In the 2012 mockumentary More Than Frybread, Dr. Robert “O” Hamblen sits at a picnic table in the desert.1 He is being interviewed by the World Wide Frybread Association, of which Hamblen, a cultural anthropologist, is an honorary member owing to his “vast knowledge of frybread culture.” While chewing on a piece of pan-fried dough, Hamblen discusses the different varieties he has tasted all over North America, finishing by pointing out that “frybread is not even, you know, the correct term—I like to call it Indigenous bread.” He then states that “some of the misconceptions about frybread need to be broken—some of the stereotypes that non-Natives have need to be broken down.” He thinks he is in the position to break them.
The burlesque figure of Dr. Hamblen, woke taste tester of hydrogenated kitchen culture, turns the dominant narrative of frybread on its head, satirizing white Americans’ habit of studying Indigenous lifeways and believing they can explain them best even while mocking the dominant categorization of frybread as quintessentially Native. More interestingly, however, the scene exemplifies the transformative power of Indigenous humor by taking frybread, a byproduct of colonization, and resituating it in the places that converted it into a vehicle of indigeneity. This is a film about frybread: a simple food and a unique window into the struggles of decolonization.
The production company behind the movie, Holt Hamilton Films, has a mission to tell Indigenous stories that Hollywood will not. Travis Holt Hamilton, the director, remarks that he “wanted to make a movie that gave us an excuse to shoot on numerous reservations, and frybread was a good thing that had the potential to bring people together.”2 The resulting investigation of community and pan-Indian identity is an example of what Dr. Dana Vantrease calls “commodity food humor” in “Commod Bods and Frybread Power,” an article tracing the evolution of foods like frybread into cherished cultural symbols.3 Vantrease argues that commodity foods such as frybread are “super-tribal identity symbols,” and the irony of frybread’s simultaneous Nativeness and non-Nativeness is recognized and grappled with by means of humor.4 Commodity food humor, Vantrease argues, cultivates a “unified modern Indian identity,” serving as a conversation starter on “topics of health, self-determination, and authentic Indian identity.”5
When dealing with histories of genocide and dispossession—as well as the continued presence of colonizers on stolen land—what is “authentic Indian identity,” and does it include frybread? A Google recipe search reveals websites boasting of “authentic,” “real,” and “classic” Native American frybread recipes. But to explore the roots of frybread, we have to go back to its storied beginnings in the nineteenth century. In January 1864, the US government forcibly removed more than ten thousand Diné (Navajo) men, women, and children from their homes in Arizona and New Mexico. During the next two months, they would trudge three hundred miles to Bosque Redondo, an internment camp where N’de (Mescalero Apache) were also imprisoned, thousands dying along the way during what is called the Long Walk. When the survivors arrived, they found little arable land; instead, the US government provided the refugees with canned goods, flour, sugar, and shortening.6 It is here in hweeldi (“the place of suffering”) that frybread, or at least one form of it, was created.
In the hundred and fifty years since the Long Walk, frybread has become synonymous with Native identity. The widespread use of frybread originated in the federal government’s dietary assimilation efforts, intended to convert Natives into agriculturalists and consumers by supplementing their diet with Western commodity staples such as flour, sugar, and lard or butter, and the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR).7 FDPIR, or commodity foods, are distributed to tribes across the country and many tribal nations use the ingredients to make frybread. Frybread looks different across North America—flat and the size of a plate, stuffed with taco fillings, round with a hole in the center—but it is always dough made of flour fried until golden brown. It is served at powwows, roadside stands, and in restaurants across the country; for the novelist Sherman Alexie, “frybread is the story of our survival.”8 If so, it seems to be not only a story of physical survival at Bosque Redondo but of cultural survival through the reimagining of modern indigeneity.
Given the origins and ingredients of frybread, however, increasing numbers of Natives have targeted it as a convenient symbol for a new vision of survival, one that would bring about decolonization from within. Those urging Native communities to decolonize their diets include Devon Mihesuah, a professor at the University of Kansas and a member of the Choctaw Nation. Mihesuah believes that Native communities and Native bodies can never decolonize while frybread is in the picture (or stomach).9 Frybread is certainly not nutritionally dense—it is mostly made of white flour—and diabetes, obesity, and food insecurity are critical issues for tribes across North America. Mihesuah administers the American Indian Health and Diet Project (AIHDP), which aims “to bring to light the health problems faced by Indigenous peoples, to understand how we came to our unhealthy situations and what we can do about them. You will find no fry bread recipes here!”10 She encourages tribes not only to return to pre-Columbian foods but to become self-sustaining nations without any need for commodity foods. Mihesuah has received some pushback from Native communities, even being called “anti-Indian.”11
In Chris Eyre’s film Smoke Signals, based on a short story by Sherman Alexie, frybread serves as a symbolically rich tether to indigeneity.12 There is a layered sense of resurgence in the movie, a reclamation of frybread as entirely Indigenous not despite but because of its colonial origins. It is this symbolic resonance—the position of frybread both as a residue of colonialism and as an unexpected primary material of a transformation yet to come—that makes it a site of intense imaginative work: an intellectual vehicle through which Indigenous peoples rethink and remake their indigeneity. Lois Ellen Frank and Walter Whitewater, catering chefs at Red Mesa Cuisine in Santa Fe, are rethinking indigeneity by offering a healthier alternative: baked frybread, which they refer to as “Baked Native Wheat Bread.”13 Tocabe, the only Native-owned and -run restaurant in the Denver area, boasts a menu of introduced foods, such as frybread, alongside pre-Columbian foods such as bison and wild rice, constructing a contemporary Indian presence in the heart of settler society.14
Just as Native American culture is not monolithic, opinions on the potential of frybread— and how that potential can be used to transform, reclaim, or redefine static constructs of indigeneity—encompass the diversity of Native belonging. For some cooks, making frybread signifies resistance to settler colonialism. By participating in the transformation of a commodity into a living culture, they carry on their family traditions. Others see frybread as a tool of settler colonialism, arguing that to decolonize means returning to pre-Columbian foods. There are indisputable truths here: the origins of frybread will always be situated in settler colonialism; frybread will always be bread made of flour. Yet there are those who imagine a frybread that could represent Indigenous strength: a healthier frybread, a mix of pre- and post-Columbian foods, or frybread as a symbol of community. Perhaps this is what Sherman Alexie meant when he said that frybread is a story of survival. It is a story of destruction and flourishing, dispossession and sovereignty. It is a declaration of being, or, more importantly, of staying.
Grace Gregory is a graduate student in the MA Program in the Social Sciences (anthropology concentration) at the University of Chicago. Her research is situated around national parks as tools of settler colonialism, particularly the ways in which archaeology contributes to these destructive processes. She once gave herself a stick and poke tattoo of an alien.
- More Than Frybread, dir. Travis Holt Hamilton (Flagstaff, AZ: Holt Hamilton Films, 2012), 36:08, DVD.
- More Than Frybread, dir. Hamilton.
- Dana Vantrease, “Commod Bods and Frybread Power: Government Food Aid in American Indian Culture,” Journal of American Folklore 126, no. 499 (2013): 55–69.
- Vantrease, 56.
- Vantrease, 67.
- “Navajo Long Walk,” History of Bosque Redondo, last modified 2010, https://www.bosqueredondomemorial.com/history.htm
- Michael Wise, “Native Foods and the Colonial Gaze,” processhistory.org, January 2017, http://www.processhistory.org/wise-native-foods/.
- Jen Miller, “Frybread,” Smithsonian.com, July 2008, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/frybread-79191/.
- Devon Mihesuah, “Indigenous Health Initiatives, Frybread, and the Marketing of Nontraditional ‘Traditional’ American Indian Foods,” Native American and Indigenous Studies 3, no. 2 (2016): 45–69.
- “American Indian Health and Diet Project Since 2006,” American Indian Health and Diet Project, accessed June 10, 2019, http://www.aihd.ku.edu/.
- Allie Shah, “American Indians Are Embracing the ‘Decolonized Diet,’” Star Tribune, Sept. 2, 2014, http://www.startribune.com/american-indians-are-embracing-the-decolonized-diet/273612961/.
- Smoke Signals, prod. Larry Estes and Scott Rosenfelt, dir. Chris Eyre (Seattle: ShadowCatcher Entertainment, 1998); Sherman Alexie, “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix,” in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1993), 59–75.
- Rosemary Diaz, “Native American Chefs Share Scrumptious Fry Bread Recipes,” Indian Country Today, Apr. 10, 2017, https://newsmaven.io/indiancountrytoday/archive/native-american-chefs-share-scrumptious-fry-bread-recipes-GZNy7t_yckOL1cnqfoaDew/.
- “Main Menu,” Tocabe, accessed June 10, 2019, https://www.tocabe.com/index.php/north-denver-menu/.