Tearing at Fry Bread: The Dance of Land and People


Exploring American Indian culture–historic & contemporary–on the Santa Fe Trail

by Noah M. Schlager

ABOVE: Contemporary American Indian artist Justus Benally and Amanda Beardsley at the Santa Fe Indian Market.

Once in his life a man ought to concentrate his mind upon the remembered earth, I believe. He ought to give himself up to a particular landscape in his experience, to look at it from as many angles as he can, to wonder about it, to dwell upon it.
― N. Scott Momaday

Snowflakes, leaves, humans, plants, raindrops, stars, molecules, microscopic entities all come in communities. The singular cannot in reality exist.
— Paula Gunn Allen (Laguna Pueblo)


“Culture and the nature are often spoken of in opposition to each other, but I can think of few things more intertwined.”

The road was lined with columns of people waiting for their turn to get fry bread, mutton, navajo tacos, or whatever their stomach was calling for. The air was still, the high desert sun oppressive, and my fry bread and iced lemonade still many bodies ahead of me. I recalled an old mental note, ‘Always carry a water bottle with you, you dry out quicker in the city than out in the desert.’ About that moment I noticed a mother with her two daughters passing by me.


The mother looked down at her daughter. “What’re you want to eat?,” she asked.

The little girl, with back-length hair and glasses, spread her arms and started running ahead crying, “MUTTON!!!”

Her mother and older sister were looking at each other chuckling, noting that it was a pretty unique response. I couldn’t help but smile, and it struck me that Northern New Mexico must be one of the few places that a kid would be so passionate about mutton. Given the long shepherding tradition here, lamb and mutton have been imbued into the local cuisine. While I doubt she and her family were sheep herders, the tradition has clearly made an impact on her.

“What would you like?” I was asked by the vendor, my musings broken.

I seriously considered breaking my vegetarianism and getting some mutton, but I ended up ordering a Navajo taco (typical vegie-taco fillings on fry bread) and lemonade. I sat down against a pillar in the shade, and watched all the people flowing in and out of the annual Santa Fe Indian Market.

Lines of people waiting to get fry bread and other Native foods from vendors. Frybread has become a symbol of Southwest Indian identity, both a bitter reminder of removal and a celebration of having made it through to today.

In the weeks before the market, I’d been filming at Fort Union National Monument and Pecos National Historical Park. For those who haven’t read my other blogs, I am in New Mexico with SCA/Americorp and the National Park Service building a mobile media tour of the Santa Fe Trail. The Santa Fe Trail was one of the most important 19th century trading and military routes into the West. You can trace its origins back much farther however, as much of it follows traditional American Indian trading routes.

At the center of many of these trading routes was Pecos Pueblo, now encompassed within Pecos National Historical Park. These routes connected all the way to the Pacific Ocean, the Aztec empire, and out into the great plains. Pecos’s power came from being located at a merging point of the rockies and the plains, where all these routes had to come together. This is why archeologists at Pecos can find shells and parrot artifacts in a region distinctly lacking in either ocean or tropical forest. It is remarkable to witness how the ecology of far off regions can make such an impact on a culture. Even deeper of course is the relationship they had with the landscape they immediately inhabited. In ways that require whole libraries to appropriately describe, the landscape shaped all aspects of the culture at Pecos—much as it continues to in living Pueblo communities today.

A group of dancers performing at the Santa Fe Indian Market

Culture and the nature are often spoken of in opposition to each other, but I can think of few things more intertwined. The limitations and opportunities provided by a particular environment shape culture, and likewise that culture will shape the environment in response. For example, in the arid Southwest the limited water supply and the abundance of sunlight led to the development of intricate irrigation techniques and drought resistant crops. In the social sciences we call these dialectic relationships—like a dialogue between two people. There are few places in the Americas, indeed the world, that haven’t been a part of such a dialogue. What makes the relationship between American Indians and their respective landscapes so fascinating is that they have existed in North America longer than any other group. The result is like two old growth oaks that have been growing against each other so long that you can’t tell where tree ends and the other begins.

Of course it is easy to over-idealize, and ultimately de-humanize, Indigenous relationships to the environment. I’ve known many otherwise intelligent and thoughtful environmentalists who claim that Indigenous peoples represent primitive relics of a time when people lived in perfect harmony with Nature. In truth there is no such thing as harmony in nature— change is a constant going back to when this planet was a giant snowball or great swamp with land fish and 3 meter millipedes. Indigenous people are neither ignoble or noble savages, but humans like all of us. Whenever people live in a landscape they change it, but that change needn’t be considered bad or polluting. Indeed many Native cultures developed sophisticated ways of sustainably harvesting from their environments. Conversely, we know many others ultimately overexploited their resources—Shepard Krech III covers this very well in his book The Ecological Indian. The noble savage myth prevents us from appreciating the true depth of the relationship American Indians have with the environment, a relationship that has unfortunately not been fully appreciated by many conservationists. In fact Conservation’s relationship to native people is one of the darkest threads running through its history.

  John Muir, the preacher of wilderness, wrote of the Mono Lake Paiute:

The older faces were, moreover, strangely blurred and divided into sections by furrows that looked like the cleavage-joints of rocks, suggesting exposure on the mountains in a castaway condition for ages. Somehow they seemed to have no right place in the landscape, and I was glad to see them fading out of sight down the pass. (The Mountains Of California, 93)

I for one found it incredibly disturbing to read such a passage from a man I’ve otherwise admired. It is important nonetheless to acknowledge the skeletons that remain in Conservation’s closet. Many of our wilderness areas and National Parks—including Yellowstone and Yosemite— were established by removing American Indians from their land or restricting their access to rightful hunting, gathering, or spiritual grounds. Ironically, this sudden divorce of people and land was as harmful to the land as for the people. For example, amongst the most prominent ways American Indians shaped the land was through controlled burns. In absence of these burns, small trees and underbrush built up in forests throughout the country. This new underbrush fueled many of our Nation’s devastating wildfires. Today we have rangers and foresters fulfilling the niche of controlled burns once performed by Native people. In an even greater case of irony, The North Fork Mono Tribe— the same people John Muir claimed had no place in the landscape— are now collaborating with the Forest Service in restoring meadows using their traditional burning techniques. Hopefully this sort of collaboration will become the new story in Conservation’s relationship to American Indians.

A 3d Printed owl sculpture from an Artist at the Santa Fe Indian Market.

Back at the Indian Market, I was savoring the doughy goodness of my fry bread. Tearing apart a fresh piece, I thought about the origins of fry bread, which are tied to the Santa Fe Trail. While the precursors to the Santa Fe Trail were created by American Indians, the trail would ultimately bring in the force that would so deeply disrupt their lives. Fort Union’s founding purpose and most significant contribution to history was in ending the Indian Wars and Forcing tribes onto reservations. Fry bread, now an iconic Indian food, was developed out of the Navajo “Long Walk,” when the US attempted to relocate them to Bosque Redondo in New Mexico. Unable to grow traditional crops there, they were reliant on rations of wheat from the US, supplied through Fort Union. From that wheat the Navajo created fry bread. Today fry bread is a symbol of Southwest Indian identity, both a bitter reminder of removal and a celebration of having made it through. It is a poignant sentence in their dialogue between culture and environment. The mutton that goes with the fry bread is another example of this. The Spanish brought sheep with them as they colonized New Mexico, and many Southwest tribes readily adopted the animals—and the wool and meat they provided—into their lives. I’d like to think the mutton loving little girl would mark that sentence with an exclamation mark. Today, all around me in the market I saw contemporary ceramics, silk screened prints, street art stenciling, 3d printed owls, hoop dances performed to hip-hop, film festivals, and drawings from Game of Thrones. Some like the more traditional works, but I have a fondness for looking at these new experimentations. Talking to the artists, they could all tie their works to landscapes or cultural concepts from their tribes. While challenging expectations of indian art, I find that they stay close to the spirit of that long conversation with place, which got me thinking about my own family.

Contemporary American Indian artists Bryan Parker, Justus Benally, Amanda Beardsley, and Santiago Romero at the Santa Fe Indian Market.

My mother’s family has Muskogee (Creek) roots, but most of their cultural and community connections were broken down by the pressures of assimilation. While today it is a cliché to boast of some Native American ancestor along your family tree, for my own family It was something that was not openly talked about till recently. The pressures against American Indian people and culture are more modern than the general public is aware of. American Indian children could be forcibly taken from their family until the the passing of the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act in 1975 and Indian Child Welfare Act in 1978. Similarly, Native American religions were not protected until the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978. Today, tribes still face ongoing environmental justice issues, poverty, threats to sacred sites and ceremonies, and systemic racism. I can personally attest to the modern threats to sacred sites through work I’ve done with The Sacred Land FIlm Project. In the face of these sorts of challenges my family chose the path of assimilation. While I cannot blame them for taking the path of least resistance, I have often felt as though my native heritage is but a neat footnote, without the cultural and community substance I would wish it to have.

Yet, in learning more of the connections to place found in the Native communities of the Southwest, I have begun to see how many tacit indigenous connections through land and food remain strong. My grandmother has taught me numerous traditional recipes, including hoecakes, the southern equivalent of fry bread. Our family farm is still run by my Great Uncle and Grandmother, who grow Corn, Beans, Squash and other crops that were cultivated by Native Agriculturalists for thousands of years. Recently they too have been working with the forest service to do controlled burns on their forest land. My family has deeply influenced my own love of gardening, fishing, and working intimately with the land. These connections to place continue a relationship, that while greatly changed from what it once was, is none the weaker.

ABOVE: Noah Schlager in the ruts of the Santa Fe Trail at Fort Union, which played a significant role in the Indian Wars and the US’s conquest of the West.