I’m stretching my Josephy Library legs, offering a class—“Introduction to Indian Studies and the Nez Perce Story”—at the new Josephy Center. It’s based on Alvin materials—chapters from books, speeches, and journal articles he wrote over 50 years—and has become a lively weekly conversation for the dozen of us who gather in the Library on Wednesday mornings. Our text this week was the first chapter of 500 Nations, and the discussion revolved around similarities and differences of the North American tribes, and, inevitably, the rise and fall of cultures. Culture led to economy, and economy led to—diet.
Barrie Qualle grew up in Saskatchewan ranching country, with Cree, Assiniboine, and Gros Ventre Indians all around, and remembered how tall and stout they were. “Six two and six four not unusual,” he said. Barrie thought that their diet must have been heavy in protein and that they lived in a place and at a time when meat and fish were abundant. In lean years, he surmised, their bodies grew even more efficient at converting the foods they had.
We talked about hunter gatherers of the Plains and the agricultural Indians of Mississippian and Mesoamerican cultures, and how food abundance had created wealth and economic specialization—but left those cultures more susceptible to drought and torrent. And historians have indeed laid the failures of the Mississippian Mound and Mayan cultures to dry spell and drought.
Which all reminded me of a long ago doctor’s office visit where I picked up a medical magazine and read about a study of the height of soldiers in Charlemagne’s and Napoleon’s armies. The author was trying to establish the impacts of diet and climate on human health, and finding old records of soldiers’ heights gave him something to compare. It was a stark comparison. Charlemagne’s army, in the late 700s, was made up of six footers; Napoleon and his troops, a thousand years later, were five footers.
At least two hundred of those thousand intervening years are known as “Europe’s Little Ice Age,” a time when cold and starvation, though not in every year or every decade, were substantial and frequent. The period coincides almost exactly with the rise of European colonialism and the white settlement of America.
So the scrawny white guys, armed with guns and diseases and a sense that they were God’s chosen, came to the New World and pushed south from the Caribbean and West from the Atlantic Coast. And as they pushed and “removed” indigenous people with their guns and diseases and notions of cultural and religious superiority, they took Indians from their food and food from Indians—in North America, slaughtered the buffalo and pinched tribes onto smaller and smaller reservations—and then wrote return payment with commodities into their treaties. In other words, they took away the protein and gave them sugar, flour, and salt (skimming as they went, so the Indians were robbed of protein and then even of the white commodities).
That is the pattern that Alvin describes in Civil War in the American West—whites protected trails, settled land, fought or wrote treaties, promised cash and food, reneged and/or skimmed, fought and wrote more treaties, pinched more land…
It occurs to me that there is a direct line from those actions and treaties to the commodity foods of today, and that good and bad, fat and thin, protein and white flour, good nutrition and the lack of it, running from starvation and causing it, are all part of the big historical landscape and North America today.
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