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, “a taste of confinement and oppression.”
For many Native Americans, fry bread, a flat dough fried in oil or lard, brings up painful memories of a time when Native people were forcibly removed from their homes and land and made to survive off military food rations. Fry bread was improvised from those rations, born of ingredients that represented a forced dependency on outsiders. It has a complex and sensitive history that is often overlooked. And yet it’s the only food item many outsiders know of when it comes to Native American cuisine.
As Craig remembers it, the mention of fry bread in his culinary school course didn’t get into that history or nuance. 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. “It is my responsibility to contribute to something I believe in and have been engaged in all my life, whether I knew it or not,” he says.
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, which is owned and operated by the White Mountain Apache Tribe. Visitors at the resort — it’s open to anyone — can try their hand at snowshoeing and ice fishing in the winter and ziplining and disk golfing in the summer. 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. “Clans are named after places where medicine and food plant relatives grow, or where they choose to live,” Craig has written. “My son, my brothers and our boys are sons of sacred mountains, as are all other White Mountain Apaches and Navajo…We are sons of sacred mountains.”
The restaurant has featured menu items like Heirloom Chicken with Gnocchi and Reservation-grown Winter Squash and Wilted Greens, dishes “native” in the sense that ingredients are local and prepared by cooks who identify as Native American. But visitors who book the Chef’s Table, a cozy, four-person table located in the kitchen, get to dine on Craig’s own interpretation of traditionally Apache dishes. He has created renditions of Acorn Stew and seared rack of rabbit, as well as culinary interpretations of his culture.
For instance, the dish in the picture below is called Masáána bik’os ndeezi bigową or “The Long-Neck Apple’s House.” Craig’s blog explains that it uses pears and spun sugar to recreate an edible Apache dwelling, or wikiup, also called gowah, or “home,” in the Apache language.
In 2011, Craig started a blog called Apaches in the Kitchen, offering readers a taste of his culinary world, an insider’s perspective on “Native American cuisine,” and a rich tapestry of untapped history and culture. When Chef Craig’s blog caught my eye, I couldn’t help but reach out to learn more about this history-mining chef and his craft.
Code Switch: So what, exactly, is Native American cuisine?
Chef Nephi Craig: One of the misconceptions about Native American cuisine is even attaching the word “cuisine” to our food ways. The biggest misconception about Native American cuisine is that it doesn’t exist. And that’s not true. Unfortunately Native American people, myself included, are conceptualized and romanticized and set in a certain time period so if you were to just Google ‘Native American,’ you’re going to find all of these images from the 1800s, majority of them Plains Indians, Plains tribes. We’re really set in a certain time period, and that’s how dominant society perceives us.
Native cooking and Native food ways or Native cuisine very much does exist, and it is very much representative of the people and landscapes. It’s when you look at the ingredients of indigenous food ways, it’s very complex and vibrant, nutritious, and very sophisticated. Just like all our other art forms, it mirrors who we are. There’s no separation with you and your food, and you and your food ways, and your indigenous landscape.
Native American cuisine is right now, to me, in my generation and in this time frame, not about fine dining as a priority. I know it does have that element and aspect. If you were to look up some of my work on the internet, it creates an impression that it’s about that, but it’s really not. There’s a much deeper level to it where it’s about restoration of balance, equipping families and individuals with the ability to change their lives and cope with and live an indigenous life under all these different forms of colonialism in America.
What would you like those who aren’t familiar with your food culture to better understand about it?
Our work with Native foods and Native food ways is really about restoration and of balance, and this reclamation of our identity through food and landscape and health. That’s really the direction that I’m taking with my basic understanding of Western Apache cooking.
As far as White Mountain Apache people, there’s seven different federally recognized groups of Apaches, so one group of Apaches is not just “Apache.” I’m a part of the Western Apache group, which consists of four different bands, and my tribe is the White Mountain Apache tribe.
As far as us and our identity… society should know that we’re still very much engaged in this battle to keep our identity and our cultural lives. We’re still very sophisticated and complex. We’re not set in that black-and-white photographic era that you’ll find in Google. We’re very much a reflection of our indigenous food ingredients and landscapes. We’re not a reflection of that romanticized idea of the last Indian, or the “noble savage” or all these different concepts that have been created for us, not by us.
We’re in an age where we’re retelling stories and piecing together histories for ourselves based on our ancestral memory, ancestral dignity and cultural intuition for ancestral justice, and people need to be extremely respectful and supportive in that effort because it’s like a family going through a recovery process from a very traumatic event. It’s that profound, and people need to allow space for us to take care of ourselves before we can try to fix other people’s problems. Be smart enough to be kind, essentially.
How does this history, and the retelling of your peoples’ story, tie in with your line of work?
In the 1500s, or 1492, refugees were leaving Europe, being persecuted, and there was a certain class system in Europe, all over Eurasia. The type of civilization that existed in Europe also came with a certain perception of food ways, and this was an entire culture that was foreign to indigenous ways of being and eating and interacting with the landscape.
So this comes with settler colonialism and enters America, and as all these forms of genocide and ethno-genocide are employed, and Native people are wiped out and the land violently appropriated, there’s no longer these delicate and intricate trade routes with Native peoples and different tribes, and different methods of indigenous agriculture. Strategic agriculture is no longer practiced. They’re replaced by a European, Westernized way of thinking about food and land ownership.
When people want to understand Native American cuisine, this whole story has to be told. In a restaurant culture that thrives on selling pleasure and selling experiences and promoting having a good time, the last thing many people may want to do is have this really serious conversation around indigenous food ways. That dismisses the false American narrative of our history and really begins to tell and prove this really amazing food history. And that reflects us, too.
So I think that there’s a Westernized kind of way of eating and thinking that is very different because for us, we aren’t a restaurant culture at all. If you look across the board at all the reservations across the country, since long as we can remember, we’ve never really had the idea of dining in a restaurant. It’s only been in Europe for a couple of centuries. And for us, it’s a whole different concept.
And even though we get we’re in 2016, very much in tune with the times, and adapted, and moving forward, it’s still an idea that doesn’t match with our core indigenous beliefs. It doesn’t really mesh. So to think of it as a community member, seeing fine-dining Native American cuisine restaurants in New York or Chicago or Seattle doesn’t really make sense at this point. Like ‘Why is that there?’ It’s such a strange phenomenon.
Is that why you got started in cooking in the first place?
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 used to watch Great Chefs of the World on Discovery Channel before Food Network even existed. I used to watch and think ‘Wow, I could probably do that. That looks really cool.’ I was very interested in the creative side of what was being put on the plate, and I felt like I could do that. So I got out of school and thought maybe I would give it a shot.
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.
As a Native chef, I wanted to ultimately do something with Native food, but I was focused on classical French training because in my mind [that] was like the best and the most fundamental.
But Native foods took me down a whole different realm and changed my life forever, and so now all of that continues to inspire me. Those stories of survival and resilience and tenacity and courage and now, this age of accountability to ourselves and also society’s accountability to us to allow us to retell these stories, these histories.
So after learning classical French cooking, traveling to so many places, and being exposed to so many different influences, how did you go back to your roots?
My identity is I’m White Mountain Apache [on his mother’s side] and Navajo on my father’s side. I’m half-and-half if you want to say that. I’m a father and a husband first, and a community member in my tribe. Definitely an advocate.
As far as where that all fits in on the larger global history, I’m not the only one who’s engaged in this battle through food ways. From Argentina to Alaska, there’s these pockets of resilience that are mirroring their ancestral memory of the landscape. When individuals like myself hear those genetic messages that are based on a relationship to the landscape, we can hear them articulate these histories in a way that has integrity and dignity, and we can speak for ourselves first, about our families and our communities in a way that hopefully protects our landscapes and our cultures.
So not only do we become land advocates, like we’ve always been, but in a different age where we’re so connected, I feel like I’m in a part of an indigenous resurgence. Western Apache cuisine is just one colorful thread in this larger tapestry of indigenous restoration and resilience.
Of all the places in all the world, how did you get to Sunrise Park Resort and where you are today?
After all that international travel I started as a line cook and on the first day in this kitchen as a line cook, the whole staff was White Mountain Apache. My mind was blown. I had just come back from all of these places in the world, feeling all these sentiments of wanting to do Native foods, and even though this kitchen was old and banged up and needed a lot of work — the food was really processed — the staff and spirit of the kitchen was all native, and it blew my mind.
And that position vacated, I applied, and got the job, and a year and a half into the job is when I started the Apaches in the Kitchen blog. Not knowing if this was going to last or work, but feeling that this moment in time had to be documented and captured. Anything that we created with our team of Apaches with servers, culinary staff, cooks, and chefs, has been tried to look at from a cultural occurrence.
Even though we could be cooking pasta and classical sauces and ingredients, it’s all being produced by a team of White Mountain Apache chefs, therefore making it regional White Mountain Apache cooking. We’re taking it back. That was how I arrived at this post. It’s been an ongoing journey of understanding it all.
What’s in the future of Native foods in the larger scale of the food world?
As other chefs and food practitioners and companies see the growth and development and the appeal to it, I hope they approach it with a sense of cultural sensitivity and that they build healthy working relationships with Native peoples first, before engaging in cultural appropriation of food ways.
I think that’s really important because the whole world is going local, sustainable, ecologically sound, all those buzzwords, and essentially ‘going green’ is ‘going native.’ What we’re realizing is that as our global food system situation gets more and more urgent, we’re going to be looking to these.
We’re already looking at these indigenous principles of land stewardship to maintain the planet for the world, for humanity, and you know in the process of studying and researching those food ways, and even opening restaurants, I really hope that organizations and people pay attention and have some accountability when developing that because if not, it’s just a form of cultural appropriation.
And within your community?
Many of our people living under the oppressive conditions of everyday life in poverty, or in poverty on the reservations, are too busy surviving modern-day colonialism to begin to think about decolonization pathways toward shifting perspectives around foods like fry bread.
This is why it is sensitive, I feel, because some of us are in a position of privilege to have access to education, safety, healthy food options or just food in general and many of our Native people that are oppressed spiritually, emotionally and physically by the bounds of colonialism and shape-shifting colonialism do not have that food privilege.
Non-Native people, scholars and chefs can be quick to make assumptions or condemn many flour-based breads before experiencing our people’s desperation for food, and humble desire to feed their families, even if it has to occasionally be with fry bread. I am reminded of this all the time in my community. This is where the real work begins — at home — and will remain there for more generations because it is a true culinary paradigm shift for us all.