Feasting and Fasting

Native Americans, European Settlers, and Undisciplined Bodies in Colonial North America, 1600-1770

Carla Cevasco


This paper argues that, in the violent borderlands of colonial North America, British and French settlers and northeastern woodlands Native peoples used feasting and fasting to discipline their bodies in response to a world in crisis. By ritualistically eating or not-eating, settlers and Natives mortified their bodies to seek divine assistance amidst borderlands warfare, captivity, and dispossession. Authorities sought to control the body through visceral rituals of tightly regulated fasting, which also encompassed broader practices of bodily mortification. Facing the strong possibility of unintentional hunger in a chaotic world, borderlands peoples turned to intentional hunger in an attempt to exert control over their circumstances. Ritual created certainty where uncertainty loomed.

Native people maintained their own interpretations and practices of feasting and fasting over decades of settler colonialism. Wabanaki people’s eat-til-you-burst feasts of raccoon meat emphasized the importance of communal food resources. Meat served as the centerpiece of feasts on the eve of war, and as a metonym for the destruction of one’s enemies. Mohawk women, including the recently canonized Kateri Tekakwitha, used fasting and self-mortification to navigate a world upended by settler intrusion, hybridizing European and Native devotional practices. Seneca leaders called for maintaining traditional feasts against the onslaught of Christian missionaries.

In order to justify settler colonialism, settlers to varying degrees refused to recognize the similarities between Native and European ascetic practices. Neither Calvinists nor Catholics understood feasts to be equivalent mortifications of the body as fasts. Where French settlers sometimes noted commonalities between Native practices and Catholic ones, the English dismissed Native feasts as barbarous. French and English settlers expressed doubts whether the Native body was truly disciplinable, while simultaneously worrying that Native people were better adapted to asceticism than were their European counterparts. In European eyes, Native bodies were simultaneously undisciplinably gluttonous and frighteningly austere. Either way, Native bodies could not conform to European expectations and norms.

In the end, in the face of continuous borderlands violence, many observers began to suspect that feasting and fasting could not turn God’s anger away from their sinful communities. Rituals of eating and not-eating both used religion to preserve community cohesion, and revealed when these ideals began to crumble. Situating these debates about feasting, fasting, and the body within the context of settler colonialism demonstrates why, in spite of their shared practices of bodily mortification, Europeans and Native Americans remained in a state of crisis in colonial North America. Using sources from missionary accounts to devotional and medical texts, this paper should be of interest to scholars of food, the body, religion, Native Americans, and colonial North America.