Thanksgiving is a feast. But what is a feast? Anthropology is all about examining ourselves through the lens of other cultures. Or, at least, that’s what we used to do back in the good old days. Let’s have a look at this great American holiday from this perspective and see what we see.
A traditional feast in Venezuela
The enemy has arrived, in force, outside your village. The men are armed and wearing the symbols of war, which is appropriate because your group and the group milling about outside your walled settlement are at war. One of the men, wearing war garb but adorned also with white feathers to indicate a peaceful intent, attempts to enter your village but is stopped by guards. They converse briefly and the guards allow the man to crawl into your village through the only opening in the surrounding wall left following preparations for possible attack. After crawling though the small opening, he sands and walks into the center of the plaza where he kneels, and is handed a large container of beer which may or may not be poisoned. He drinks the entire amount without stopping, so that if it is poisoned, he will surely die, and if it is not, he will surely cop a buzz.
The visitor drops the container that once held the beer, still squatting on his haunches, and sways back and forth for a moment. He does not feel the poison. He only feels the buzz. He belches, stands up and walks towards the entrance whence he came. On his way, he is stopped by a warrior who places a large package on the visitor’s back, a tumpline across his forehead to help carry it, muttering a few words about how he knows his sister is young and unmarried. The visitor gives the warrior a stern look and crawls, carrying the package of ready-to-eat food, out of the walled village where he will share it with his compatriots as a snack.
An hour later a group of the enemy warriors, shouting a war cry, pushes their way through the tiny village entrance only to find that every single one of your warriors, dressed in the symbols of warfare but also adorned with small white feathers, is taking a nap. The invading warriors, six of them, engage in an aggressive-looking dance shouting “we are strong, we will pierce your skull with a spear.” Half of the six visiting warriors are indeed armed with a spears, and as they approach you and your sleeping compatriots, none of you appear to wake. Perhaps a sleepy eye opens to glare at the bellicose visitors now and then, but for the most part, not a muscle is moved or a nostril twitched as the visitors jab, inches short, at the reclining men, again and again, until each warrior has been mock attacked by the three dancers. By this time you notice that the other three dancers are women, the wives of the warriors making the threats, in drag.
Just as these six retire to a place of their choosing near the center of the plaza, another set of enemy warriors enters through the small hole in the wall. Their dress is that of the warrior, but again, topped with little white down feathers of a certain bird. Their dance is aggressive but this time also sexual in nature, and their chant is very different form the last “Your girls are ready to fuck. Your girls are ready for us to take them away when we slit your throats.”
And again, each of your male compatriots continues to recline and appear to not notice the intrusion, while the children hide behind stores of food and the women sit and watch, quietly amused. Except the young women, who giggle, and some taunt back “You are too old and shriveled” only to be shushed by the older women who know that sometimes these events go very badly, when the visitors practice treachery instead of ritual, killing the men who recline indifferently in their hammocks, and raping and stealing the women.
Again and again groups of visiting enemies enter, sometimes just men, sometimes men and women, dressed outrageously and engaging in a dance and a chant, the combination of which has never been seen before and will never be seen again. They’ve been working on this routine for weeks. Again and again, your village’s warriors ignore the threats as though they were less significant than a bothersome fly, the children continue to hide but peek out from their burrows with increasing boldness, and the women go from sitting quietly to taunting and chanting back to eventually rising up and getting to the most important business they have on this day …
… cooking the feast.
After all the enemy have danced their way into the village, each group retiring to the growing gaggle in the middle of the plaza, your warriors jump from their hammocks and causally pick up war clubs, bows and arrows, spears, or simply rip a pole from their front porch, to use as a weapon. They surround and approach the seated visitors who pay them no mind. As they approach, you notice your distant cousin among the enemy visitors, and just as you see him, one of your own warriors, your brother, walks to him and leads him by the hand back to his section of the circular village, to sit by his hearth or lay in his hammock. The visitor’s elderly wife follows, and that is when you finally recognize her … she is your grandmother’s sister, and was born in the village you live in now. Again and again this happens: Members of your village invite visiting families to their hearth and home, and now and then you recognize a relative among the visitors, or you mark the relationship between one of your own and the enemy family, and very often the women in the group are rather close to your own lineage.
Over the next few hours, after the sorting out of the visitors so that all are resting, their weapons cast to the side, at one hearth or another, you all start to eat. Universally, a buffet can only begin when someone in charge of cooking the food cajoles someone who is visiting to begin to eat. Two older women who have been in charge for the last five days of making the beer, cooking the turtles captured last week by the men on a foraging trip, baking the plantains harvested from the garden, and processing the fruits collected by younger women and children just this morning, drag some of the visiting enemies to the beer trough or to one of the large cauldrons of food and get them started on distributing it. Quite suddenly the activity level rises, and in less time that it takes an old man to choke on his ebene1, almost everyone is chowing down on the victuals, and most of the conversation has stopped.
Over the next two hours, the food is put aside and the men begin to talk. They talk about previous battles. Strangely, when one man reveals his pride in how quickly he killed the brother of one of the other men at the feast, there seem to be no hard feelings. It was war, and the man who did the killing was brave and is now of high status because of that killing. More important than that event, at the moment, is the fact that these two men each have a younger sister who is unmarried, and a younger brother who is also available. That there is blood spilled between them seems to increase the urgency with which they close a deal whereby they exchange their sisters in a marriage arrangement. In an hour or two, that deal is sealed. Now it only remains to get the girls to go along with it (now and then they do, though usually not).
Other men talk about their weapons, the narcotic drugs a particular person makes, a cache of machete’s recently obtained from the boat of a missionary that went missing (the boat, not the missionary) and two or three young dogs just now past their initial training and ready to hunt. Deals are made, objects are exchanged on the spot, other exchanges promised for later. Even though the women of your village were once renowned for making excellent pottery, today it is claimed that no one in your village, even the older ladies, have a clue as to how to do that. It just so happens that the visiting village, the enemies (or shall we say, at this point, the new allies?) are known to make the best pottery, while your village is known these days, though they never seemed to do this before, for making the best monkey-killing arrows.
Pottery and arrows and promises of more pottery and more arrows are exchanged, as well as two more promises of marriage. And, off to the side, a group of men have planned out the details of a raid on a third village, located to the south, former allies but since the breaking of two marriage contracts and a handful of other untoward events, now freshly minted enemies.
This goes on for three days. Shows of bravado, of expertise, making of alliances through trade and exchange and, ultimately (and we shall see how this goes) marriage arrangements, and perhaps equally ultimately, arrangements to cooperate in raids, waft through the conversation. Men speak in ritualized tones, sometimes softly but with a stage whisper meant to be heard by others, sometimes loudly with a chanting cadence, strongly suggesting that others are stingy, passive-aggressively decrying their own suffering for having gotten the short end of a deal, loudly committing their younger, healthier brothers and cousins to this or that duel to the death (the brother or cousin happens to be out of town at the moment).
While the men have contributed measurable effort to prepare for the feast, the women have done most of the work and continue to do so. But as they alternately prepare food, nurse the children or clean the pots, they catch up. Many of these women are sisters, across the boundary between your village and the former enemy, or in-laws from marriages way back in time, or cousins of some kind. Every married woman is a cousin to her husband, but not of the same clan, but since all the men are of the same clan, many of the women end up being from one clan, but a different one from the men, and are therefore at least nominally related, if not sharing known and fairly recent ancestors. The men eye the women suspiciously as they converse quietly, as to not be heard. If the alliance being formed today goes well, these women may end up all living in the same village, and their friendships, broken for the last several years by war but now renewed, will be important. If the alliance fails, then every one of these women may be considered a spy, because she may be more loyal to her brother or her cousin’s husband than to her own spouse. The women are well aware of this concern, and they remember to allow certain bits and pieces of conversation to be overheard by the occasionally quiet men, bits and pieces that will enhance a sense of uncertainty for some of the men, a sense of security for others, depending.
In truth, and not admitted by the men, the women now conversing in the background are the ones who arranged this feast. On a day to day basis, the men of warring villages avoid each other, only coming into contact when a raid is carried out, and then, that contact is in the form of a fight with arrows or an attack with spears. The women, in the meantime, forage in small groups (of only women) or work in distant fields or some specialized resource gathering area (like a mineral or clay deposit) that may be shared by the women of warring villages. In truth, and not known to the men, many of these women have conversed just weeks before, and see each other with reasonable frequency, as their day to day business simply can not be carried out if they are not allowed to do so, irrespective of the state of alliance or hatred among the men. It was through these conversations between women of the two villages, across the boundary of warfare, that this feast was arranged.
So, what is Thanksgiving again?
The above fictionalized prose is a reasonable description of a typical traditional Yanomamo feast, as documented by several anthropologists during the 20th century. Obviously, we are speaking today of a feast because Thanksgiving is a feast engaged in by Americans on the third Thursday of November, and there may be some connections. The Thanksgiving Feast is thought by modern Americans, especially those who read Wikipeda (which has pretty much ruined any possibility of having a non-trivialized conversation about American Thanksgiving, as per Wikipedia’s usual inability to address matters anthropological or historical) to be just another harvest festival, a gathering to partake in the harvest and to thank the appropriate god or gods for their largess.
That may be at least a little true. Harvest festivals do not need historical continuity to be connected to each other or to be similar in how they work. It need not be the case that Canadian Thanksgiving, American Thanksgiving and some roughly similar festivals found this time of year elsewhere are all descendants from some original Neolithic ritual. And, in fact, I would argue the opposite. The “first thanksgiving” (in the United States) was an event that happened at Plymouth in 1621. The documentation of this event is reasonably good, and it certainly happened, but much of what we know about it comes from documents that were clearly propaganda tools designed to raise money to fund the adventures of the Plymouth Plantation and other efforts. The event may have gone on for days and may have looked in some ways like the event I describe above, at least in so far as shared displays of bravado and arrangements for trading and overall male bonding are concerned. It was a male-oriented event but it is likely that most of the work was done by women. Both sides, the Wampanoag and the English (consisting of religious Puritans and others) brought the food, and it was held at the village of the English. The English may well have been engaging in something that seemed familiar to them earlier in Europe, and Wikipedia, in an all to typical fit of Western Centered cultural imperialism tells us so. But this ignores the fact that feasting was probably a widespread Native American activity.
One might argue that feasting is a global phenomenon, and that would be more or less true. Not all cultures have feasting, any more than all cultures have any given trait. But many do, and feasting is found in Eurasia, Africa and the New World, as well as Australia. But the nature and purpose of the feasting varies a great deal.
Here in Minnesota, Ojibwa Native Americans occupied most of the woodlands and some of the prairies during the 18th and early 19th century, with Lakota/Dakota/Sioux (I’ll call them Dakota) occupying the prairies of the western and southwestern part of the state, and the Dakotas. They were often at war. Ironically, the Dakota were probably the more war-like, having a culture more invested in bellicosity in comparison to the Algonquin speaking Ojibwa, but the Ojibwa had lucrative fur trapping contracts with the French and the English and, related to these contracts, were armed with guns. That made the Ojibwa more powerful than the Dakota, though the latter had certain advantages. As a result, it was clear to various leaders of the day that a continued war between them would result in strife and loss of income. Rather than fight all the time, they fought seasonally, selectively, and avoided fighting altogether when it interfered with the efficient exploitation of the numerous beaver of the region.
And, from all accounts, the maintenance of alliances between Ojibwa and Dakota was facilitated, in part, by feasting not entirely different (but perhaps less ritualized) than that described above. It seems most likely that the English at Plymouth, in the 1620s, were being brought into a Native practice by the Wampanoag, which was possibly done a few times then dropped (as other developments beyond our scope here occurred). By the time the “first Thanksgiving” was revived, about a century and a half later (eventually codified as an official holiday) the real meaning and purpose of it would have been forgotten. The first American Thanksgiving was probably a ritualized gathering meant to forge alliances, at which it is possible that a raid or two was planed, but at which there is no record of intermarriages between English and Native being arranged.
The First American Thanksgiving
Of the first Thanksgiving we have exactly two contemporary descriptions, and it isn’t much. In fact, there is so little, you can read it all in a few minutes. First, by Edward Winslow, from a letter of 12 December 1621, published for wider audiences within a year of its writing:
Our corn [i.e. wheat] did prove well, and God be praised, we had a good increase of Indian corn, and our barley indifferent good, but our peas not worth the gathering, for we feared they were too late sown. They came up very well, and blossomed, but the sun parched them in the blossom. Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.
The second description was contemporary and from a good source (William Bradford) but was not known to anyone else until the middle of the 19th century. It was the event of this description becoming widely known that caused the revival in the US of the idea of a “First Thanksgiving” and this is the reason we celebrate the holiday today.
They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty. For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercising in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish, of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion. All the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides they had about a peck of meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to that proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned but true reports.
The true meaning of Thanksgiving
In the end, I think we all know what the true meaning of Thanksgiving is. Gravy, with stuffing a close second. Enjoy your feast and remember to treat your suaboya2 well.
Two young boys are having an argument while their fathers, resting in hammocks, look on. The argument is over something silly but escalates until the dads decide to intervene. They equip each boy with a small pole and position them face to face, explaining the rules of the game. Each child has the opportunity to whack the other with the stick, in turn. The boys can continue to carry out this ritualized but stingingly painful combat until one of them gives up, handing victory to his opponent. Eventually, these boys will grow into men, and this sort of combat, using either long poles borrowed from the nearby dwellings or bare fists pounded on chests, will become a normal (though infrequently used) way to settle significant disputes between men. Dueling is part of the culture in which these children are being raised. Those who demonstrate the most bravery will likely rise in status, perhaps take on a leadership role, have a better choice in marriage partner, and perhaps have more than one wife.
Napoleon Chagnon spent years living among the Yanomamo of Venezuela and wrote, among other things, a classic ethnography still used widely in anthropology classes. It came to pass that Chagnon and his ethnography came under scrutiny, actually a few waves of scrutiny, from practitioners of cultural anthropology in part because his monograph depicted the Yanomamo as “fierce people” and this characterization of them was used, misused really, against them by outside forces including the government to justify their “pacification.” The Yanomamo were indeed being abused by these outside forces, and it is probably true that Chagnon’s research became a tool of those elements. But this criticism of Chagnon’s work was an interesting twist on the ad hominem argument. Rather than asserting that someone’s scholarly findings were wrong because that individual is a bad person, the assertion was made that the findings were wrong because they had bad political implications. Over time, a number of accusations against Chagnon and others working in the Amazon were made, hyped, and disproved. In the end, many sociocultural anthropologists liked Chagnon even less than they did before, the fight never ended, and just a few weeks ago, Chagnon responded with his latest salvo, a book called “Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes – the Yanomamo and the Anthropologists”.
I’m writing a piece that will be published elsewhere on the book, Chagnon, and the Yanomamo (I’ll insert a link HERE when it is available) but at this time I mainly wanted to tell you about the new book. Before doing that I just want to note the following: The fight between biological anthropology and cultural anthropology, represented in only one of its forms (or should I say fronts) by the fight over the Yanomamo is often viewed as a fight between those who seek explanations for the diversity of human behavior in genes vs. those who see human culture as constructed entirely from experience. In truth, very few anthropologists believe either of those models to be perfectly correct. Quite a few anthropologists in both fields recognize a more nuanced explanation for human behavior. The evolutionary history of our species has shaped us to have certain drives, tendencies, abilities, and limitations that are important factors in our development but culture and individual behavior are just as much products of history and lived experience guided, tempered, limited, and potentiated by drives shaped by natural selection.
Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes – the Yanomamo and the Anthropologists reviews many of Chagnon’s key findings about the Yanomamo and discusses the controversy over these findings. I’m not yet sure if the new book replaces the older ethnography for use in the classroom; that is going to depend on what a particular course is about. Chagnon reviews his theory of where Yanomamo “fierceness” comes from and all that, but his monograph and this new volume both remind us that there is much about Yanomamo lifeways beyond guys beating each other up with sticks. To me the most important lesson of Chagnon’s work, which is supported by parallel work by others in the region, is this: Human culture is capable of a wide range of variation including but not by any means limited to strong patriarchy with a violent edge. Women in Yanomamo society are often treated badly. This does not make the Yanomamo unique, as women are treated badly in most human societies. The difference is that the Yanomamo are a group of people living in a smaller scale society than our own, and especially, a society that is different from our own, so it may be easier to parse out some of the connections between context and cultural expression. The Yanomamo do not show us something that we could not see in ourselves, but the anthropological view of that group and any other group “elsewhere” in culture or even distant in time (i.e., pre-industrial) or that relies on a very different economy (swidden in the case of Yanomamo) reveals human nature by reflecting it in different kinds of mirrors. When it comes to understanding culture, all mirrors are like the ones in the fun-house, distorting and biasing. For this reason, we need to use a lot of different mirrors. Anthropology reminds us that our own culture does not provide us with the best possible mirror even if we tend to think it does, and that all mirrors are similarly untrustworthy.
In his research with the Yanomamo, Chagnon may have done some things wrong, or things that we would not do today as methods and understanding of ethics have changed. But the same could be said of other anthropologists who worked in the field back in the 1960s, but for some reason we don’t hear that criticism. Personally, I think that this is primarily due to Chagnon’s identification with biological anthropology. Hell, he even uses the word “sociobiology” which is a dog whistle for many indicating a tendency towards genetic determinism. In any event, it may be instructive to look at a parallel case of ethnography done in the bad old days, but by a different field researcher.
Today, Colin Turnbull’s book about the Mbuti Pygmies of the Congo, The Forest People, is often used in anthropology classes, and his ethnography of the Mbuti is generally accepted by many sociocultural anthropologists as valid and useful. The thing is, The Forest People is full of easily refutable facts, such as the “fact” that there is no seasonality in the rainforest and that the seasonal movement of Pygmies in pursuit of wild honey is a culturally constructed behavior unrelated to the ecology of the land. Turnbull, in this and other writings, openly denigrates the people (“Bantu farmers”) who live alongside the Mbuti, painting them as dim witted, mean spirited, violent slave owners (or, at least, poorly behaved masters over the Mbuti serfs). Turnbull also worked in Uganda with a different group, the Ik. If we turn to Turnbull’s work with the Ik of Uganda, popularized in his book The Mountain People, it gets worse. Every alternative ethnography or other source of information about that group dramatically conflicts with Turnbull’s ethnography in one way or another. Turnbull’s depiction of the Ik is horrific, with infanticide and other forms of violence widespread in Turnbull’s work but not so much in other depictions. Turnbull determined that the Ik, who had been pushed off their hunting lands and otherwise severely affected by outside forces, were a people not worth saving, and advocated dispersing the entire culture using very draconian means by the government in power in Uganda. In other words, Tunrbull’s anthropological work is highly questionable, and he quite literally collaborated with the government in an effort to wipe a group of people off the face of the earth, but many cultural anthropologists still use at least one of his books and he has not received the treatment Chagnon has received even though he seems to have actually carried out acts similar to those for which Chagnon is, apparently falsely, accused. But Turnbull was a member of the sociocultural anthropology family. Or, shall I say, the sociocultural anthropology “tribe” (a term I use reluctantly here, but that refers to Chagnon’s subtitle … by now you certainly understand the reference).
I quickly add that the comparison I make between treatment of Chagnon and treatment of Turnbull is only a loose one; there are many other factors to take into consideration including when the work was done, and the state in which the affected tribal groups were found by anthropology to begin with. Nonetheless, when I see cultural anthropologists lining up to score points taking down Chagnon, I often wonder what would have happened if Turnbull put forward an explicit biological explanation for his observations and was not a cultural constructivist.
One of the thing the Yanomamo are “used” for is to model past human societies. For a number of reasons I think this is misguided, but again, the Yanomamo do speak to the human condition more generally. In particular, Chagnon’s ethnography and other work, and criticisms of that work, speak to the problem we Westerners often have with the Hobbsian concept of “Warre.” A human society can be in a state of constant threat, constant struggle over women, resources, or some other thing with the threat of violence being ever present, but actual violence only rarely happening. It would be hard to argue that international politics of the 1960s, 1970s, and into the 1980s was not dominated by the constant threat of the end of humanity itself due to all out nuclear war between the USA and the USSR. This struggle was the primary organizing force in world politics. But none of those nuclear weapons were ever used. The highest level of threat of violence that ever existed on this planet … the most “fierceness” to ever be brought to bear in the arena of human interaction … had enormous effects on human society and culture but was never actually operationalized the way we feared. There are other examples of fierceness being a big part of a culture but actual violence being modest in extent or intensity.
My own personal theory of Yanomamo violence is two part. First, it is complex. There is no reason to exclude male biological ineptitude in the area of reproduction (men have never figured out how to have babies on their own) as a causal factor in male anxiety about, and possessiveness over, women. We see this across cultures, in high school lunch rooms, and in the halls of the United States Congress. Men have an interest in controlling women’s reproduction that in some contexts may be manifest as violence among men, violence by men against women, athletic competition, absurd and offensive legislation, and all manner of things. Continue reading Noble Savages: Napoleon Chagnon’s Fierce Book→