Sunday, November 22, 2015

Ancestral Justice through Indigenous Foods

I learned many things from my late father. Often many things he taught me return unexpectedly. As chefs, we cook for years rarely creating something uniquely our own. This is a dish that I know is something I created. This is special and there is a spiritual and cosmic story behind this delectable activation of Ancestral Memory in cuisine.

Western Apache Seed Mix by Chef Nephi Craig
This is a dish that evolved over time. The core element is the Pre-Reservation Western Apache Seed Mix. This mixture of seeds has many diverse combinations which can include the seeds of squash, tree nuts of the region, sunflowers, oak, grasses, corn, and other wild edibles. 

This mixture of seeds is gathered all spring, summer, and fall and stored for winter. It is appropriate to serve this dish in the late autumn and winter. In the spirit of oral story telling this dish has a deep story to tell that I will share with you in what this dish represents and how it is a cosmic message from my ancestors, my father, our sacred memory and our profound era of Indigenous resurgence in Turtle Island. Food is a powerful element of that history and is edible education.

This seed mix would have been stored for winter consumption, given to travelers, and also favored by the renowned Apache Scouts for its light weight transport of nutrition, just like the Ninjas of Iga, Japan had power-foods, Western Apaches are just as tactful in warfare and love for our Ancestral Landscape. My introduction to this seed mix changed my life as a chef forever. It solidified the truth of Ancestral Taste and Ancestral Memory for me. The enjoyable bitter flavors and light sweetness of dried fruit speak to an age before refined sugars and salty foods. This is the evidence of our plant based pre-reservation diet and speaks volumes to Ancestral Health before our current age of public health epidemic as a result of conquest, colonization and the wide spread fall out affects of Historical Trauma across Indigenous communities. 

Vincent Craig 1950-2010
The man to the left is my late father. His name is Vincent Craig. To quote the Wu-Tang Clan member the GZA's album Liquid Swords, "When I was little, my father was famous. He was the greatest Samurai in the empire. He was the Shogun's decapitator. He cut off the heads of 131 lords. It was a bad time for the father would come home, he would forget about the killings. He wasn't scared of the Shogun, but the Shogun was scared of him." My father was not a Samurai per se, and I quote that album because, if you have heard that particular track on the album, that is the sentiment instilled in me about my father. He was a great man. A United States Marine Corps Sergeant, a former police office for the Navajo Nation, the Salt River Tribe, and the White Mountain Apache Tribe. He was a sharpshooter in the USMC and  he restored and built Viet Nam era Huey Helicopters toward the end of his life. 

As this picture shows, he was most well known as a singer and songwriter and to quote my dad, "Laughter is the best medicine"...he was a healer in that he used our Dine Bizaad (Navajo Language), our cultural intricacies and his musical ability to create songs and tell stories to our people. In my mind my father was combating and relieving the spiritual and emotional ailments of historical trauma, unresolved grief and damaged psycho self-perceptions of our people because of colonialism by highlighting our strengths and best qualities through 'Gloh' or humor. So yes, my father was "the greatest Samurai in the empire" and he cut off the heads of the many spiritual/psychological monsters of Colonialism with his music. He died 24 years sober, and above all this man was my father, the cool and often goofy ol'man chillin sitting on the floor by the couch in this sleep-pants and white t-shirt enjoying his time in front of the television, often providing commentary for what ever might be on at any given moment. My father taught me about sobriety and a traditional Navajo philosophy that would also change my life early on as a chef. This planning philosophy is what influences the plating design of this dish and is articulated below.

Western Apache Cooking and Cuisine by Nephi Craig 
This is Western Apache Cooking and Cuisine and this dish to the right is one that I feel is truly an original of mine.

Western Apache Seed Mix Fritter, Honey Braised Butternut Squash, Roasted Butternut Squash chutney, poached Butternut pearls, Pinon Cloud, Chocolate, Agave, Amaranth and Citrus Marigolds.

Elements of the Dish:
Chocolate - Represents the ancestral and highly intelligent trade routes from Mesoamerica into my region in northern Arizona aka Western Apacheria.

Amaranth - Represents the trade routes. It is also used in direct historical/ancestral resistance to/and a middle finger to Hernan Cortes, the Spanish Conquistidor who condemned to death anyone found possessing or cultivating this sacred food. This plant relative is also in our prayer bundles of plants in our region in the Southwest. Amaranth, to me, also represents micro-galaxies and our cosmological relationship with our plant food/medicine relatives.

Butternut Squash - Seasonal sweet squash is also female, carrying inside the cavity seeds of survivance. Apache and Navajo cultures are matrilineal societies and this squash speaks to that fact. This squash is chosen for it's deep sweet flavor and beautiful color. It is indigenous to the Americas.

Pinon Cloud - Also known as Pinon Whipped Cream. This is an indigenized ingredient. Dairy from cows are not indigenous to the Americas, however Pinon or pine nuts are. Pinon is an ancestral and widely favored taste. The rich toasted pine nut has a high fat content, so does the heavy cream and they fuse well. I simply toast, crush and steep the pine nuts in heavy cream sweetened with honey and allow to steep over night. The following day, I stir, strain and whip. If you see this anywhere else, it came from 'The Apaches in the Kitchen'.

Marigolds - These special flowers have been used since time immemorial to remember and honor our ancestors. (My late sister was named 'Flower'.) Aztecs see the marigold as a symbol of invasion of the Spanish and near eradication of an ancestral way of life. In the language of flowers Marigold means, "pain and grief" and signifies a wish to comfort one who is grieving. These are used as a gesture of comfort for our Indigenous people as we engage in social recovery from the damages of shape-shifting colonialism. In remembrance of our ancestors we offer comfort and commitment to live out our Indigenous responsibility of restoration/recovery and therefore achieving Ancestral Justice.  

That is not the extent of the dish. There is tactful storytelling in the plating process. Like sacred sandpainting tells an epic story of healing and self-determination, this plating is an effort to activate the same principles. It was my father, Vincent Craig, who first told me of this Navajo Problem Solver or Planning philosophy, which as my father said to me, was a gift from creator for people to live good lives. This has been in use since time immemorial among the people of Dinetah.

Ancestral Justice in Western Apache Cuisine by Chef Nephi Craig (click to enlarge) 

The diagram shows our four sacred mountains in Navajo Land and the Planning Philosophy.

Look at the plate like a compass with the four sacred mountains also on the plate. 

Nitsahakees, on the plate, is the birth of an idea and in this conceptual universe nothing is tangible yet. The empty space on the plate is the unseen world of thoughts and ideas.

Nahat'a, on the plate, is the planning stage or the intangible development of flavors, histories and mise en place. This is still in the realm of the unseen but very powerful thought.

Iina, on the plate, is doing the plan' or the production phase where the plan or mise en place is built. The dish takes shape.

Sihasin, on the plate, the outcome/result, and as my father told me a time for reflection and planning to do it all again. Here the fritter is complete and an Indigenous Sensory Experience is created. 

The ultimate goal of the dish is to activate Ancestral Knowledge and create a powerful taste experience. You can see the progression from the void on the plate in the conceptual and planning phase of the Apache Seed Mix to the production of and creation of the entire dish culminating in the north with the Western Apache Seed Mix Fritter sweetened with Agave.

As the dish flows with various histories of Amaranth, Chocolate, Apache Seed Mix, Indigeneity, Resurgence, and galaxies represented by Amaranth all floating over and under the Pinon Clouds. We offer comfort, beauty and determination with the Marigold petals.  

The combination of nurturing Ancestral Landscape, developing Decolonization Strategies, invigorating Indigenous Food-ways, living a life on the Red Road and caring for our Indigenous Community first is upholding our responsibility  to our ancestors so that they did not die in vain. The combination of all these life-ways is ultimately a living example of Ancestral Justice. It happens one person at a time. This is the revolution of our age. 

This is for my wife and kids, for my mother, my father, my sister, my brothers and our ancestors.  

Participate in your own evolution. Wisdom Sits in Places. Life is the Ceremony.

Ancestral Justice through Indigenous Foods 


  1. Great blog! I learned a lot about philosophy and history. And food! It is refreshing. Clean food!

  2. Thank you for your fascinating blog. Thanks also for the reminder of your wonderful dad; I'm a long time fan going back to his Muttonman comic as well as his great music! Keep up (and further build up) the great tradition!

  3. I Really love to create different kinds of recipes like this with best indian organic spices available online

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