Food by VICE

Meet the Navajo Chef Cooking Indigenous Cuisine at Standing Rock

On Thanksgiving, a holiday which serves as a reminder of genocide and ongoing oppression to the continent’s original inhabitants, the water protectors at Standing Rock gathered for an indigenous feast.

by Ocean Malandra
Dec 3 2016, 6:00pm

All photos courtesy of Brian Yazzie.

This Thanksgiving, while most of us were at home spending a cozy weekend with family, gorging ourselves on turkey and stuffing, thousands of Native Americans and their non-Native allies were camped out and braving fast-dropping temperatures to protect their water from the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

The proposed $4 billion dollar oil pipeline is slated to pass right through a sacred burial ground of the Sioux Nation's Standing Rock Tribe, and threatens to contaminate their water source, along with the water for a reported 18 million other people, if there's ever an oil spill. On Thanksgiving night, a holiday which serves as a reminder of genocide and ongoing oppression to the continent's original inhabitants, the "water protectors" at Standing Rock gathered for their own feast. This just days after police hit hundreds of the unarmed activists with rubber bullets, concussion grenades, and water cannons in the sub-freezing weather.

We caught up with one of the head cooks behind the Standing Rock Thanksgiving dinner, Brian Yazzie (aka Yazzie the Cook), who went to Standing Rock along with his girlfriend Danielle Polk and RN Care Manager Paula Hill of the Little Traverse Bay bands of Odawa Indians to cook up a feast of indigenous food. A Native Navajo from Arizona who is now based in Minneapolis, Yazzie is the Chef de Cuisine for the indigenous food phenomenon known as The Sioux Chef. Started as a catering company by Oglala Lakota Chef Sean Sherman, who the New York Times recently profiled as the man defining Native American Cuisine, The Sioux Chef now also operates the Tatanka Food Truck and is opening a full-service restaurant in the Twin Cities in the near future. We asked Yazzie about Thanksgiving at Standing Rock, the current situation and there, and what the future might bring.

MUNCHIES: Hi Brian, you were just at Standing Rock cooking for the Thanksgiving Dinner, but that was not your first time there, was it? What was it that made you decide to join the protests? Brian Yazzie: My girlfriend, Danielle Polk, and I traveled to the Oceti Sakowin (Camp at Standing Rock) the last weekend of October, and I dedicated my time to cooking in the main kitchen. Our second trip, the week of Thanksgiving, was an idea Danielle had brought up since she had a break from school and I had time off from work. So I reached out to my fellow cooks and chefs through social media for possible donations and the response was amazing. With the total accumulated amount of donations, we raised over $40,000 and delivered the food in a 20-foot U-Haul truck.

READ MORE: This Restaurant Is Using Food to Call Attention to Native American Strife

As a chef, I thought of what the water protectors were eating and if they were receiving the nutrients they need. "

Photo courtesy of Brian Yazzie.

What's the scene like there now and how has it changed since the first time you were there in October? On our first trip to the camp there were at least 2,500 people (native and non-native allies) and on our second trip the population tripled!

How many people did you guys feed for Thanksgiving and what kind of food was available for you to work with? Thanksgiving Day is a sensitive day for the Indigenous Peoples of North America. There is mixed emotions of mourning and anger. For us native chefs at the camp, we had to have positive energy out of respect for what Thanksgiving is really about, which is to create an indigenous meal and feed those who are less fortunate and starving. This is the mentality our ancestors had and what we carried at the camp.

The day before Thanksgiving, I heard of an actress who was coming to Standing Rock with a crew to host a Thanksgiving feast event for the community at the Sitting Bull College. I respect having non-natives show their support and contribute to the cause, but I didn't see a balance of having native chefs involved representing our indigenous food. So I reached out to two kitchens within the camp (Winona's Kitchen and California Kitchen) to see if they would like to team up and create our own feast focused on feeding those who are unable to attend the Thanksgiving feast off camp.

Our collaboration was beautiful. We set up a temporary dining hall inside a 200-foot dome, which is used for daily meetings. We had 17 8-foot tables lined up and stationed with endless amount of food. Before we served the food we had an elder do a prayer, and each chef spoke of the historical trauma of Thanksgiving and how we can move forward in positivity while nourishing our bodies with indigenous food.

We served around 1,500 people—the line went on for two-and-a-half hours. I strictly worked with indigenous ingredients, creating pre-colonial menus. We had bison, bison hearts, venison, goose, turkey, and duck. I had a lady who donated fresh cut shark from California. Before I could use it, I had to talk with a tribal member and see if it would be okay to serve shark. He gave me the okay to serve because we had natives from Alaska and aboriginals from Northern British Columbia whose traditional diet includes shark.

Besides meats, we had abundance of dried goods—corn, quinoa, amaranth, chia seeds, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, and variety of squash, as well. We also had alternative flour from corn, quinoa, acorn, and amaranth.

That sounds very similar to the work you are doing with Sioux Chef, whose mission is to bring pre-conquest food into America's culinary scene. How did you get started with Sean Sherman? At the Sioux Chef and Tatanka Truck, our focus is revitalizing a forgotten food culture. Our mission is to look beyond post-reservation foods and put ourselves in our ancestors' moccasins and create what they cooked hundreds of years ago. I met chef Sean Sherman while I was in culinary school, back in 2014. Ever since then, he brought me on, and I have been working with him under his knowledge and guidance of indigenous foodways.

Photo Courtesy of Brian Yazzie.

It seems to me that using traditional and Native foods should be an integral part of moving America away from corporate dependence and reconnecting with the land and its history. What's coming up for Brian Yazzie and the native food movement? At the Sioux Chef, we are currently searching for a location within the Twin Cities for our restaurant, which will be the first of its kind, strictly focusing on pre-colonial ingredients and steering away from petroleum and using wood-based cooking. I am one of a few native chefs who are on the front line revitalizing our food. Eventually, I will make my way back home to the southwest and when that time comes, I will solely focus on Southwest regional food.

Standing Rock is not the only place where pipelines and exploitation are happening or planned to take place on sacred Native sites. What's happening down in the Southwest where you are from, where Chaco Canyon—one of the largest and most important archaeological sites in North America—is also under threat from a pipeline? Yes, Chaco Canyon is located on the western end of New Mexico. It is a historical site for many tribes in the area, and it is also a historical site for native chefs, farmers, and seed savers. Besides Cahokia, Chaco Canyon is one of the oldest known sites for Indigenous food trade routes. Now, Pinon Pipeline company plans to build a man-camp near the site and run a pipeline through the historical site.

How can people who want to help out with the food at Standing Rock do so? The best way to go about donations is to visit the official Facebook page of the Oceti Sakowin Camp. There is a link where it will redirect you to camp's donation website which has a list of donations needed.

OK last question, Brian. How do you think Standing Rock is going to play out? We have a worldwide support and there is a group of 2,000 veterans, natives, and non natives who will be arriving at the camp within the next few days. Their stance is in solidarity with the water protectors and providing themselves as human shields between the water protectors and the militarized enforcement. The pipeline company has until January 1st to complete the project, and that will definitely not happen. But in the meantime, I think the situation will get dirty and we need more people at the camp—especially our non-Native allies.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.