AZ (August 20) - When you first see it, plopped down on a paper
plate in all its caloric bliss, the round, doughy treat is so
appealing, so alluring it's hard to believe this wondrous sight
can cause anything but delight.
But fry bread, that fluffy concoction Native
American women lovingly make in their kitchens and people
line up for at powwows and western fairs, has come under attack
as a hazard to health.
Suzan Shown Harjo, a Cheyenne and Muscogee Indian, wasn't trying
to cause a debate. She just was exhausted with yet another one
of her relatives dying of diabetes. She zoned in on fry bread
as a culprit and whipped out a January column for 'Indian Country
Today' declaring it junk food that leads to fat Native Americans.
She made a New Year's resolution to abstain from fry bread.
Then she did something some Native
Americans consider insane: She asked them to give it up,
Word spread through Native America. Outrage! The nerve of Harjo!
What started as a woman's disdain for the yummy delicacy suddenly
became the great fry bread debate. Ask any Native
American about it and you'll either be greeted with rolled
eyes - or sparkling, hungry eyes.
After all, fry bread is synonymous with Native American culture.
South Dakota has just made it the official state bread. And
many Native Americans don't want anyone coming between them
and their hot, greasy skillets.
"It's like giving up turkey at Thanksgiving," said Gayle Weigle,
an Anishinabe Indian who runs a Web site celebrating fry bread
stories and recipes. "It is a tradition."
Native American women like Margarita Gonzalez here on the Tohono
O'odham reservation rise before dawn to start making
fry bread. Gonzalez makes four dozen each morning and makes
her living selling them in an empty lot in Sells.
"It's like a craving you get for it, the aroma of it. You
have to try to keep yourself from it," she said, taking
a break from serving the lunch crowd.
To say fry bread is tasty isn't doing it justice. It's scrumptious,
sweet, and puts a crazy spell on anyone who craves it.
But it's loaded with pesky calories - at least 700 for one paper-plate
size piece - plus a whopping 27 grams of fat, according to a
nutritional analysis by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"Those things are awesome," tribal police officer
Mario Saraficio said, getting excited at the thought. "It's
bad, but it's good. If the doctor told me I had to give it up,
I'd say probably not."
Interior view of a Mandan lodge
Fry bread came to be by necessity. When the government moved
Native Americans off their land and onto reservations in the
1800s, they were kept from their traditional foods such as elk,
corn, deer and rabbit. In their place were rations of flour,
salt and lard, and Native American women did what they could
with it, creating the wonderful fry bread that would become
part of their culture.
Ingredients vary today, but the main ones are still white flour,
salt, sugar and lard. Some call it a popover, and options are
endless for how to eat it. There's the Native American taco,
fry bread with red chili
and beans, or the extra sweet version with powdered sugar or
honey on top.
Phoenix, there is the popular Fry Bread House restaurant, where
you can get fry bread pretty much anyway you want. The most
sinful? Fry bread topped with gooey chocolate syrup and oozing
Sure, folks there talked about the fry bread flap, but it didn't
seem to make much difference.
"They're still in line," said restaurant owner Cecelia
Fry bread is so embedded in the culture many Native Americans
can't imagine going without. T-shirts declare "Fry Bread
Power Forever!" or "FBI - Fry Bread Inspector."
There's an entire Web site dedicated to warm, fuzzy memories
about fry bread.
So Harjo's column was the equivalent of taking spray paint to
Harjo, who heads the Morning Star Institute, a Native American
rights group, compared fry bread to a "lead Frisbee"
and even likened it to "hard-core porn. No redeeming qualities."
"It's the connecting dot between healthy children and obesity,
hypertension, diabetes, dialysis, blindness, amputations and
slow death," Harjo wrote, deeming it, quite simply, "Rotten
On the national radio show Native America Calling, the fry bread
furor was one of the most popular topics this year. One man
boasted that he downed 12 pieces in one sitting. Another man
said he was desperate for fry bread and couldn't find any.
"Anytime you say fry bread, people smile. Except Suzan
Harjo," Weigle said. "It's almost sacred. It just
makes you happy."
Weigle originally started her Web site www.frybreadlove.org
to talk about a benefit concert for the homeless children she
worked with in Minneapolis. Why that name? To her, fry bread
means comfort. Soon, she was posting fry bread recipes, pictures
and heartwarming stories. She's thinking now of a recipe book.
Not every case of obesity and diabetes among Native Americans
can be blamed solely on fry bread, of course. But Harjo has
Among Native Americans, the prevalence of Type 2 diabetes -
the most common form - is more than double what it is in the
general population. Fueled by obesity, poor diet and a sedentary
lifestyle, Type 2 diabetes is occurring a full decade sooner
in Native Americans, when people are between 20 and 29 years
Many believe the diabetes rate began to skyrocket when Native
Americans stopped living off the land and began using government
rations. For decades, researchers with the National Institutes
of Health have been studying the Pima Indians in Arizona, who
have the highest incidence of diabetes in the world, to determine
if there is a genetic reason they are more susceptible to the
Here on the Tohono O'odham reservation near Tucson, more than
half the 14,000 residents have diabetes. A $4 million dialysis
center is under construction, necessary to serve all the people
who have developed kidney disease from diabetes.
At the Sells hospital, it's unusual for doctors to see a tribal
member who doesn't have diabetes. It is so prevalent, doctors
and nutritionists struggle to convince Native Americans they
can help prevent it.
The attitude is, "I'm going to get it anyway," Dr.
Paul Weintraub said. "And to some extent, it's true. They
will get it."
Gloria Maldonado has lived with diabetes for 22 years. Her mother
had it, so does her brother and her 24-year-old daughter.
"I figured sooner or later I would get it," she said
as Weintraub examined her.
Fry bread didn't get Maldonado, 53, in this situation by itself,
of course. She struggles to give up junk food and doesn't exercise.
But she has switched from cooking fry bread in lard to dipping
it in oil.
"It isn't the culprit that has made Native American people
heavy," said Tammy L. Brown, nutrition consultant with
Native American Health Service's diabetes division. "It's
the fast foods, the sugary drinks. It's the overall diet."
But, if fry bread gets Native Americans talking about health,
then that's fine by Brown and Harjo.
"Just because it was food that was forced on us doesn't
mean we have to keep embracing it," Harjo said.
For a long time, Native Americans have made fun of commodities
and even refer to an overweight person as having a "commod
bod." Jokes are tossed around that fry bread has killed
more Native Americans than the federal government.
But artist Steven Deo, a Creek and Euchee Indian, said laughing
is a way Native Americans have dealt with obesity and diabetes.
"At some point, we have to confront that," he said.
"We have to prepare the next generation to come out of
that poverty, to strive for bigger and better things."
Deo created a series of public service announcement posters,
and debuted his first one - a picture of a big, tan piece of
fry bread with the words: "Frybread Kills" - at a
show in New Mexico last year.
"It has stirred some controversy," Deo said. "But
at least we're talking about it now."
It's mid-day at the Health O'odham Promotion Program, or the
HOPP, and the step class is in full, sweaty swing. Health lessons
are postered around the gym, reminding Native Americans to get
their five fruits and vegetables a day and that white bread
and rice convert quickly to sugar. Music is blaring, the treadmills
are filling up and Mashone Antone, 36, is on her second trip
to the community gym today.
Last October she took a hard look at her life: She was overweight
and so were two of her three children. They stayed in the house
a lot, ate fast food, indulged in fry bread and barely thought
But Antone, a juvenile probation officer, wanted to change that,
for her children and for herself.
Now she's up every day at 5 a.m. for a two-mile walk, then hits
the HOPP before work and again after work. She's shed 30 pounds
and wants to lose 50 more. Her daughter often joins her at the
gym, and now the family takes walks and plays basketball.
Soda is out, fruits and vegetables are in, and fry bread is
now only a rare treat.
"When I think about it, that was my downfall," Antone
said. "I don't miss it."
Harjo would be proud.
But getting someone with Antone's enthusiasm is a challenge
for the gym's staff. Nutritionists estimate 80 percent of the
Tohono O'odham people are obese. They hold a weight loss challenge,
fun runs, offer nutrition counseling, even teach people how
to shop for healthy food and host a camp for children at risk
for obesity and diabetes.
"I do get a lot of resistance from people who say they
want to change their eating habits, but don't want to change
the way they cook," said dietitian Dolores Galaz.
Another attitude Galaz encounters: Native Americans not wanting
to be thin, for fear they will be the odd one out in their overweight
In her column, Harjo had some parting advice: "The next
time you find yourself swallowing some leftover news du jour
or get that suicidal urge for fry bread, just slather lard all
over the magazine or television listing and apply it directly
to your midriff and backside. That way, you can have the consequence
of the rotten stuff, without having to actually digest it."
The gym staff isn't as harsh; they're just hoping to change
eating habits little by little. All the better if the fry bread
controversy jump-starts that.
"People want to change because they see what's happening
to their elders and their parents. I just think they haven't
known how to go about changing," Galaz said.
That means losing the lard and white flour in fry bread and
trying wheat flour and canola oil, something tribal Chairwoman
Vivian Juan-Saunders has started doing.
"I like to eat fry bread, but instead of eating the whole
pie, I eat half," she said.