Who gets to tell the history of the pre-colonial Americas?

April 11, 2017

Dear Zenith News:

Regarding your article “Made in America” [March 21, 2017] about the “Sioux Chef,” he has some good ideas. I will patronize his restaurant as soon as possible. There are a few things I have to add. In pre-Columbian times, it was very hard to cut down a tree for firewood with a stone ax. It was very hard to boil water, make a soup or broth without a metal pot or pan. Meat was very often just tossed into the fire to cook. The menu was very, very limited at the time.

Without outside sources of Vitamin C and D, as well as iodine, vitamin deficiency diseases were rampant. That’s why even in our modern society, iodine is added to salt, Vitamin D added to milk, and getting enough Vitamin C requires adding it to many products to prevent scurvy. Getting enough salt in the diet must have been a challenge. Buffalo for every meal for months at a time must have been very common. Killing a deer or buffalo with a stone spear or arrow is quite a challenge.


I encourage people to read very early accounts by trappers and traders to get an honest account of American Indian life. Life was brutal and short. Entire villages starved and died off. Human slaves from enemy tribes were very common. Tribes massacred and killed each other off for reasons that were never recorded. Generations-long hatreds and feuds were the norm, such as the Blackfoot hatred of the Sioux, which caused tens of thousands of deaths. Pre-Columbus time was not the mythical Garden of Eden many people think. Research and read literature of the time yourself. It’s very interesting reading.

Bryce Makela


P.S. The writer of the article seems to have missed out on the play-on-words—a sous chef vs a Sioux chef. A sous chef is a non-cooking manager in a professional kitchen.


Jennifer Martin-Romme (editor) replies: Thank you for your letter, Mr. Makela. If you have a chance to visit The Sioux Chef, you’re in for a treat. I recommend saving room for the wild rice tartlet.

The rest of your letter is more difficult to address because it asserts generalizations that don’t reflect the diversity of the Indigenous people of the Americas, who have been on this continent for at least 30,000 years. Prior to European colonization, anthropologists believe there were anywhere from 600 to over 1,000 tribes in what is now the United States. There remain 562 federally recognized tribes and 200 to 300 unrecognized. Those numbers increase considerably if we include present-day Mexico and Canada. The Indigenous and First Nations people were—and remain today—the heirs to a vast number of unique cultures, making it difficult to generalize accurately about much of anything, including diet.

That said, there’s no reason to believe Indigenous people had such trouble feeding themselves. It’s patently false that they had difficulty boiling water, a practice that dates back 50,000 years and which is reflected in Native artifacts [ref: “When did humans learn to boil?” PaleoAnthology Society, 2015]. It’s also false that Indigenous communities faced high rates of nutritional deficiency—quite the opposite, in fact. Skeletal evidence shows significant iron deficiency only among a small group who lived in what is now the Mississippi River Valley and whose diets relied excessively on corn [ref: “Health conditions before Columbus: paleopathology of native North Americans,” US Library of Medicine, 2002].

Scurvy was notoriously uncommon. Wild rice, tubers, chenopods, beans, seeds, squash, berries, leafy vegetables, seaweed, fish, and select animal organs provided enough Vitamin C and the macronutrients necessary for vitamin absorption [ref. “Decolonizing the Diet: synthesizing Native American history, immunology, and nutritional science,” Journal of Evolution and Health, 2015]. Sean Sherman—who combines the study of tribal oral history with ethnobotany—points out that most of pre-colonial America supported abundant birds, deer, rabbit, and fish, all of which are easy to kill. “So there were a lot of sources of protein,” he says. “They weren’t just throwing rocks at bison in their underwear.”

Why are the accounts of trappers, traders, and other European colonists a more honest or accurate portrayal of any American Indian society, let alone all of them? Even the phrase “pre-Columbian” suggests that colonization is the point at which this continent’s “real” history began. But the story of the Indigenous Americas does not belong to the colonizers. It belongs to Indigenous people themselves, who, like Sean Sherman, are busy carrying that history into the future.

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