Report Back on Native American Cuisine Class

Last night we had the amazing opportunity to attend an event at the Intertribal Friendship House in Oakland. The event was sponsored by The Cultural Conservancy and organized by our colleague, Melissa Nelson (Turtle Mountain Chippewa). We were honored and humbled to be part of this evening of deep cultural sharing and knowledge. We thought we’d share a brief “report back” on the event for those who couldn’t attend.

We heard from two native chefs, Lois Ellen Frank, PhD (Kiowa) and Walter Whitewater (Diné [Navajo]).

Chefs Walter Whitewater and  Lois Ellen Frank

Chefs Walter Whitewater and Lois Ellen Frank

The two chefs prepared a meal for the participants, with Dr. Frank giving a cooking demo and talk.

Here’s some of what is in our notes:

TEK: Traditional Ecological Knowledge. This is specific to our tribes and locations, but we all have it, can share it, can learn it from one another.

Lois Ellen Frank spoke of the trade that native peoples had before colonization: those who hunted bison traded with those who farmed corn. Native folks did not only eat their local foods, but participated in trade across the Americas, for thousands of years before the coming of the Europeans.  She described the discovery that Chaco Canyon functioned as one of many important sites of trade…. she said they even found quinoa residues in some pots in Chaco Canyon, which would means that trade networks went all the way to Andean civilizations! Also found were quetzal feathers, chocolate, and abalone.

Dr. Frank took up the term “decolonizing our diets” and explained what that means to her. She made a really good point that decolonization is not necessarily about getting rid of everything that colonizers brought because some of those things have become part of contemporary native cultures and identities, and that people have found was to incorporate these items in ways that are deeply life-affirming. She gave the example of sheep for the Navajo. She said that trying to take the sheep away from the Navajo would “make them cry.” She did say that decolonization was about being mindful about what aspects of European foods and food practices we should incorporate. And, she spoke eloquently against white foods (white four, white sugar, etc.) and encouraged us to remember “brown is beautiful” when we shop. She advocated a plant-based diet, with an emphasis on “eating the rainbow.”  She highlighted the beauty of all the plants that are native to the Americas: beans, corn, squash, chiles, purslane (a.k.a. Indian lettuce or verdolagas, more omega-3s than salmon!), wild herbs, wild onions, wild garlic, and more.

Dr. Frank pointed out that the real problem (in terms of food) came not so much with the initial contact and incorporation of some European plants and livestock, but rather when native communities were dislocated from their traditional food supplies and forced to subsist on US government rations. This change, as we all know, has had disastrous impact on the health of native folks and our communities. For her, the goal is to reclaim the ancestral practices and knowledge from before the period of rations.

Dr. Frank told a funny story about the way that “chile peppers” were named. The real word is chile (from the nahuatl word chilli) but Columbus was supposed to be finding a source for pepper. So he told the queen he had found a new kind of “pepper”: the chile. Of course our chiles, which grow on a bush and are perennials, have nothing to do with pepper(corns) which grows on a tree. But Columbus’s lie took and our glorious chiles are now known as chile peppers. She pointed out that, like salt, chile has played an important role in preserving meat, protecting it from bacteria during the drying process.  Eating chile releases endorphins (like exercise, or eating chocolate).

We really appreciated how mindful she was about the need to eat well, even on a small budget. She had some concrete suggestions, such as buying fresh herbs and then drying the leftovers for use later. Or waiting for berries to go on sale, and then stocking up. She emphasized the importance of learning how to read food labels, to pay attention to serving size, to be aware that “natural” on the label doesn’t mean “no sugar added.”

This was the menu:

Stew Course

Hominy Corn Harvest Stew with summer squash (picked just the day before) and hominy made from white, blue, and red corn, seasoned with azafrán (Native American saffron).

Salad Course

Baby Salad Greens with spicy chile pecans, cherry tomatoes, garden carrots, and fresh cucumbers in a fresh lemon and herb salad dressing (lovage, pineapple sage, mint, chives).

Main Course

Wild Caught Native Salmon with a fresh berry reduction and served with roasted beets, roasted potatoes, and wild purslane greens

Dessert Course

Baked Berry Crisp made from fresh blackberries, raspberries & strawberries served with Native harvested chokecherry syrup and homemade canela whipped cream

Copies of THE POWER TO HEAL DIABETES: FOOD FOR LIFE IN INDIAN COUNTRY were distributed (book and dvd). You can view the videos at   The booklet features recipes by Chef Lois Ellen Frank including Hominy Corn Harvest Stew and Indian No-Fry Bread.

We’ll post a few recipes on the Facebook page in the next few days.

Lois Ellen Frank is the author of Foods of the Southwest Indian Nations (Ten Speed Press).