It’s taken over 20 years, but I’ve finally done what I thought impossible. And now it’s one of my most cherished accomplishments. No, it’s not for winning the Nobel Peace Prize (I’ve been told I’m too ornery to promote peace), nor an academic award (I still have trouble spelling receive). My great accomplishment is that I finally learned to make my grandmother’s frybread taste just like she made it.
It’s taken me over 20 years of: watching my kookum, (grandma), eating frybread, and many attempts to make it myself. Twenty years of chasing new recipes and ingredients to replicate and remember what she taught me as I stood over her shoulders watching her mix and knead and fry. I’ve failed for 20 years to make it taste like my Native American grandmother’s memories; failed to turn the bread to a beautiful copper color, mirroring her own skin; failed to master what she taught me. Until today.
Most of you know, but for those who aren’t familiar with frybread it’s a bread dough that is fried to a golden color. Every tribe and family has its own recipe handed down generations. Frybread is also a representation of the history of Native people: by force or cornered into no other options to save their people, sovereign tribes signed treaties with the U.S. government, which guaranteed food commodities to tribes in perpetuity (in addition to other guarantees). Many times this food was not delivered, or when it was, it was rancid. Natives are incredibly resilient people—yesterday and today. They took this commodity oil and flour to create the most wonderful soul satisfying frybread. Literally making lemonade out of lemons.
As I began thinking more about my two decades of learning and finding ingredients for frybread, I realized it’s also a metaphor for how I, a Native person, chose my career path of education in Minnesota—slowly, seemingly simple things combined to help me to rise in my ability. With the cavernous gaps in teacher diversity (only .03 percent of students in teacher preparation programs in Minnesota are Native according to scholars Achinstein & Ogawa, 2011), I thought it fitting to trace my own path, my recipe, into education and teacher preparation.
Right now, there is a need for using new ingredients, or strategies, to address the lack of a diverse teaching landscape in our nation. I’ve been in education for most of my life: 18 years teaching in the classroom, two years teaching in higher education, and now back at school again for a Ph.D. But what did it take for me, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe, to initially make it into a teacher preparation program? What ingredients did it take to help me through schooling and then continue into higher education? How can everyone, anyone, (you!) help to create more diverse teachers in our country (especially Indian country)?
For me, it wasn’t a list of glamorous stories, but a slow, sometimes simple approach. Much like the ingredients for frybread are seemingly simple: flour, yeast, water and patience—my journey into teaching was a recipe of how mentors changed a simple person into seeing beyond what I envisioned for myself. And like the connection to food for my Native family, these mentors used indigenous cultural assets and connections to tap into my interests and drive.
I always begin with my mother. In my teen years she asked, “Have you ever thought about going into teaching?” Of course I said no, and then it took me years to realize that truly education was my path (note to self: listen to my mother). I hadn’t thought of teaching before she asked, but then I started to. In my first teaching job, a female Native principal asked me, “Have you ever thought about going into a leadership job in education?” I hadn’t thought of it, but I then started to. On the web I follow a virtual Native mentor, Debbie Reese, and saw she was in higher education. By looking at her path I almost heard her say, “Have you ever thought of getting into higher education?” After years in the classroom another person asked me, “You need to make some changes for Indian people. Have you ever thought of getting your Ph.D.?” I hadn’t thought of it, but then I started to.
By asking a question, these family and friends opened a window of potential that I never would have imagined I could venture through. These were all Native people reaching into my untapped, unrisen being and planting the yeast of possibility that, perhaps, I could do this. This, from a person whose first memory of school is being laughed at for struggling in spelling and reading. Without mentors encouraging me, I would not have seen my own potential.
As I thought about my many failures at frybread, I realized, after being taught again recently by my Auntie Charlene, that I wasn’t letting the dough rise enough. I was also over handling it, making it too tough. This, I know now too: sometimes the educational policies put in place to increase teacher diversity are actually making this process too tough and prohibitive. There’s a lack of funding, testing creates barriers, and curriculum doesn’t reflect a diverse student population.
My Native mentors did not let me give up; they saw something in my bread-making and my teaching career, and encouraged me to forge ahead. Do we do this with our potential diverse educators today? Can we? Can you?
I’ve loved frybread since I can remember; understood its historical relevance to Native people, loved the memories of my kookum’s warm kitchen overflowing with relatives, history, stories, and love. When I commented how I loved this food she once said, “Well, my girl, you can make it, too! You can do it!” She invited me to watch over her shoulder as she made frybread. She asked me to become a part of something I previously had only watched from a distance. I watched over her shoulders back then, and since she’s passed on, I know she’s watching over mine. Sometimes all you need is a voice saying, “You can do it!”
Frybread makers are not created in a day, a week, or even a year. It can take decades. Yet, if I hadn’t started all those years ago, step by step; adding a new ingredient and strategy each year, there would be no progress in my life; no change. It’s the same with diversifying our nation’s teaching workforce. Only if we begin to implement new approaches and continue to recruit Native diversity in education, then in the future we will see progress. But we must begin today to see a different tomorrow.
You, too, can help a diverse person rise to their own potential; to see their place in teaching; and to grow into a leader in the education field. Let’s amplify the call to invite indigenous people into education by asking them “Have you ever thought about teaching?” After all, Native people’s sense of teaching has permeated our tribal way of thinking since time began.
Now you’ve heard my story. How I’ve been invited into possibilities. Now you know… my life in frybread.
Dawn Quigley is an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe, North Dakota. She is an assistant professor in the Education Department at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota, and is also a Ph.D. student at the University of Minnesota. When she’s not making (and eating) frybread Dawn enjoys reading, writing, gardening and spending time with her husband and two children.