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  • Indigenous Health Initiatives, Frybread, and the Marketing of Nontraditional “Traditional” American Indian Foods
  • Devon Mihesuah (bio)

Frybread, the staple of our Native Culture. Yep it just wouldn’t be a perfect meal without it!

anonymous comment on, september 24, 2012

I am so glad to shout from the rooftops that “Frybread” is not “our” Indigenous food and I hate that we have allowed it a place of reverence in our communities.

joely proudfit, pechanga band of luiseño indians, personal communication

frybread varies from tribe to tribe in diameter, thickness, and shape, but is most commonly a plate-sized disk of flour, shortening, and salt that is fried in grease or oil. “Indian tacos” (or, as they are called in the Southwest, “Navajo tacos” and “Hopi tacos”) are frybreads topped with ground meat, beans, cheese, lettuce, and sour cream. Dessert frybreads might be crowned with butter, powdered sugar, chocolate, honey, or syrup. Frybread makes its appearance at fairs, tribal commemorative marches, festivals, powwows, and restaurants. Girls running for the titles of “Tribal Princess” prepare frybread as their talent component. T-shirts are decorated with the slogans “Frybread: Breakfast of Champions,” “Powered by Frybread,” and “Frybread Power.” Frybread enthusiasts are not deterred by Health magazine ranking frybread as one of the fifty fattiest foods in the country.1

Many Indigenous food and health enthusiasts argue that eschewing refined wheat flour, along with other unhealthy foods, in favor of traditional tribal foods is the key to eradicating the obesity and diabetes epidemic among tribal communities. Food activism, however, is not without challenges. In 2003 I wrote for the academic journal American Indian Quarterly about the repercussions of losing traditional foodways knowledge and opined against the overconsumption of frybread.2 My bumper sticker, wall clock, buttons, and T-shirt that feature the word “frybread” with a red line through it appeared for sale on the website CafePress in 2004. As a result, I was assailed by frybread fans as “anti-Indian” and “not really Indian.” [End Page 45]

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Figure 1.

The antifrybread bumper sticker from the author’s “decolonizenow” shop at

A year later the director of the Morning Star Institute, Suzan Shown Harjo, reiterated my notions about frybread in the popular online publication Indian Country Today.3 Frybread fans reacted angrily and the controversy spread across Indian country. Despite Harjo’s incorrect reconstruction of frybread’s history, her essay has been mentioned in almost every newspaper article about frybread since 2005. That same year, determined Native frybread defenders pressured the South Dakota Legislature into designating frybread the “Official State Bread.”4 Elsewhere, Kiowa elder Carol Bronaugh stated that “an Indian person always gets hungry for frybread. Cutting frybread out of an Indian meal would be like cutting out the main ingredient of the entire meal.”5 Gayle Weigle, webmaster of, stated, “It’s like giving up turkey at Thanksgiving. It is a tradition.”6 Recent frybread drama occurred when fitness advocate and star of the weight-loss reality show The Biggest Loser star Jillian Michaels attempted to educate Yavapai Apaches about the dangers of fried flour at a 2010 tribal gathering. She dropped a plate of fried bread in the trash and called it “poison”; in return, a tribal member called her an “idiot” and threw a pile of bread at her. Afterward, she received a poor turnout for her diabetes discussion.7

Spokane writer Sherman Alexie has been called a “frybread expert,” and he states that “frybread is the story of our survival.”8 But whose survival? Most frybread-focused stories and “traditional Native American recipes” sites proclaim frybread the creation of desperate Diné (Navajos) at Bosque Redondo in New Mexico, also known as Hwéeldi (“Place of suffering”), where the U.S. government confined Navajos from 1864 to 1868. This entrenched legend tells us that Navajo women fried their flour rations in lard and thus supplied their people with enough calories and nutrients to survive the ordeal. However, there are no government reports of Navajos at Bosque Redondo frying flour. Testimonies of Navajos whose ancestors who survived the Long Walk and lived at Bosque Redondo make no...