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Feb 24, 2005 8:29 pm


Not of Native Origin....



No, it isn't another Ward Churchill story -- I wasn't going to make the flight over to Oahu on my own nickel just for a rehash of stuff I've already read without a chance for engagement -- but I have to give Churchill credit because if it wasn't for that brouhaha I probably wouldn't have recognized the name of the person at the center of the story in my morning paper. There are some similar elements, too: abuse of Native tribes by the US government, ongoing oppression, cultural stereotyping, liberal v. conservative, attacking cherished myths, harsh language....

Suzan Shown Harjo, whose devastating review of Churchill's ancestry claims is now a centerpiece in the Churchill debate, is actually at the center of another controversy herself: she has attacked the popularity of frybread, sometimes called Navajo frybread, a classic fried dough snack that is wildly popular at Native gatherings (and non-Native celebrations of Native culture):

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.

The problem with frybread, as Harjo sees it, is twofold. First, it's unhealthy:
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.

No argument there. Eaten in moderation, excess like frybread can be great fun without endangering your life. But it has become not just a cultural touchstone -- like the sufganyot jelly donuts which are a Hannukah icon in Israel -- but a staple food, and as such Harjo calls it"the connecting dot between healthy children and obesity, hypertension, diabetes, dialysis, blindness, amputations and slow death." She's not alone in this campaign:
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 Kills."

More to the point, and this is why I'm interested, is Harjo's historical critique:

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.

To be specific, frybread was the result of the creativity of Native cooks in dire straits:
Fry bread began its life as a cobbled-together food from U.S. government rations, a way to keep from starving when government occupation kept tribal members from pursing their native foods - elk, buffalo, corn, beans and squash.

In New Mexico, Harjo points out, it was born on the banks of the Pecos River in Fort Sumner at what was essentially a concentration camp for Navajos and Apaches forced from their homelands by U.S. raids.

The imprisoned Indians were given rations they had never seen before: sacks of white flour, salt and iron pots.

The women did their best with the alien flour and formed dough balls they patted flat and cooked in boiling animal fat over fires.

What is now called Navajo fry bread had been born. When Navajos returned to the reservation that had been carved out for them, fry bread came, too.

That story reminds me very much of the matzo story, except that this was the food of a people going into oppression, rather than being liberated from it (and after eight days, nobody wants to eat more matzo for a while, either). I really think that Harjo has a much stronger argument here, that frybread is an artifact of the tragedy of Native history, but she runs the risk of cementing it's place in Native celebrations by turning it into a symbol of resistance and perseverance.

Frybread's popularity has been sustained by the public assistance provided by the US government over the years, which emphasizes" commodity foods" like flour, lard, sugar and salt, staples of the Western diet but relatively rare in pre-contact Native diets.

[Stephen] 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."
There's a whole discussion to be had here of the relationship between poverty, charity/welfare and nutrition, but I'll leave that to the public health folks for now.
Harjo acknowledges the battle against fry bread will be an uphill one"simply because so many young people think it really is Indian and people have said it's a symbol of your people."

And, Harjo said,"It tastes good. That's hard to campaign against."

I'm reminded of my lectures on the Opium problem in China, leading to the Opium war. I ask my students why opium was so popular, and they usually give me back the textbook answers -- social disruption and economic turmoil, rising culture of leisure, cultural disconnects, increasing availability and lower price, addictive quality -- but they very rarely get at the heart of the matter by themselves: opium makes you feel good.

Harjo's campaign is not just a negative one: she also wants to reclaim a healthier and more authentic food culture:

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 tasty.

Prepare to see some smiles.

Nor is her campaign a purely culinary one: she sees food as one element in an economic environment, cultural practice and political discourse which has served Native interests poorly. Though she's not in favor of saltier food, she's clearly in favor of saltier discourse:
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.

I think this is someone I'd like to see speaking at more colleges.


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Richard Henry Morgan - 2/24/2005

There was an article a decade or two back in the journal Science about the extraordinary high rate of obesity and diabetes among the Pima. Anthropologists experimented with returning them to a more traditional diet, and the results were amazing once they got away from flour, sugar, and the rest.

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