Indigenous Cuisine: Native Americans Go Back to Their Roots

When people think of Native American cooking, inevitably the first thing that comes to mind is fry bread. This dish was created in the 19th century out of desperation during the long walk, and for many Native Americans represents oppression and cultural devastation.

In reality, indigenous cooking is very diverse and hard to define in just one or two dishes. A recent National Geographic article about the indigenous food movement states, "each tribe—of which there are now 566 recognized [tribes] in the United States—has its own distinct culinary tradition, driven by distinctive locally available resources." 

Chef Sean Sherman (Oglala Lakota), founder of the company The Sioux Chef, sums of the difficulty in re-creating indigenous dishes. “There’s no Joy of Native American Cooking cookbook." Sherman and Sioux Chef co-owner, Dana Thompson ( Wahpeton-Sisseton and Mdewakanton Dakota) will speak at The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen, an event offered three times around the city during Native American Heritage Month.  

Sherman dispels outdated notions of Native American fare—no fry bread or Indian tacos here—and no European staples either. Contemporary, healthful and authentic, his dishes feature cedar-braised bison, griddled wild rice cakes, deviled duck eggs, roasted corn sorbet, and hazelnut-maple bites. The Sioux Chef's Indigenous Kitchen is a rich education and a delectable introduction to modern indigenous cuisine of the Dakota and Minnesota territories, with a vision and approach to food that travels well beyond those borders.

Scientist Robin Wall Kimmerer, a member of the Potawatomi nation, combines the scientific and the cultural in Braiding Sweetgrass. She shares personal memories, such as making maple syrup, history and science in this book of essays exploring how to heal the rift between people and nature. 

Local foods have garnered much attention in recent years, but the concept is hardly new: Indigenous peoples have always made the most of nature's gifts. Their menus were truly the Original Local, celebrated in this book with 60 home-tested recipes paired with profiles of tribal activists, food researchers, families and chefs. A chapter on wild rice makes clear the crucial role manoomin plays in cultural and economic survival. A look at freshwater fish is concerned with shifts in climate and threats to water purity as it reveals the deep relationship between Ojibwe people and indigenous fish species.

Dolly Watts and her daughter Annie, from the Gitk'san First Nation in British Columbia, are the proprietors of the Liliget Feast House in Vancouver. For almost two decades, at the only First Nations fine dining establishment of its kind, Dolly and (later) Annie have focused on serving Native cuisine that is both traditional and modern. While many recipes in Where People Feast are steeped in history, others are contemporary takes that acknowledge other cuisines both near and far.