This seemingly simple food is a complicated symbol in Navajo culture

powwow meal of frybread
A frybread meal at a Navajo powwow. Jen Miller

On Dwayne Lewis's first night home on the reservation in northeastern Arizona, he sat in the kitchen, watching his mother prepare dinner. Etta Lewis, 71, set the cast iron skillet on the burner, poured in corn oil, and lit the stove. She began moving a ball of dough back and forth between her hands, until she'd formed a large pancake. She then pierced a hole in the center of the pancake with the back of her thumb, and laid it in the skillet. The bread puffed, and Etta turned it once with the fork, and flipped it over. It's not easy to fashion the perfect piece of frybead, but it had only taken Etta a few seconds to do it. She'd been making the food for so long that the work seemed part of her.

For Lewis and many other Native Americans, frybread links generation with generation and also connects the present to the painful narrative of Native American history. Navajo frybread originated 144 years ago, when the United States forced Indians living in Arizona to make the 300-mile journey known as the "Long Walk" and relocate to New Mexico, onto land that couldn't easily support their traditional staples of vegetables and beans. To prevent the indigenous populations from starving, the government gave them canned goods as well as white flour, processed sugar and lard—the makings of frybread.

Frybread appears to be nothing more than fried dough—like an unsweetened funnel cake, but thicker and softer, full of air bubbles and reservoirs of grease—but it is revered by some as a symbol of Native pride and unity. Indian rocker Keith Secola celebrates the food in his popular song "Frybread." In Sherman Alexie's award-winning film Smoke Signals, one character wears a "Frybread Power" T-shirt. Bothmen call frybread today's most relevant Native American symbol. They say the food's conflicted status—it represents both perseverance and pain—reflects these same elements in Native American history. "Frybread is the story of our survival," says Alexie.

And yet, this cultural unifier is also blamed for contributing to high levels of diabetes and obesity on reservations. One slice of frybread the size of a large paper plate has 700 calories and 25 grams of fat, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In some Native American communities, like the Gila River Pima tribe outside Tucson, Arizona, health service workers estimate that over half the adult population suffers from diabetes. Chaleen Brewer is a nutritionist at the Genesis Diabetes Prevention Program based in the Gila River capital of Sacaton. She says commodity foods like processed cheese, potted meats, and the lard used in making frybread are partly responsible for a "diabetes epidemic" among her people. As Secola puts it, "frybread has killed more Indians than the federal government."

Why are some Native Americans so eager to celebrate a food that represents the brutality of the past and may be harming them in the present? One reason is the food's central role in powwows, intertribal fairs that bring together native artists, religious leaders, musicians—and food vendors. Throughout the 19th century, the Federal government often prohibited intertribal gatherings, and as proud expressions of Indian identity, today's powwows are partly a reaction against that past suppression. Many powwows host frybread competitions, and you'll typically find long lines at frybread stands. Last winter, Leonard Chee, a high-school history teacher who works part-time as a frybread vendor, drove his concessions trailer 330 miles from the Navajo capital in Window Rock to the Thunder in the Desert Powwow in Tucson, Arizona. Eating a slice of frybread at a powwow is like "absorbing everything about the event," he says, adding: "A powwow won't function without frybread."

Chee grew up on the Navajo reservation in Arizona, outside Window Rock. On this reservation, which spans 27,000 square miles of northern Arizona and extends into Utah and New Mexico, some 43 percent of the 180,000 residents live below the federal poverty line, according to Navajo Nation statistics. Unemployment stands at 42 percent. Nearly 32 percent of homes lack plumbing. As a child, Chee sometimes subsisted on frybread. When he says "frybread is Navajo life," he insists he is not glorifying his childhood poverty but accounting for a shared experience of adversity. "Frybread connects tribes," Chee says.

The food's complicated significance was highlighted in 2005 when Indian writer and activist Suzan Shown Harjo led a crusade against frybread in the newspaper Indian Country Today. "Frybread is emblematic of the long trails from home and freedom to confinement and rations," Harjo wrote. "It's the connecting dot between healthy children and obesity, hypertension, diabetes, dialysis, blindness, amputations, and slow death. If frybread were a movie, it would be hard-core porn. No redeeming qualities. Zero nutrition."

The article provoked a flurry of blog posts, letters and follow-up columns from Indians indignant at the attack on such a significant food. Secola believes that Harjo has turned frybread into a scapegoat for the larger problems afflicting reservations, such as the lack of healthful food, nutritional education and good access to health care. He also says it is unrealistic to eradicate a food that holds so much cultural power for Native Americans. The theme of his song "Frybread" is perseverance against oppression. The lyrics describe how the culinary police—Colonel Sanders, Captain Crunch, and Major Rip-Off—try to steal frybread from the people. "But they couldn't keep the people down," Secola sings, "because born to the people was a Frybread Messiah, who said ‘You can't do much with sugar, flour, lard and salt. But you can add one fundamental ingredient: love.'" "Frybread" the song, like frybread the food, is about making something out of nothing.

Dwayne Lewis, who learned the frybread tradition from his grandmother, has staked his economic survival on the food. In November 2006, after selling frybread for years on the powwow circuit, he and his brother Sean opened their restaurant, Arizona Native Frybread, in Mesa. The inside of the cafe has a fast food feel, with plastic booths and an open kitchen. At the counter, you can buy Native American newspapers and "Men and Women of the Navajo" calendars, featuring film and rock stars. The restaurant menu includes traditional Navajo dishes like hominy stew (made with chili, hominy corn and lamb) and a variety of frybread sandwiches, including "Native American tacos" made with green and red chili and beans. Each sandwich is wrapped in an enormous slice of frybread and costs between $6 and $8. The restaurant offers a single slice of frybread for $3.59. These prices are much higher than on reservations, where it's possible to buy a Navajo taco from a road side stand for under $5.

After a year of business, Arizona Native Frybread is struggling. But Lewis is undeterred. "There are very few independent Native American businesses," he says. For Lewis, frybread is a source of pride, because it has allowed him to escape the poverty of the reservation and pursue his dream of becoming an entrepreneur. He has little concern for the frybread controversy or, for that matter, the bread's symbolic value. His is a utilitarian equation. Frybread tastes good. Everybody wants it. So he is selling it.

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