Wherever you go on this Earth, you will find local cuisine. Like language, customs, art, and institutions, food is culture. A traditional dish — perfected over decades or even centuries — offers a history lesson on a plate, providing insight into the land that it’s from and the people who created it. And while many travelers can think of several local foods they’ve tried on previous trips that shaped how they experienced a region of the world, they might have trouble coming up with dishes that are tied to the Indigenous cuisines of North America.
“Most people don’t think of us as really having a ‘cuisine,'” acclaimed chef Loretta Barrett Oden, member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, tells Travel + Leisure when discussing misconceptions about the traditional foods from Indigenous people around North America. Of course, throughout her decades-long career, Oden has proven that wrong time and time again — first through Corn Dance Cafe in Santa Fe, which Oden opened with her late son, Clayton, in the 1990s; then through her travels around the United States highlighting Indigenous cuisines for PBS miniseries Seasoned With Spirit; and now in her role as chef and consultant at the First Americans Museum.
The First Americans Museum opened this September in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, telling the stories of the state’s 39 First American Nations, many of which were removed from their homelands across the United States and forced to move to Oklahoma. The museum celebrates their diversity, cultures, and contributions. Visitors can explore the history and more via sight, touch, and sound, and at Thirty Nine Restaurant, they can learn about and understand the cultures on a deeper level while tasting dishes featuring the traditional ingredients that the state’s 39 nations used in their homelands and here in Oklahoma.
There are hundreds of Native communities around the U.S., each with their own distinct food culture. Oden says that the restaurant’s menu, much like traditional Native American cuisines, is regional and seasonal, heavily influenced by what grows, lives, swims, and flies in the area. She researched what people ate in their homelands (along with their cooking methods), sourced many ingredients from nearby Native nations, and came up with dishes that speak to the cuisines and traditions of the 39 nations.
Thirty Nine Restaurant’s menu is an homage to the continent’s bounty, with ingredients like turkey, wild rice, bison, salmon, sage, and the “three sisters” (corn, beans, and squash), which have been a staple in the diets of Indigenous people in North America for hundreds of years. Fry bread — another Native food intertwined with the nation’s history — is served alongside white bean hummus. While some aspects of Native cuisine reflect the natural abundance of seafood, vegetables, and other ingredients that Indigenous people cultivated and ate while living in their homelands, others, like fry bread, tell the story of resilience and survival while also bringing attention to food insecurity and lack of access to healthful fare — issues that especially impact those living on reservations. Fry bread, found at powwows across the country, is still popular today, but it originated when Native communities were forced off their ancestral lands and given foods like white flour, processed sugar, and lard by the government. “It was a survival food that got us… through the hardest of times,” says Oden.
“Each and every ingredient has a story to tell from whence it came. It also has a spirit, and serves as our medicine. And I’m hoping that the food that I and we [make] here enlightens people about the fact that we’re still here, and we’re a very, very diverse group of people. We just happen to be bunched into one country as opposed to all different countries,” says Oden.
Oden notes that it’s still hard to find Indigneous food in cities around the United States, though Indigenous chefs and activists are changing that. She wants to introduce museum visitors to the ingredients and flavors of the continent’s First Peoples — and thinks they’ll be surprised by how beautiful, healthy, and delicious it is.
Elizabeth Rhodes is an associate digital editor at Travel + Leisure and a member of the Nansemond Indian Nation. Follow her adventures on Instagram @elizabetheverywhere.