cover story

HONORING THE MEDICINE WHEEL

Restoring native health and traditional foods in the Reno-Tahoe area.

WRITTEN BY CHRISTINA NELLEMANN
PHOTOS BY JEFF ROSS

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Ben Rupert, a member of the Washoe and Duck Valley Indian Reservation
Shoshone-Paiute tribes and a Reno firefighter, wears traditional Native American
regalia at the shelter he and son John (right) built in Carson City

The first picture that might come to mind when you think about Native American cooking is the ubiquitous Indian fry bread. Golden, bubbly, and topped with ground beef, beans, tomatoes, and lettuce, it’s a popular snack option at street fairs, rodeos, and the side of Pyramid Highway as you drive back from Burning Man. Unfortunately, this dish has nothing to do with traditional Native American food. Instead of beans, it would make more sense to have this “native” bread topped with fly larvae or chokecherries.

From diversity to diabetes

For thousands of years, the native peoples of Northern Nevada and Eastern California primarily were nomadic. The Washoe (Wa She Shu), Northern Paiute (Numu), and Western Shoshone (Newe) people followed various food sources throughout the year. In fact, the individual band names of each of the tribes reflect what they primarily hunted or foraged. The Western Shoshone band of the Carson River area, the Toidikah, translates to cattail eaters, and the Weyumpuhdikah band of Central Nevada were known as the buffalo berry eaters. The Paiute trout eaters, or Agai-Dicutta, spent time around Walker Lake and the Walker River, and the Mono Lake Paiute band of Kucadikadi translates to brine fly pupae eaters, since they ate the larvae of flies that lived on the water’s surface.

“We had specific and well-thought-out patterns of movement,” says Stacey Montooth, public relations and community information officer of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and member of the Walker River Paiute tribe. “We moved around with the seasonal changes and the availability of food. In the spring, we went to where the chokecherries grew; in the fall, we hunted rabbits. At that time there also was no concept of property ownership. We all used the same land, water, and air.”

The Great Basin tribes were able to hold on to their food cultures longer than many Eastern tribes. Contact with white explorers and settlers didn’t happen until the 1850s. However, because the natives didn’t use the land in the ways the white settlers were accustomed to (with houses, fences, etc.), many assumed this meant the land these tribes regularly used for foraging and hunting was unwanted by them. The U.S. government began to discourage the tribes from hunting and fishing as freely as they once had. Consequently, this quashed the regular patterns of movement and the accompanying physical exercise. This was followed by the development of reservations and the distribution of commodities from the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations. The FDPIR followed a more standard European diet of flour, oil, and sugar — hence the creation of fry bread and a diet that has negatively affected indigenous people since.

“These food commodities really threw a wrench into the native diet,” says Stacy Briscoe, diabetes program and 3 nations wellness manager at the Reno-Sparks Tribal Health Center.

While heart disease is the leading cause of death among Native Americans and Alaska Natives, the escalation of diabetes among tribal people is alarming. According to the federal Indian Health Service agency’s division of diabetes treatment and prevention, native adults are more than two times more likely to develop diabetes than non-Hispanic whites. The statistics among children are more frightening: Native American youths ages 10 to 19 are nine times more likely to be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes than their non-native peers.

Briscoe and her team at the tribe-owned-and-operated clinic in Reno provide diabetes education, screenings, and medication management. Healthy cooking classes for adults and youths are offered, as well as gym classes such as yoga and self-defense. Even the staff members are encouraged to exercise and given extra time at lunch to visit the wellness center. The national Special Diabetes Program for Indians was created in 1997 to reduce diabetes among native peoples. As of July 2017, the SDPI reports that in adults kidney failure rates have decreased by 54 percent and diabetes rates have not increased since 2011.

“Traditionally, our culture believes in so much more than taking a pill,” Montooth says. “And with all the resources available, there is just no excuse not to be in shape and eat well.”

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Ben Rupert holds a marinated bison steak he's about to grill

Rediscovering ritual

There is a light on the horizon. The concept of indigenous food sovereignty is a growing movement around the world that attempts to educate both native and non-native peoples about culturally adapted foods, with the goal of food security. The concept emphasizes the importance of observing the seasons, traditional cooking, and food being significant to the culture.

Food preservation and foraging groups such as The Sioux Chef, founded by Oglala Lakota member Sean Sherman, are reviving lost Native American cuisines while working alongside native farmers and producers. The love of endemic foods also can be seen at the award-winning Mitsitam Native Foods Café at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. The restaurant showcases indigenous foods and cooking techniques from Mesoamerica and South America, the Great Plains, the Northwest Coast, and the Northern Woodlands.

While native styles of cooking and eating are not yet commonplace, local tribal members are working to bring back their ancestors’ ways of survival.

“I was brought up as a traditionalist,” Jason Hill says. “I’m really into my culture and I was raised to learn my language. Once you begin to lose your language and your food, you lose your identity.”

Hill is the prevention outreach coordinator at the Reno-Sparks Tribal Health Center and a local artist. He is a member of the Northern Paiute and Western Shoshone tribes as well as a member of the Rincon Band of Luiseño Indians of San Diego County. He explains that fry bread, while being delicious and popular among tribes, is more of a contemporary food.

“We have so many traditional foods here in this area that most people don’t know about,” Hill says. “You can go down to the Truckee River and within a 50-foot-square area you can feed yourself. There’s watercress, elderberry, chokecherry, and trout.”

Hill primarily grew up on commodities in Coleville, Calif., but traditional foods such as antelope, rabbit, and fish also were part of his diet. He regularly hunts rabbits and quail, fishes for trout and salmon, and makes native weapons such as bows and arrows. He recently made an atlatl, or spear thrower, for his son. Hill does see a lack of resources for tribes who want to bring native cooking and restaurants into the fore.

“There are not a lot of wealthy tribes and financial resources for these types of businesses. In tribal communities, there still are a lot of disparities that hold people back, and they don’t even have the time or ability to be visionaries,” Hill says. “However, within the last 10 years, there has been a real resurgence to learn more about traditional ways of life. The younger kids are really curious about it and want to learn. We are definitely gaining momentum, and in 10 years you are going to see our young people do some amazing things.”

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John Rupert displays a bowl of locally harvested and roasted pine nuts

A sacred lifestyle

One of these young people is John Rupert. The 17-year-old Carson City football player already has three elks and a 1,500-pound bison under his hunting belt. He regularly hunts for rabbits and ducks; fishes for Lahontan cutthroat trout; and forages for wild onions, pine nuts, and berries.

“Hunting and gathering your own food are better than buying something at the store; it gives you a sense of pride that you got your own meat,” Rupert says. “With family functions, everyone thanks me for providing the meat. You appreciate it more.”

This passion for the outdoors and ancestral skills has been passed down to John from his father, Ben Rupert. An 18-year employee of the Reno Fire Department and firefighter for more than 30 years, Ben grew up in firehouses learning to cook for himself and likes to focus on preparing local, traditional foods. He even makes his own kombucha.

“I think it’s an art that’s been lost, but you find out over the years that every native plant in the area has some sort of purpose as cordage, medicine, or food.” Ben says. “We only need to put up one big animal a year, and after a successful hunt we always share our meat with family and friends. We never buy beef anymore.”

Ben and John are members of the Washoe and Duck Valley Indian Reservation Shoshone-Paiute tribes, and their Carson City home is full of their beautiful, handmade weapons and art. Arrows with obsidian tips, willow bows with animal sinew, tule duck decoys, cradle baskets, powwow dancing regalia, and John’s bison hide have been carefully created and collected not only for hunting, but also for a future museum to be built on the family’s land.

The Ruperts are intimately aware of the change of the seasons and when to take what from the earth. When spring rolls around, Lahontan cutthroat trout are prevalent, and wild onion and Indian tea plants are fresh and green. Summer brings an abundance of roots from the cattail and wild potato as well as elderberries and chokecherries. Fall is the time to prepare for the hunt, and deer, elk, and rabbit are on the menu. September is a traditional time for pine nut festivals, and while in winter the foraging slows down, duck and other waterfowl hunting is on the rise. Before going on a hunt, both father and son fast and give prayers of gratitude to the Creator and the earth for each animal and plant.

In this family, the past intersects the present, even during the holidays. For Christmas, the Ruperts enjoyed a bison prime rib with Dijon mustard, Montreal steak seasoning, fresh garlic, thyme, and rosemary.

“It’s the traditional native meat, but we are cooking it in a contemporary style,” Ben says. “Even when we have the modern meal of Thanksgiving turkey, we add pine nuts to the stuffing.”

Both Ben and John share their love of traditional foods and cooking with some influential groups. John has whipped up spaghetti and sauce at the Traditional Ecological Knowledge summit of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and each May the two head out to the California Trail Interpretive Center in Elko and provide demonstrations on archery and how to cook cattail roots in a basket with hot rocks.

“We try not to focus on just Washoe-, Shoshone-, or Paiute-centric foods,” Ben says. “We are emphasizing the sacred lifestyle of the Great Basin tribes and educating others on how these tribes survived in this area for thousands of years. Also, it’s not just about food; it’s a big cycle of fasting and prayer, gathering the foods, and protection of the animals and plants for future use.”

Christina Nellemann is a Nevada native who grew up learning about local tribes’ hunting techniques. You can sometimes catch her foraging in the foothills for pine nuts or juniper berries.

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Fron left, John and Ben Rupert with traditional hunting implements. They have crafted many of their own, such as bows and arrows

Resources

Native Concept

The medicine wheel is an integral guideline

In Native American cultures, the medicine wheel and its four sections are a metaphor for a variety of concepts. In health, the wheel represents spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical health. It also represents the four directions, the four seasons, the four elements, and the four colors of corn.

The Sioux Chef

If you’re interested in learning more about Native American cuisine or even how to prepare your own, look no further than The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen, by Sean Sherman, the Oglala Lakota chef and founder of The Sioux Chef, and award-winning cookbook author Beth Dooley. In the book, Sherman dispels outdated notions of Native American fare — no fry bread, dairy products, or sugar here. The book features healthy dishes that embrace venison, duck, blueberries, sage, amaranth, and wildflowers. The book was named one of the Best Cookbooks of 2017 by National Public Radio, The Village VoiceSmithsonian magazine, UPROXX, San Francisco Chronicle, and others, and at the time of this writing, the book was a 2018 James Beard Foundation Book Award nominee. For details, visit Upress.umn.edu/book-division/books/the-sioux-chef.

Recipes by Season

 Spring

 Salmon/Steelhead or Lahontan Cutthroat Trout Filet
(courtesy of Ben Rupert, firefighter, Reno Fire Department in Reno. Yield varies depending on filet size; one serving equals about ¾ pound)

1 fish filet
2 lemons
1 red onion, diced
Capers (pearl)
Cooked and shelled pine nuts
Fresh dill
Bunch of wild onions or green onions
Lemon pepper
Olive oil

Place fish filet skin-side down on cedar plank, or cooking sheet if you plan to cook fish in oven. Brush olive oil over entire fish. Over entire fish, brush olive oil, then sprinkle a light coating of lemon pepper, as well as diced onions, pine nuts, and capers (amount depends on personal preference). Squeeze 1 lemon over filet. Slice another lemon and place slices over top of filet. Lastly, garnish with diced wild onions or green onions. 

This recipe works best when the filet can be covered, such as on a grill, smoker, or oven. For smoky flavor, add wood chips. If using oven, cook filet at 400 degrees F until fish is flaky but still moist. Use a fork to break a small opening in fish to determine doneness. Take care not to overcook.

Roasted Quail with Wild Onions and Raspberry Chipotle Sauce
(courtesy of Jason Hill, prevention outreach coordinator, Reno-Sparks Tribal Health Center in Reno. Serves 2)

Note: Wild onions can be foraged from early spring to early summer.

4 quail
1 handful of wild onions per serving
2 tablespoons olive or sunflower oil
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 large jalapeño peppers, seeded and diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
4 teaspoons adobo sauce
2 , 6-ounce containers fresh raspberries
½ cup apple cider vinegar
½ teaspoon salt
¼ cup brown sugar
½ cup white sugar

For raspberry chipotle sauce

Heat olive oil in skillet over medium heat. Stir in jalapeños and cook until tender. Mix in garlic and adobo sauce, and bring to simmer. Stir raspberries into sauce and cook until soft. Stir in vinegar, salt, brown sugar, and white sugar, and mix well. Simmer until thickened and reduced by half, about 15 minutes. Transfer sauce to heat-resistant bowl and allow to cool to room temperature before serving, about 20 minutes.

For quail

Preheat oven to 450 degrees F. Quail should be at room temperature and patted dry. Truss quail with kitchen string, rub with olive or sunflower oil, and sprinkle with salt. Wrap quail with wild onions. Set birds in roasting pan, and cook, on oven’s middle rack, 15 minutes.

Remove quail from pan and smother with chipotle sauce. Let rest 10 minutes then serve. This dish pairs well with wild rice and watercress salad with pine nuts and strawberry vinaigrette.

Summer

Berry Frybread
(courtesy of Jason Hill, prevention outreach coordinator, Reno-Sparks Tribal Health Center in Reno. Serves 6 to 8)

Note: You can use fresh berries instead of dried, but you would need to add them after the dough has been divided into individual portions/dough balls.

2 cups all-purpose flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
¼ cup dehydrated milk powder
¼ cup dried blueberries (or any berries you like)
1 cup warm water
Coconut oil (a healthier frying option)

Mix flour, baking powder, salt, milk powder, and dried berries in mixing bowl. Begin to add warm water and knead mixture. The consistency should be like pizza dough, not sticky but not too dry. Once mixed, soak clean towel in warm water, wring out, and lay over mixing bowl. Let rest about 30 minutes.

In cast-iron pan (you can use any pan), add enough coconut oil (other oil or lard can be used) to fill about 1 inch of pan. Heat oil to 350 degrees F, or medium-high heat. Take small amount of dough and place in pan. If dough sinks, it’s not hot enough. If dough floats, you’re ready to go.

Cover your hands and work area with flour, take a pinch of dough (between a golf-ball and tennis-ball size) and work it with a rolling pin or your hands. Pat and pass dough back and forth between hands and pull edges until dough has a little more than ¼-inch thickness and is a good diameter.

Gently place dough in hot oil. The dough should float. Cook about 2 minutes or until you see it lightly brown around bottom edges. Flip and repeat. Place cooked bread on paper towel-covered plate to absorb excess grease.

Fall

Buffalo or Elk Roast or Backstrap
(courtesy of Ben Rupert, firefighter, Reno Fire Department in Reno. Serves 3 to 5, depending on meat weight, at about 1 pound per serving)

“It might seem like a lot, but these are fireman-serving sizes!” Rupert says.

1, 3- to 5-pound buffalo or elk roast or backstrap
1, ¾-ounce package mixed fresh herbs (rosemary, thyme, parsley, oregano), stems removed and chopped
1 garlic bulb, minced
Montreal steak seasoning
Dijon mustard

Cover entire piece of meat with moderate coating of Dijon mustard. Sprinkle surface with generous coating of Montreal steak seasoning. Cover meat with garlic (according to taste). Lastly, sprinkle with chopped herbs, according to taste. (“I like to go heavy on the rosemary,” Rupert says.)

Preheat oven to 450 degrees F. Place meat in Dutch oven or cast-iron pot with lid. Cook meat in oven, uncovered, 25 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 325 degrees F and cover meat. After meat has been cooking for 1½ hours total, use meat thermometer to occasionally check internal temperature until meat reaches 135 to 140 degrees F. Remove meat from oven, place on cutting board, and let stand 15 to 20 minutes before slicing.

Winter

Juniper Tea
(From Native Cookbook by the Center for American Indian Research & Education. Makes 1, 2-quart pot)

Juniper is a local evergreen plant of the pine family known for its bright, blue berries and can be found in Nevada and California foothills. In laboratory studies, antiviral compounds in the plant have been found to inhibit the growth of flu virus strains.

20 sprigs of tender, young juniper
2 quarts water

Bring juniper sprigs and water to boil in large saucepan. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer gently for 15 minutes. Turn off heat and steep 10 minutes. Strain and serve. Sweeten if desired.

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