What began as a day of recognition in the early 1900s with American Indian Day is now a monthlong celebration of the rich cultures and traditions of American Indians. Also known as American Indian Heritage Month or American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month, National Native American Heritage Month honors the many Indigenous peoples of the United States. Each November, we celebrate the history, culture, traditions, and contributions American Indians and Alaska Natives have made in shaping the United States. This year, the celebration is historic, with President Biden’s proclamation marking Indigenous Peoples’ Day in October.
In honor of Native American Heritage Month, we’re highlighting a few prominent American Indian and Alaska Native chefs who have made their mark in the food world, help record, preserve, revitalize, and provide greater access to Indigenous food staples and recipes, in addition to educating others about the Indigenous way of life.
Hillel Echo-Hawk is a speaker, chef, and catering business owner of Pawnee and Athabaskan descent. Echo-Hawk's interest in food was inspired by growing up near the home of Katie John, an Alaska Native and subsistence fishing rights activist, in addition to watching her mother craft healthy meals for her family. Echo-Hawk worked for years in some of Seattle’s most popular restaurants before starting her catering business, Birch Basket.
Frequently speaking at conferences, Echo-Hawk's culinary perspective is the focus of her catering business – indigenous food made from local, ethical, sustainable, and, most importantly, pre-colonial ingredients (no dairy, beef, chicken, or wheat). On her catering site, Echo-Hawk says that she believes “food should feed not only the body, but the spirit of the entire community.”
Partnering with hunters and foragers
Diné (Navajo) chef Brian Yazzie is a private chef and caterer focused on crafting and promoting healthy indigenous cuisine. Yazzie works with hunters, foragers, and farmers to source indigenous ingredients, prepare them with modern techniques, and promote pre-colonial foodways.
Focusing on plant-based cuisine
Kristina Stanley of the Red Cliff Lake Superior Chippewa Tribe is a pastry chef and food activist with a successful business focused on local, traditional ingredients. Stanley owns and runs Abaaso Foods, specializing in “vegan deli and bakery items produced using foraged, local, tribal sourced, and indigenous ingredients,” and operating out of the Madison Public Market. Stanley’s plant-based culinary perspective puts nutrient-dense seed-based and nut-based products in the foreground, along with indigenous ingredients like mesquite and wild rice.
Like Yazzie and Echo-Hawk, Stanley is a member of the I-Collective, a nonprofit organization signifying four principles: Indigenous, Inspired, Innovative, and Independent. Members of the I-Collective include chefs, herbalists, and activists actively engaged in preserving indigenous seeds and cultural tradition. The I-Collective's wish – “Together, let’s celebrate a new narrative with an Indigenous framework: collective promotion of a healthy food system that values people, traditional knowledge, and the planet over profit.”
Revitalizing indigenous foodways
Sean Sherman, Oglala Lakota, is an award-winning chef, author, speaker, educator, food activist, restaurateur, and nonprofit co-founder. Co-owner of The Sioux Chef, an indigenous food education business and catering company, Sherman has dedicated his culinary career to reclaiming indigenous foodways, helping Indigenous peoples achieve food sovereignty, educating people about indigenous food, and cooking traditional foods with modern culinary techniques. In addition to co-owning The Sioux Chef, Sherman is the co-founder of North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems (NATIFS), “a nonprofit dedicated to addressing the economic and health crises affecting Native communities by reestablishing Native foodways.”
Sherman, who calls himself the Sioux Chef, is the 2018 recipient of the James Beard Foundation’s Best American Cookbook and a 2019 James Beard Foundation Leadership Award winner. To better understand the vital work Sherman does, check out his presentation from the 20th annual World of Flavors at the Culinary Institute of America.
Sample just a few of the flavors and ingredients of Native American cuisine by trying these recipes at home: Lemon-Herb Baked Rainbow Trout, Herbed Wild Rice, and Nasaump.
Lemon-Herb Baked Rainbow Trout
3 pounds rainbow trout fillets 2 lemons
1 ½ tablespoons vegetable oil 1 ½ teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons fresh tarragon, picked and chopped ¾ teaspoon ground black pepper
1 ½ tablespoons fresh marjoram, picked and chopped
STEP 1: Preheat oven to 350°F and juice lemons.
STEP 2: Season fillets with oil, lemon juice, herbs, and spices.
STEP 3: Lay out fillets on a parchment paper lined sheet pan(s) and cook for 10-15 minutes.
Herbed Wild Rice
⅔ cup wild rice blend 2 ¼ tablespoons fresh marjoram, picked and chopped
1 ½ cups water ¾ teaspoon kosher salt
¾ teaspoon extra virgin olive oil ¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
1 ½ teaspoons fresh parsley, chopped
STEP 1: Bring water and salt to a boil. Stir in rice, reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer until rice is tender, about 25 minutes. Remove from heat. Let stand for 5 minutes.
STEP 2: Transfer rice to a bowl and stir in olive oil, parsley, and marjoram. Season with pepper and salt to taste.
1 ⅓ cups yellow cornmeal ⅓ cup fresh blueberries
¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons water ¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons unsalted, toasted sunflower seeds
3 fresh strawberries, sliced 2 ½ tablespoons maple syrup
¼ cup fresh raspberries
STEP 1: Boil cornmeal in water until it thickens, and the consistency is similar to porridge or oatmeal.
STEP 2: Once cornmeal comes to a boil, add strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries.
STEP 3: Add sunflower seeds and syrup.
STEP 4: Reduce heat to medium and cook, stirring frequently, for 15 minutes.