L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia
Feasts and Feasting of the Indians of Canada
[This text was originally published in 1907 by the Bureau of American Ethnology as part of its Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. It was later reproduced, in 1913, by the Geographic Board of Canada. The work done by the American Bureau was monumental, well informed and incorporated the most advanced scholarship available at the time. In many respects, the information is still useful today, although prudence should be exercised and the reader should consult some of the contemporary texts on the history and the anthropology of the North American Indians suggested in the bibliographic introduction to this section. The articles were not completely devoid of the paternalism and the prejudices prevalent at the time. While some of the terminology used would not pass the test of our "politically correct" era, most terms have been left unchanged by the editor. If a change in the original text has been effected it will be found between brackets [.] The original work contained long bibliographies that have not been reproduced for this web edition. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]
Among all tribes there were feasts, ranging in importance from that of the little child to its playmate up to those which were a part of the great sacred ceremonies. These so-called feasts were never elaborate and were simply served, each portion being ladled from the kettle by the hostess, or by one appointed for the task.
Feasts were held at stated times. On the N. Pacific coast the coming of the salmon was celebrated in a feast of thanksgiving by all the tribes able to secure the fish from inlets or rivers. Farther S. the ripening of acorns and other fruits was similarly observed. The maturing of the maize was the occasion for tribal festivities; at that time the Creeks held their 8-days' ceremony known as the Buck when the new corn was eaten, the new fire kindled, new garments worn, and all past enmities forgiven. In November, when the [Inuit] had gathered their winter store, they held a feast, at which time gifts were exchanged; by this a temporary relationship was formed between the giver and taker, which tended to good feeling and fellowship. During the full moon of December the [Inuit] held a feast to which the bladders of animals killed during the year were brought. These were "supposed to contain the inuas, or shades of the animals." On the sixth and last day the bladders were taken out to a hole made in the ice, and thrust into the water under the ice. They "were supposed to swim far out to sea and then enter the bodies of unborn animals of their kind, thus becoming reincarnated and rendering game more plentiful" (Nelson). Among the Iroquois a feast was held to keep the medicine alive. Religious ceremonies to insure fruitfulness took place at the planting of the maize, at which time a feast was held.
Feasts were given on the completion of a house, at a marriage, and when a child was named. Feasts in honor of the dead were widely observed. The time which must elapse after a death before the feast could be given varied among the tribes. Among some of the Plains Indians it occurred after 4 days, with the Iroquois after 10 days, and with other tribes after nearly a year. The [Inuit] held their memorial feast late in November. The near relatives were the hosts, and the dead were supposed to be present beneath the floor of the dwelling where they enjoyed the festivities in their honour, partaking of the food and water cast there for them, and receiving the clothing put as a gift upon their namesakes. At the feast for the dead held by the tribes on the N. Pacific coast, the spirits of the departed were also supposed to be present, but the portions of food intended for them were passed through the fire and reached them in this manner. The Huron held their ceremonial feast in the fall, when all who had died during the year were disinterred by their kindred, the flesh stripped from the bones, and these wrapped in new robes and laid in the clan burial pit. The feast was one of tribal importance and was accompanied with religious rites.
It was incumbent on an aspirant to tribal honour to give feasts to the chiefs, and one who desired initiation into a society must provide feasts for the society. Respect to chiefs and leading men was expressed by a feast. On such an occasion the host and his family did not eat with their guests; they provided the food and the dishes, but the head chief appointed one of the guests to act as server. At all feasts the host was careful not to include in the food or the dishes used anything that would be tabu to any of his guests; a failure to observe this important point would be considered an insult.
The meetings of secular societies among the Plains tribes, whether the membership was of one or both sexes, were always accompanied with a feast. There was no public invitation, but the herald of the society went to each lodge and gave notice of the meeting. The food was provided by the family at whose lodge the society met, or by certain other duly appointed persons. The preparation for the feast varied in different societies within the same tribe. In some instances the food was brought ready cooked to the lodge, in others it was prepared in the presence of the assembly. The people brought their own eating vessels, for at these feasts one had to eat all that was served to him or take what was left to his home.
In most tribal ceremonies sacred feasts occurred, for which certain prescribed food was prepared and partaken of with special ceremony. Feasts of this kind often took place at the close of a ceremony, rarely at the beginning, although sometimes they marked a particular stage in the proceedings. Among the Iroquois, and perhaps other tribes, the owner feasted his fetish, and the ceremony of the calumet, according to early writers, was always concluded with a feast, and was usually accompanied by an exchange of presents.
At every feast of any kind, on any occasion, where food was to be eaten, a bit or small portion was first lifted to the zenith, sometimes presented to the four cardinal points, and then dropped upon the earth at the edge of the fire or into the fire. During this act, which was an offering of thanks for the gift of food, every one present remained silent and motionless.
Source: James WHITE, ed., Handbook of Indians of Canada, Published as an Appendix to the Tenth Report of the Geographic Board of Canada, Ottawa, 1913, 632p., pp. 162-163.
© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College