July 19, 2010

Natives had only three fruits?!

Adrienne Keene of the Native Appropriations blog brings the following item to our attention:

"Legend has it...":  More Natives in Advertising

She saw this sign in Harvard Medical School's cafeteria:

Did You Know?

There are only three fruits native to North America: blueberries, cranberries, and Concord grapes. Legend has it that Native Americans gave blueberries to the new settlers, helping them make it through their first winter.
Adrienne notes a couple of problems with this:

1) It refers to generic "Native Americans" rather than specific tribes such as the Wampanoag.

2) It makes the Natives players in the settlers' story rather than stars of their own story.

I could add that the sign obscures what happened by using the ultra-positive word "settlers." Try it with "colonists," "foreigners," "Europeans," "interlopers," or "invaders" and see how it reads. Not quite as benign, I'd say.

Only three fruits?

But the real problem is the claim that Natives had only three fruits. I never heard this claim before, and it's ridiculous. Anyone who knows anything about Natives knows it to be false.

In fact, apparently this myth is so common that people have discussed it on Snopes.com:The other night on the cooking show, Simply Ming, he was making a master sauce using cranberries. He said that there were only three fruits native to North America; the Concord grape, the blueberry, and the cranberry. Sounds mythy to me. I invite you all to help me prove or de-bunk this fishy claim!You don't have to look far for a debunking. Wikipedia lists dozens of fruits native to North America:

Fruits of North American origin

By including only "culinary" fruits--fruits we think of as fruits rather than vegetables--the list excludes tomatoes, pumpkins, and other varieties of squash. So add two of the biggest fruits in the world to the list of Native products.

Someone on Facebook responded to the "three fruit" claim:Only three fruits??? Europeans had a mental block regarding indigenous horticulture, agriculture, forest stewardship, etc. because it wasn't all lined up in rows for them to recognize. It didn't look just like theirs, ergo it didn't exist. Terra Nullus. This says much more about the colonists' limited understanding and imagination rather than the supposed limits of indigenous natural sciences. Probably those were the only three fruits colonists were willing to try. Even Michael Pollan seems to think there was no good fruit to eat here until Johnny Appleseed saved the day. And yet, mysteriously people had somehow managed to thrive--with better health and hygiene than Europeans--for 30,000 years before "civilized" farming knowledge was "given" to them. Amazing! How did they survive on three fruits? It's a shame that in a place of "higher learning" with a big native studies department, that this lame kind of disinformation should be presented.Savages can't grow fruit?

How has this "legend" lasted when it's demonstrably false? I'd say it's a corollary of the uncivilized Indian meme. Indians supposedly didn't invent the wheel, writing, or metalworking. They were Stone-Age savages, ignorant of the arts and sciences. They were so primitive they had only three fruits! They were able to gather roots and berries like other forest animals, but they knew nothing about real food. You know, the kind that civilized people grew on farms in orchards and vineyards.

(For the record, some Indians did invent the wheel, writing, and metalworking.)

Adrienne's conclusion:So, I realize the ad isn't as outright offensive as the Potawatomi Chicago ad we looked at before, but I still think it is important to interrogate and re-examine images we take at face value, and problematize how seemingly simple and benign words can carry much deeper meaning.Good point, Adrienne. But I'd put this sign in the same category as that ad. Both serve to make Indians look primitive using false or misleading claims.

For the actual story abut Native food, see Native Foods Changed the World.


Anonymous said...

Only three fruits? How did plants reproduce?

Chief Diet Coke said...

Nothing surprises me about America's so-called institutions of higher learning.

Any country that celebrates a man condemned by his own crown for "discovering" a country that gets named by another traveler (Amerigo Vespucci) who's travelings have always been debated by scholars themselves.

In America's dim-witted, half-truthed existence of continual propaganda and delusional history, should America, with respects to Columbus Day, be named Columbia?

Isn't the tomato native to the America's?

Anonymous said...

And the entire group of chiles. And pineapple. And some variety of strawberry. And of course the chokecherry.

Rob said...

"Three fruits" refers to three species of fruit, not three pieces of fruit, Anonymous.

I mentioned the tomato, Chief Diet Coke.