Intertribal Foodways: An Interview With Brian Yazzie

The Navajo Nation, #FeedingOurElders, Creating Abundance; words by Adrienne Katz Kennedy

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If you’ve been paying attention to American news media this year you may have come across two startling statistics about the Navajo Nation, the Indigenous tribal reservation spread over state boundaries in Arizona, Utah and New Mexico. The first is that it has the highest rate of Covid-19 in the country, a sad indictment of an absence of federal help, high rates of poverty and lack of infrastructure, an end point of decades of damaging government policies. The second, possibly related, is that if you look at voting patterns across Arizona, you will see that areas with high Indigenous populations, including the Navajo Nation, almost entirely coincide with counties that came out overwhelmingly against Trump. Given the margins involved, it may well be that the votes of people like the Navajo, so often disenfranchised and unvoiced, flipped the state of Arizona.

Today’s article, which happens to coincide with Thanksgiving, is an interview with Navajo chef Brian Yazzie, discussing his experience of the coronavirus pandemic, and the areas of commonality that Indigenous cuisines share across America. Indigenous cuisines have not historically been permitted to develop in parallel to other regional and global cuisines, which usually undergo a free-flowing borrowing of ingredients and influencing; rather they have undergone a rupture. As Zoe Heaps Tennant details in her brilliant piece in Granta on Native Canadian cuisine, to move forward necessitates omission, of going back to the past, to a pre-colonial methodology. This act, which is as much political as it is culinary, then poses some knotty questions on tradition and authenticity. To what extent are they straight-jackets? To what extent do these restrictions form the basis of creativity?

The following interview was conducted by Adrienne Katz Kennedy over two sessions in April and August, one in full flow of lockdown and one when restrictions had been lifted. Do make sure to read to the end where you will find Yazzie’s recipe for parched corn grits, and some more information on how to support his work.

An Interview With Brian Yazzie, by Adrienne Katz Kennedy

“Indigenous peoples have always been put on the back burners, especially during these trying times. As an Indigenous chef, I have to focus on my community and make moves” says Brian Yazzie; an activist, traveling chef, consultant and proud member of the Navajo Nation (Diné) in Arizona. The Diné are a culture whose present-day identity has partially been built upon the power of resilience, having undergone violent marginalisation and the displacement of the Long Walk during the 19th century. The Navajo Nation, an Indigenous tribal reservation and community that spans over four states, is a product of that resilience: the largest area retained by an Indigenous tribe in the US with over 173,000 members living within its borders. 

The first time Brian and I talk is in April 2020, a month into the shutdown across the US. Brian, now based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, describes the task force he’s helped put together named #FeedingOurElders. With work drying up and the city in lockdown, he and a team of local, mostly Indigenous chefs have set up inside the kitchens of the temporarily shuttered Gatherings Café, situated inside the Minneapolis Indian Cultural Center. Every day, Yazzie and his team work together to cook fresh meals for self-isolating Indigenous Elders within the South Minneapolis community. The dishes they make are largely based on the Indigenous ingredients that existed in the Americas pre-European contact. This means no dairy, wheat, pork, chicken, beef or sugar; instead, there are staples like corn, beans, squash, and manoomin, enlivened with wild berries, sumac, juniper, amaranth and other foraged plants.

As Yazzie threw himself into gathering resources and churning out heartfelt dishes to Minneapolis’s vulnerable population, he could have little idea of what was to come. A month later, the brutal killing of George Floyd set off a tsunami of protests throughout the city.  The team managed to keep the project afloat throughout, at one point boarding up windows of the Minneapolis Indian Cultural Center building to ensure they could keep going alongside the uprisings and civil unrest. Members of The American Indian Movement patrolled the South Minneapolis area at night to ensure everyone, both on the streets and in their homes, were kept safe. The community rallied around each other.

Brian and I chat again in late August. He has since served 25,000 meals and been named executive chef of Gatherings Café, his first non-traveling job in years, with hopeful plans to re-open the café to the public in January. As we talk, I hear the dinging of his car door as he shuttles around, running errands on his first ‘week off’ from the #FeedingOurElders project in months – although as our discussion progresses, I come to doubt whether or not Yazzie has ever actually taken a day ‘off’. 

Can you tell me a bit about your interests within both food and activism? Did one come before the other?

My interest in food came before my interest in activism. I started cooking at the age of 7, helping my mom out in the kitchen. It was out of curiosity. She was a single parent in a household with me and 8 siblings. I was the youngest and was always left behind at home. My older siblings were either out playing or had already moved out.

Just seeing my mom come home from work, and how instead of relaxing she would just go straight into the kitchen: that curiosity of the smell and the knife chopping away on the cutting board, and that unconditional love, I just wanted to be a part of that and to pay it back somehow. All throughout school I would do a lot of barbecues for family and friends. I did a couple restaurants in my late teens and early twenties, just a couple spots but it wasn’t really until 2014 when I attended St. Paul College of Culinary Arts and we had to do this assignment where we picked one dish from one cuisine. For me it was going to be either Japanese cuisine or Southern cuisine because I like cooking outside. I was looking at these different cookbooks and I realized that, over at least 50% of the ingredients I was seeing that were used across the world were ingredients that came from the Americas. So then I started looking at corn, at beans, squash, tomatoes and I started looking at how other cuisines like French and Italian wouldn’t be the way they are without corn, beans and squash. And then I started wondering what the cuisine might have been before these types of ingredients were introduced. I started by looking at my Navajo food culture, but then I started expanding more [to look at other Indigenous food cultures] because I was in Dakota land and Ojibwe land and I was far away from home. I just kept going down that path.

What brought you out to Minnesota from Arizona?

It was opportunities. I mean I went to four different high schools and I barely made it out with a high school diploma at the age of 25. I ended up doing the rest of the work at home. I always use the phrase ‘cooking saved my life’ especially when talking to the youth, but it’s because it did. It’s exactly what happened. I was in gang activities and a negative environment in my teen years, in and out of county jails. I mean I was blessed not to end up in prison or passed on. I’d be on the streets days at a time and then I’d have my sisters calling me to check in and asking if I would come home and cook for them, because they missed my cooking. Cooking was the thing that turned the negative to positive and so it’s what I use when talking with the youth today. 

Alongside talking about Indigenous cuisine I also make sure to talk about my own experience and background and how you can turn it around from a negative experience to a positive one, while identifying my food culture as part of the process on that path.

Can you talk a little bit more about some of your food practices growing up? 

My mom and her mom are both medicine women within my community and my Navajo culture. I can remember my mom and my grandma foraging for food and for medicine. I can remember her foraging for wild spinach now known as lambs quarters, or wild onions or carrots – those all grow in the Southwest. I can remember my mom and my aunties as well, just glimpses really, harvesting sumac and juniper berries or even piñon. Somehow a glimpse of this stuck with me. I was in diapers and running around the backwoods while my mom and aunties foraged these ingredients, me just digging in and eating what I wanted to as a kid… Now I try to learn as much as I can as a chef about the ethno-botany within my own landscape. My grandma, mom and aunties are also the last foragers that I know of within my family.

Do you think your past and the experience you’ve had have made you more passionate and driven to give back within your own work?

Definitely. A lot of the kids in tribal communities are without parents or a father so for me, I’m an example of that. I mean my household wasn’t a broken household, my father passed away when I was five from a heart attack. My brother passed away from a heart attack as well, so there’s that family heart disease. But I can use that now as a tool to better myself, and make sure I don’t have any type of heart condition or heart disease. I can also attach that to the path that I’m on by connecting with kids by letting them know about my life growing up without a father and what I went through.

Does that experience drive you to promote better health within those communities as well?

For sure. Recently in this situation I’m seeing lots of people of colour out on the front lines, doing what they needed to, but they’re suffering. The Indigenous community within the Twin Cities was also being overlooked. They were put on the backburner. And so with our project, that was also my way of staying connected to my culture and my roots. I wanted to light up a fire and start some type of project to help. I was trying to find a way to stay connected to the community through food. Finding this project, starting this project – it’s something beautiful that has come out of all of this and from going with the flow. It’s been a life changing experience. 

Can you tell me more about the logistics of the project, the size of the team, how it works etc.?

Sure. Back in March everything had been cancelled, all of my work had been cancelled and I had been home for a couple weeks just self-isolating to make sure I didn’t have anything… I wanted to reach out to the local communities to see if there was anything going on to help. I reached out to a friend of mine named Ben Shendo [former executive chef of Gatherings] to ask how I could help him serve the community or fundraise or network or anything. He told me the executive director of the Indian Center, Mary LaGarde, had received a grant from Blue Cross Blue Shield to start a project to feed the community and she was looking for a group of people to lead it. We started with what was in the pantry, what was in the freezer, the fridge… we emptied out everything before we started purchasing ingredients. 

I wanted to use the philosophy and the mission I was on as a chef to try and implement as many Indigenous ingredients as possible into the food, especially during the pandemic. We [Indigenous people] use the term ‘food is medicine’ so it was critical for Elders during this pandemic to have very nutritional meals to help them keep their immune systems strong. I started reaching out to local, regional and then national Native food producers and vendors. We received olive oil made by a tribe in California, blue corn from a tribe in the Southwest, this one specific type of bean that’s only grown in the Southwest. We started receiving these types of ingredients, and then implementing them in a way that at least 50% of the food in our daily meals was from Indigenous ingredients. We’re able to provide the Elders with Indigenous teas and other types of [plant-based] medicine bundles and hygiene products that we can include with the meal every other Friday. So as a community we’re all coming together and we’re trying to make it fun.

This isn’t your first time working directly with feeding people, and specifically Indigenous people in the midst of crisis. Can you tell me about your experience at Standing Rock in 2016, protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline and trying to protect the water sources and sacred land?

My wife and I were still in college and the idea actually came from her. We were on a break from school and we didn’t know what to do, and we always talk about ‘how can we help?’ – back then it was at Standing Rock. She said, ‘let’s just pack up our stuff and go find out what’s going on’. We spent about a week out there checking out the area and the kitchen. And then about a month later, just as winter was coming up, we took a 27-foot U-Haul truck with blankets, camping supplies and clothing but most of it was filled up with food so we could supply the main kitchen. I wanted to supply as much fresh and hot food as possible and not use a lot of canned foods or highly processed foods. I never actually stepped on the front line physically. My front line was just in the kitchen. I wanted to make sure those in the front lines who were fighting for Indigenous rights were being fed well. My own empowerment was coming from the food as well. That was my way of contributing to the cause. 

I remember my first trip out to see what it was like, see what the kitchen was like. I remember stepping into the pantry area and having some type of ancestral memory that came through me – just looking at the products in this army tent. On the left side there were just rows of Crisco oil and on the right side there were just rows of flour and with my tribe, Navajo, that’s how fry bread specifically came about. It came out of struggle. It came out of survival [of Navajo internment camps, following the Long Walk]. So that came to mind, and thinking about what they went through – that is an experience I will never forget. And I promised to myself, ‘while I’m here cooking I’m going to put out as much fresh ingredients as possible.’ 

Could you explain the history of fry bread, within your experience?

Sure, within the Southwest tribe is what I can speak for. So, with my tribe, the majority of the Navajo in Arizona around the 1850s and 1860s surrendered to the US Army and were put into internment camps in New Mexico. The only reason why the tribe members surrendered was because the US Army burnt their food supplies and their livestock and killed their wild game. The tribe had to surrender to Hwéeldi, which is what we call The Long Walk. My ancestors walked at least 350 miles on foot, and a lot of people died along the way. When they got to the internment camp, it was foreign and whatever rations they were given were foreign to them too. They were given wheat flour, pork fat or shortening, and coffee as well. They didn’t know what to do with these ingredients, but by mixing salt, water and flour that’s how fry bread came about. That’s the survival of it and the story behind it.

Traveling around to countless tribal communities I realised that majority of the communities are still on a third world poverty status and fry bread is still one of the main staples on reservations… I have never made fry bread and I stopped eating fry bread about five years ago to try to set an example and a reflection of the work that I do creating healthy alternative foods.

Where do you see the #FeedingOurElders program going in the future?

I’m trying to build a safe space where there aren’t boundaries around gender or culture – one that also doesn’t include tossing a pot around if I’m mad, or verbally abusing a cook or an intern if they didn’t cook something right. Indigenous people believe that whatever vibe you have when you’re cooking is what you share with your customers or your family or whomever you serve. That’s one thing that my mom has always taught me. If you’re mad, you’re sad or you’re depressed, don’t be in the kitchen. I thought it was a joke or just a saying but actually it’s the reality, and it’s different from the western mentality. If I’m not feeling good and I say that I can’t come in, well, that’s unheard of in the western culinary perspective. But for the team and me, if you’re not feeling good on that day, if you’re going through something, you can stay home. The sharing of the kitchen, that humility, that’s what I’m aiming for – dismantling all of the patriarchy in the kitchen. 

I mean, it all comes from my mom, whatever I do. Even if I’m thousands of miles away, what I do is a reflection of my community and my mom, and my actions will be reflected back to them so I’ve got to remember that too!

Intertribal Food Ways Parched Corn Grits 

Corn mush, similar to grits, is a traditional and celebrated Indigenous food across much of the Americas. The addition of Juniper ash or hardwood ash from trees like Birch or Cedar, when available, is also traditional to the preparation of corn. It is a process now known as nixtamalization and can also be achieved by soaking the maize/hominy in an alkaline solution like limewater. This process helps to break down the maize in such a way it releases nutrients and simultaneously increases its digestibility. This significant process is one that has sustained Native populations since time immemorial, yet was notably, mistakenly left out during the importation of corn by Europeans, thus changing the significance of the ingredient entirely.

  • 7 cups (1.6l) water

  • 1 tbsp juniper ash (if accessible)

  • 1 ½ cup (385g) Pima corn grits*, polenta or cornmeal (corn flour)

  • 3-4 tbsp duck or any game fat

  • ¼ cup (85g) honey

  • 1-2 tbsp chilli flakes

*Sourced from Ramona Farms, a Native American (Akimel O’Odham) owned business in Sacaton, Arizona. 

In a medium-sized saucepan, bring the water to a boil over a medium-high heat. Add juniper ash and whisk constantly for 30 seconds. Then, gradually add corn grits, continuing to whisk until it is all incorporated. Reduce heat and simmer for 10–15 minutes, whisking occasionally. Add more water if needed for desired texture. 

Remove grits from heat and add duck or game fat, honey and chilli flakes. Whisk thoroughly, taste for seasoning and serve with your favorite toppings. Yazzie’s favourites include toasted pumpkin and sunflower seeds, dried cranberries or cherries, bison or wild game jerk crumbles, maple syrup or honey, berry sauce or a fruit compote.

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Brian Yazzie is a chef based in Minneapolis - you can find him on Instagram and Twitter as @yazzie_thechef. Brian is also part of a small team of three working to bring relief and support to members of his community in Arizona through the Dennehotso Families Covid-19 Relief Fund. You can help support this grassroots project by visiting their GoFundMe page: donate funds to #FeedingOurElders through 

Adrienne Katz Kennedy is a food and culture writer based in London. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter as @akatzkennedy.