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Photo: Adron Gardner/Gallup Independent via AP
Fry bread is available at the Navajo Nation Fairgrounds in Window Rock, Ariz., but is no longer part of the Miss Navajo Pageant competition.

It’s interesting how customs that evolve out of oppression can sometimes be so warmly appropriated that they will be missed if discontinued. As tribes like the Navajo start to promote healthier ancestral foods, some feel wistful about the fry bread that families got used to over the years.

Felicia Fonseca writes at the Sante Fe New Mexican, “The Miss Navajo Nation pageant is parting ways with fry bread, the fluffy, golden brown delicacy that’s become a symbol of Native American culture but is rooted in oppression.

“Women vying for the crown [in September] in Window Rock [prepared] traditional Navajo foods instead, like blue corn mush or a cake made at puberty ceremonies.

“Outgoing Miss Navajo Ronda Joe said the tribe’s new ambassador must know the history of those foods and speak about them in Navajo.

“ ‘We need to educate our people to utilize plants as food that are tied to our land, culture and beliefs,’ she wrote in an email. The change aligns with a movement in Indian Country to refocus on traditional foods and reinforce native languages.

“Fry bread was born out of government rations given to Navajos on a forced relocation to Eastern New Mexico in the 1860s. Traditional Navajo breads or cakes would be made of corn and cooked on hot stones or in the ground, not in a cast-iron pan filled with oil.

“Fry bread can be found across the Southwest in Indian tacos, slathered in honey or powdered sugar, or broken off in pieces and used as a spoon for stews. The exact ingredients vary and everyone claims ‘mom’ makes it best.

“Despite being removed from the tribal pageant, fry bread offers lessons in survival, being a contributor and creating something out of nothing, said Jocelyn Billy-Upshaw, Miss Navajo 2006-07. She remembers her mom saying she’d never get married unless she knew how to make bread. …

Brian Yazzie, a Navajo chef who focuses on precolonial foods in Minneapolis, Minnesota … praised the switch from fry bread to a traditional food presentation.

“ ‘It encourages and inspires youth to step up and take a challenge of ancestral knowledge and ancestral roots,’ he said. ‘It makes my heart happy to see that.’ ”

More.

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A Native American chef trained in French cuisine has a mission to teach the world about an older, unrecognized culinary tradition that has influenced most of us. Hanna Choi reported the story for National Public Radio.

“When Nephi Craig enrolled in the culinary program at Arizona’s Scottsdale Community College, there was nothing like ‘Native American Cuisine 101’ in the curriculum. Craig identifies as White Mountain Apache and Navajo, and the first mention he can recall of anything remotely related to his background was a class discussion on fry bread, a crispy fried concoction that ‘is really a taste of American colonialism,’ he says …

“Since then, he increasingly came to sense a sort of dismissiveness and sloppiness towards Native Americans and indigenous food ways in the mainstream culinary world.

“Craig grew up immersed in his culture through art, music and ceremony, and food always played a large role. He wanted to find a way to bridge the gap. …

“Upon graduating from culinary school in 2000, Craig launched the Native American Culinary Association. Based in Arizona, NACA is a network of Native chefs — professionals and those just starting out — dedicated to the research, refinement, and development of Native American cuisine. Since 2011, the association has organized a yearly Indigenous Food Symposium, bringing people from different fields together to share and learn about Native foods, agriculture and landscapes.

‘Craig is also the executive chef of The Summit Restaurant at Sunrise Park Resort in Whiteriver, Arizona. … Craig’s culinary team there is staffed entirely by cooks and other food workers who identify either with the White Mountain Apache tribe or as Navajo/Dineh.”

In the NPR interview, Craig tells Choi, “I had always been cooking since I was a kid, growing up here on the rez with my mom and my family. We didn’t have a lot of money and so we would bake and sell our goods and I would bag up stuff in sandwich bags and sell them as a little guy.

“I’ve been cooking my entire life, all through my adolescence and I had ultimately wanted to do something creative. …

“I had no idea the world that I would be entering in the long classical legacy that is French cuisine. But that’s kind of where I started out, just in childhood, and then realizing just by pure observation that we were left out of this picture of world cuisine even when about 70 percent of foods consumed around the world today were developed and domesticated by Indigenous peoples of the Americas.”

Craig explains more here. Check it out.

Photo: Evan Sung/Nephi Craig
Nephi Craig, executive chef of The Summit Restaurant at Sunrise Park Resort in Whiteriver, Arizona.

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Raise your hand if you were taught that one day centuries ago people in Siberia woke up and crossed a land bridge to North America and became the first Native Americans.

That’s OK as far as it goes, but history doesn’t stand still, and new discoveries suggest that before they got to North America, the Siberians stayed over on the bridge for a few thousand years. Who figured out the new chapters? Archaeologists and geneticists. And linguists.

Nicholas Wade writes in the NY Times, “Using a new method for exploring ancient relationships among languages, linguists have found evidence further illuminating the peopling of North America about 14,000 years ago. Their findings follow a recent proposal that the ancestors of Native Americans were marooned for some 15,000 years on a now sunken plain before they reached North America.

“This idea, known as the Beringian standstill hypothesis, has been developed by geneticists and archaeologists over the last seven years. …

“Though often referred to as a bridge, the now sunken region, known as Beringia, was in fact a broad plain. It was also relatively warm, and supported trees such as spruce and birch, as well as grazing animals.

Writing in the journal Science last month, John F. Hoffecker, an archaeologist at the University of Colorado, summarized the evidence for thinking the Beringian plain was the refuge for the ancestral Native American population identified by the geneticists. ‘The shrub tundra zone in central Beringia represents the most plausible home for the isolated standstill population,” he and colleagues wrote. …

“Linguists have until now been unable to contribute to this synthesis of genetic and archaeological data. The first migrations to North America occurred between 15,000 and 10,000 years ago, but most linguists have long believed that language trees cannot be reconstructed back further than 8,500 years. …

“But in 2008, Edward Vajda, a linguist at Western Washington University, said he had documented a relationship between Yeniseian, a group of mostly extinct languages spoken along the Yenisei River in central Siberia, and Na-Dene.

“The Na-Dene languages are spoken in Alaska and western Canada, with two outliers in the American Southwest, Navajo and Apache.” More here.

This is why it’s important for someone to be interested in studying mostly extinct languages spoken along the Yenisei River in central Siberia.

Map: Science, a journal, and the New York Times

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Photo: Ken Shulman/OAG
Players for Naat’aanii, a team created for Navajo youth, practice in Farmington, New Mexico.

Now that Native Americans are playing major league baseball, it seemed like a good time for Bill Littlefield’s Only A Game radio show to do a story about Native American kids getting into the game. Ken Shulman traveled to New Mexico “to meet a Navajo team that uses tribal lore to train quality ballplayers.”

One of the people Shulman interviews is Dineh Benally, a youth baseball coach with teams in Farmington and Albuquerque.

“’Benally learned baseball as a kid on a reservation in Shiprock, where New Mexico borders with Colorado, Utah, and Arizona. The Four Corners was the Navajo ancestral home until 1864, when the tribe was forcibly marched to a desolate reservation 500 miles away.

“ ‘Baseball is about failure,’ Benally said. ‘And I think life is about failure. You’re gonna fail more than you succeed. …’

“Benally’s had his share of hardship. And failure. Growing up on the reservation was fun. But farm chores often kept him off the ball field. And when he did play, there wasn’t much in the way of coaching. Still, the tall right hander was MVP of his all-Navajo high school team. He pitched two years in junior college. Then he got a break: a chance to make the team at New Mexico State University — and to prove that a boy from the rez could play Division I ball. He threw well in tryouts but was cut on the final day. …

“It was tough not making the team. But Benally rallied. He thought about his ancestors on that long walk from Four Corners. And he thought about what he’d learned.

“A few years after graduation, in 1999, he started a youth team, to give Najavo kids the type of training he wishes he’d had growing up. He called the team ‘Naat’aanii,’ a word that … means leader. He scoured the state for native talent, boys born on and off the rez who he could shepherd toward college baseball and maybe even the pros. …

“Naat’aanii is no longer just for native players. Any kid can join if he has talent and desire. But the logo and rhythm and ethos are still Navajo. Dineh Benally wants his players to learn more than how to turn a double play. He wants them to tap into the tribal soul, to find the strength to stick it out when times get tough. Because they will get tough.

“ ‘That’s where they’ll show me if they’re really a true Naat’aanii,’ he said. …  They look at me. They know what I’m talking about.’ ”

More at Only a Game, here.

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