Eating and Fasting among the Osage

Introduction. In the decade of 1820 to 1830, the missionary effort of the recently restored Society of Jesus was concentrated with particular intensity in some areas of the United States of America, Saint Louis being a primary center for reference. I write “recently restored” because between 1773 and 1821 the order lived in almost every corner of the world the parenthesis of suppression. One of the so-called Indian tribes in the midst of which the Jesuits were soon active was that of the Osage, who lived their lives and celebrated their rites in a vast territory in the valleys of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. End of introduction.

Among the first pastoral urgencies of the zealous missionaries was certainly that of changing the customs of life of the Osages, trying to bring them closer to the claimed superiority of Christian culture. For example:

“At rise of the day star, the Osage, and most all other Ind[ians] set up in their couch, and sing their morning prayers and next lay down again, but the women go to work, and prepair (sic) the breakfast to have it ready for sunrise. Next steps out, and smels (sic) from which way the smok (sic) of coffee is coming and… next he smokes – plays – goes out visiting or hunting – attend to his horses. No mercy for the squaws – they have to do all the druggers [drudgeries] of the house and carry wood and water … Meanwhile the men laugh at them … They say they wake do penance for having eaten the forbidden fruit.”

Like myself, there is an Italian writing in English. Of course, it is difficult to think that this description is completely credible, but at least it reveals that the male Osage had well understood what the missionaries wanted to hear. Even the meaning of “coffee” raises some questions, but let us move on.

And more: “They have no regular times for meals but eat whenever hungry. They lay down 15 on 80 meters in a circle around a big dish in which they have a gute [cut] of meat. Then they pass around a big spoon made of a bufalo (sic) horn, and each one helps himself from the main dish in which ther (sic) is meat, roots, vegetables, whatever is eatable. ”

For these lost souls, eaters of meat and ‘forbidden fruits,’ a catechism was needed, and in their own language. It was among others and in the following years that an Italian Jesuit, Paolo Ponziglione (1819-1900), who took care of  this issue by contributing with some of his confreres to put together a book in English and in Osage. This manuscript book was a very hard challenge, as explained by the date recorded on the title page: 1847-1887.

The part on fasting is in chapter XI, entitled “On the Commandments of the Church.”

“II. Of God’s Church the Commandments this is the second.

The 40 days (Lent) and days on which ashes are put on (Fasting days) and the day eve of a feast, on such days but once eat you shall, (shall take only one full meal). Also of the cross on the day (Friday) and on other forbidden days meat you shult (sic) not eat.

  1. The Church commands us to fast, for this reason she does so, that to God we may satisfy for our sins.
  2. If one cannot fast, the Church does not oblige to fast.”

Well, this second point immediately attracted my attention – I could even venture to say that I was getting excited. There are hundreds of pages of treatises in which this simple line (“If one cannot fast”) is examined in every possible (or probable) interpretation to clarify when one really “cannot fast”. I have also read some of these and wrote a detailed article . The answers are as numerous as the white men who arrived overseas and the disputes over the exceptions were inventive, severe and sometimes violent. There were huge disagreements; we cannot count the sinners as well as the dispensers.

Yet, for a missionary in the Mississippi valley of life, let us write it down, messed up by a thousand questions, which of fasting does not arise. If one cannot fast, one cannot – end of story. That is what they say:

Wanumble itzaletze winckie lutzackieta ouwacontzeaca hupacki pashielao.

We could add… What the hell!


Thanks so much to Taiga Gutierres for revising my English. This reconstruction, transcription in Osage language included, comes from the study of some documents consulted at the Saint Louis Jesuit Archives and Research Center. On the history of this mission: John Mack, Osage Mission: The Story of a Catholic Missionary Work in Southeast Kansas, in “The Catholic Historical Review”, Vol. 96, No. 2 (April, 2010), pp. 262-281.