How ‘Native American street food’ is helping to keep tribal cultures alive
By Zeb Larson
Whenever the food trailer is out, it’s flying flags from different tribes and covered in art depicting Native Americans of old, eagles, medicine wheels, and other significant Native American symbolism. The folks inside are preparing frybread, buffalo burgers, NDN tacos, and NAICCO pockets. The different flags get swapped out to reflect and honor those people working in the food trailer, along with those who call NAICCO home. Some of them are for places far away from Ohio: Yakama in Washington, Warm Springs in Oregon, the Rosebud in South Dakota, and so on.
Columbus, Ohio probably isn’t the place you would expect to find a Native American food trailer; neither the city nor the state are known for having a large Indigenous population. The Native American Indian Center of Central Ohio (NAICCO) is trying to change that. In 2020, the organization opened a food trailer called NAICCO Cuisine, using grant support, and has been selling food in Central Ohio ever since. The first year was a good one. “When we had our last day on October 11th [of 2021] we slotted the day from three to seven [p.m.], but the line was so big extending out into the alley, we didn’t serve our last customer until after nine that night,” Ty Smith, NAICCO’s Project Director, told me.
In other parts of the country, there’s been a growing movement to serve up and recognize Indigenous cuisine. Owamni in Minneapolis focuses on Indigenous foods, specifically those that were eaten before European colonization of the Americas. In Denver, Tocabe is a Native American fast-food place that’s becoming a chain. Some places, like Café Ohlone in the Bay Area, focus on food sourced locally and with traditional ingredients. Portland, Oregon has Bison Coffeehouse, which only works with Native American roasters, and which hosts community events to benefit Indigenous artists or raise funds for communities like the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs.
These places are making the public more aware of Indigenous cuisine, but they are also revealing new questions: What does “Indigenous cuisine” or “Native American food” mean when there is not and has never been one homogenous “Native American” culture or history? What makes a food “traditional,” and can that change over time? How should Native American cooks engage with food and ingredients that might not be traditional? There are no easy answers to these questions, and depending on who you ask, you might get very different answers.
Columbus is in some ways the perfect place to try and understand all of this, in part because the city reflects so many of the complicated factors affecting Native Americans today. Most Native Americans do not live on tribal reservations, but rather in cities. Urban Native American communities tend to be intertribal, made up of numerous different groups, and NAICCO is an intertribal agency. Meanwhile, only .3 percent of Ohio’s population is Native American. This, combined with the absence of Native American community infrastructure, creates a degree of invisibility and a feeling, among many Native Americans, of being subsumed by mainstream western culture. As Smith put it: “In Central Ohio, a lot of people really don’t know about our presence.”
One of the painful ironies of food history in the Americas is that ingredients from the Western Hemisphere are everywhere in modern cooking, but Indigenous foodways remain outside the mainstream. Some of this is due to a degree of invisibility in broader discourse, especially in parts of the Midwest. Some of that is due to diversity as well. Indigenous foodways were not uniform prior to the arrival of Columbus–Navajo cooking differed from the Nez Perce, which in turn differed from the Shawnee, and so on.
This feeling of invisibility is not new for Native Americans in Ohio, and connects back to Euroamerican arrival in Ohio. When the United States was still young, Ohio was considered “Indian Country” and part of the frontier. The Shawnee, Kickapoo, Lenape (Delaware), Miami, Ottawa, and others inhabited what became the state of Ohio. The Northwest Indian War began in 1785, when tribes joined together as the Western Confederacy and resisted U.S. encroachment throughout the Great Lakes Region. It ended ten years later with the Treaty of Greenville. The tribes were forced to cede most of Ohio, retaining some land in the northwest corner of the state. This didn’t stop white settlers from trying to take what remained, leading to more conflict during the War of 1812.
Pan-tribal resistance effectively ended because of defeats suffered by the tribes and the death of the Shawnee leader Tecumseh. After the War of 1812, a succession of treaties and agreements dispossessed Native Americans. Individual groups like the Shawnee lost all of their land in exchange for reservations. Even these reservations did not last long. In 1830, Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, which removed Native Americans from their land holdings to territory West of the Mississippi. The remaining tribes in Ohio were forced to give up what remained of their land and move to Oklahoma. In Ohio, this means that today there are no federally recognized tribes or communities.
In the mid-twentieth century, Native Americans began moving in larger numbers to cities and urban areas. The federal government encouraged this with programs like the Indian Relocation Act of 1956, in part out of a desire to weaken tribal structures and governments by assimilating members into the broader U.S. society. But it also happened organically as people simply looked for work and went to school. When they came to Ohio, community supports had to be built on-the-fly. (They can also be fragile: Cleveland had a center for Native Americans, but it closed its doors in the 1980s.)
Enter NAICCO. The organization was founded in 1975. “It started out by a woman named Selma Walker from the Yankton Sioux Tribe of South Dakota,” Smith said. “She came out to Columbus by way of her husband, who was in the Air Force. At the time, there wasn’t a presence of Native Americans in Central Ohio.” Bringing people together wasn’t easy, because they had no connections to each other. “They would go ‘Indian hunting,’” Smith said, “visually looking for other Indians to invite into the fold.”
Ty Smith and his wife, Masami, took leadership roles at NAICCO in 2011, managing a project called Circles of Care, funded by the Department of Health and Human Services. “A huge piece to this project was a needs assessment, and out of that later came a blueprint. Culture, community, and economic development were the three main components that came forward by way of the people’s voice.” Prioritizing culture was especially important, according to Smith, because of their place in the community. “We are an invisible population, and we’re invisible not only to others, but unto ourselves as well. It’s hard to notice and recognize somebody that’s Native. We can be misconstrued as a variety of other ethnic groups in many ways. We knew that we had to make a sense of us and our presence.”
Selling food came up in conversations with members, and they workshopped the idea extensively. It would allow NAICCO to pursue its mission of intertribal and inter-generational knowledge sharing, while also bringing in some sustainable revenue, reducing the organization’s reliance on grants. “There’s also a community piece of us working side-by-side and hand-in-hand with one another,” Smith said. “There’s that sense of ownership and also pride.” The organization received a start-up grant from the Administration for Children and Families in September of 2019, but within a few months had to contend with the COVID-19 pandemic. Because of COVID, NAICCO decided to focus on selling food from its building and organizing that around the deliverance of unique intertribal cuisine experiences. Opening day was Indigenous People’s Day, 2020. NAICCO Cuisine participated in more than thirty events in its first year.
Native American diets have dramatically shifted compared to what they were prior to European arrival, even though many ingredients remain in wide usage. Land seizures, dispossession, and environmental destruction combined with new ingredients and styles introduced by Europeans, creating debates about how to understand Indigenous cuisine. Should it only include ingredients that would have been available prior to European arrival? Should it be served alongside non-Indigenous foods?
Frybread, for example, represents a point of contention. Frybread–a round, flat dough bread–originated in the nineteenth century, when Navajo people, on a forced march across the southwest, had to make do with rationed European ingredients rather than traditional foodways. Some chefs reject frybread because it relies on ingredients that weren’t a part of Indigenous diets. Smith offered a different perspective. “If you look at the history of frybread, it’s symbolic of who we are in terms of survival, or our sense of resiliency,” Smith said. “When we begin to unpack this…our people have gone through the ringer. Our people were rounded up and put into concentration camps, corralled in at gunpoint, and the way of life they knew before was completely taken away. They had to become reliant upon the system and the dominant model that was forced upon them. Commodities and these types of foods were rationed out: flour would be one of those items that was distributed during that time.”
Masami Smith’s frybread recipe is the one used by NAICCO Cuisine. “When we talk about our frybread,” Ty Smith said, “my wife’s frybread and her family’s, who derive from Yakama and Warm Springs, we are talking about our people, the River People, or those who lived and gathered along the Columbia River since time immemorial. My wife’s frybread is a family recipe from her direct lineage, and it’s been passed down through generations. When referring to her frybread, she constantly talks about her grandmas and aunties and mom always being in the picture, and how they all have taken pride in their family recipe, and how numerous other Natives acknowledge it as some of the best frybread they’ve ever tasted.”
Overall, NAICCO cuisine took an inclusive approach to its menu. “We don’t represent just one tribe. We do our best to make everybody feel welcome. We got people from Oklahoma, we got people that are Diné, we got people that are Lakota, and the list goes on and on. We streamlined things by coining the phrase ‘Native American street food.’ These are common items you would find in Indian Country. They’re considered household favorites and comfort foods.”
The goal was to make sure everybody was represented. To that end, the Smiths’ introduced platters early on. “Tribal platters, Oklahoma Nations platters, longhouse platters featuring the NW… The first one was an Intertribal Platter: it was an assortment of six different items from six different areas of Indian Country.” Another “was Oklahoma Nations, which is like thirty-nine different federally recognized tribes, where meat pies are really big across a lot of those nations. They like to barbecue down there too, so we did ribs for that platter. You could say we are blending traditional cuisines with a contemporary type of menu.”
NAICCO Cuisine is a means of creating Indigenous community in Ohio, as well as an important step in guaranteeing NAICCO’s stability. Rekindling Indigenous foodways is a way to strengthen their connections to each other, present themselves with dignity to Ohio, and keep their tribal cultures alive. “It’s about sharing our Native peoples’ ideology and making this initiative the planting of seeds that our Native people will take care of down the road. We are having a hard time hanging on to our true identity because of the strong influence of western society,” Smith said. “NAICCO cuisine is our means of helping sustain that [identity]. When you look at this place, it’s lacking in any kind of real Native American infrastructure, but we’re here and we’re making a go of it.” ■
Zeb Larson is a writer and historian based in Columbus, Ohio.
Cover image of the ‘Northern Plains Platter’, featuring smoked buffalo, Lakota corn soup, Hidatsa acorn squash, skillet bread, and Wojapi. Photo courtesy NAICCO.
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