Where Can You Get Native American Food?
On a recent trip home to Seattle, I did a sheepish internet search for a place to buy traditional Pacific Northwest Native American food that I could bring back to San Francisco and share with my classmates. We’d been assigned an article in my Food Justice graduate class that featured an anecdote about an uniformed, (white) vegan sustainable food activist in Washington State who could not name any local Native American tribes. I wanted to feel indignation right along with the author, but while I can justify my own ignorance with the fact that I do not work with agriculture in the state—I’m afraid that I am her. I’m a white woman who lived the first 18 years of my life in Seattle, I’m interested in (and studying) food and sustainability...and yet I don’t know if I can name more than a couple of Pacific Northwest tribes off of the top of my head, either. Not to mention MOST of the cities I’ve lived in over the years (Seattle, Chicago, Jersey City, Hoboken, New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles).
And so I searched, half wondering if I would find something, mostly sure that I wouldn't, and a bit uncomfortable with whether I should be looking in the first place. Besides smoked salmon (widely commercialized in Seattle already), or some sort of white-appropriated, commercialized pemmican, were there any purchasable northwest indigenous foods? I had just started my search when I stumbled on a Yelp post by Kevin W. from Bellevue, Washington who had posed a similar question:
“Are there only two places in Seattle where you can get Native American food?”
He goes on: "I'm guessing it's pretty easy to find on Indian reservations. But in urban areas like Seattle, are there not many restaurants where you can sit down and be served Native American food? It's strange because you can get just about any kind of food in America. The only food that's scarce is the real real [sic] American food. I hardly know anything about it because it's unfortunately so underrepresented, but what's unique to their cuisine beside frybread?"
Well, at least I could tell Kevin, "there are probably a lot of reasons you can’t sit down in a restaurant and be served 'real real American food.'” Reasons like racism and oppression that negatively impacts access to capital for natively-owned businesses and restaurants, the historical suppression of native culture and traditions, the forced removal of Native Americans from their ancestral lands (which equates to a lack of access to traditional food and resources), etc. But with some respect to Kevin, I wouldn’t have found his original question if I hadn’t been poking around the internet armed with a similar question myself. So I wanted to begin to educate myself a little more about the current state of (particularly Northern) Native American cuisine, and how it has been, and is being defined today.
So, Kevin—here we go.
A multiplicity of nations means there's no monolithic cuisine
According to the National Congress of American Indians, there are 562 federally recognized Indian nations in the U.S.—in Washington State alone there are 29. A variety of ingredients, methods of preparing foods, as well as a variance in the procurement of food—cultivated crops, say, versus wild foraged and hunted foods—between tribes means that there is no, one “Native American cuisine.” So really, there are lots of things that makes each Native American cuisine unique. And while frybread is made by many indigenous communities across the United States, it has a fraught history. Frybread was essentially a forced innovation by indigenous peoples removed from their native lands (and thus food resources) and limited to federal rations of flour, salt, and lard. Some native peoples reject frybread as a part of their cultural heritage at all.
Native cuisine can be more than just “food"
The Westernized definition of "food" is a specific and narrow one. Many Native American tribes define food as including more than simply ingredients and preparation methods, but also intangibles like spirituality and community. In an interview given to the Burke Museum for an exhibit on the Salish peoples of Washington State, Warren King George of the Muckleshoot/Upper Skagit Indian Tribes said that native cooks, when they prepare food, “invoke good feelings…[and] that ingredient of heartfelt emotion, transfers into the food. So when the recipient ingests a dish, they’ve also taken in the goodness that they offered, much like a prayer or a blessing…and that ingredient you can’t get in a frozen dish or a convenience store.”
A community-defined definition of cuisine should be respected
Some native chefs have been tackling their own versions of native cuisine. One of them, Sean Sherman (Oglala Lakota), know as the “Sioux Chef” now rejects the label of “chef” as a French-Euro term he does not identify with. His food, and the food of chef Loretta Barrett Oden (Potawatomi) are identifiable as “pre-contact” cuisine that use limited modern ingredients and cooking methods.
Others like Ben Jacobs (Osage Nation)—founder of Tocabe, a fast-casual Native American restaurant in Denver, CO—are innovating with recipes based off of what he calls “relocation era” food, a period during the mid-1900s when Native Americans were forced off of their reservations and into urban areas. Jacobs was insistent that it was of utmost importance that “native culture and cuisine [be]...portrayed by the communities themselves.” He was also emphatic about Native American food not being a trend: "It annoys me when we treat foods like the next hip thing. That food, there’s a people behind it.”
So Kevin, maybe the easiest way for you and me to, as you put it, "pay respect to the wonderful people who inhabited this land first" is not as easy as finding a place where you can "be served" Native American cuisine, but to try to understand why the finding is difficult. And instead of picking up the phone and requesting a table, we may have to take the harder path of finding an invitation to one. In Warren King George's words, "to the people who wish to understand who native people are, the best way I would recommend for them would be to sit down with them and have a meal. Go to their house and have a meal.”