Indian Frybread

We went to Tamkaliks—the powwow in Wallowa—last night, and of course had to have a piece of frybread. As I watched one woman stretching dough and plopping it into two grease-filled cast iron pots, another woman turn it in the oil, and two men—father and son, it looked like—serve up  the platters of Indian tacos and plain frybread that we dowsed with sugar and honey, I thought about Indian treaties and commodity foods. I know, I’ve been reading too much Josephy and am steeped in the stories of broken treaties, wars, removal, extermination, assimilation—but also the stories of Indian resilience and the miracle of new world tribal survival. And fry bread has its place in all that. 
My friend, the writer Luis Urrea, has a wonderful piece in Hummingbird’s Daughter—that he can recite from memory in four minutes—called “God in a taco.” Maybe it was an “Indian taco.” And that fictional account of wars and spiritual quests in northern Mexico in the late nineteenth century follows on Kit Carson’s scorching and burning of Navajo lands and killing of sheep and stock and the “Long  Walk” in 1863 that took some of them—thousands died on the trail—to a cramped Fort Sumner at Bosque Redondo, New Mexico, where, according to the Navajo and the Smithsonian Magazine, Indian fry bread was born.
Their crops and stock gone, the Indians were starving, and government supplies of lard, flour, salt, sugar, baking powder or yeast, and powdered milk were often rancid. Frybread came from these few foods provided during the four years of Navajo captivity at Bosque Redondo.  That was 150 years ago, and Indian writer Sherman Alexie now says that “frybread is the story of our survival.”
I think frybread must have flowed across Indian country as the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act loosened restrictions on Indian religious and cultural celebrations, and made intertribal gatherings possible. Since that time, and especially since the time of Red Power in the 1970s, powwows and Indian art and literature have knit the people of different tribes and regions of the country together, so that a character in Alexie’s  “Smoke Signals” wears a t-shirt that says “Frybread Power” and Indians across the country can identify.
It sets Alexie against Indian activist Suzan Shown Harjo, who led a crusade against frybread a few years ago, claiming that it was stealing Indian children with diabetes and obesity.
Which brings me back to Josephy, Indian treaties, and commodity foods. The Carson campaign occurs in 1863, in the middle of the Civil War, but earlier in the War, in 1862, there were commodity food incidents in Minnesota, where Indians rebelled after their promised reservations kept shrinking and promised commodities—they too were starving after traditional growing, hunting, and gathering grounds were given over to white settlers—were skimmed by Indian agents and white traders. The commodities listed in Josephy’s account were flour and lard. So Indians were having to replace wild rice, berries, maple, and game with white flour and lard!
I tried to find the first treaties that promised food. It was a cursory look, and I will keep hunting for accounts, but at first glance it appears that until the Civil War and the pushing of Indians further west—including the Removal Act of 1830—white government always assumed that there would be land and game and that Indians could somehow—outside of the ken of whites—take care of themselves. But Minnesota homesteading—that Act passed in 1862—made it impossible to dodge the fact that shrinking Indian lands was starving them. And later Civil War incidents in the further West—including the massacres at Sand Creek and Bear River—all had to do with shrinking Indians’ land holdings and starvation. 

The apex of that terrible policy might have been Kit Carson’s campaign, or it might have been the deliberate killing of the buffalo that accompanied the conquering of the Plains Indians. It was all ugly.

So frybread is a kind of middle finger at the white world—“this is what you left us; well, we will survive on it”—and it has become a symbol of Indian unification across tribal boundaries. But it is also, as Harjo pointed out, a symbol and a fact of the short end of the treaties dealt Indians—the exchange of healthy foods and ways of life for lives of dependence and white people’s diseases. Like many things in Indian Country, complex and many-sided.
For more on frybread, its origins and stories, the Smithsonian piece is here: