Take a little nibble of frybread and close your eyes.
Hear the ancient winds chanting through the canyons?
Feel the sunlight on your bare skin?
Smell the cedar and sage perfuming the air?
Can you taste the blessing of life?
More than 500 Native American tribes can. For them, frybread history epitomizes a time when they were destitute and steeped in hopelessness. Uprooted from their homelands, and incarcerated on reservations mapped out by the U.S. government, Indigenous people were no longer privy to familiar hunting, trapping and fishing domains. Starving and relying on scarce Army rations in the 1800s, Native Americans concocted a simple bread that became a lifesaver.
History’s Most Startling Frybread Story
Between 1864 and 1866, scout Kit Carson and the U.S. Cavalry drove the Navajos (Diné) from their homes on the Colorado Plateau to Window Rock, Arizona. From there, they were herded like cattle to Fort Sumner, New Mexico, a reservation along the Pecos River in eastern New Mexico.
Navajos called it Hwéeldi.
As many as 8,000 Navajos uprooted.
Three to four hundred grueling miles on foot.
Slow, elderly or injured Navajos were often shot and killed.
History calls it The Long Walk of the Navajo.
“Many of the Navajo people went to the Arizona mountains to hide. Some of the people are still living there. The Navajos who lived in the desert or valleys had no place to hide. They were either captured for slaves or killed. Some of the people who were captured were taken to Hwéeldi [Ft. Sumner] as captives.” (John Beyale, Sr., OHLW 1989:42) – From A Navajo Diaspora: The Long Walk to Hwéeldi, by Neal W. Ackerly, Ph.D.
While imprisoned in Fort Sumner, the Diné were given Army rations of flour (varmints included), salt, lard and water. From those few simple ingredients, they created pliable dough, fashioned it into balls, stretched it and fried it in hot lard.
Voilà . . . frybread!
It saved their lives.
It gave them hope.
It ensured the survival of their tribe.
Forget About Frybread?
Most Native Americans share a love and respect for frybread. In recent years, a movement to disqualify frybread as a staple of Native American culture has mostly fallen flat. Who gives up a comfort food that symbolizes the spirit of persistence?
Cut back on eating it and use discretion? Sure. But give up frybread? Never!
It’s even funny!
Frybread is Funny?
T-shirts, cartoons, comedians, competitions and even movies make light of the soul food of the Indigenous.
All tribes want to claim frybread as their own, and they kid each other about who makes the best. Now, “More Than Frybread” is the only feature length film devoted entirely to the love and passion of frybread. It features a fictional frybread competition among twenty-two tribes and spoofs all that is sacred – and not-so-sacred – about the golden-brown delicacy.
You know you want to check it out!
So, eat it plain or stack it high with everything from meat, chicken, and olives to salad, fruit, honey or jam. Just remember…when you take a bite out of frybread, you’re taking a bite straight out of history.
What’s your favorite way to enjoy frybread? Do you make it yourself? Is it a recipe passed down from your grandmother/mother/aunt? For a delicious homemade version, see Lolita Tsosie’s Navajo FryBread recipe. A little simpler version can be found here. Don’t forget to buy your Blue Bird flour first – it’s the best!