White Earth Land Recovery Project

Article of Interest

November 23, 2005
Native Foods Nourish Again


Last week, Noland Johnson pulled the season’s final crop of tepary beans from the piece of desert he farms on the Tohono O’odham Reservation, about 120 miles southwest of Tucson.

The beans look a little like a flattened black-eyed pea. The white ones cook up creamy. The brown ones, which Mr. Johnson prefers, are best simmered like pinto beans.

As late as the 1930’s, Tohono O’odham farmers grew more than 1.5 million pounds a year and no one in the tribe had ever heard of diabetes. By the time Mr. Johnson got into the game four years ago, an elder would be lucky to find even a pound of the beans, and more than half of the adults in the tribe had the kind of diabetes attributed to poor diet.

While researchers investigate the link between traditional desert foods and diabetes prevention, Mr. Johnson grows his beans, pulling down 14,000 pounds this fall. Most will sell for about $2.50 a pound at small stores on the reservation.

Mr. Johnson, 31, began farming beans partly as a tribute to his grandfather, who died from complications related to diabetes. He always saves some beans for his grandmother, who likes to simmer the white ones with oxtail.

“I see my grandmother telling her friends, ‘Yeah, I can get some beans for you,’ ” Mr. Johnson said. “The elders, they’re so glad to see it.”

But there are other fans, too. Home cooks pay as much as $9.50 a pound for teparies online. Big-city chefs are in love with the little beans, too, turning them into cassoulet, salads or beds for braised local pork.

As American Indians try to reverse decades of physical and cultural erosion, they are turning to the food that once sustained them, and finding allies in the nation’s culinary elite and marketing experts.

One result is the start of a new sort of native culinary canon that rejects oily fry bread but embraces wild rice from Minnesota, salmon from Alaska and the Northwest, persimmons and papaws from the Southeast, corn from New York, bison from the Great Plains and dozens of squashes, beans, berries and melons.

Modern urban menus are beginning to feature three sisters soup, built from the classic Indian trilogy of beans, squash and corn. At the Mitsitam Cafe, opened last year in the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, cooks create dishes with roasted salmon, chilies and buffalo meat.

At the Cave B Inn, a resort a couple of hours’ drive east of Seattle, Fernando Divina, the chef and a co-author of “Food of the Americas: Native Recipes and Traditions,” uses fresh corn dumplings, local beans, squash and Dungeness crab to augment a sophisticated menu meant to match wines from the resort’s vineyards. Smoked whitefish chubs from Lake Superior and sassafras gelie ended up on the table at Savoy restaurant in Manhattan earlier this fall, and later this month pine-roasted venison with black currants and truffled hominy will star at a $100 indigenous foods dinner at the Equinox restaurant in Washington.

Native foods encompass hundreds of different cultures. “There’s only now becoming a more pan-Indian sense of what Native food can be,” said the author Louise Erdrich, whose mother was Ojibwa. She writes about tribal food in many of her books and is working on a cookbook with her sister, a pediatrician on the Turtle Mountain Reservation.

“You’re talking about evolving a cuisine from a people whose cuisine has been whatever we could get for a long time,” Ms. Erdrich said.

American Indian food is the only ethnic cuisine in the nation that has yet to be addressed in the culinary world, said Loretta Barrett Oden, a chef who learned to cook growing up on the Citizen Potawatomi reservation in Oklahoma.

“You can go to most any area of this country and eat Thai or Chinese or Mongolian barbecue, but you can’t eat indigenous foods native to the Americas,” said Ms. Oden, who has been traveling the nation filming segments for a 2006 PBS series titled “Seasoned With Spirit: A Native Cook’s Journey.”

One item that won’t be featured on her show is fry bread, the puffy circles of deep-fried dough that serve as a base for tacos or are eaten simply with sugar or honey and are beloved on Indian reservations. That bread is fast becoming a symbol of all that is wrong with the American Indian diet, which evolved from food that was hunted, grown or gathered to one that relied on federal government commodities, including white flour and lard – the two ingredients in fry bread.

In a small town on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, the poorest and one of the largest reservations in the country, Larry Pourier, a film producer, is working on a healthier fast food. He is developing a snack bar based on a recipe for wasna, a patty Lakota elders used to fashion from the kidney fat and meat of bison mashed with chokecherries. Over the next couple of months he will add other dried fruits, grains and alternatives to the suet to make a modern snack bar that is high in protein and low in sugar.

“I’m trying to keep it traditional, but in order for it to be successful it has to taste good,” Mr. Pourier said.

Eventually, Mr. Pourier and his colleagues at Lakota Express, the economic development company behind the bar, want to manufacture an entire line under the brand Native American Natural Foods. The idea is that products from their tribe and others might be sold in special American Indian food sections, the way kosher, Mexican or Chinese products are grouped in many mainstream grocery stores.

“There are a lot of people trying to figure how to create a Native-based food product and having a real struggle to find market access, whether it’s salmon or wild rice or teas or baked goods or corn chips, whatever,” said Mark Tilsen, who helped to found Lakota Express. “By trying to build a brand, we can provide some market access.”

American Indians and Alaska Natives make up only about 1.5 percent of the nation’s population, and those people are spread among almost 600 tribes. Even in the largest tribes, knowledge of how to forage and farm traditional food has faded.

Efforts like the White Earth Land Recovery Project, which harvests and sells rice from the lakes in northern Minnesota, are helping to keep that knowledge alive. The project, run by Winona LaDuke, is part of an effort by food activists and chefs to save traditional American Indian foods and cooking methods.

Mr. Johnson’s tepary bean farm has its roots in Native Seeds/SEARCH, a Tucson-based organization that Gary Nabhan, a professor at Northern Arizona University, founded to preserve native plants in the Southwest and northwestern Mexico.

Last year, Mr. Nabhan started RAFT, which stands for Renewing America’s Food Traditions. The coalition of seven nonprofit food, agricultural and conservation organizations has published a “red list” of 700 endangered American foods, including heritage turkeys and Louisiana Creole cream cheese.

Several dozen items are tied directly to Indian tribes, including wild rice and the tepary, said Makali Faber, who tends the list as part of her work with Slow Food USA.

During the first week of December, members of the RAFT coalition, including the culinary organizations Slow Food and the Chefs Collaborative, will gather at the annual Tohono O’odham Community Action basket makers and food summit at the Heard Museum in Phoenix to discuss how to expand the list of endangered foods and figure out ways to nurture American Indian cuisine in the Southwest.

People involved say the evolution won’t work without chefs.

“Having people at a high-end restaurant buy some of this makes it available for the rest of the community that it originally came from,” said Patty West, a forager who works at the Northern Arizona University’s Center for Sustainable Environments and is an organizer of the December food workshop.

John Sharpe, the chef at La Posada Hotel in Winslow, Ariz., devises as much of his menu as he can from local tribal foods. About four times a year, he is lucky enough to get a delivery of Navajo Churro lambs from a small, scrappy breed that was almost extinct. The animals are smaller than most commercial breeds and have very little fat. Mr. Sharpe, who has often paired chops from the lambs with tepary beans, will roast legs from four carcasses he received last week with wild local herbs, and serve them on his Thanksgiving buffet.

He also borrows from Hopi traditions, turning tepary beans, roasted corn, a little French mustard and some olive oil into a dip that echoes a traditional Hopi dish. He uses thin Hopi piki bread, made from ground blue corn and cooked like a crepe, for dipping.

“Do the Hopis like it?” asked Mr. Sharpe, who will be at the December workshop. “They kind of laugh at it, but they love it. They say, ‘This is a crazy white man who likes our food.’ “


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