The American folklore that the generosity of Indigenous people saved the English pilgrims in the 1620s may be erroneous, but it is irrevocably tied to the Thanksgiving dinner tradition, a central plank of American identity and culture. Carla Cevasco’s Violent Appetites: Hunger in the Early Northeast is an ambitious project. It interprets European-Indigenous contact, creolisation and resistance as a psycho-physiological violence that was ascribed upon the physical body as much as it was upon the cultural identity of people in the northeastern region of what was to become the United States.
Cevasco, in part, explores the white supremacist (and in some cases, classist) notions of early America colonists as their culture and identity formation processes were introduced to and ultimately conflicted with their Indigenous neighbours as much with themselves. Like the processes of acculturation and assimilation, foodways also operated within an arena of multiple conflicts across time and space, manifested as hunger. The depiction of hunger with multiple, often interlocking facets is a strong theme that repeatedly demonstrates how external forces (various European-Indigenous conflicts) or internal conditions (European beliefs) informed a racialized appraisal of the Indigenous culinary culture that helped fix Native communities’ subordinate and marginalized status within the colonial hierarchy. As with their food and culture, the white lens viewed Indigenous bodies negatively, but Cevasco attempts a converse approach. She explains some Indigenous definitions of food and hunger and more importantly, the ways in which the Indigenous communities performed culinary resistance through a politics of food and stood culturally resilient against colonial manipulation and assimilation. Culture and identity formation processes were reciprocally influenced by local foodways. Cevasco successfully demonstrates how the link between foodways and identity was (re)shaped and (re)articulated through ordinary, everyday activities but especially in contrast to ceremonial meals with the English during political negotiations through food trades. Repeated hospitality faux pas by English colonists only reinforced Indigenous peoples’ cultural and identity processes of resilience against cultural assimilation but also to fight for food (production) and by extension, land rights.
One cannot overstate how European colonists viewed Indigenous foodways as markedly different and substandard from their own, despite how reliant the earliest settlers (ie invaders) were on Indigenous peoples’ generosity and subsistence practices and knowledge. In one of the most enlightening sections, Chapter Five’s “Give Us Some Provisions: Resistance” provides ample examples of how food, resistance, and Indigenous identity are inextricably intertwined. Moreover, the value of women’s culinary labor is underscored as essential to Wabanaki culture. For the Wabanaki Confederacy, for example, this culinary resistance is examined through an intersectional approach of Indigenous subsistence practices. Although they were experts of a complex food sovereignty based on the knowledge of localised, abundant food resources, they used a ‘language of starvation’ against the colonists as a leverage tactic in negotiations associated with reciprocity politics.
Violent Appetites: Hunger in the Early Northeast could be oversimplified as a thoughtful case study of the axiom “you are what you eat”. However, Cevasco simultaneously clarifies and complicates this notion with a nuanced analysis of hunger knowledge and highlights how marginalized people resisted the colonization of their cultural identities even after the eventual loss of much of their land and lifeways.