My mother was born and raised on the Cattaraugus Reservation just outside Buffalo, New York. She is a full-blooded Native American from the Seneca Nation Iroquois Tribe. She lived on the reservation until she was eighteen years old and left for college in Ohio. While she did leave the reservation behind, she took with her all the history and traditions that she learned from growing up there.
The Navajo Nation covers part of Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico and contains many specific traditions to their tribe. One of their most important symbols of their culture is their Navajo Fry Bread. Often Fry bread is presented as the centerpiece of their culture and a staple piece at Pow Wows. “The concept of powwow originated among the tribes that inhabited the Great Plains from the southern prairies of Canada to the lower plains of Texas. In the pre-reservation era, many Plains Indian tribes formed intertribal alliances. These alliances allowed tribe-specific songs, dances, and ceremonies to be exchanged.”1 Pow Wows are meant to bring everyone together and share their culture through food, singing and dancing, and showcasing the arts and crafts of their tribe. “The term powwow, derives from the Algonquian Indian word pau wau, which means “he dreams.” In this definition, pau wau had a personal, reverent, religious significance. Contrasting with this definition, the contemporary powwow is usually open to the public and is a group-oriented social event.”2
My first experience at a Pow Wow was when I was 9 years old on my mom’s reservation. It was their annual Pow Wow, and the entire community came together. It was my family’s first time going to one since my mom left the reservation to go to school and start a family in Texas. All my cousins were there and other family friends of the community. Living on the reservation everyone knows everyone, so you can imagine the chaos and stares that my family and I got for attending the Pow Wow. There were lots of people who were excited to see us and for us to be able to celebrate but there we were getting some looks for being the “outcasts” and not feeling like we belonged.
It was very hard for my mom in Texas to carry on a lot of the traditions and rituals that she had growing up with us because our lives were so different. My mom had a lot of past experiences and certain instances where she didn’t want us to be fully immersed into her culture. We didn’t grow up going to church or the Longhouse as she did, but she did pass down many stories from The Creator and we appreciated her sharing some of the history with us.
The Pow Wow I attended was my first experience witnessing some of the traditions and rituals my mom had talked about. It was incredible to see all the hard world and effort that people put into celebrating our heritage. Kids had been practicing for months for their dance routine and the grandmas had been sewing and putting together their costumes for this event for almost a year. This was a big deal for everyone in the community and one of the very few times where everyone came together to celebrate. This is a very sacred event not just for the elders but for the children as well because it represents a rite of passage for the children to participate in and appreciate their culture. The Pow Wow is filled with lots of dancing, with the focal point of the event is the drums and the singing. The beat of the drums sets the pace of the dancing, and the dancers must move along to the beat in their fancy dresses. There are event contests and prizes awarded to these dancers.
You cannot go through a Pow Wow without having some of the authentic food. There are no counting calories at these events because there is just no way you can turn down some of the food they have. I come from a family where bread is served at most meals. Whether we bought a new loaf, or my grandma spent 5 hours in the kitchen making homemade bread. So, it is no shock that I darted for what looks like a fluffy funnel cake. This simple, but delicious piece of food is also a staple of these Pow Wows and Native American heritage. “Navajo frybread originated 144 years ago, when the United States forced Indians living in Arizona to make the 300-mile journey known as the “Long Walk” and relocate to New Mexico, onto land that couldn’t easily support their traditional staples of vegetables and beans. To prevent the indigenous populations from starving, the government gave them canned goods as well as white flour, processed sugar and lard—the makings of frybread.”3 It is no surprise that Fry bread is just fried dough, not very sweet but a delicious part of many meals. This simple, but important symbol of Native American pride and unity represented a lot more than I ever knew when I first tried it over 10 years ago.
“Frybread is very popular among the Navajos and is considered traditional even though it is recent in Navajo history (Keane 2013). Even children know how to make it. Fry- bread is always for sale at fairs and flea markets, and it has a constant place on the menus of all kinds of restaurants on and around the reservation.”4 At Pow Wows there are fry bread competitions to see who can make the best golden-brown frybread. For best results, you want to have the bread as fresh as possible, so straight out of the fryer. Some people may choose to have a side of bean soup for dipping or even adding toppings such as ground meat and lettuce to make it like a taco. Now for most people they decide to share one piece of fry bread, but I am not known for sharing so I have a plate for myself. The dish may seem very easy to make but there is a lot that goes into it.
You can start by making the dough ahead of time and placing it somewhere it can sit overnight untouched. Some choose to refrigerate the dough which will require you to let it sit for thirty minutes before you start cooking. You then need to get a skillet, according to Tall Woman, a two-inch skillet that’s about ten to twelve inches in diameter is best. Once the dough is cooked on one side a long-handled fork is useful when trying to flip over. I have seen my cousins making fry bread and it is common for them to have a “frybread pan” that is normally just used for cooking frybread. Now, since this recipe has been passed down for generations and generations, I am yet to see a recipe card that my family has used or followed. I’m sure it was all engraved into their heads from when they made it growing up and now there are certain family members of mine that are solely responsible for making the frybread. Since I do not have an actual recipe, I have chosen to examine a recipe from “Food Sovereignty the Navajo Way.” The ingredients for their recipe is as follows:
· 4 cups flour
· 1 teaspoon salt
· 1 tablespoon baking powder
· 2–8 tablespoons powdered milk
· 1 ½ cups warm water ·
- 1 cup shortening or lard (enough to produce hot grease that is at least ½ inch deep; 2–4 tablespoons more if you want to add it to the dough to soften it)
The next steps are to mix all the dry ingredients with your hand and slowly add the shortening to make the dough soft and slowly add warm water to the mix. You then will create small dough balls approximately 3 inches in diameter and then pat it with your hands back and forth stretching it until it is flat and round about 10-12 inches in diameter. To add the shortening to make the dough soft you will make a well in the middle of the dough and add water and knead the dough. Now, moving to the stove you are going to want to heat the shortening up until the grease is hot. Then you pull one of the dough pieces you have rolled up and slap it flat on your hands back and forth and then place on the skillet. It won’t take long for the dough to fry, about 15 seconds, so you have to keep your eye on the piece until it gets golden brown and is ready to flip right away. Once both sides are cooked, use your long-handled fork to pick up the bread and drain the excess grease back onto the skillet for the next piece. With the fresh fry bread you just cooked, you want to lay it down in a deep container lined with paper towels to absorb the grease. Give it a few seconds to get the grease off then it is ready to be served. Eating this dish is a great way to feel connected to the Native American culture and celebrate.
- Dennis W. Zotigh, “Powwows,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=PO030.
2. Dennis W. Zotigh, “Powwows,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=PO030.
3. Miller, Jen. “Frybread.” 2008, Accessed 2008.
4. Frisbie, Charlotte Johnson, et al. Food Sovereignty the Navajo Way Cooking with Tall Woman. University of New Mexico Press, 2018.