food Native American Culinary Traditions Come Full Circle
Identifying Native American cuisines can be confusing from the start. So many of the traditions are based on the regions where tribes and nations existed before the U.S. government pushed them onto reservations and handed them rations of white flour, lard and sugar to substitute for the grains and game meat that had comprised their diets for generations. But chefs like Nephi Craig, Sean Sherman and Lois Ellen Frank have immersed themselves in pre-reservation Native American traditions, and are reviving the culinary landscapes of Native American microregions around the country.
Seeds of Change
“The biggest misconception about Native American cuisine is that it doesn’t exist,” says Craig, of Summit at Sunrise Park Resort in Greer, Ariz. The chef/co-founder of the Native American Culinary Association began cooking in five-star French restaurants, but then embraced his Apache and Navajo roots.
“To the public, Native American people are set in a time frame,” says Craig. “If you Google ‘Native America,’ you’ll get a black-and-white photo of someone on the Great Plains. The American mindset is that they’re stuck in the 1800s. They forget we’re right here.” Craig serves Native American-inspired dishes surrounded by Ponderosa pines in the Apache White Mountains of eastern Arizona. “We’re lucky that our landscape is diverse and calorie-rich. We’re surrounded by desert, but there’s a range of indigenous foods,” says Craig, who cultivates some ingredients, but also relies on the community. “Lots of elders forage and gather wild ingredients like acorns, tea, onions and spinach.”
Elders and botanists also inspired him to cook with pre-reservation ancestral seed mixes, which he uses in his Western Apache edible landscape salad. The circular mélange (symbolic of the clockwise movement of the universe) consists of his Western Apache seed mix, local wild fruits and vegetables and herbs like wild meadow rue, a peppery, high-elevation plant. “It’s a critical piece of our identity and speaks to resiliency as we continue to forge toward solutions in health in native Apache communities,” says Craig of the toasted seed mix, which would traditionally have a range of edible seeds, such as wild grass seeds, wild acorns, wild currants, wild piñons and Apache corn. He turns the seeds into a fritter with butternut squash. “When the mix is paired with squash, it speaks to ancestral health,” Craig says. “Bleached white flour has caused obesity across Indian country. This is our take on being creative with ingredients and making them relevant today.”
Back to Health
Chef/author/educator Sean Sherman is bringing relevance to other pre-reservation traditions—those rooted in the Lakota, Dakota and Ojibwe tribes of Minnesota. His forthcoming restaurant, The Sioux Chef, will serve modern and traditional Dakota and Ojibwe foods in Minneapolis. “I’ve been removing European [ingredients] and using the food systems in this region from the ground up,” he says. “That means no dairy, no flour, no processed foods, no sugar, and keeping things as indigenous as possible.” He’ll source ingredients locally, like chokecherries, which he ate as a kid in South Dakota. “They bring back memories of growing up on the Pine Ridge reservation,” says Sherman, who sometimes uses the berry in his thick wojapi soup. Today, he tops the maple syrup-sweetened soup with duck, sunchokes and dandelions, but he remembers eating it with fry bread, something he won’t have on his menu.
“Anyone dealing with native food will come across fry bread,” Sherman says. “It’s ingrained in our culture, but has a negative connotation. It came around over hard times.” The bread was a product of necessity, made with the flour, sugar, salt and lard the government sanctioned to all Indian nations in 1864.
Sherman grew up with it, but believes it misrepresents his people’s food. “How Native Americans [used to eat] hit very low on the glycemic index,” he says. “But fry bread caused all sorts of problems; Type 2 diabetes is off the charts in native communities. It’s important to stay away from the sugar, flour and carb-heavy European foods brought to the communities. It’s better to introduce more vegetables and game. This is the healthiest food on the planet.”
His menu will feature venison, buffalo, lake fish, and rabbit stew with fiddlehead ferns. “The food isn’t exotic; it’s the flavors of Minnesota,” he says. “Native food is so varied across the states.”
The three ingredients considered staples across Native American microregions are winter squash, corn and tepary beans, known as the “three sisters.” Iroquois legend says the three crops need each other to survive. “They’re sustainable in the way they grow,” says Lois Ellen Frank of Red Mesa Cuisine in Santa Fe, N.M. “The beans give nitrogen to the corn. The corn is a tall stalk, [and] the beans need a pole to grow. And the squash have leaves to shade the soil and keep it moist. Together, they form every amino acid known to sustain human life,” she says. Frank, whose mother is from the Kiowa tribe of Oklahoma, makes a three sisters sauté, a corn, bean and squash salad, and she uses the tepary beans in a hearty Indian bean terrine. “It’s like a hummus that has set,” she says of the terrine. She sources the protein-rich, drought-tolerant bean from the Tohono O’odham Nation of southwestern and central Arizona. The bean is rich in nutrients and low in fat, two things important to the author, chef and native food historian, who studies the medicinal and spiritual properties of native foods and teaches Santa Fe pueblo communities about healthy eating. “We’re teaching a plant-based curriculum to lower weight and regulate blood sugar,” Frank says. “We’re changing lives by changing diets.”
Down in Tampa, a version of the three sisters is served at Ulele, a restaurant with nods to the Tocobaga Indians who lived in the area. “They were fisherman Indians,” says Eric Lackey. “Hirrihigua was the chief and his daughter was Ulele. This was pre- Pocahontas by 60 years.” Lackey makes a popular three sisters salad with squash, zucchini, corn, peppers and cranberry beans, with an apple cider-honey vinaigrette. “We use these ingredients a lot,” says Lackey. “It’s what was here in Florida. Our ancestors hunted what they needed and used what they had.”
Those ancestors Lackey references include other southeastern tribes like the Seminole, Choctaw and Cherokee, who hunted venison, alligator, duck and the wild boar featured in Lackey’s hearty boar chili. “Those were staples,” says Lackey, who adds cranberry beans, beer and spices to the one-pot stew.
While Red Mesa Cuisine’s Frank has cut back on the meat she serves, she acknowledges that game is an integral part of Native American cuisine, but only if it’s sustainable and humanely raised. “The native approach is very non-Western; we always manage the circle of life. If there isn’t enough deer or elk or rabbit, you wouldn’t serve it. There’s no commercial farming, it’s about sustainable systems,” she says. Her baked, stuffed quail with black walnut stuffing and sumac sauce is a good example. “Quail has been used for thousands of years; it was very sacred,” says Frank. She uses wild sumac, or lemonade berries (pink peppercorns and lemon juice also work well as a substitute), that grow throughout the Southwest. “We take the sumac and grind it into a powder and reduce it,” she says of the sauce balanced out by indigenous black walnuts. It defines the sustainable, sense-of-place dish that embodies Native American cuisine.
“The new Native American cuisine is using ancestral foods to lead the way, like going back to the future,” Frank says. “You have to go back to go forward.”