My New Year’s resolution: No more fat ‘Indian’ food
Suzan Shown Harjo
Target number one: the ubiquitous frybread – the junk food that’s supposed
to be traditional, but isn’t, and makes for fat, fatter and fattest
Frybread is bad for you? Well, let’s see. It’s made with white flour, salt,
sugar and lard. The bonus ingredient is dried cow’s milk for the large
population of Native people who are both glucose and lactose intolerant.
Usually the size of a tortilla, frybread is an inch thick with a weight
approaching a lead Frisbee. It’s fried in grease that collects in the
dimples of the bread, adding that extra five teaspoons of fat to the lining
of the diner’s arteries.
If frybread is not eaten at once, it turns into something with the
consistency and taste of a deflated football. To make the recipe totally
irresistible, it’s topped off with margarine, jelly or some other plastic
not found in nature.
Frybread was a gift of Western civilization from the days when Native
people were removed from buffalo, elk, deer, salmon, turkey, corn, beans,
squash, acorns, fruit, wild rice and other real food.
Frybread is emblematic of the long trails from home and freedom to
confinement and rations. It’s the connecting dot between healthy children
and obesity, hypertension, diabetes, dialysis, blindness, amputations and
If frybread were a movie, it would be hard-core porn. No redeeming
qualities. Zero nutrition.
Frybread has replaced “firewater” as the stereotypical Indian staple in
movie land. Well-meaning non-Indians take their cues from these portrayals
of Indians as simple-minded people who salute the little grease bread and
get misty-eyed about it.
“Where’s the frybread” is today’s social ice-breaker, replacing the
decade-long frontrunner, “What did you think of ‘Dances with Wolves’?”
But, frybread is so, so Indian. Yes, some people have built their Indian
identity around the deadly frybread and will blanch at the very notion of
removing it from their menu and conversation.
My heavens, how will the new and deculturalized Indians and wannabes ever
relate to the Native people they are paid to consult with if they don’t
extol the virtues of frybread?
During the opening week of the National Museum of the American Indian’s
museum on the Mall, a reception for contemporary Native artists ended with,
a good Indian band’s not so great song, “Frybread”, whose lyrics consist
mainly of the title being repeated ad nauseum. When a non-Indian
Smithsonian employee grabbed the microphone and brayed out, “fry-bread,
fryyyyyybread,” the dignified artists and patrons ran for the nearest
One Native artist, Steven Deo, is on a campaign to increase awareness about
the danger of frybread and other so-called Indian foods. Deo, who is Euchee
and Muscogee (Creek) and dances at the Duck Creek Grounds in Oklahoma, has
made a poster with the image of the grease bread and the words “Frybread
“Frybread Kills” is part of a series called “Art for Indians.” The series
is “specifically aimed at our Native American community,” said Deo, “to
create a cognitive dialogue about ourselves and our socio-economic class.”
Deo’s second poster depicts lard and other commodity foods. An equals sign
follows the image, so that the message essentially reads: “Commodities =
public assistance = welfare.”
In economically impoverished Indian communities, the commodities were known
initially as “poor food” and morphed into “Indian food.” There’s even a
name for the round, doughy physique that results from the high-starch,
high-calorie, high-fat and low-protein food: “Commod bod.”
In urban areas and on many reservations, the byproducts of commods have
nearly overrun traditional foods. Even week-old bread and berry pies baked
in Pueblo ovens are vastly superior to frybread on its best day, but
they’re running a distant second at pan-Indian events in Pueblo country.
In great cultures, traditional bread stands for health, wellbeing and
wealth, literally and figuratively. Traditional Native breads and foods
stack up against any of the world’s greatest.
Hopi piki, Muscogee sofkee and everyone’s cornbread and tamales remind us
why most Native people consider corn one of the highest gifts of creation.
The great Native cooks need only a few ingredients to make bread fit for a
feast that is easy enough for daily fare:
Start with any fresh or dried base of pumpkin, wild onions, sage, sunflower
seeds, walnuts, beans, green chiles, blueberries, huckleberries, sweet
potato, pinon, camas, yucca or anything the cook likes to cook.
Add water and arrowroot, cornmeal, maple sap or any indigenous thickener
and stir to the desired consistency. Make into any pleasing shape you want.
Sun dry or boil, smoke, grill or steam over juniper ash, seaweed, mesquite,
shucks, peanut or pecan shells, driftwood or anything that’s handy and
Prepare to see some smiles.
While we’re at it, let’s resolve to throw out all the civilization-era food
in our kitchens. You know what to do with any Indian “maidens” or
“princesses” or “chiefs” or “braves” on butter, honey, jerky or any
products where the profits don’t go to Native people. If they are
Native-made products with stereotypical, cheesy images, give them a toss
and let the Native manufacturers know they can and should do better.
Here’s another resolution I urge you to adopt – to consume the “news” with
a larger grain of salt than you have in the past. Conservative pundit
Armstrong Williams was exposed recently as having been paid by the Bush
Administration to promote its “No Child Left Behind” program. And this at a
time when education is under funded and the Bushies are loathe to promote
history or the arts with federal money.
The Williams’ $100,000 understanding should lead us all to investigate who
is trying to feed us a line and palm it off as “news.” Native people need
to resolve to discover the origins of “fair share” and other current
anti-Indian propaganda, and find out who gets what money from what source
to spread the stories.
The next time you find yourself swallowing some leftover news du jour or
get that suicidal urge for frybread, just slather lard all over the
magazine or television listing and apply it directly to your midriff and
backside. That way, you can have the consequence of the rotten stuff,
without having to actually digest it.
Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, is president of the
Morning Star Institute in Washington, D.C., and a columnist for Indian