January 10, 2017

Just as the field of food history has achieved prominence in recent years—as this month’s Journal of American History roundtable, along with a review essay in the latest American Historical Review testify—it is true to say the same of popular interest in Native foods. Around the country, Native heirloom crops frequently show up at farmers’ markets. Interested consumers can even purchase produce in the form of a monthly TSA (“Tribally Supported Agriculture”) share. Gardeners across the world can order seeds to grow Ute squash or Cherokee “Trail of Tears” pole beans to plant in their backyards. In southern Arizona, O’odham farmers are raising tepary beans, sixty-day corn, and harvesting ciollim buds, all of which you can purchase online. Almost any grocer in the United States, from the grungiest co-op to the swankiest supermarket, stocks their shelves with ancient staples, such as amaranth and quinoa, newly discovered by a fascinated public, and marketed with Native signifiers nearly as imprecise as the wooden cigar store statues of the last century. Tanka Bars, a bison-based meat snack made on the Pine Ridge reservation, using “a recipe that powered Lakota Sioux Warriors,” are available for purchase in REI checkout lines. A celebrity chef in New York has crafted his culinary genius out of the chewy texture of Narragansett flint corn.

After years and even centuries of neglect and denigration, Native foods are suddenly visible and fashionable across a broad swath of American food culture. Popular desires to abandon industrial food systems in favor of locally-grown, heirloom, or heritage ingredients, prepared and consumed according to traditional practices, have elevated Native food knowledges to prominence. Today, many people who care about their own health, as well as the health of their neighbors and the ecological communities they inhabit, commonly understand Native food history as a practical, if somewhat mystifying, reservoir of solutions for eating right in an America that values environmental sustainability and nutritional responsibility as key parameters of ethical eating. The search is on for new Native foods that satisfy these social and environmental concerns. But what the missionaries of the food revolution are mostly searching for here is not what’s new about Native foodways, but old; and that forces the already strained relationship between food studies and foodie culture into an even more awkward rapport with thoughtful scholarship in Native history.

For one thing, the “discovery” of Native foods rehearses a well-worn colonial discourse that has long framed Native people as the constituents of a timeless, natural world, rather than members of historically-dynamic societies. In this regard, a twenty-first century foodie’s search for authentic Native culinary tradition bears much similarity to a salvage anthropologist romping across an Indian reservation looking for artifacts from a time when “Indians were still Indians.” Critiquing these quixotic quests for authenticity has long been a hallmark of both food studies and Native studies, and it is one of threads that can connect these two bodies of scholarship. But food studies scholars should push further. By continuing our narratives of Native food history into the modern era, rather than abandoning them after the First Thanksgiving, or some other point when Indians typically drop off the stage, we have a major role to play in communicating the constant significance of Native people throughout all periods of American history. And this is a crucial point to make to foodies in particular, since if there are important lessons to be learned by the food movement that are buried in the Native American past, they aren’t embodied by ancient vegetables or archaic fishing techniques, but by stories of Indigenous resistance and accommodation to forces of colonialism and capitalism that have refashioned the lives, livelihoods, and dinner plates of us all over the last few centuries.

Our frame for writing Native food history should not be a chronicle of disaster, decline, and “rediscovery,” but, instead, a narrative that identifies and analyzes ongoing struggles to negotiate specific food relationships that have centered Native lives, bodies, places, and identities across more than five centuries of colonial experiences. Such a project offers more than just a new set of historiographical quibbles. It promises a scholarly conversation that takes seriously how Native understandings of food, in its multitude of relations, have continually engaged modern transformations in agricultural land and labor, in industrial processing and production, in distribution, retailing, marketing, cooking, and other realms of continental and global food systems. It also forces food studies scholars to take up the challenge of reconsidering some of the boundaries and interconnections of those very categories. For instance, what exactly counts as “agriculture?” Turning Indians into farmers was one of the stated goals of nearly two hundred years of federal assimilation policies in the United States. But all throughout the heterogeneous communities of Indian country, Native people responded by reworking their own understandings of agriculture to fit within the new colonial parameters, creating alternatives to an emerging industrial food system that were hidden in plain sight. Even radical colonial programs like allotment—the forced privatization of Native American landownership—were re-engineered by Indians to suit their own agricultural needs and desires, far beyond the expectations of Indian office personnel. It isn’t just the wapiti and the wapato that their ancestors ate that deserve our attention, but the food histories of Native people who lived, died, thrived, and struggled along with other American communities in a modern, and not prehistorical, world.

On a recent research trip, I stayed at a bed and breakfast run by a health food and fitness buff, who, in all earnestness, asked me about secret “Native superfoods” that scholars had recovered from the dustbin of history. Not only did his question indicate a misconception of the work I just tried to explain to him (hey, he asked!), but it also rankled my early-morning acerbity. So I responded, straight-faced, with “pizza.” I had wanted to deliver this joke for a long time, having heard it in a different context from a professional bike racing friend, who always provided it as a one-word description of his nutritional regimen. Nevertheless, I felt guilty about my intrusion into the proprietor’s foodie dream world. “Pizza?” he asked, with disappointed eyes. With the so-called food revolution in full swing, it seems like there will be popular demand for “Native superfoods” for quite some time, along with plenty of people to round out the supply. The task for food historians, however, is to bring Native food histories out of the timeless past, and to give them the critical, historical attention they deserve. We have a lot of work to do.

Michael Wise is an Assistant Professor of Environmental History and the History of the American West at the University of North Texas. He is the author of Producing Predators: Wolves, Work, and Conquest in the Northern Rockies, the co-editor of The Routledge History of American Foodways, and the co-editor of the book series Food and Foodways published by the University of Arkansas Press.