pre-colonial diet can help us realize our ignorance about native Americans in a more visceral way than simply reading about the past in a history book. Our educational systems tend to connect to and focus on the mind, while educating ourselves via food, connects to our deepest and most fundamental needs and emotions. At the same time, reconnecting with local foods is also a partial remedy for our placeless, unsustainable modern food systems.

In this way, getting outside of our familiar foodways can connect us in new ways across culture and time to people very different from us, while reminding us of one of the many fundamental things we share, the nourishment of food and our reliance on the earth which provides it for us.

There are many resources on Native American foodways, and probably some that would be relevant to your foodshed! A good place to start is American Indian Food by Linda Murray Berzok, which covers native foodways across North America, including stories about food, related customs and its spiritual significance.
Ross Ringenberg is a proud resident of downtown Elkhart, Indiana, who loves culture, food, ethics and good company. Ross is a part-time student at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary and elder at Prairie Street Mennonite Church. He also enjoys picking up trash, scrapbooking and heavy metal.

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