Indigenous Peoples Day and Diet: The Truth About Fry Bread

Indigenous Peoples Day – it’s the new official holiday in Los Angeles. On Wednesday, August 30, 2017, the City Council voted to replace Columbus Day—originally October 12, but observed on the second Monday in October—with Indigenous Peoples Day. What most Americans know about indigenous peoples and their food is only one thing: fry bread. In southern California, what was the diet of indigenous peoples? 

Photo © Kelli Kim

Photo © Kelli Kim

For many Native Americans in southern California, such as the Chumash, acorn meal was the main source of carbohydrates. Problem: acorns contain toxic levels of bitter tannins which must be leached out to render them edible. To do this, the acorns were dried for one year, shelled, winnowed to remove a thin inner shell, pounded into flour, sifted repeatedly through finely-woven baskets, leached by rinsing in water, then cooked into a mush like grits. The processing of acorns was a communal activity, done by women who chatted and sang while they worked.

In addition to acorns, forests and fields yielded wild mushrooms, pine nuts, venison, rabbits, squirrels, and other small game. Rivers and oceans provided salmon and trout, shellfish and crabs. Inland tribes like the Cahuilla traveled or traded to obtain coastal foods like abalone and seaweed. Proteins could be smoked and stored. Berries, grapes, prickly pear cactus and other plant foods were dried by leaving them out in the California sun. 

Unfortunately, the grassy fields where the Native Americans foraged for their food was also perfect pasture land for the cattle the Spanish introduced after they arrived in 1769. This ecological disaster destroyed the food supply of the indigenous peoples. Starvation drove them to the missions and later to towns like Los Angeles. Arrested for vagrancy, they were auctioned off to do forced labor, often in the vineyards. After one week, they were deliberately paid only in aguardiente – fire water – with an alcohol content of 18 to 20 percent. This kept them vagrants and set the whole cycle in motion again.

Enter fry bread. It is made from non-perishable ingredients—flour, baking powder, salt, shortening, and water—quickly mixed, patted into rounds, then deep fried. Toppings can be savory, like pizza or tacos; or sweet, like donuts. It is daily bread, comfort food, fiesta food, pow wow food.

However, nothing in fry bread except salt is indigenous to any Native American culture. All of the ingredients were provided by the United States government after the Native Americans had been subjugated. Companies competed ferociously for lucrative government contracts to sell baking powder on the reservations. Caucasian missionaries saw baking powder use as a positive sign: “[Native Americans] are eagerly obtaining from the Government such comforts of civilization as they can—reapers, cooking-stoves, baking-powder.” 

Some Native American activists want a ban on fry bread because it is a creation of colonialism and because they believe it contributes to the diabetes prevalent among many Native Americans. Unlike the physically strenuous preparations required to make acorn flour, and to hunt for, gather, and prepare wild proteins, herbs, nuts, and seeds, fry bread is basically fast food. •

Acorn Muffins

This recipe for acorn muffins is fusion food that uses Native American ingredients. It was obtained from a coalition of southern California native tribes. Acorn flour may be found online.

makes one dozen

INGREDIENTS

1 cup acorn flour
1/2 cup cornmeal
1/2 cup whole-wheat flour
3 tbsp neutral oil
1 tsp aluminum-free baking powder
1/4 cup local honey
1 large egg
1 cup milk

INSTRUCTIONS

1Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease muffin tins or use paper liners.
2Mix all ingredients in a large bowl.
3Pour batter into individual muffin cups until they are about half full.
4Bake on the middle rack for 15-20 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the muffin comes out clean.