In Indian country, frybread, Indian tacos, curly fries and pizza have become as “traditional” as the dancing and socializing of annual pow wows and celebrations. Food is at the heart of most celebrations, and fast food, in many ways, has taken the place of local cooking. Yet in many regions, familiar foods are being quietly revived or have quietly endured—traditional dishes may include fish caught in the dip net (salmon), greens gathered by hand (milkweed), or dishes that rely on an ingredient that is hard to come by—such as corn soup, red chile stew or muskrat. These traditional dishes reflect the geography, climate and the cooks who make their food with love and care. Celebrating these foods at annual tribal events is an important way to understand and embrace Native identity.
James Kiona, Yakama Nation, spends a lot of his time with fish in one form or another—tagging sturgeon, gill netting for salmon on the Columbia River and dipping from his scaffolding over the Klickitat River. He is the head fisherman for the Toppenish Creek Longhouse in Washington State. And he is a traditional cook, preparing salmon for annual feasts held at longhouses that celebrate the arrival of first foods in the spring or the harvest feast for huckleberry and chokecherry in summer.
Kiona, 63, cooks the salmon he catches according to the laws and traditions he learned from his family, including cooking only between the hours of six am and six p.m. His method for coaxing the best taste from a salmon is to cook the fish over an open pit of alder wood—not pine, because it tastes pitchy, or oak, because it tastes harsh. “Alder puts a nice mild taste to it,” he says. “The way to fish and cook are traditional laws that we observe, explained to us by our mothers and fathers. Most of our laws are handed down to us by voice. All of our laws are from the Creator.”
For salmon, he’ll build a fire about three hours in advance so that smoke and flame will be minimized during the cooking process. He filets out the fish, places whole filets over the hot charcoal, meat-side down—first to get smoke on them and, after that, to caramelize them in their own fat. “They look really nice when they are cooked that way. It makes me hungry to think about them—they are coming up here now,” he says, referring to the arrival of spring Chinook in the Columbia and then the Klickitat River.
Most years, Kiona cooks salmon—traditionally and with great care—at occasions throughout the year. The fish he cooks and how he cooks it is important for both body and spirit, he says. “When we are cooking, we are supposed to be in a good mind, feeling good and happy. The way we feel when we handle this food, our feelings will transfer to the people that eat it.”
This year, because his mother, Mabel Moses, recently passed at 87 years old, he won’t be cooking. Yakama teachings say that when someone close to you dies, it is best not to cook or handle food for one year. In honor of his mother, Kiona says he will step away from cooking knowing that when he begins again next year, his mother will be with him in spirit.