For Indigenous peoples throughout the world, traditional foods were, or are, at the very core of their cultures and existence. Ancestral knowledge, traditions, and languages were transmitted, strengthened, and affirmed through the gathering, harvesting, eating, and sharing of these foods. Colonization undermined this cultural relationship with food and colonial policies—such as removal, the establishment of reservations, and restricted access to fishing, hunting, trapping, and gathering sites—worked together in severing Indigenous peoples from their homelands that provided them with the animals, plants, and medicines that nourished and sustained their communities.
In her book Food, Control, and Resistance: Rations and Indigenous Peoples in the United States and South Australia, Tamara Levi provides an interesting and unique comparative study of state food rationing in the 19th and 20th century between two Great Plains tribes and two Aborigine nations in Australia. Her study explores the colonial process whereby the Pawnee and Osage tribes in Nebraska and Indian Territory (which later became Oklahoma) and the Moorundie and Ngarrindjeris Aborigines at Point McLeay in South Australia were removed from their lands, restricted from having access to and/or harvesting their traditional foods, and forced to eat foods that were provided by the colonial agents through various rationing programs. These programs stayed in place until the early 1900s in the United States when the commodity food programs were established, and continued in Australia until the 1960s when Aboriginal people became eligible to receive government benefits.
Situating her research within Settler Colonial and Food Studies, Levi argues that these US and Australian food rationing programs were a significant tool of colonization and worked alongside assimilation policies to weaken Indigenous societies and bring Indigenous peoples under colonial administration and control. Once Indigenous peoples became dependent on these food rations, government officials deliberately manipulated them, determining where and when the food would be distributed, restricting the kind and amount of foods that were distributed, and determining who the foods would be distributed to. Levi does not paint Indigenous people as passive victims of these policies; instead, she argues that they actively resisted these colonial rationing policies by utilizing strategies such as ignoring food rations altogether and/or taking rations for their own reasons and within their own cultural frameworks.
Levi does a very impressive job of utilizing US National Archives to procure Bureau of Indian Affairs and Indian agents' reservation rationing reports and Australian government agents' reports to support her discussion and analysis, and these primary sources make her study significant and original. However, her discussion on Indigenous resistance to these rationing policies could have been developed more fully and would have been stronger with reorganization of her material, which would have allowed for a better flow of the points she is making. This said, I agree with Pawnee law professor and attorney Walter Echo-Hawk's comment in the book's Plainsword that studies such as Levi's, which critically examine colonialism, are "timely." Such studies come as the 2007 United Nations' Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) has pushed Indigenous human rights into political forums and discussions, and has created minimum standards in addressing Indigenous people's right to eat, produce, and have access to their traditional foods.
Department of American Indian Studies
University of Washington, Seattle