Fort Dearborn Day, Indigenous Peoples and Their Food

Eager to try food actually eaten by pre-contact people in upper North America

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By David Hammond

Today, August 15, is Fort Dearborn Day, the 200th anniversary of the fight that took place in what is now the Southside of Chicago (18th and Prairie). Residents of the fort, which used to be at Michigan and Wacker, evacuated and were a few miles out when most of them were killed by Potawatomie. Some call it a "massacre," and others dispute the term. No doubt, neither side had a problem with killing civilians.

And on the subject of terminology, I've come to the conclusion that the very word "indigenous" is disingenuous. If by "indigenous" we mean "belonging to a place," then who's to say who belongs where?

Our honored "native" American brothers and sisters did not spring from the soil of North America: they journeyed across the Bering Straits from elsewhere.

The only truly indigenous people are probably in Africa, from which we all, to the best of my knowledge, came.

So we're all, basically, African-Americans. But that's another issue. What I'm concerned about is food.

Last week I was at a Dave Mason* concert in Seattle. It was part of the Festival on the River, held every year by the Stillaguamash. In the picture, check out the SS insignias on the backwoods biker half-wits sitting in front of me; a different sort of tribe, I guess, and one with a much less sympathetic history.

The food served at this celebration were bison and fry bread, both generally accepted as Native American cuisine.

I had the bison burger, and it was terrible. I like bison; this was just a sad-ass preparation, basically a cheese burger with un-melted cheese, over-cooked meat, just a stupid sandwich. I will seek better versions, soon.

The fry bread I had, however, was quite satisfying: I went "deluxe" with an Indian taco, which is fry bread topped with some spicy condiments, very tasty.

But here's what's strikes me as odd about this beloved food.

This dish, fry bread, which is now so completely identified with the food of upper North America's native peoples, could not have been eaten before Euro-Americans put them on reservations and gave them distributions of wheat flour and oil, neither of which are traditional or "indigenous" foodstuffs. As my Cherokee sister-in-law mentioned, "We didn't do wheat and oil."

I'm eager to try some food actually eaten by pre-contact people in upper North America, but even at pow-wows it's pretty much bison and fry bread, the latter of which is a very late development.

Still, pretty tasty. I like fry bread.

History is twisted.


*You know Mason's tunes: "There ain't no good guys, there ain't no bad guys," etc.

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