Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
September 2004

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Fasting by Canadian Indians



[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.]



A rite widely observed among the Indians and practised both in private and in connection with public ceremonies. The first fast took place at puberty, when the youth was sometimes sent to a sequestered place and remained alone, fasting and praying from 1 to 4 days, or even longer. At this time or during similar fasts which followed, he was supposed to see in a dream the object which was to be his special medium of communication with the supernatural. Simple garments or none were worn when fasting. Among some tribes clay was put upon the head, and tears were shed as the appeals were made to the unseen powers. At the conclusion of a long fast the quantity of food taken was regulated for several days. It was not uncom­mon for an adult to fast, as a prayer for success, when about to enter upon an important enterprise, as war or hunting. Fasting was also a means by which occult power was believed to be acquired; a shaman had to fast frequently in order to be able to fulfill the duties of his office.


Initiation into religious societies was accompanied by fasting, and in some of the great ceremonies all the principal actors were obliged to fast prior to taking part. The length of these fasts varied with the ceremony and the tribe, and ranged from midnight to sunset, or continued 4 days and nights. Fasting generally included abstinence from water as well as food. The reason for fasting has been explained by a Cherokee priest as "a means to spiritualize the human nature and quicken the spiritual vision by abstinence from earthly food." Other tribes have regarded it as a method by which to remove "the smell" of the common world. Occasionally chiefs or leaders have appointed a tribal fast in order to avert threatening disaster.


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., p. 162.


© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College