Life

The Story Of Frybread — From Cheap Staple To Cultural Touchstone


Uproxx

“In your head, they are dying.”

-Dolores O’Riordan

My father raised me off the rez in my mother’s white, European immigrant America. He didn’t want me trapped (mentally or physically) in a place that the country had abandoned. He wanted to be one of those dudes who watches NFL and Clint Eastwood westerns, buys Ford pickups, and chases their dreams. He wanted his boy to be an American.

When I was small, my father and his brother would take me and my cousins into the Olympic mountains to hunt deer and elk. I can still taste the morning mist on my tongue. If I close my eyes, I can still smell those ancient firs and cedars. I can hear the light crunch of the forest floor under my feet — a world dying and regenerating. The flutter of a raven. The slow, ominous creak of tree limbs older than the United States itself.

To this day, I can feel the chill of that mountain air in my bones.

The Power Of Food

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After most hunts, we’d head back to my uncle’s house. Maybe once a year, he’d make frybread. I never knew when it was coming, or why he chose to make it after certain hunts and not others, but when it did happen, I paid rapt attention. I’d study my uncle’s movements as he mixed white flour with milk. A can of Calumet baking powder came off the shelf next, the chief in the war bonnet always felt familiar, comforting even. The smell of gun oil wafted through the house as my dad cleaned rifles in the next room, sitting beside the fireplace.

My uncle always kneaded the soft, glutinous dough in the same big milk glass bowl. Next, he’d roll out little balls, flatten them into discs, and drop them in an old iron skillet, bubbling with canola oil. My job was to lay out the paper towels on a plate for when the hot rounds of dough came out of the oil. It was torture to wait even a minute for them to cool.

We ate our frybread with peanut butter and jam, sitting around the dining room table, as my dad shared stories about walking across the west in the ’60s. As a young man, he lit out to search for details about the life of his estranged father — a bare-knuckle boxer who knocked out the wrong white guy and was thrown in front of a train… by a sheriff.

On the road, dad slept under trees. He foraged for food. He crashed in the dorms at Berkeley. As an Indian, he also got arrested. A lot. He calculated once that he spent two non-consecutive years in jails between 1968 and 1974 for being an Indian with long black hair and daring to walk down the highway.

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