Food by VICE

This Restaurant Is Using Food to Call Attention to Native American Strife

Conflict Kitchen serves food from countries with which the US is in conflict, changing its identity every few months. Its latest iteration features cuisine from Haudenosaunee cultures.

by Jessica Rohan
Nov 20 2016, 5:00pm
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All photos by Adam Milliron.

Most of the people waiting in line at Conflict Kitchen had never heard of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, and that's part of the problem. The Haudenosaunee Confederacy, also known as the Iroquois Confederacy, is made up of six North American nations; many consider it the oldest participatory democracy on Earth. There are 567 sovereign American Indian nations within US borders, but to most Americans, they're totally invisible.

Conflict Kitchen is an experimental public art project created by artists Dawn Weleski and Jon Rubin, a professor at nearby Carnegie Mellon. The restaurant only serves food from countries with which the US is in conflict, changing its identity every few months. It has been home to the only North Korean, Venezuelan and Palestinian restaurants in Pittsburgh history. Its latest iteration features cuisine from Haudenosaunee cultures, whose ancestral territory stretched from Canada to Virginia.

Each version takes roughly two years to create and involves extensive research to develop the menu, as well as visits to the featured country to cook with people and interview them about their daily lives, culture, and perspectives on the conflict with the United States. Each meal comes with a large, folded sheet of paper with quotes from these interviews on a broad range of topics, including food.

"I feel like the most authentic Native food is just raw ingredients boiled down—pure, unadulterated food," one interviewee says. The Haudenosaunee menu includes items like grilled quail, juniper-braised venison, root tea, and cornbread with maple butter.

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Conflict Kitchen partners with the New York State-based Iroquois White Corn Project, which grows heirloom white corn used in many of the restaurant's dishes. The corn is a strain that Haudenosaunee people have cultivated for more than 1,400 years.

I tried the cornbread, which was made with yogurt and maple syrup. I'm not usually a huge fan, but it was amazingly moist, with a lightly sweet quality—easily the best cornbread I've ever had.

There is no reservation land in Pennsylvania or Ohio, and few Native communities in the area; general public ignorance can make life difficult for the indigenous people who live there. Len Necefer, who is Navajo, lived in Pittsburgh for four years while studying for a PhD at Carnegie Mellon, where he was the only American Indian in the graduate school.

"I got a lot of crazy questions from people. I remember talking to a couple of people who didn't understand that Native Americans were still a thing—they thought we were all dead."

Meanwhile, more than 100 Pennsylvania schools use Native Americans as mascots. At nearby Penn Hills High School, the mascot is "The Indian", the sports team's cheering section is known as "The Tribe", and students are given a patch with a Native American face on it for making honor roll. Just seven miles from Conflict Kitchen in Sharpsburg is the annual Guyasuta Days festival, where attendees regularly don red face, eat roasted corn, and dress in "Indian" costumes. Two people are crowned "Great Chief" and "Princess". Guyasuta was a Haudenosaunee leader from the Seneca Nation.

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One of Conflict Kitchen's goals is to start conversations about present-day Haudenosaunee culture.

"People are so removed from the idea that there are over 560 sovereign nations within the United States," co-creator Dawn Weleski says. "The difference between Seneca and Mohawk [both Haudenosaunee nations] languages, for example, is like the difference between Spanish and French."

And those 567 nations have been going through a range of conflicts for many years.

"Each nation has individual conflicts. The Cayuga are trying to reclaim their lands, meanwhile the US-Canadian border runs right through the Akwesasne reservation (which is Mohawk Nation territory)", says Lauren Jimerson, who is the project manager at the White Corn Project and a member of the Seneca Nation. "If you look at the history of US government policies, the ultimate goal has been erasure and displacement, so we're constantly fighting for our cultural identity."

In the 1960s, more than 600 Seneca people in the Pittsburgh area had to relocate after the US government condemned more than 10,000 acres of Seneca land to build a dam and a highway. The Seneca Nation continues to mark the event in an annual remembrance ceremony.

For Len Necefer, the CMU graduate student, it was an eerie history to live with. "The neighborhood where I lived in Pittsburgh was one of the last places that the Delaware lived before being forcibly removed to Oklahoma," he said. "It felt funny to live in Garfield; I was probably the only American Indian living there."

Indigenous sovereignty has received more public attention lately, due to the ongoing standoff at Standing Rock, where an oil company decided they'd like to build a pipeline under a lake near a Sioux reservation, and the Sioux living there preferred to continue drinking clean water. The Sacred Stone camp has drawn the biggest gathering of indigenous people in more than a century, including more than 200 American Indian tribes as well as Sami people from Norway.

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In the face of endless threats like environmental degradation, loss of sovereignty, and cultural erasure, practicing traditional culture can become a form of resistance for many indigenous people. Earlier this month, Lauren Jimerson visited Conflict Kitchen to lead a workshop on processing Iroquois white corn, which takes up to 48 hours to make. Her son was there to process the corn himself for the first time.

"It felt like I was handing down the knowledge of my grandparents to the future," Jimerson says.

The Haudenosaunee iteration at Conflict Kitchen is one of the only Iroquois restaurants in the US. There aren't that many Native American restaurants in general, despite a population of more than 5 million people—compare this to the relative popularity of Korean food, with a population of just 1.7 million Korean Americans.

But Native cuisine is gaining footholds in fine dining, linking up to related trends in local, authentic, and environmentally conscious eating. The work of Lakota chef Sean Sherman and the larger indigenous food movement were recently featured in the New York Times. Sherman conducted years of research to reconstruct many of the recipes he now uses.

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Even items on Conflict Kitchen's menu, like fry bread, evoke the history of Native American conflicts. Fry bread was developed by innovative Native cooks in the 1800s, making due with limited US-issued food supplies after being forcibly relocated onto reservation land that couldn't support their usual crops.

Cooking reminds both Len and Lauren of family, stories, and the land the food comes from. When I ask Lauren what Iroquois white corn is, she immediately launches into a detailed explanation of the laborious cooking process, and describes the time that an invading French army burned half a million bushels of white corn in a Seneca storehouse.

Len remembers preparing Navajo food on his grandparents' farm. "Every part of the food, from growing it all the way through preparation, involves ceremony. There's songs that go with all of the foods—songs that you sing when you pick berries, songs that pre-date our own language," he says. "In the food preparation that I found living in Pittsburgh, the spiritual, identity part of food was not there."

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Lauren feels a similar spiritual disconnect in mainstream food culture, and became vegan a year ago to better embody a sense of gratitude and respect for the natural environment. Len told me that he grew up learning that food is infused with the inner state of the person who made it. "Everything that you do in preparing the food, all of those words, thoughts and actions are embodied in the food. So there's a lot of taboos around cooking food, like you never cook food when you're angry. Cooking food is a prayerful act, you think about nourishing and helping people, because all of that will be put into the food as well."

Perhaps Conflict Kitchen's many visitors will absorb some wisdom from the Haudenosaunee food, and a new perspective.