Native Americans were just like you and me, neither saints nor brutes, but capable of being either or both sequentially. My curiosity about them is aroused because of their utterly marvelous cultures. They lived by them happily and in good health on this vast continent for 30 to 50 thousand years without damaging natural environment. These cultures evolved slowly by trial and error like all things in nature and were rooted in tenets as relevant today as then.
When a hunter killed a buffalo, or a deer, and his family members gathered to slaughter it, the elders invited all the families in the camp to come and take some meat. The best portions were offered to them. But etiquette required that they take the less desired pieces in moderate and appropriate quantity. So whenever any hunter made a kill everyone got a share of food.
In season, wild fruits appeared on the trees in large quantities; also berries on bushes. Families that had many hands picked huge mounds of them. But before doing anything further, they offered them to others who were unable to collect enough. These products were dried and kept for winter when nothing grew and food was scarce. The rule of sharing applied also to vegetables and all other foods.
In sharing food people were extra generous to the poor, for they recognized that everyone had to eat to live. Food was acknowledged as a gift from the Great Animator and it was for all. No one had the right to keep it in storage while some people of the camp were hungry. In small, close knit communities everyone knew if a family did not have food.
Sharing of food was not mere altruism; it was a form of insurance. If you gave to others, you also got from them when they had surplus. In this way waste of food was prevented and everyone had food to eat most of the time. People knew that meat as well as many other foods would spoil if not eaten in a few days. It is also obvious to all that if one did not share, one would overeat and get sick. So it was wise to share.
Did people in all Native American cultures share food generously? Studies of hundreds of cultures reveal that the answer is yes.
I have heard of only one exception. Sadly, I do not remember the name of the tribe. I do vaguely recall that they lived somewhere in South America. Anthropologist who studied them talked of men and women who overate when there was food and starved when there was none. Bodies of both men and women were misshapen and most of them were in poor health. They are a rare example of a failure culture.
Food comes in spurts to people living in the forest. Sharing evens out the supply brings welfare and spells life.
June 3, 2006