Arizona, which ranked third in the United States in Native American and Alaskan population in the 2010 Census, is home to an estimated 22 tribes. Over the past few decades, fry bread has all but replaced alcohol as the scapegoat for continued disparity in Native American health. In a 2008 report, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found almost 12 percent of Native American deaths were alcohol-related. But rates of alcohol abuse in the Native American population have fallen closer to those of other ethnic and cultural groups, and, for many, the issue has taken a backseat to a new problem.

Along with Alaska natives, Native Americans have the highest prevalence of diabetes among all racial and ethnic groups in the United States, according to the American Diabetes Association. The most recent figures show that in 1998, more than half the population of the Gila River Indian Community between the ages 15 and 19 suffered from Type II diabetes. Many, including Suzan Shown Harjo, a well-known Native American writer and activist, blame the deep-fried bread.

"If fry bread were a movie, it would be hardcore porn. No redeeming qualities. Zero nutrition," Harijo wrote in a 2005 column in Indian Country Today.

“Every tribe has their own way of making it,” says Gayle Noline of the Sunna Frybread Wagon.
Lauren Saria
“Every tribe has their own way of making it,” says Gayle Noline of the Sunna Frybread Wagon.
"Every tribe has their own way of making it," says Gayle Noline of the Sunna Frybread Wagon.
Lauren Saria
"Every tribe has their own way of making it," says Gayle Noline of the Sunna Frybread Wagon.

Health consequences aside, many historians maintain the dish's important cultural role. According to Jaclyn Roessel, educational programmer at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, the food represents a sense of home. Despite its complex associations, Rossel, a member of the Navajo community, says fry bread signifies the ability of her people to transform something foreign into something "uniquely Navajo." Food, she adds, is a cultural "a point of pride." Even if it hasn't always been a part of the way of life of a community.

"I think people take for granted nowadays the idea that food does say something about who we are," says Roessel. "[Fry bread] is not a traditional food, but it is an important food."

Like many, Roessel grew up hearing stories of family members who lived through the Long Walk, when the Navajo walked more than 400 miles at gunpoint to Fort Sumner in 1864. Once there, the U.S. Army introduced rations of commodity foods to the displaced people, including flour and lard used to make fry bread. They had no idea the foods would become the makings of a powerful cultural symbol.

It wasn't until the late 1960s and the start of the inter-tribal movement that fry bread emerged as a symbol of pan-Native American culture and unity. After the heavy-handed policies used to assimilate Native Americans to popular culture, community leaders chose for decades to neglect the old ways to avoid further antagonism. The '60s, however, brought a revival of pride in the Native American identity and with it, the rise of the "pow-wow culture."

"When we were kids growing up . . . We weren't allowed to speak our native tongue," recalls Vernon Sunna. "When our oldest kids were in school, it was starting to be taught in grade school. But now they have classes and culture teachers that teach the language."

As the language re-emerged, native people began to feel pride in their culture and food, allowing fry bread the chance to become something bigger than a memory of a painful history.

Freddie Bistoie, a Navajo chef and native foods lecturer who lives in Phoenix, studied cultural anthropology at University of New Mexico and specializes in the study of North American native foods. He points out that native people would not have used animal fat as an ingredient in its own right. More authentic traditional recipes involve baking bread, not frying it in fat or lard. In fact, deep-frying dough would only have been possible after the introduction of brass and copper cookware in the 1600s.

Bitsoie does not view the food as a threat, but rather as a cultural product — the result of decades of cultural infusion and diffusion. In the days when trading posts brought Native Americans and foreign traders together, Bitsoie says, the process of exchanging goods, services, and knowledge could have been when native people were first taught to cook fry bread. Since then, Bitsoie says, the food has become so ingrained in the culture that to try to reject it would be detrimental.

"Fry bread has been a part of a culture for too long," says Bitsoie. "It defined the Native American experience in the United States. It has the ability to kind of have a religion of its own."


The Sunna family has been making and selling fry bread around the Gila River Indian Community for two years. Most days you'll find them in Sacaton, the capital of the community, which is located 45 minutes southeast of Phoenix. Most days they serve their food in parking lots or along the side of the road, towing their trailer to one of the usual spots and serving food 'til it runs out — and it always runs out.

Some believe fry bread should be greasy — use a stack of napkins and you'll still get some on your shirt. Some don't. The Sunnas' bread won't leave your fingers dripping, but it offers just enough greasy flavor to qualify as a guilty pleasure. They don't subscribe to the notion that fry bread — or any of their food, for that matter — should be bland by design. Indeed, their white tepary beans on a bed of freshly fried dough are impossible to forget.

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2 comments
fairymagic13
fairymagic13

If they would only use Mesquite Bean Flour and stevia based sweetners they would have a product I would purchase regularly and one which would not decimate the Native American population - as much.  I might eat a Frybread mean once a year.  However, there are some people who eat it every day!

Tastes like heaven but your body will never forgive you in the morning.According to Navajo tradition, frybread was created using flour, sugar, salt and lard given by the United States government when the Navajo Native Americans were relocated to Bosque Redondo, New Mexico from Arizona in 1864.Prior to that time, diabetes was pratically unknown among the indigenous peoples of North and South America!

 

From the article at: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/people-places/frybread.html

 

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."

 

Whether you call it Bannock, Bhatoora, Deep-fried pizza, Lángos, Fried dough, Fritters, Sconnes, Fried dough, Puri, Sopaipilla or Frybread; it's should be considered as a SMALL part of any diet - NOT A STAPLE!  I have had frybread made from mesquite bean flour and it is superior in every way to the refined white flour variety - Take back your culture my Native Brothers and Sisters - demand Mesquite Bean Frybread options from your FryBread House and other purveyors of the heavenly cloud!

 

Mercedes
Mercedes

That's a step backwards not into the future.  The LAST thing this obese, unfit nation needs is more fried dough - a food completely deviod of any nutritional benefits.

 
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