Indigenous People’s Day was recognized for the first time by a U.S. President last year when Joe Biden designated the second Monday in October as the day we honor the original inhabitants of this continent. This year, the holiday fell on October 10, a day preceded by the three-day Chicago annual powwow in Schiller Woods. This is the sixty-ninth annual gathering held by Chicago’s American Indian Center, the first urban Indian center in the country.
Indigenous People’s Day was first instituted in 1992 in Berkeley. Earlier this year, in neighboring Oakland, we enjoyed a lunch in the shadow of the Fruitvale BART station at Wahpepah’s Kitchen. We started with deer sticks, skewers of charbroiled venison, served on a wooden platter with Anaheim chilies and chokecherry sauce. To drink, prickly pear limeade. With the savory gaminess of the deer, the gentle heat of the chili and the tart sweetness of the chokecherry and prickly pear, there was a lot to like about lunch.
It is virtually impossible for us to capture an entirely “authentic” rendition of native food. Many native recipes were transmitted word-of-mouth, as were native histories, and sadly with the loss of Native lives, over time we also lost the recipes. Moreover, individual culinary traditions differed significantly, conditioned by the availability of raw materials and ingredients. At the Indian Pueblo Kitchen in Albuquerque last summer, we ate foods—including Pueblo-style oven bread and tacos—that would be viewed as unusual by native cultures in other parts of North America.
Our meal at Wahpepah’s Kitchen used ingredients that would have been familiar to Native peoples in California, prepared in ways also used by many First Nation cooks, who grilled or boiled food but did not usually fry it. Eating this food started us thinking about what native life must have been like in this part of the Americas, and that’s a start to understanding a little about what was eaten by the many millions of people who inhabited this continent for tens of thousands of years before the European invasion.
Owamni, Game Changer
In June of this year, Owamni restaurant in Minneapolis was named “the best new restaurant in the United States” by the James Beard Foundation. Owamni was started by Dana Thompson and Sean Sherman, the self-described “Sioux Chef.”
Owamni has gotten attention as a “modern indigenous full-service restaurant.” Owamni’s menu foregoes ingredients that would have been introduced after 1492, including wheat flour, dairy products and cane sugar. There is, of course, no frybread on the menu.
Last year in the Tribune, Louisa Chu wrote: “Owamni… is one of the most stunning destination restaurants in the world right now… Cooks and bartenders… use only decolonized ingredients, but they employ global techniques, and to great effect. Bison tartare holds dollops of duck egg sumac aioli. Roasted sweet potatoes bathe in a crimson Indigenous chile crisp.”
In a September issue of The New Yorker, Carolyn Kormann wrote about her meal at Owamni: “a puck of duck sausage, with watercress puree and roasted turnips, ground elk, served on a pillowy corn arepa; and a maple-chili cricket-and-seed mix… The food is simultaneously pre-Colonial and modern.”
“Ironically foreign” is how Thompson describes the “decolonized” food at Owamni, and she describes it this way because although it’s the food of the land we now inhabit, it is largely unknown. Although there is a push at Owamni to source local foods that were consumed long before Columbus and conquest, accommodations to twenty-first-century dining conventions—like using silverware—are unavoidable.
The Irresistible Intrusion of the Modern
The traditional Native chef—whether Kickapoo or Comanche—would not have had access to the thousands of ingredients now available to even the home chef. Given the need to travel in search of game, and the reality that most foods are seasonal and not locally available year-round (if ever), Indigenous chefs would have been limited to using a small range of ingredients.
Cabeza de Vaca, one of history’s most peculiar conquistadores, lived among the Native peoples of the American Southwest in the early sixteenth century, acting as a kind of traveling shaman with Estevanico, the first known African to ever set foot in the Americas. In his “Chronicle of the Narvaez Expedition,” de Vaca relates that he and Estevanico spent a lot of time starving, as did many of their Indigenous captors, so when an edible plant sprouted up, they ate it thankfully. Even before the prickly pear was ripe, de Vaca, Estevanico and the Indigenous peoples they lived among started eating the green prickly pears, cooked over an open fire to soften and render them edible. Then they kept eating pretty much only the sweet-sour prickly pears, according to de Vaca, for months, as did other Indigenous groups from distant places who traveled into the area to dine upon this purple cactus fruit.
I could not help but think about de Vaca and Estevanico as I drank my Prickly Pear Limeade at Wahpepah’s Kitchen. The flavor of prickly pear is enjoyable, but as a sole food source for weeks on end, this food would quickly be tough to take… unless you were starving.
Although they are not limited to seasonal produce, one challenge faced by Native chefs at Wahpepah’s Kitchen and elsewhere is that they are committed to using “de-colonized” foods, though I believe the terms “pre-colonized” or “pre-Columbian” foods are perhaps more accurate.
American restaurant diners—whether Native or not—are going to expect more variety in their diet. At powwows we’ve attended, the primary native food you can expect to find is the Indian Taco, though even that is changing.
The Indian Taco
We’ve been attending Chicago powwows for the last twenty years. It’s never certain (at least to gringo jamokes like me) what kinds of foods will be offered at this gathering of the nations, but one food that’s certain to be there is the Indian taco or, as it’s sometimes called (particularly in the Southwest), the Navajo taco, the puffy fried bread that’s ubiquitous at Indian gatherings, topped with saucy meat, beans and cheese.
The Indian Taco has given rise to similar foods that were offered at October’s powwow. The Buffalo Burger is served on a frybread roll, and the Blanket Dog is a hotdog cooked within form-fitting frybread. On menu boards at food trucks that showed up for the event, we saw frybread-based offerings like pork chop or bratwurst on frybread, and Cherry Fry Bread Dessert. We also spotted trucks serving non-frybread-based menu items like Walking Taco, Pan Fry Walleye, and the curiously named Floyd Wayne Jr. (wild rice and berries). The expansion of menus at powwows bodes well for those who want to eat more food in the native tradition.
Frybread has become a signifier of Indigenous culture. At powwows in both Illinois and elsewhere we’ve spotted T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Frybread Nation” or “Frybread Power,” popularized by “Smoke Signals,” the 1998 movie. Ironically, though frybread is likely the most popular Native American food in the land these days, it was the product of reservation life.
In the Long Walk of 1864, Navajo people were relocated from Arizona and the Four Corners area to eastern New Mexico. They were herded into America’s first internment camps. At the camps, they were issued foods they’d never eaten before, like wheat flour, lard and oil. From the flour and lard, with a little added salt as well as water or milk, they fashioned small, flattened balls of dough that were fried and then topped with whatever was available.
The name “taco” was applied to this food, because at many powwows and other gatherings, this fried dough is dressed with typical taco ingredients, like seasoned beef, beans, tomato sauce, lettuce and cheese (some of which would have been unavailable to Native chefs in the millennia before Columbus arrived). When the Navajo were allowed to return to their homeland, they brought frybread with them. Though a reminder of subjugation and desperation, frybread is now part of Native American foodways, and while many celebrate it, others disdain it as a reminder of a tragic past.
We’ve made Indian Tacos at home. We started with a paste of milk, flour, salt and baking powder, fried up in vegetable oil. Our frybread was topped the powwow way, a la the Mexican taco. It was excellent. We served some to a food snob friend of ours who raved about it for days afterwards.
On the weekend of the Chicago Powwow, Gastro Obscura published a listing of native restaurants in the United States. On this list of twenty restaurants were Wahpepah’s Kitchen, Owamni and Indian Pueblo Kitchen, but none from the Chicago area. Though we do find Indian tacos to be delicious, we look forward to the day when powwows and a Chicago restaurant or two offer a more complete menu of pre-colonial Indigenous foods that don’t rely on frybread, however delicious it can be.
Until the day Chicago has its own, more ambitious offering of native foods, we should recognize that perhaps the most resilient indigenous food culture on this continent is Mexican. Centuries before the brigantines of Cortez assailed the island city of Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City), the Indigenous people—Aztec and others—ate tacos, tamales and turkey. When you cut into the big bird on Thanksgiving, you might consider giving thanks to those peoples who first dined upon wild turkey centuries ago, and whose traditional foodways we’re just beginning to appreciate.
In this piece we have followed conventions, such as capitalizing words like Native (when referring to people) and Native American but not, for instance, objects like native foods. This is in line with guidance provided by How to Talk about Native Nations: A Guide, published by the Native Governance Center.
Dining and Drinking Editor for Newcity, David also writes a weekly food column for Wednesday Journal in Oak Park and is a frequent contributor of food/drink and travel pieces to the Chicago Tribune, Plate Magazine and other publications. David has also contributed chapters to several books, including Street Food Around the World, Street Food, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org