Native American Cuisines: Traditions and Contemporary Contexts

Native American Food Symposium

The smell of pot roast on a Sunday afternoon or the salty taste of popcorn at the movies —  these powerful senses awaken memories and embolden traditions. The smells and tastes of food from the past influence modern cultural make-up. On April 14 at the Native American Cuisines: Traditions and Contemporary Context Symposium, the Oklahoma Center for Humanities (OCH) invites the public to examine and celebrate the role of food in Native American culture.

Every year, OCH develops programs around a central theme. Director of OCH Sean Latham said, “We use that theme to explore big ideas that we think can only be fully illuminated by using the tools of the arts and humanities.” The food symposium combines last year’s theme of food with this year’s theme of homelands.

“It looks not only at food itself but also the role food plays in memory, culture and the way we think about ourselves,” Latham added.

The symposium will draw together native chefs, documentary filmmakers, food historians, policy experts, and political activists to explore the cultural and health effects of indigenous cuisines. The event begins on April 13 at 7 p.m. at the Gilcrease restaurant with a lecture and meal prepared by Ben Jacobs, an Oklahoma native and one of the innovative chefs behind Tocabe restaurant in Denver.

On April 14, panel discussions and film screenings will focus on different aspects of native food culture, ranging from the mental and physical health effects of indigenous cuisines to the work of the historians, seed keepers and chefs who are both recovering and reinventing traditional dishes.

Nico Albert, the executive chef at the Duet, the new jazz club and restaurant soon to open in downtown Tulsa, will be making traditional native foods for the event. Albert breaks down Native American cuisines into two sections: pre-colonialism and post-colonialism. From wild onions to lean game meat, the Native Americans originally had healthy and sustainable diets, and Albert sees the food symposium as a chance to erase the damage done by post-colonial commodity food.

“There are a lot of foods that are commodity foods that we associate with Native American food like fry bread. While representative of our culture and the things we’ve been through, fry bread does not tie us to our roots or the heart of what our people have grown up with,” Albert said.

Albert also focuses on the diversity of culture within the indigenous community. Tribes in the southwest are not the same as tribes in Alaska. “The symposium gets us away from that pan-Indian reality that most people associate us with,” she said. “That Indians live in tepees and eat buffalo. It’s not that way.”

Film director Sterlin Harjo also seeks to shed truth on the individual stories of Native Americans, and the symposium will be premiering a TV pilot, Tradish about Native American cooking, featuring local Tulsa chefs. “It has them picking wild onions right outside the gates of TU, and then integrating that into food that they serve in restaurants downtown,” Latham said.

Smells and tastes directly tie into emotion and memory. The food symposium not only invites the public to ruminate on their own favorite recipes and memories but also introduces them to the recollections and favorite dishes of various Native American tribes.

“The food of our people. That’s where our memory is stored,” Albert said. “Getting those things back enriches our cultural connection.”

The symposium is free and open to everyone, and admission to Gilcrease museum on April 14 is free. Special food-themed tours of the collection, a recipe exchange and a small market will be featured.