This month’s Social Justice Challenge asks bloggers to write about the subject of hunger. Unfortunately, Native Americans have often borne the brunt of hunger and malnutrition, an issue that wrenched the heart of Meriwether Lewis just as it should people of conscience today.
On August 13, 1805, when Captain Lewis first found the Shoshone Indians after weeks of searching, his first feeling must have been overwhelming relief. Lewis and Clark’s whole plan for crossing the Rocky Mountains depended on befriending these Indians and buying horses from them. It was for this reason that they brought Sacagawea along. The young woman was a native Shoshone who had been kidnapped by the Hidatsas when she was about 12, and Lewis and Clark were counting on her to communicate with her people, who had never before made contact with whites.
But it didn’t take long for a cruel fact of Shoshone life to register on Lewis. Here in the game-scarce mountains, he himself had not eaten meat for several days, and was “hungry as a wolf.” But these people were literally starving, with nothing to offer their guests but a handful of berries. As Chief Cameahwait, “his ferce eyes and lank jaws grown meager for the want of food,” explained, the Shoshones had been constantly terrorized by the powerful Atsinas and Blackfeet, armed to the teeth by British traders. It was no wonder Cameahwait wanted to make friends with this new brand of white man; maybe he could sharpen up the odds in favor of his own people.
Lewis immediately assigned two men, including his best hunter, George Drouillard, to bring in some game. Even the intrepid Drouillard had trouble finding anything to shoot, but what happened when he did shocked Lewis as much as anything he had ever witnessed:
when they arrived where the deer was which was in view of me they dismounted and ran in tumbling over each other like a parcel of famished dogs each seizing and tearing away a part of the intestens which had been previously thrown out by Drewyer who killed it; the seen was such when I arrived that had I not have had a pretty keen appetite myself I am confident I should not have taisted any part of the venison shortly. each one had a peice of some discription and all eating most ravenously. some were eating the kidnies the melt [spleen] and liver and the blood runing from the corners of their mouths, others were in a similar situation with the paunch and guts but the exuding substance in this case from their lips was of a different discription. one of the last who attacted my attention particularly had been fortunate in his allotment or reather active in the division, he had provided himself with about nine feet of the small guts one end of which he was chewing on while with his hands he was squezzing the contents out at the other.
As the famished Indians tore at the raw meat, Lewis’s revulsion turned to compassion:
I really did not untill now think that human nature ever presented itself in a shape so nearly allyed to the brute creation. I viewed these poor starved divils with pity and compassion I directed McNeal to skin the deer and reserved a quarter, the ballance I gave the Chief to be divided among his people; they devoured the whole of it nearly without cooking. I now boar obliquely to the left in order to interscept the creek where there was some brush to make a fire, and arrived at this stream where Drewyer had killed a second deer; here nearly the same seene was encored. a fire being kindled we cooked and eat and gave the ballance of the two deer to the Indians who eat the whole of them even to the soft parts of the hoofs. Drewyer joined us at breakfast with a third deer. of this I reserved a quarter and gave the ballance to the Indians. they all appeared now to have filled themselves and were in a good humour.
In a land of plenty — in a land where at leasat 30 million buffalo and 10 million elk roamed the nearby plains — these Shoshones fought and scrambled for every last scrap of meat. And unlike “Dances with Wolves,” the Indians neither reaped the benefits of the land’s bounty, nor shared it equally among themselves. Starvation had trumped the usual Native American ethics. Lewis wrote:
I observed that there was but little division or distribution of the meat they had taken among themselves. some families had a large stock and others none. this is not customary among the nations of Indians with whom I have hitherto been acquainted I asked Cameahwait the reason why the hunters did not divide the meat among themselves; he said that meat was so scarce with them that the men who killed it reserved it for themselves and their own families. my hunters arrived about 2 in the evening with two mule deer and three common deer. I distributed three of the deer among those families who appeared to have nothing to eat. – August 23, 1805
Then as now, reality fell far short of the Hollywood ideal. Dominant and well-armed tribes — the Sioux, the Blackfeet, the Apaches, the Comanches — were well-fed, while other tribes were forced on into marginal territory and existed on the edge of survival. The dominant tribes faced Lewis & Clark and later white pathfinders with hostility. After all, they were in charge. Who were these new people coming in and claiming to be everyone’s father? Like hell!
As everyone knows, eventually it didn’t matter anymore whether you were a Shoshone or a Blackfeet Indian. All met the same fate, with surviving remnants of the people forced on to reservations. In the case of the Lemhi Shoshones, they ended up at the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. It was one of the great acts of injustice in American history that victorious Americans took the best land for themselves and left the Native Americans with the most poor, remote, and undesirable land. The buffalo were virtually exterminated, and the Indians were forced into dependence on weekly government-issued rations of beef or bacon, flour, coffee, and sugar. Shamefully, these rations were often inadequate, and the Indian families would spend several days being hungry before the next ration day. The cycle of dependency was devastating for Indian culture.
Though much has changed in the last century, one fact remains: Native Americans are too often poor. On Indian reservations, the poverty rate is 32.2%, almost three times the national average. On some reservations, the lifestyle and infrastructure is still more like a third-world country than like the rest of America; in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, home of the once-mighty Oglala Sioux, one-third of the homes are still lacking electricity or running water.
And they are too often hungry and still dependent on government aid. Since food stamps do little good in remote areas — there aren’t many grocery stores around at which to use them — many Native Americans receive modern-day rations in the form of the Food Distribution Program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This means that families still show up to get a monthly box, stocked with items such as juice, canned veggies, frozen or canned beef and chicken, dry beans, evaporated milk, flour, peanut butter, mac and cheese, and breakfast cereal.
It’s difficult not to feel helpless when faced with the long-standing, intractable, and devastating problems faced by Native Americans today. Many of the Native American charitable groups have dubious reputations: two that are outstanding are the American Indian College Fund, which funds more than 30 tribal colleges and dispenses more than 6000 scholarships a year, and Futures for Children, which provides mentoring and training to help young people graduate from high school and go on to college or vocational training.