Native Activist 'Blasts' Frybread!
from the Feb. 25th edition of the Arizona Daily Star
By Leslie Linthicum
ALBUQUERQUE - The president of a national Indian-rights organization has fired a hot, greasy little dough ball into the heart of Indian Country. In an essay in a national Indian newspaper, Suzan Shown Harjo urges other American Indians to join her in an abstinence pledge - vowing to never again eat the puffy, fried dough discs sold across the country at powwows, fairs and Indian rodeos.
Harjo says fry bread has replaced "firewater" in stereotypical portrayals of Indians as "simple-minded people who salute the little grease bread and get misty-eyed about it." She knocks the reservation staple as unhealthy and a prime contributor to the growing obesity and diabetes epidemics among Indians.
Harjo is Cheyenne and Muskogee and works in Washington, D.C., as president and executive director of The Morningstar Institute. She also writes a weekly column for Indian Country Today, and she said she has received more response to the fry-bread essay than she has to any others.
At the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque, fry bread was cooking up hot and brown in the Pueblo Harvest Cafe kitchen, and nobody was regarding it as anything but tasty.
"I love fry bread," said Paulene Shebala, half Navajo and half Zuni and the 2003 Miss Indian New Mexico. Shebala's platform as she traveled around the states during her reign was diabetes education. It's not the fry bread that's the problem, she said; it's cars, easy chairs and remote controls.
Richard Johnson, a fitness specialist at the Tohono O'odham Nation near Tucson, acknowledged that fry bread may be a contributing factor to the prevalence of diabetes on the reservation, but certainly not the only one.
Through the Department of Human Services' division of health promotions in Sells, Johnson said, he encourages people to use vegetable oil instead of lard in fry bread and to eat smaller portions. He doubts that Harjo's assault on fry bread will lead to its disappearance, though. "It's a really big thing out here," he said. "The food vendors serve it every day at lunchtime."
Danny Lopez, an instructor at Tohono O'odham Community College, said he couldn't go without fry bread. "I've got to have it at least once in a while," he said, adding that his health-conscious family enjoys fry bread at home just once or twice a month. His wife, Florence, makes it with vegetable oil instead of lard.
Josie Ramon, a Tohono O'odham, said fry bread, like anything else, should be consumed in moderation. "It's very delicious, and something I don't eat all the time," she said.
But, it never existed in American Indian history. Fry bread began its life as a cobbled-together food from U.S. government rations, a way to keep from starving when government occupation kept tribal members from consuming their native foods - elk, buffalo, corn, beans and squash.
In New Mexico, Harjo says, it was born on the banks of the Pecos River in Fort Sumner at what was essentially a concentration camp for Navajos and Apaches forced from their homelands by U.S. raids. The imprisoned Indians were given rations they had never seen before: sacks of white flour, salt and iron pots.
The women did their best with the alien flour and formed dough balls they patted flat and cooked in boiling animal fat over fires. What is now called Navajo fry bread had been born. When Navajos returned to the reservation that had been carved out for them, fry bread came, too.
Indian fry bread does not stand alone. Nearly every culture has some form of sweet fried dough in its gustatory history: New Mexican sopaipillas, New Orleans beignets and old-fashioned American doughnuts, to name a few.
Fry bread is not the sole cause of the rise of Type 2 diabetes among Indians. Navajo Nation Division of Health workers warn against other unhealthful foods that are popular on reservations: sugary sodas, fried chips and fast food.
This story has been edited for length and content. BHO
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