Tamara Levi. Food Control and Resistance: Rations and Indigenous Peoples in the United States and South Australia. Plains Histories Series. Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 2016. 280 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-89672-963-6; $39.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-89672-964-3.
Reviewed by David Fazzino (Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania)
Published on H-AmIndian (January, 2019)
Commissioned by F. Evan Nooe (University of North Carolina, Charlotte)
Food Rations and Power in the United States and Southern Australia
A concise and excellent review of Tamara Levi’s Food Control and Resistance: Rations and Indigenous Peoples in the United States and South Australia is given by Walter R. Echo-Hawk in the first few pages of the book. This “Plainsword” highlights current implications of the colonial legacies of settler states particularly as they relate to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) with emphasis on sovereignty and subsistence. My review of the book will necessarily mirror some of the same sentiments of Echo-Hawk. The United States and Australia both worked toward creating material dependency and ideological conversion and assumed extinction in spite of or in some instances because of “humanitarian” goals, which clearly contradicted the letter and spirit of the UNDRIP.
Levi lays out the historical uses of food as a weapon to achieve a variety of interests for those in settler societies who attempted to impose their will on Indigenous Peoples. While Levi is careful to note that this was not absolutely successful in terms of pacification and assimilation, as Indigenous Peoples resisted to the extent that they possibly could, these processes and protocols culminated in increasingly controlling regimes that nevertheless weakened indigenous subsistence and sovereignty. One of the eye-opening aspects of this work is that it historically situates, and hence grounds, current practices of exploitation along the lines of social inequality that Indigenous Peoples face today from state, corporate, and other actors. It accomplishes this by looking at the sometimes parallel and sometimes divergent goals in food rationing in Australia and the United States, which are explained by examining both material and ideological differences.
Food rationing is powerful because it literally allocates the power of individuals and communities to live to their fullest potential. Depending on the extent of this rationing, it exists along a spectrum from provisioning for mere survival in the material/biological sense to helping to create the conditions for holistic health and well-being that allow communities to thrive. So, whereas food, in a material sense, is an essential component of maintaining life, it is always more for us, as humans. We are inherently cultural beings and hence the materiality of food is itself rife with symbolic associations and densely packed with meanings and memories of people, places, non-human animals, and broader geographic and spiritual connections. Hence, food functions to maintain who we are in both a biological/material sense and a social/ideological sense. Recent food sovereignty movements highlight that these two have been and should be twinned in ideal food systems wherein Indigenous Peoples, and local peoples generally, are able to control aspects of food systems as the basis of their social, cultural, and biological reproduction.
The strength of Levi’s book is that it provides tabular data based on archival research, which clearly indicates the shifting rations and provisions over time. This data certainly highlights the variance in the quantity and types of foods being issued as rations over time in four locations: Pawnee Reservations 1857-91 (chapter 4) and Osage Nation 1839-79 (chapter 5) in the United States and Moorundie Ration Depot 1845-56 (chapter 6) and Point McLeay Mission 1859-89 (chapter 7) in southern Australia. This data, coupled with Levi’s selection and analysis of this data, paints a clear picture that however this food rationing was viewed, it was never sufficient to allow for a holistic realization of community health in any of the settings presented. It was, however, just enough to create a dependent relationship between each indigenous group and the settler society that increasingly and aggressively took greater and greater liberties with the land, subsistence, and other resources. This dependency was fostered through a continued diminishment of the preconditions necessary for successful subsistence hunting.
What is apparent is that, despite the claims to benevolence and humanitarianism, the overall approach of those in the settler societies (the United States and Australia) was to diminish the autonomy of Indigenous Peoples and thereby create dependency. The unique, place-based knowledge of Indigenous Peoples the world over is highly particular to the ecological conditions within which they find themselves; that is, it is local and particular. This cultural heritage is not easily transferable from one setting to another as it has been accumulated over successive generations in a particular environment and may be key to the long-term survival of our species. At the same time, following Julian Steward, core aspects of individual and group identity focus around the arts of subsistence. These include, but are not limited to, religious ceremonies, rites of passage, proscriptions against eating certain foods for ecological or health reasons, identity, and reciprocity. It is particularly because of this that the autonomy of subsistence was deliberately targeted by those in setter societies who sought to render Indigenous Peoples docile by “pacifying” them.
Unfortunately there is no shortage of historical and contemporary examples of settler societies using food as a weapon, one that can act as both a carrot and a stick to discipline Indigenous Peoples toward assimilation or extinction. Nevertheless, a variety of cultural revitalization movements with foods at the center have sprung up as resistance to colonial, neocolonial, and neoliberal domination of food systems. These movements may be read in the context of the longer-term resistance to control over food systems and domination more generally. Although unilineal evolutionary thought is generally read in anthropology as ethnocentric and baseless when considering the complexity of culture and the adaptive strategies that peoples within them exhibit to wrest sustenance from the earth, it nevertheless remains a fixture in many current narratives of the civilizing mission. As David Rich Lewis notes in Neither Wolf nor Dog: American Indians, Environment, and Agrarian Change (1994), narratives of terra nullius in the context of colonialism were used to place agency with settler societies who supposedly “made” land productive through their use of tools and technologies. The “civilizing” mission, in all of its guises, depoliticizes the appropriation of material and ideological achievements as a rational and just use of newly configured resources.
In the contexts described by Levi, food served as one avenue by which settler societies attempted to maintain control over Indigenous Peoples in a variety of settings. It was weaponized to control behavior as well as punish transgressions. The use of food as an ideological and material weapon or incentive to condition behavior affected not only subsistence practices but also political structures through disbursements through the head of nuclear families rather than traditional pathways—elders and chiefs—for the flow of food and other goods. Food was used as a weapon to control and contain as a prerequisite for development; we can see the same dynamics play out in contemporary discussions of development initiatives among nomadic pastoralists who must first become sedentary in order to be developed.
The overall plan for assimilation was one that kept Indigenous Peoples in a peripheral and acceptable role, occupying the lower rungs of society as manual laborers and farmers. This mirrors the colonial approaches in other settings that also worked to segregate boys and girls in proper pursuits. Another shift was from task to time orientation wherein rather than accomplishing tasks and meeting everyday needs when it was right to do so, they were forced to conform to settler notions of proper etiquette in terms of when to eat, work, and sleep. Indigenous Peoples have responded by decolonizing these time regimes.
The efforts of those in settler societies were intended to control not only time but also space. The land that was once foraged through hunting and gathering, the land that was once cared for with specific practices that promoted the proliferation of certain species, was reduced to a commodity for external consumption. Humans, historically and cross-culturally, have played significant roles in shaping landscapes through subsistence practices. The resulting landscapes are, in part, anthropogenic but nonetheless are often represented as “natural,” pristine, and untouched so as to erase the meaningful presence of those in existence prior to the arrival of settler societies. Nature becomes, in some instances, something to be tamed, through intensive and industrial agriculture, or, in other instances, something to celebrate as wilderness. In one poignant example, Blial Butt discusses how the landscape of the Masaai Mari Reserve was created through a variety of factors, including human intervention and cattle grazing.
Rationing further acted to root out what were viewed as uncivilized practices of subsistence. Particularly, Levi notes that once dependence was created and the efficacy of the hunt diminished through lower numbers of Indigenous Peoples to participate in the hunt, containment in particular land areas, and deliberate overhunting by settlers, there was little alternative but to rely on food rations. Hence rationing acted to curb attempts to revitalize food systems early on. Today, the practices of subsistence often operate at the far end of commodity supply chains fueled by continuing capitalist expansion. They exist in the spaces in-between while also illustrating alternatives to neoliberal food markets. Nevertheless, the legacies of settler societies continue to hamper the access of Indigenous Peoples to the foods their ancestors knew through nutritional colonization, commodity food programs, and environmental contamination. In regard to the latter, Indigenous Peoples, particularly in Arctic and sub-Arctic regions, must weigh the health benefits with continually emerging risks of environmental contamination, which often remain unknowable through mainstream media outlets.
Despite these assaults, efforts at cultural revitalization continue to throw off the yoke of colonization and the disease burden wrought by commodity food programs by decolonizing diet as well as nutrition. The persistence and survival of Indigenous Peoples in these four settings as distinct entities have persisted and survived, counter to academic theories of the time period and the systematic attempts to dismantle them. In total, Levi’s work reveals patterns of domination and coercion by those in setter societies and hence helps to resituate historical events to highlight the savagery of the supposedly civilized in settler societies.
. Eugene Hunn, “The Value of Subsistence for the Future of the World,” in Ethnoecology: Situated Knowledge/Located Lives, ed. Virginia Nazarea (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1999), 23-36.
. Karen Marie Greenough, “Development Agents and Nomadic Agency: Four Perspectives in the Development ‘Market,’” NAPA Bulletin 27 (2007): 110-128.
. Fiona Leach, “African Girls, Nineteenth-Century Mission Education and the Patriarchal Imperative,” Gender and Education 20 (2008): 335-347.
. Kathleen Pickering, “Decolonizing Time Regimes: Lakota Conceptions of Work, Economy, and Society,” American Anthropologist 106 (2004): 85-97.
. Blial Butt, “Commoditizing the Safari and Making Space for Conflict: Place, Identity and Parks in East Africa,” Political Geography 31 (2012): 104-113.
. Harriet V. Kuhnlein, and Hing M. Chan, “Environment and Contaminants in Traditional Food Systems of Northern Indigenous Peoples,” Annual Review of Nutrition 20 (2000): 595-626; and Patricia Widener and Valerie J. Gunter, “Oil Spill Recovery in the Media: Missing an Alaska Native Perspective,” Society and Natural Resources 20, no. 9 (2007): 767-783.
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David Fazzino. Review of Levi, Tamara, Food Control and Resistance: Rations and Indigenous Peoples in the United States and South Australia.
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