While indigenous people have endured a sometimes complicated history in California, the contemporary filmmakers, writers, chefs, and artists featured in L.A. Weekly's Native American Issue recontextualize what it means to be a Native Angeleno today. Read more about them here.
Why are there no Native American restaurants in Southern California? And what would they even look like if there were?
“It's a good question, and one I don't know the answer to,” says Lois Frank. She is a chef, academic and food historian, and a member of the Kiowa Nation. Her book, Foods of the Southwest Indian Nations, is one of the most complete documentations of Native American foodways. And she's also a former resident of Los Angeles.
“L.A. is great. You can get delicious Cuban food, Asian food, Thai food,” she says. “Why aren't there Native [restaurants] there? There is a Native community and the Native communities are active.”
Of course, L.A. isn't alone in its lack of representation of Native American cuisine. Outside of the Southwest, there are very few restaurants that specialize in the food of indigenous people, and the majority of those that do focus on fry bread, which is the most widely recognized foodstuff connected to Native American culture. Fry bread is also the most controversial, having emerged as a subsistence food made mostly from government rations on reservations post-colonization. It is often cited as a factor in nutrition-based health problems among Native communities. “People whip out fry bread, and it breaks my heart,” Frank says. “Historically, that's only from the last 150 years. It's not from 10,000 years ago.”
In L.A., the only dedicated outlet for Native American food is a food truck that sells fry bread tacos and does mainly private events. The lack of knowledge in the broader community about non–fry bread Native foods is, in part, what happens when a population has its culture and land violently and systematically taken away. “We're still coming out of the boarding-school era where people were ripped up or relocated, and some of that information was lost or forgotten,” Frank says. “We're just fixing those broken chords and bringing it back.”
Nationally, and even in other parts of California, there's a growing movement toward resurrecting the cooking traditions of pre-colonial America, often known as “decolonizing the diet.” But Frank dismisses that idea. “People talk about 'let's decolonize,'” she says. “How would you do that? You can't. Let's not fool ourselves. But what we can do is to indigenize. So we're not undoing, we're redoing. We're reclaiming, we're eating and educating. That's where it's going.”
The most visible recent example of Native American food being cooked in a restaurant setting is Francis Ford Coppola's Werowocomoco, which opened in Geyserville in the Bay Area earlier this month. While Coppola says that he's trying to bring attention to indigenous foodways through the restaurant, he has faced much criticism too, centering mainly around cultural appropriation.
But there are also grassroots examples of indigenous chefs hoping to give diners a real understanding of what cooking and eating was like before Europeans arrived in the Americas. Last month at a lunch that was part of the annual Southern Foodways Alliance fall symposium in Oxford, Mississippi, I was served a meal cooked by Sean Sherman, a chef from Minneapolis who calls himself the Sioux Chef. Sherman has been covered extensively in the press (including an in-depth profile in The New York Times) for his efforts to revitalize Native American cuisine. The lunch he served used only ingredients and techniques that would have been available to pre-colonial American cooks, which meant no dairy, sugar, eggs, pork or wheat. Instead, we ate smoked fish with wild greens, sun-dried rabbit, and bison cooked with cedar.
Eating Native American dishes without the use of foods that came here by boat from Europe distilled for me some of the reasons why promoting and explaining this cuisine is not easy. The ingredients of the Americas — corn, potatoes, chocolate, vanilla — have been so fully incorporated into the diet of the world, it's easy for people to forget that much of what we think of as American or Italian or British food would not be possible without the gifts of the New World, and indeed the indigenous people who cultivated and traded and cooked with these ingredients. Only when one sees those ingredients with the European influence stripped away do they become purely native to this continent.
Settlers to America almost immediately co-opted Native American ingredients, forming not only the base for the American diet but also much of Europe's diet as well.
While looking into options for Native American meals in Los Angeles, I came across Roy Choi's Native Spirit Feast, which he will be hosting for the third year in a row, at Commissary in the Line Hotel. The menu includes fry bread (with honey and pumpkin curry), and foie gras terrine, and all kinds of international influences that have nothing to do with Native American culture. But Choi isn't trying to represent the food of Native people. “Our food never pretends or claims to be Native,” Choi says. “I'm not in a position to represent the food that way. It is more my spiritual connection to the universe and speaking up in my own way about the fallacies our country was built upon. There's a difference between thanking people and perpetuating genocide. If we are really going to hold onto this holiday, then let's re-examine the story. Until then, my places will either be closed [on Thanksgiving] or celebrating the Native spirit.”
And until there is a place in Los Angeles to eat true Native American cuisine, Frank suggests you think more about the culinary gifts we consume every day that were given to us by indigenous Americans. “Ask yourself, 'What do I eat that Native people gave to the world?'” she suggests. “Keep a log for a day and just think about it.”
Beyond that, seek out Native foods from around the country. “Everyone can participate. Seek out something Native and buy it. You can go online and buy wild rice that's hand-harvested from a Native community. Or mesquite flour, or prickly pear syrup. When you buy that wild rice from a small company, you support everything that's tied to the cultural components of that. And that's a great, proactive place to be.”