For Many Native Americans, Fry Bread Is Beloved—and Divisive

For indigenous communities, the crispy circle of pillowy, deep-fried dough represents many seemingly contradictory concepts.
A plate of fry bread.
Lisa Howeler/Alamy

This is part of Breaking Bread, a collection of stories from our friends at Condé Nast Traveler that highlights how bread is made, eaten, and shared around the world. Read more here.

Across the United States, fry bread is hands-down the most ubiquitous Native American food. For tribal communities, the crispy circle of pillowy deep-fried dough represents many seemingly contradictory concepts: love, comfort, celebration, community, survival, colonialism, oppression, tragedy. At best, the so-called Indian taco is a complicated symbol of Indigenous resilience passed down from one generation to the next. At worst, it’s a relic of cultural genocide, a contributor to marked health disparities, and a factor in the falsehood that Native culture is a monolith.

Chef Sean Sherman foraging for hyper-local ingredients that form the basis for the decolonized fare at his Minneapolis restaurant.

Nancy Bundt

Fry bread is thought to have originated some 160 years ago as a result of the Long Walk, the 300-mile journey that thousands of Diné (Navajo) people endured after being forcefully relocated from their homelands to New Mexico’s Bosque Redondo Reservation. Hundreds died along the way, though others would starve once they arrived at the internment camp. In place of traditional Diné foods such as corn, beans, and squash, the government provided only sparse commodities like flour, salt, sugar, and lard. Through ingenuity and experimentation, fry bread was born as a means of survival.

What, then, do we make of fry bread today, during a time of undeniable Native reckoning and reclamation? For James Beard–winning chef Sean Sherman (Oglala Lakota), revitalizing Indigenous foodways means honoring how his ancestors ate before European contact. As such, the decolonized fare at his Minneapolis restaurant, Owamni, is prepared without Eurocentric ingredients—think beef, chicken, pork, dairy, wheat flour, and cane sugar—and instead using hyper-local ingredients like wild game, endemic plants, and heirloom produce. In other words, no fry bread.

For Afro-Indigenous author Kevin Maillard, fry bread is a symbol of resilience—his own spin on it takes cues from his aunts’ recipes.

Amy Lombard

“I created a philosophy focused on curbing our many health issues with inherently healthy Indigenous foods,” Sherman says, pointing to the disproportionately high rates of diabetes, hypertension, and obesity among tribal communities. “When I started The Sioux Chef, I was conflicted about if we should serve fry bread because it is such a big part of Native history. But to me, it didn’t fit into the philosophy of highlighting authentic Indigenous plants, techniques, and food systems.”

While growing up on South Dakota’s poverty-stricken Pine Ridge Reservation, Sherman was curious about the universal nature of fry bread, a delicacy typically reserved for celebrations and special occasions. “I thought it was weird that our Lakota food tasted like Mexican food since we were a long way from Mexico,” says the 2023 TIME 100 honoree and Julia Child Award recipient. “When you study the history, you can trace fry bread back to the rampant militarism [in the United States] in the 1800s, since it’s a really simple field dish. For Indigenous peoples, it became a staple as we started using the rations given to us.”

Even though Sherman opts not to serve fry bread as part of the decolonized cuisine at Owamni and through his nonprofit, NATIFS—which aims to reestablish Native foodways and ensure access to Indigenous education—he still has a fond nostalgia for it, especially when paired with his grandmother’s chokecherry wojapi (berry sauce).

As in so many cultures, grandmothers and aunties tend to be the knowledge bearers in Indigenous communities. “Usually there can only be one fry bread lady in a family, but we had two,” says Afro-Indigenous author Kevin Maillard (Seminole).

Maillard called upon the knowledge passed down from his late aunts, who were responsible for preserving their trade-secret recipes and bringing the beloved dish to gatherings, to pen the award-winning baby book Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story. In it, he captures the complex nature of this salient food in powerful poetic verse: “Fry bread is us. It is a celebration of old and new, traditional and modern, similarity and difference.”

An illustration from the award-winning book Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story 

Juana Martinez-Neal

Maillard remembers learning two distinct cooking styles from his aunts, who both lived near the Seminole Nation capital city of Wewoka, Oklahoma. “The earthy, country aunt never measured ingredients, whereas the fancy, urban aunt subscribed to Gourmet magazine and had a more scientific approach,” he recalls. “They were always bickering—not just about how to make the fry bread, but about these long-standing tensions between them. Because ultimately, the bread is a story they’re sharing about themselves and their family.”

Today, Maillard makes his own version, taking cues from his aunts’ recipes and adapting to modern tastes (like subbing in coconut oil for lard). “I am now the fry bread lady in the family, because nobody else makes it,” he says, noting that for holidays he spends a full day in the kitchen making the delicacy for guests to savor. The only issue: “[Guests] think my version is the only way fry bread is made because that’s how they first experienced it, and it sets a benchmark.”

Which gets to the heart of the matter: Despite its mass appeal, fry bread is highly personal, with no two recipes, experiences, or histories exactly the same. And while some Native thought leaders are actively reclaiming the food, others oppose its longstanding spot in the modern Indigenous diet given its origins and lacking nutritional value.

Noted poet and activist Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne/Hodulgee Muscogee) sparked a heated debate in 2005 when she advocated for Natives to abstain from eating the dish. “Fry bread is emblematic of the long trails from home and freedom to confinement and rations,” she wrote in an Indian Country Today column after losing a relative to diabetes. “It’s the connecting dot between healthy children and obesity, hypertension, diabetes, dialysis, blindness, amputations, and slow death.”

Chef Crystal Wahpepah at Wahpepah's Kitchen, her buzzy restaurant, through which she aims to reclaim Native foodways

Gabriela Hasbun

Maillard doesn’t think it’s that simple. “Ascribing the health problems within Native America to this one food is short-sighted, since it’s really a combination of factors,” he says, adding that fry bread’s intricate preparation means it’s not an everyday food in his household. He thinks the good—namely, how the bread acts as a unifying element among such diverse tribal communities—outweighs the bad. “Native people’s histories, languages, and geographies are really different, but here’s one thing we do have in common,” Maillard muses. “If we think of food as an extension of ourselves and our families, fry bread is something that brings people together.”

Sherman agrees there’s no need to nix it from the Indigenous diet, with a caveat. “In food, there are no rules,” he says. “Fry bread makes people happy and is always going to be tied to Natives because of the history. But it shouldn’t define all of us.” Just as there’s no single Native experience across the United States’ 574 federally recognized tribes—each with their own cultures, traditions, and foodways—there’s no single Native food. That rich diversity is something Sherman believes should be acknowledged, honored, and celebrated.

In that way, the buzzy Native restaurants around the country reflect each chef’s unique tribal heritage—fry bread or not. At Sly Fox Den Too in Charlestown, Rhode Island, newly crowned James Beard winner Sherry Pocknett (Wampanoag) dishes up favorites like quahog clam chowder and fresh fish tacos on her famed fry bread. In the West, Ben Jacobs (Osage) serves build-your-own Indian tacos at Denver’s Tocabe. In Oakland, California, Crystal Wahpepah (Kickapoo/Sac and Fox) recently opened her eponymous eatery, which offers dishes like bison meatballs and blue corn mush. And in the Southwest—the birthplace of fry bread—chef Nephi Craig’s (Diné/White Mountain Apache) Café Gozhóó in Whiteriver, Arizona, doubles as both a restaurant—serving specials like venison shank with fire-roasted vegetables and bundi’tunneh (Apache racket bread)—and a vocational training program for those seeking addiction treatment.

The pantry at Wahpepah's Kitchen in Oakland, California

Gabriela Hasbun

Wahpepah's Kitchen serves dishes like blue corn bread—and variations on tostadas (pictured here) featuring bison or salmon.

Gabriela Hasbun

Despite its divisive nature, fry bread has served as an undeniable gateway food that encourages conscious travelers to experience these distinctive Native delicacies across Turtle Island. “When we travel, we experience other cultures through food,” Maillard affirms. “Bread in particular is a symbol of reconciliation, of communication, of love. So when people are sharing that love, why quash that?”