Native American chefs and food producers are taking the U.S. dining scene back to its true roots.
To find the real origin of the words local and sustainable, we should dig deeper into the native culture of the Americas—an ancestral heritage that includes the foods that are truly indigenous to our country. Native American cuisine focuses on the “pre-contact” or “pre-colonization” foods that naturally existed in this country before Spanish and other immigrants introduced new crops and other goods, which in some areas changed the agricultural landscapes and natural ecosystems dramatically.
“We have the ‘magic eight’ indigenous ingredients coming from the Americas that were very important in the Old World and that impacted other cuisines: corn, beans, squash, chili, tomato, potato, vanilla, and cacao,” says Lois Ellen Frank, a chef, caterer, cookbook author, college professor, certified diabetes educator, and cultural diplomat for the U.S. She holds a Ph.D. in culinary anthropology and regularly speaks and writes about Native American culture and food. “In 1491, none of those ingredients existed anywhere outside the Americas,” she notes.
Although cacao was an indigenous ingredient, “It was the French who made it into lovely decadence, but it came from Native Americans,” Frank says. And vanilla, a highly prized item, originated in Vera Cruz, Mexico.
Naturally, because of the expanse of our country, indigenous foods vary wildly by region. Frank explains how academics break up the indigenous food regions into different nations, starting with the Acorn Nation in what is now California; the Salmon Nation in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest; the Piñon Nut (or pine nut) Nation spanning Nevada, Idaho, Colorado, and other parts of the Southwest; the Chili Pepper Nation in parts of California, New Mexico, and Arizona; the Buffalo Nation in the middle of the country, including Texas; the Cornbread Nation in the Mid- and Southwest; the Gumbo Nation along the Gulf Coast; the Wild Rice Nation in Minnesota and Michigan; the Maple Syrup Nation in the upper Eastern states; and the Clambake Nation along the Northeastern coast.
“You can’t say what is a typical Native American dish because there is too much variety in culture and terroir across tribes and nations,” says Chef Sean Sherman, a South Dakota native and Oglala Lakota tribe member. Known as the Sioux Chef, he has become a successful caterer, food truck operator, and educator in the Minneapolis area. He is focused on teaching the culinary curious about “pre-reservation” indigenous foods.
Traditional Ecological Knowledge
Native American cuisine should not be assumed to be local, necessarily; tribes did travel and build extensive trading networks to supplement their diets with new and exciting foods from different regions, says Frank. Call it indigenous or ancestral, or better yet, sustainable in the truest sense of the word.
Frank, who has ties to the Kiowa Nation on her mother’s side and now lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, explains that Native American food culture and preservation revolves around what academics refer to as Traditional Ecological Knowledge, or TEK, a cumulative body of knowledge, beliefs, and practice about working with the foods of your region and being good stewards of the land. TEK is handed down through the generations orally, through songs and stories.
This collective knowledge of “place-based foods” also includes lessons and techniques in gathering, harvesting, and growing indigenous foods to maintain abundance for years to come. “When we talk about ethics and values of TEK, the idea is to never take more than you need so there is enough for the animals and so that different species can regenerate,” Frank says.
In other words: You trim the forest where you forage to keep it healthy, but you don’t chop down every tree. You capture some of the fish, but not all of them. You use some of the water from the river to irrigate crops, but you don’t drain it. TEK, however, is even more sophisticated and scientific than that, with many lessons based on the lunar phases.
The concept of TEK is also a reason why it was especially traumatic for different tribes when they were relocated or pushed out of their natural regions during colonization. The displacement forced tribes to learn the TEK of a new region, sometimes hundreds of miles away. This meant relearning which plants were edible; how to hunt for buffalo and other wild game like elk, deer, and smaller animals like muskrats; and other teachings. Frank’s native Kiowa tribe, for example, originated in what is now Yellowstone, but they were allotted land in what is now Oklahoma and had to learn the TEK from elders to survive in the new region, she says.
Indigenous foods also have health properties that naturally epitomize the trending preferences for gluten-free dishes, clean foods, and even Paleo diets. “Nothing was processed back then, and the glycemic index is so low for these foods that there was no such thing as tooth decay, diabetes, and heart disease,” Chef Sherman says. “Many of today’s Native American health problems are directly related to changes in diet.”
Flour, oil, and lard were introduced only after colonization—and they became rations that morphed into the modern staple fry bread, explains Chef Ray Naranjo of El Monte Sagrado Living Resort and Spa in Taos, New Mexico. Chef Naranjo actually took part in a pre-contact diet called the Pueblo Food Experience created by Flowering Tree Permaculture Institute, an indigenous non-profit group. “I saw immediate improvements to my health and had so much more energy,” he says.
New Native Cuisine
Nowadays, chefs like Naranjo, Frank, Sherman, and others are reinventing indigenous cuisine—or new native cuisine as some call it—by combining modern techniques with these ancestral ingredients, which they can source by working with heirloom and native farmers, seed savers, food preservationists, licensed foragers, and even tribe members who sell goods at farmers’ markets.
“I try to keep things simple, but also unique, to showcase the different flavors all around us and to identify a region and the indigenous people who lived in that area,” Chef Sherman says.
The Pueblo (Tewa) tribe, for example, was localized in the Southwest because it was an agriculture-based culture—versus having the more nomadic lifestyles of other tribes, says Naranjo. The Pueblans continue to grow beans, squash, corn, chilies, and other native crops.
At Los Poblanos Historic Inn and Organic Farm outside Albuquerque, New Mexico, Chef Jonathon Perno honors a classic Native American growing technique, three sisters, by following an Iroquois legend that suggests beans, corn, and squash are inseparable sister crops that thrive when grown together. He has been experimenting with different heirloom shelling beans sourced from local seed savers and working with Native American farmers to include the nutritious and flavor-rich tepary bean. The latter is small in size, like an adzuki bean, has extra protein, and requires longer cook times. “Corn is hard on the soil, so growing it with the beans introduces nitrogen into the soil, and the squash vines act like natural ground cover to maintain moisture,” Chef Perno explains.
Chef Naranjo, who has roots in the Pueblo tribe as well as in the Michigan-based Odawa tribe, pays homage to indigenous foods with dishes like piñon-crusted, wild-caught Alaskan salmon, served with a polenta or sometimes a pudding made from blue corn straight from the desert sand in honor of the traditional native dish atole, a blue corn porridge. His fried wild rabbit and waffles, made with a mixture of blue corn and other native grains, comes garnished with Michigan maple syrup of the Odawa region.
Odawa tribe members and others in the upper Midwest did a lot more foraging than the Pueblos, explains Chef Naranjo, adding, “They were harvesting mushrooms, cranberries, and other edibles from the forests, and they fished in the Great Lakes.” As for his own craft, he has made vinaigrettes and teas out of wild sweet grass, or even burned it like in traditional times to create a smoky peppering spice for various dishes.
Chef Sherman, in representing his native Oglala Lakota tribe from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, showcases the wild plants of the Black Hills and prairies, including timsula, a wild turnip and staple of the region.
A Minnesotan since the late ‘90s, his fare also speaks to the local Ojibwe tribe—a farming and foraging culture—with a foraged cedar bough, juniper, and maple syrup tea, and homemade granola bars made with foraged seeds, grains, and dried berries, which he serves out of a food truck.
For pop-up dinners, he’s used that tea to braise bison. Additionally, he sources fresh walleye from a tribe in Minnesota for a dish with sunchokes and an aromatic, tart sauce made with wild blueberries, cedar, and rose hips—all of which can be found “just by walking around in a half-mile radius.”
Drying, and also cooking over live fire or on hot stones, were typical techniques employed by Native Americans over 300 years ago, when there was no electricity or refrigeration.
Chef Jeff Bolton of Kachina Southwestern Grill in Westminster, Colorado, respects these age-old techniques by breaking down, hanging, drying, and smoking Colorado-sourced bison for center-of-the-plate steak dishes, burgers, and jerky. “We show as much respect for the animal as we can by using every piece—making stock out of the bones for braised short ribs and even using the skulls as art décor,” Chef Bolton says. He also uses that characteristically red and soft New Mexican clay to cook whole trout—rolling out the clay like pie dough, using it to wrap the trout, along with lemon, epazote, and seasonings, and then baking it in the oven until hardened. The clay is cracked tableside and peeled away to reveal the tender steamed fish.
For his part, Chef Naranjo wouldn’t be surprised if chefs around the country begin to show more interest in Native American cuisines and indigenous foods. “It’s about preserving culture and giving thanks to the ingredients and animals, and holding them in high regard because they sustained us for so many years,” he explains.
Chef Sherman agrees: “If we did see more Native American restaurants around the country, they would showcase the true diversity of our ecosystems and food systems.”