Recently, I have been met with some inquiries concerning the consumption of beaver tail among the Native American Peoples of the northeast. One such person stated that they had been told by a reenactor that Native Peoples didn’t favor beaver tail, and that the idea of beaver tail consumption is mostly myth; the reenactor confirmed this by adding that he himself has had beaver tail and it was awful tasting… stating such as if the Native People would have “obviously” come to the same conclusion. Such a bias conclusion relegates beaver tail to “survival food only” without any real evidence. This isn’t the first time beaver tail (as a favored cut of meat) has been questioned openly in the living history community – for a while those reenacting 19th century western fur trappers have also questioned whether beaver tail was really favored among traders and Native peoples alike, or if this was some sort of historical “joke” (for more on that topic, visit http://www.mman.us/MythBeaverTail.htm ).
Being known for conducting demonstrations on historic Native food-ways, I wanted to take this opportunity to address what seems to be this growing trend to question the tail as a beloved cut of beaver meat. Concerning the aboriginal cultures of the northeast, I can earnestly say that the Native Peoples seemed to enjoy the consumption of the fatty beaver tail based on the historical accounts and their food-ways patterns, no matter how “disgusting” some might perceive beaver tail today. There are people who enjoy gristle and fat, past and present. On an individual level, some foods of our own melding mainstream American society bring about decisively positive or negative reactions from different persons (such as oysters, hot sauce, sushi, olives, goat cheese, crawfish, pickled eggs, sweetbreads and rocky mountain oysters, etc.). I can’t assume my neighbor’s favorite foods would be the same as mine. What is sour to some is delectable to others, and not just on a personal scale, but on a social scale, which is a far more important factor when examining the reasoning of historic Native tastes. It has to do with cultural cuisines.
There exists cultural cuisines that favor bugs, eyeballs, intestines, and fermented meat and fish (to name a few examples), and yet these foods favored by many repulses most mainstream Americans. All humans’ tastes are culturally dictated to a great point, and those who grew up within a certain cuisine tend to relish those flavors, no matter how “awful” the next culture has labeled these tastes. And I realize it wasn’t just the historic Native People recorded as eating such delightfully, as Anglo captives and traders also spoke to the good taste of the beaver tail; however, we must keep in mind that many Euro-American diets included fatty animal cuts, intestines and other organs, and pickled foods – their tastes were created by their unique cultural cuisine, which in most cases, is quite different from modern mainstream American tastes.
The following includes two historical accounts of beaver tail consumption (neither one point to “being reduced” to eat the meat for survival reasons), as well as a mention of eating beaver tail in the Great Law of the Iroquois:
“Beaver tails with the skin flayed off and broiled proves exceeding good meat, being all fat, and as sweet as marrow.” – Josselyn (1672) “Colonial Traveler and New England Rarities”
“…My oldest Indian brother, returned with a she beaver,… and threw it into the kettle, together with the guts, and took the four young beavers, whole as they came out of the dam and put them likewise into the kettle and when it was all well boiled, gave each one of us a large dish full of the broth, of which we eat freely…and then part of the old beaver, the tail of which was divided equally among us; the four young beavers were cut in the middle, and each of us got half a beaver…” -Robert Eastburn (1758) A Faithful Narrative of the Many Dangers and Sufferings, as Well as Wonderful Deliverances of Robert Eastburn, During His Late Captivity Among the Indians”
“The Lords of the Confederacy shall eat together from one bowl the feast of cooked beaver’s tail.” -Arthur C. Parker “The Constitution of the Five Nations”