National Homemade Bread Day and the History of Frybread

November 17 is National Homemade Bread Day, and bread is one food that knows no cultural bounds. However, this holiday is also a reminder of the darker history behind one of the breads that is typically recognized as a traditional Native food, Indian frybread. Frybread was created 155 years ago as a way to survive, and after three generations, a Native American food movement is gaining momentum to put this food in its proper place in history and shift its reputation as traditional Native food.

Frybread is typically made out of white flour mixed with water, baking powder or yeast and a sprinkle of salt, which is then deep-fried in oil or lard. It can be eaten alone or with powdered sugar, honey or other toppings. Frybread is also used in Indian tacos with beef, and depending on the cook, a mixture of cheese, lettuce, and beans might be placed on top of the flat fried bread.

Most Americans consider frybread a traditional Native food, and while this may be true given its origins, it is not an accurate description of its historical roots. The Navajo created frybread in 1864 when the U.S. government initiated the reservation system and food commodities for the tribes after disrupting their way of life. At the time, the Navajo who had been living in Arizona were forced to make the “Long Walk” and relocated to Bosque Redondo, New Mexico — a treacherous 300-mile walk that led to hundreds dying. In fact, ethnic cleansing in the U.S. led to many tribes being removed from their ancestral homelands, and the history of frybread is directly linked to this trauma and the Native fight for survival. In later years, boarding schools adopted frybread as a part of the meals served to Native children, and it is even served in present day.

Such commodity “food” was unknown to the Navajo since their traditional foods consisted of fresh vegetables, fruits and lean meat such as venison. Processed foods were not consumed by the Navajo people, and therefore, conditions such as diabetes were not a factor in their lives. The consequences of a commodities diet include high rates of diabetes, cardiovascular, and other life-threatening health issues that can be traced back in U.S.-Native history. Ultimately, processed food was just one more method used in ethnic cleansing, yet the Native people were able to take this threat and instead use it to survive. This incredible story is one that should be remembered each time we bite into a freshly cooked piece of fluffy frybread topped with honey.

Today, Native people are turning back the clock and seeking a return to their ancestral diets. Most tribes have stories or beliefs about their foods and those stories are woven into the fabric of their respective societies. Food was and is considered sacred, even a medicine, and consuming food is more than a physical experience to feed their hunger, but rather a holistic experience for their spiritual, mental, physical and emotional well-being. Think of some of your family’s favorite dishes and the memories of making those dishes together. Hopefully, these memories bring back feelings of connectedness, joy, family, love and gratitude — much more than simply eating.

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