Guest Post: Bison On Everything: Eating Lakota Foods in Los Angeles (Special Series: Searching for Authenticity)

On The Historical Cooking Project we think a lot about what it means to be authentic. In trying to create certain historical dishes we struggle to source specific products; we might use electric ovens instead of peat-burning ranges; and since we are often working with recipes written prior to the standardization of recipes movement begun by Fannie Farmer of The Boston Cooking School at the end of the 19th century, over the years we have had to guesstimate quantities of those ingredients. 

Today's guest post by Suzanne Kite, is the second in our special series, Searching for Authenticity, which delves further into questions of what authentic eating and cooking means.  For part one of the series (Tracing the Genealogy of Bibimbap) click here and for part three (Finding Traditional Food in Japan), click here.

In February of 2016 I grew tired of whatever strange diet I had going and decided to dig into the foods listed in Pimatisiwin, inspired by the Decolonize Your Diet cookbook and attempted to eat a Lakota-style diet in Los Angeles, whatever that meant. Like many of the brainteasers involved in being Indigenous or trying to be or not be or think about possibly acting Indigenous, imagining a “Lakota” diet while living diasporically in Los Angeles was complicated and at times frustrating. I didn’t have any Indigenous friends nearby, I didn’t know any recipes, and my favorite food is definitely bread. My goals were to improve my health and see if it was even possible to eat Indigenously in LA.

According to Dakota and Lakota Traditional, Food and Tea Teachings from Elder Lorraine Yuzicapi I should eat fishes and meats, wild rice, wild mushrooms, wild berries, and wild roots. I started to look for these things where I would normally shop: Trader Joes, the Studio City Farmer’s Market, Costco, and Vallarta. Vallarta is perfect for following the recipes in Decolonize Your Diet, but for Lakota foods, it is pretty useless; at Trader Joe’s there was wild rice, maple syrup, pumpkin seeds, spicy bison jerky, dried cherries; at Costco I found wild salmon and ground bison; and at the farmer’s market a butcher sold huge (and expensive) cuts of bison, but often he was out of the meat. And most prohibitively, his bison cuts would cost me upwards of $30.

I have what I like to call "authenticity anxiety." This is the never-ending low-level bubbling worry that I am just not native enough and never will be, regardless of my blood quantum. My psychological problems aside, I soon worried that while these foods I was eating were similar, they just weren’t right. I was eating cherries when I was supposed to be eating chokecherries or buffalo berries. I was eating partial mixes of wild rice when I was supposed to be only eating wild rice. I was braising my overpriced bison in red wine when alcoholism is a looming cloud in native communities. I was eating salmon when there is no such thing on the plains.

So I did what I really did not want to do: I went to Whole Foods. There I found Tanka Bars (thank god), bulk wild rice, hazelnuts, and sprouted pumpkins seeds. But they did not have frozen chokecherries as advertised. But you bet your bison these items were expensive. After many shopping trips, a month or so of trying this, and my boyfriend Devin being very patient, I could no longer afford to buy these things. When you’re an artist living LA, you have to pick and choose what you’re going to prioritize. And bison, fresh berries, dried berries, and nuts (that gave me a terrible headache if I ate more than five) had to go.

This past summer, I finally got to try some locally harvest timpsila root, which my Aunt Katt taught me to peel and braid (click the links for videos of this process). This braid hangs over the stove so you can add some dried timpsila to your bison stew. This was the highlight of my summer, and I still haven’t tried one cooked.

If I attempt this again, I’ll be doing so from Montreal, where I have no idea where I could find these ingredients and it is still cost-prohibitive. Upon another attempt I would stock up on Tanka bars (the spicy ones), freeze individual bison patties, and make a weekly batch of a wild rice breakfast. Most importantly, I will try to not be so hard on myself and what is “authentic”. While some Lakota people say alcohol is the most non-traditional food item to consume, perhaps I could ferment chokecherries into wine and then braise my bison cut in that. Sounds delicious.

If you are reading this from LA, it is much easier in LA to eat a diet indigenous to Mexico via Decolonize Your Diet. If you are reading this from Montreal, where do I get bison here?!

These days all that is left of this attempt is a jar of chokecherry jam and a forgotten bag of pumpkin seeds. I’m going to be honest: when I really want my mouth to remember what it’s like to eat with family, I remember the amazing fry bread tacos served by my Aunt Nikki, the stew served by my Aunt Melita and Aunt Naomi and their mom Eva, tasting raw timpsila with my Aunt Becky and Aunt Katt, and eating ice cream at the fair with my cousins.

Recipe for Bison Braised in Red Wine for Slow Cooker

1 package mushrooms
1 red onion
1 bunch of celery
1 bag of fingerling potatoes
4 cups beef stock
1 bottle of red wine for cooking and sipping
Olive oil
Salt and Pepper

1.     Season a room-temperature chuck roast with salt and pepper.
2.     Heat up oil in a large pan and brown all sides (top, bottom, sides) of the roast.
3.    Put roast only in the slow cooker.
4.    Add your cut up veggies to the leftover pan liquid and cook for 5 minutes.
5.     Add red wine to pan and boil.
6.    Add stock and bring to a boil again.
7.     Add everything to the slow cooker and cook for 4-5 hours.
8.     Serve with the liquid as-is or you can make that into a gravy with a little cornstarch.

Kite aka Suzanne Kite is an Oglala Lakota performance artist, visual artist, and composer from Southern California, with a BFA from CalArts in music composition, an MFA from Bard College’s Milton Avery Graduate School, and is a PhD student at Concordia University. Her research is concerned with contemporary Lakota epistemologies through research-creation, computational media, and performance practice. Recently, Kite has been developing a body interface for movement performances, carbon fiber sculptures, immersive video & sound installations, as well as co-running the experimental electronic imprint, Unheard Records.