Visit a powwow or Native American art market and you’ll likely see at least one food truck or booth selling frybread and Indian tacos with a long line of folks waiting to get one. The tempting fried bread is puffy and hot and can be topped in a variety of ways.
Frybread was born of necessity and has become a staple associated as a “Native American food.” However, frybread was not something Indigenous people ate until they were forced from their homelands and were given commodity boxes to replace the foods they grew, gathered, and hunted.
The Navajo people were hunted down by the U.S. Army in the mid 1800s and were finally forced to relocate from their native lands in Arizona to Bosque Redondo in New Mexico in 1864 on what is called The Long Walk. Hundreds of Navajo people died on the walk and in the imprisonment that followed. In 1868 they were allowed to return to their homelands but in the meantime they had to learn to survive on food that was provided by the government instead of what they grew themselves.
The commodity boxes that the government provided had basics like white flour, lard, salt, and perhaps baking powder. These ingredients, in the hands of the women who had to learn to create something to keep their families alive, became frybread.
A basic dough was made of flour, water, salt, and baking powder, rolled into balls, then flattened before being fried in hot grease. While lacking in nutritional value, frybread did provide calories and fat that could sustain people.
The Navajo name for frybread is bááh dah díníilghaazh, with bááh being a term for baked goods and dah díníilghaazh referring to the bubbling of the hot oil as the frybread cooks, according to the Navajo Word of the Day website.
Frybread spread, as did many things related to Indigenous culture, from tribe to tribe. It also became a cheap staple to feed Indigenous children who were forced away from their families to attend Indian boarding schools to become indoctrinated into white culture. This facilitated the spread of recipes from tribe to tribe.
When you line up at that food truck or booth for frybread today, you may see a dizzying array of options for toppings. Many vendors who offer frybread also offer Indian or Navajo tacos, which uses frybread as the base. Cooked meat, cheese, beans, lettuce, and tomato may then be added to the frybread to create a taco.
Frybread can also be a dessert, sprinkled with powdered sugar, topped with jam, or drizzled with honey. Basically, anything you can put on bread can be put on frybread as a topping.
The Frybread Controversy
Because frybread contributes to health problems and its roots come from forced relocations, government rations, and boarding schools, some Indigenous people have turned away from this food. It isn’t, they say, a traditional Indian food because traditional foods are what was eaten before Europeans arrived. Instead, they encourage a return to healthier foods that sustained their ancestors, like the Three Sisters: corn, beans, and squash.
Many Native Americans have diets that have become tied to government commodity boxes, which often feature foods the government has in excess rather than foods that promote good health. Diabetes and heart disease are common problems and frybread is certainly not a health food.
Others, though, have fond associations with the frybread recipes used in their families for generations. And like other family foods, nobody else’s recipe is as good as your own grandmother’s! Some use a bit of yeast or sugar in their recipe, for example, that make their technique their own.