Exploring culture through foods is nothing new to the literary world. Likewise, it’s not new to Native American literature. While we in the literary field know this to be true there is still very little exploration of the topic in thematic terms. How can traditional food and customs associated with consumption of those foods enhance the greater theme of a piece?
Those of you reading this post to learn how to make Native American food may be asking, “What is Native American cuisine?” You’ll have to search a little further to find out details on cooking Native American food, but I’ll give you a little sample of what may constitute Native American cuisine in this article. For further elaboration on the topic of Native American cuisine check out: Foods of the Southwest Indian Nations by Lois Ellen Frank. She taught my ethnobotany course at the Institute of American Indian Arts and knows what she’s talking about. Plus she’s Kiowa so that puts her on my radar. There are a host of other options you can find on Amazon as well. Diabetes is a serious issue among Native peoples so I’m going to link a vital source for healthy eating here: Click Here!
Back when I was a young guy “tearing it” on the Southern Plains of Oklahoma meatpies were indicative of KCA culture (Kiowa, Comanche, and Apache). It was a localized food specific to a certain geographic area. Today, using meatpies as a Kiowa artist, it can be applied for generational specificity in that it “was” localized, and now tribes across Oklahoma and other parts of Native America have latched onto it as a “cultural food.” Living in Tahlequah today I’ve found many Cherokees making meatpies, but when I was growing up in Tahlequah as a child meatpies weren’t in the community so I would dream of trips back to Lawton, Oklahoma (KCA country) where I could get my hands on a meatpie. Oh, the diaspora!
In my short story, Our Dance, you’ll find in the second paragraph of the story the narrator describe receiving his Kiowa per cap, his ahongiah, (which was federally dispersed money where the Kiowa tribe allocated a financial disbursement between all tribal members), as “we both tore into those envelopes faster than the last meatpie on a plate.” In the juxtaposition of receiving money alongside a cultural food like meatpies, we deduce the equal desperation in which both were acquired, and how each–meatpie and money–have become an appropriated substance for cultural survival.
Meatpies are made from the combination of fry bread and meat. More or less a meat-stuffed piece of fry bread. Fry bread is commonly understood as a cultural food, but it’s not traditional, meaning our ancestors didn’t make fry bread prior to contact by Western peoples. It became a consistent part of our cultural foods when the U.S. government distributed food rations to tribes (we commonly refer to them as commodities or “commods” for slang). Because meatpies are basically fry bread with meat inside, they have also become a survival food for Kiowa, Comanche, and Apache people in southern Oklahoma (further out now due to diasporic conditions).
When the narrator of my story, Our Dance, describes going for money the same as going for “the last meatpie on the plate,” it speaks to the creative and critical thinking skills applied by Kiowa people to take something and appropriate it for cultural survival. In essence the story’s title, Our Dance, is the dance of survival, like meatpies, like receiving per cap, like bonding with the community. To further connect this thematic for the reader, the quote at the onset of the story by James Auchiah, “Kiowa Five” artist (now Kiowa Six) and Chief Satanta’s grandson, reads, “We Kiowa are old, but we dance.” It is the dance of survival beginning with the narrator’s ancestors and carrying into his present community which dictates his use of cultural foods for survival, and subsequently my use of culture, food, and customs to connect the thematic dots for my readers.