by Megan Red Shirt-Shaw and John Little
When envisioning “traditional Native American food,” the conclusion for many, who may not understand that different communities celebrate different traditional staples, is frybread and the “Indian Taco.” Whether it’s Thomas Builds the Fire describing his mother ceremoniously making and ripping it apart to feed over “100 hungry Indians” in the film Smoke Signals, or the length of the lines at the Denver March Powwow, frybread has been seen as a common food source by Native people for community celebrations and gatherings. However, in more recent years, many Native entrepreneurs throughout the United States have worked to change the frybread narrative. These individuals have begun to develop their own food creations based on better understanding of traditional diets. They integrate these into a panoply of dishes, from honey pear gorgonzola ice cream to buffalo super nachos. This blog highlights how these individuals are expanding and changing the narrative of Indigenous food resources.
One of the most well-known food creations has been the Pine Ridge Reservation based Tanka Bar. According to their website, “Tanka products are built on our ancestors’ knowledge of the Ideal Portable Energy for endurance, top performance and healthful life. Based on traditional wasna and pemmican, we combine high-protein, prairie-fed buffalo and tart-sweet cranberries.” More than just a healthy snack, the Tanka Bar company promotes healthy lifestyles, suicide prevention, and currently has more than thirty employees on the Pine Ridge Reservation, which is typically noted for its lack of economic opportunities and low employment rates.
Sean Sherman, Oglala Lakota, is another well-known food advocate. His company and alias, The Sioux Chef, caters a variety of food resources and recently announced plans for a Minneapolis based restaurant. Their mission states, “We are committed to revitalizing Native American Cuisine and in the process we are re-identifying North American Cuisine and reclaiming an important culinary culture long buried and often inaccessible.” This collaborative consists of Dakota, Lakota, Anishinaabe, Navajo, and Northern Cheyenne and other tribal members that range from food fanatics and chefs to ethnobotanists and food preservationists. From appetizers of bison meatballs to full-on entrees of wild rice bowls, seed crusted walleye, and honey roasted sunchokes, the Sioux Chef can feed anywhere from 15 to over a 100 individuals (or those cousins who randomly show up at your door). The Sioux Chef only uses ingredients that have not been contaminated by pesticides or herbicides and are non-GMO.
One of the longer known Native eateries has been the Tocabe: An American Indian Eatery in Denver, Colorado. Tocabe was rebranded in 2008 from its previous life as Grayhorse: An American Indian Eatery, originally established in 1989. The Native owned restaurant is celebrated as, “a clean, warm, open space with connections to American Indian cultural elements, infused with a contemporary atmosphere.” Tocabe’s signature dish is an Indian Taco; however, the assembly line-style restaurant moves away from the normal ingredients of tomatoes, lettuce, cheese, sour cream, and ground beef, and allows individuals to place more nutritious and fresh ingredients on their taco such as wild rice, corn, cucumbers, and various other vegetables. The restaurant also markets multiple kinds of bread, including a gluten free version. Similar to the Sioux Chef, it also only uses ingredients that do not contain pesticides or herbicides, and are non-GMO. In addition to Indian Tacos, Tocabe is known for its slow cooked bison ribs and rotating soup options.
Last but not least is the Native owned Central District Ice Cream in Seattle, Washington. Founded in 2017 by Darren and Kristine McGill, who continue their long line of food industry power (the two have also helped found Nate’s Chicken and Waffles and an award winning food truck in Portland) in the Northwest. Central District is known for its monthly rotating,unique list of ice cream, milkshakes, ice cream bars, and popsicles. Like many of these businesses, Central District works with Native American communities to raise awareness about local issues. Most recently, Central District partnered with Louie Gong’s Eighth Generation, a Native owned and operated store in Pike’s Place Market that promotes Indigenous artists, for his one year business celebration.
These four Native owned businesses have paved the way for future Indigenous food creators, chefs, and advocates. Three of these businesses began in cities and communities that were relocation centers for Native people during the 1950s and 1960s. As a result of relocation, Indian Centers and urban powwows have served as sites for Indigenous gatherings that often center around the Indian Taco and frybread. Thus, the Indian Taco has been promoted as the traditional food of Indigenous peoples throughout the United States. It is particularly meaningful, then, that these cities now are sites for expanding notions of Indigenous food. These food advocates provide hope and while challenging the misconceptions about frybread by working to #ChangetheNarrative of Indigenous food creation, consumption, and revival under settler colonial systems.