In 1898 Washington Matthews, the US Army physician who was one of the earliest and best recorders of ethnographic information on the Navajos, published an article in the Journal of American Folklore entitled “Ichthyophobia.” It’s an interesting piece of scholarship for a number of reasons, not least its florid Victorian prose style. Matthews begins thus:
By the term Ichthyophobia I mean, of course, fear of fish; but I do not mean that proper fear, based upon actual knowledge, which the native diver of certain tropic seas feels, who will not venture into deep water lest he be torn to pieces by sharks, nor that equally rational fear that leads us to discard tainted fish, which so often proves poisonous as an article of food. I refer to the fear which results from superstition, and which prohibits all fish as an article of food; in short, to the taboo of fish.
He soon goes on to explain the background to his interest in this issue:
In the year 1866, after I had spent about twelve months on the Upper Missouri among some of the most primitive tribes then within our borders, I came on to Chicago, and there made the acquaintance of a gentleman who had recently returned from New Mexico, having spent a year or more among the Navaho Indians. Oddly enough the gentleman’s name was Fish, although this fact, like the vernal blossoms, had nothing to do with the case, since the Indians did not fear him. In comparing notes of our experience among the Indians, he asked me, “Do the tribes of the Upper Missouri eat fish?” “Of course they do,” I said. “Is there any one in the world who will not eat a good fish if he can get it ?” “Yes,” he replied; “the Navahoes will not eat fish; they will not even touch a fish, and I have known them to refuse candies that were shaped like fish.” At the time, although I had every reason to believe that my friend was a truthful person, I was half inclined to believe that his was a “fish story” in more senses than one, or that he had made some error in observation. But that was in the days of my youthful ignorance. I knew not then the extent and nature of the customs of taboo. I did not realize that I was myself the victim of taboo practices just as unreasonable as that of the Navaho fish-haters.
Fourteen years later I found myself a neighbor of these same Navaho Indians, and one of the first subjects I proceeded to investigate was the fish taboo, of which I had learned years before. I found that my friend, Mr. Fish, had told me the truth, but had not expressed his case as strongly as he might have done. I found that the Navahoes not only tabooed fish, but all things connected with the water, including aquatic birds. Speaking of the Navaho repugnance to fish with the landlady of the Cornucopia Hotel (a slab shanty) at Fort Wingate, she related the following as a good joke on the Indian. She employed a young Navaho warrior to do chores around her kitchen. The Navaho warrior has no pride about the performance of menial labor. He will do almost anything at which he can earn money, and this one would do any work for her but clean fish. He would eat, too, almost anything in her kitchen except fish. Noticing his aversion to the finny tribe, she one day sportively emptied over his head a pan of water in which salt fish had been soaked. The Indian screamed in terror, and, running a short distance, tore in haste every shred of clothing from his body and threw it all away. She learned that he afterwards bathed and “made a lot of medicine” to purify himself of the pollution. He never returned to work for her, so this little trick cost her a good servant.
Anthropologists don’t write like this anymore, which seems like a pity to me. That aside, while Matthews certainly shows his fair share of nineteenth-century racism in what he writes here, he goes on to draw an interesting conclusion that is in some ways well ahead of his time:
Our philanthropists wonder at the reluctance of Indians to send their children to a distance to school, and think it is but foolish stubbornness. They cannot realize that, in addition to many practical and sentimental reasons, there are long-cherished religious scruples to be overcome—reasons which are the most potent of all—and, among these, not the least is that they know their children will be obliged to violate tribal taboos. The Navahoes have heard from returning pilgrims that the boy who goes to the Indian school in the East may be obliged to eat geese, ducks, and fish, or go hungry; or that, if he eats not at first of these abominations, he may be ridiculed and chided till he changes his customs.
“What foolish scruples!” we say, and yet fail to realize that we all refuse certain edible and wholesome articles as food for no good reason that we can assign. What civilized father would send his child to a distant boarding-school where he might be obliged to eat stewed puppy? Yet I have been informed by those who have tasted it that it is a very palatable dish. But we can find a better illustration of our case than this: There are many among the most cultured of our Christian communities who, for religious reasons, refrain on certain days and at certain seasons from articles of food which at other times are eaten. Such persons would not willingly send their children to places where they would be compelled to disregard these fasts. We may all understand and approve the sentiments which actuate them; yet we seem unable to extend an equal consideration to savages who are, perhaps, actuated by equally worthy motives. Often among the Navahoes children returning from eastern schools fall into feeble health. Their illness is almost always attributed to the violation of taboo while they were away from home, and costly healing ceremonies are performed in order to remove the evil effects of the transgression.
Matthews was unusual in his generation, even among anthropologists, in taking Indians seriously as people and trying to look at things from their perspective. He is best known for his extensive documentation of Navajo legends and ceremonial practices, including sandpainting designs. His success at eliciting this information was likely due in part to his status as a physician and a sense among the medicine men he talked to that he was in some sense engaged in the same trade as they were, that of healing. His respectful attitude toward his informants, evident in his discussion here of their concerns about the possible effects of boarding school on their children, likely also played a role.
Although Matthews clearly considered it important to emphasize to his audience that the Navajo taboo on eating fish is not some absurd result of “savages” being “irrational,” the main point of his article is to look into how this taboo may have arisen. He notes that the Apaches have a similar taboo, and quotes at length a then-recent article by one P. C. Bicknell, who had recently explored the mountains of east-central Arizona, inhabited by the Western Apaches, and had noticed the same taboo among them and inquired into the reasons for it. Bicknell eventually got an explanation that the Apaches had long ago, when there was not enough food for everyone in the region, made an agreement with the Mohave and Yuma tribes who lived along the Colorado River to the west. Under this agreement, the Apaches would eat no fish, while the river tribes would eat no venison, and therefore everyone would have enough to eat. Neither Bicknell nor Matthews found this explanation convincing, and Matthews uses it as another example of the parallels between Indian and Anglo-American society:
The story here related, which is wisely discredited by Mr. Bicknell, may have been coined for the occasion; but it is more likely that it has been current for some time among the Indians. White men are not the only ones who are importunate to know the why and the wherefore. The inquisitive small boy whose business in life it is to ask questions exists among the savage as well as among the civilized; and there are boys of older growth who pester their seniors for explanations. To satisfy the mind of the inquirer with something in accord with his mode of thought, with the grade of philosophy which he has reached, is the aim of the man, in all ages of the world, who would gain and retain a reputation for wisdom. Milton’s Adam explains everything to Milton’s Eve according to the philosophy of Milton’s time. Modern science has its myth-makers, no less than the wild Apache.
Matthews does however find a possible clue to the actual origin of the taboo among both Navajos and Apaches in another of the explanations given to Bicknell. One of the Apaches he asked, who apparently had very limited proficiency in English, just said “all same water.” Bicknell interpreted this to mean that fish is just as insubstantial and tasteless as water, but Matthews considers this implausible, since if the Apaches have been avoiding fish for generations they presumably don’t actually know what it tastes like. He sees this instead as an indication that it is the association of the fish with water, which is so scarce and precious in a desert land, that accounts for its avoidance. He checks in with Frank Cushing, the preeminent expert at the time on the Zunis, to see if they have a similar taboo, and receives a reply which he quotes:
The Zuñis, like the Navahoes, will not, under any circumstances, eat fish or any other water animal. The reason is this: Abiding in a desert land, where water is scarce, they regard it as especially sacred; hence all things really or apparently belonging to it, and in particular all creatures living in it, are sacred or deified. But, in the case of the fishes, they eat water, chew it, and are therefore, since they also breathe water and the currents or breaths of water, especially tabooed. The Zuñi name for the Isletas is Kyas-i-ta(w)-kwe, Fish Cannibals, because they ate fish formerly.
Matthews considers this ample confirmation of his own conclusions regarding the Navajo avoidance of fish, which seems to be a common (but not universal) trait of Southwestern groups. Furthermore, he notes that the northern Athapaskans, who speak languages quite similar to those of the Navajos and Apaches but live far to the north, in generally well-watered areas of Canada and Alaska, do not have any sort of taboo on fish consumption. To ensure that he hasn’t missed something on this topic he checks with Franz Boas, the towering figure in American anthropology who had done extensive fieldwork among the Northern Athapaskans. Boas replies:
The northern Athapascan tribes have no taboo against fish; on the contrary, they almost subsist on fish for a considerable part of the year.
Indeed, salmon in particular is hugely important to the diet of many of the Athapaskan groups in Alaska to this day. Matthews draws the reasonable conclusion from all this that the Navajos and Apaches likely acquired their fish taboos after reaching the Southwest, probably under the influence of the Pueblos, although the arid environment itself may have played a role directly as well.
Many years after Matthews’s paper, Herbert Landar presented further thoughts on the linguistic implications of all this. He notes that Navajo basically has only one word for “fish”: łóó’, a generic term referring to all fish. This echoes the situation in Hopi and Zuni, both of which only have one general “fish” term, but is quite different from the extensive inventory of terms for various fish found in northern Athapaskan languages. These languages do tend to have terms cognate to the Navajo one, and these terms usually refer either to fish in general or to salmon or whitefish specifically. They also have a wide variety of terms for other specific fish and aquatic creatures, cognates for which are apparently totally missing in the southern languages. Landar concludes from this, in keeping with Matthews’s conclusion (though rather oddly he does not cite Matthews’s article) that “a prehistoric southwestern fish taboo led to the truncation of the Apachean fish vocabulary.”
At the time Landar was writing in 1960, the Alaska Athapaskan languages were still not very well documented compared to those in Canada and the Southwest. It was not until the establishment of the Alaska Native Language Center in 1972 that extensive, systematic documentation of all these languages began. The data collected by the ANLC has greatly increased both the ease and the reliability of the kind of comparative study done by Landar, which in his case given the material he had to work with was necessarily very tentative. As far as I know no one has yet looked at this exact issue using that data, but it would be interesting to see exactly how many “fish” words each Athapaskan language has and how specific they are. Be that as it may, however, the conclusions reached by Matthews and Landar using much less information are likely to stand the test of time.
Landar, H. (1960). The Loss of Athapaskan Words for Fish in the Southwest International Journal of American Linguistics, 26 (1) DOI: 10.1086/464559
Matthews, W. (1898). Ichthyophobia The Journal of American Folklore, 11 (41) DOI: 10.2307/533215