Chef Josh Swagger

Courtesy Chef Swagger

Chef Josh Swagger (second to left) sits down to enjoy traditional indigenous foods that he prepared with friends Spirit Grey Bull (left), Roxie Silha (right), and Rebecca Grey Bull (far right).

Turtle Mountain Chef Josh Swagger Envisions Tribal Restaurants in North Dakota

Native Chef Josh Swagger is working closely with the North Dakota Native Tourism Alliance to create authentic culinary experiences

Based in Bismarck, North Dakota, Chef Josh Swagger is among a growing cohort of Native chefs from across Turtle Island leading the food sovereignty movement. While he’s arguably making great strides, the humble member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians is quick to uplift the work of all the kitchen crusaders empowering Indian country to reclaim indigenous foods and food ways. A formidable collective promoting indigenous food, they are connected through an unofficial network and shared purpose. “We build each other up,” Swagger says of his fellow Native chefs. “We try to keep encouraging each other to move forward.”

While Swagger is one among many chefs reviving pre-contact foods, he may be the only Native chef doing so in North Dakota. He’s in the process of drafting a tourism plan that sounds a bit like “Taste of the Tribes” across present-day North Dakota with the North Dakota Native Tourism Alliance (NDNTA). Their plan is to create distinct restaurants at each of the five reservations across the state.

Chef Swagger's Elk Meatloaf

Swagger

Chef Swagger’s elk meatloaf with wild rice, and locally grown tie dye carrots and onion, topped with a wild plum and heirloom tomato coulis. Served with traditional, unleavened bread with a wild plum and mint compo.

As the NDNTA creates inroads for tribes to benefit more and more from North Dakota’s existing $3.1 billion tourism industry, the alliance is looking to Swagger to create a framework for authentic culinary experiences. “We’re trying to create an individual, modern-style dining experience within each reservation, unique to the tribe. There are variations between different bands and what they eat,” he says.

The vast majority of North Dakota travelers come for the national parks, as well as Native American education, Swagger says. The primary cultural attractions right now are pow wows, like the 48-year-old UTTC International Powwow, September 8-10, 2017, at United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck that draws more than 1,500 dancers and many more attendees.

What tribes in North Dakota need is authentic culinary destinations, according to the NDNTA, which recently formed “to preserve, protect and promote each tribe, the Indian cultures of each reservation,” said Les Thomas (Turtle Mountain), founding NDNTA president. “Each tribe is different. We have the Turtle Mountain Band, the Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux Tribe, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, the Spirit Lake Sioux, and the Three Affiliated Tribes: the Mandan, Hidatsa, & Arikara Nation.”

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The NDNTA will start chartered bus tours to the state’s five reservations this summer. It’s an initiative of the alliance’s new nonprofit NativeWays Tour Company, which will offer tourists authentic exposure to the reservations, as well as major pow wows, music festivals and art events. Tours will additionally go to heritage centers, national parks, and optional overnight attractions (like the Three Affiliated Tribes’ Earth Lodge Village), and ideally, to the five tribal restaurants.

Three Sisters Soup

Swagger

Chef Swagger’s version of Three Sisters soup with pureed squash, roasted corn and green beans, garnished with toasted pumpkin seeds, and seasoned with wild bergamot and osha root.

When Swagger’s plan comes to fruition, visitors will have an easier pathway to taste the traditional foods of each tribe.

Food is a method of cultural expression, Swagger says, and an opportunity to tell those stories: “It’s a form of communication once you sit down at the dining setting of a different group of people. That’s why there’s such a variety within different cultures of how food is presented.”

In Native tradition, elders, women and children eat first. “Men will eat last because elders, women and children are sacred. The reason why elders, women and children are sacred is that elders are the reason we are here. Women are ones that bring life into this world. And children are our future to come. That is why men eat last. As men, it is our responsibility to protect and support these people who are sacred in our community,” he says.

A series of tribal restaurants throughout North Dakota will do more than enhance food and economic sovereignty. It’s a stepping stone to improving the health of Native people. “What I’m trying to do is get more of the traditional foods brought back into the Native medicine diet within the reservations,” Swagger says.

Swagger, who trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Minneapolis, has been in the restaurant industry since 2007. Over the past six years, he’s shifted his focus to reviving the Native food ways his ancestors practiced before colonization — like grinding cattail roots into flour as a healthy starch or thickening agent.

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I try to work with foods from all the way up into Canada down into South America,” he says. “Lately I’ve been working on a lot of dishes pertaining to North Dakota-based foods and Ojibwe Cree.”

Swagger currently prepares mainstream and Native fare at a gastropub in Bismarck, The Toasted Frog. While the restaurant serves popular American cuisine, like fresh seafood, hand-cut steaks, and wood-fired pizza, Swagger regularly prepares indigenous-inspired specials.

Among his favorites is rubaboo, a traditional rabbit stew, utilizing everything edible within the rabbit, cooked down with root-based vegetables and wild onions.

Chef Swagger's Mock Spaghetti

Swagger

Chef Swagger’s mock spaghetti and meatballs are made with elk meatballs, wild rice, wild turnip and zucchini noodles. Swagger’s sauce is made from heirloom tomato and squash garnished with green onion curls.

Swagger harvests wild ingredients whenever possible, “because a lot of the foods that we eat are medicine, so I pick it naturally instead of it being processed,” Swagger says. Plus, a lot of what Swagger wants cannot be found in store.

While food — or malnutrition stemming from government commodities, and deprivation of traditional food systems and thus culture — has proven to be one of the greatest weapons against Indigenous peoples, food can also be the solution. It’s chefs like Swagger who are working to ensure that traditional knowledge is passed down to younger generations. The bulk of Swagger’s gastronomic “research” involves sitting down with different elders from the various tribes, learning about foods they grew up on and the foods their grandparents ate. He hopes to set up a youth and elders-based program to help increase the awareness of the foods that are too often forgotten.

Swagger is also a big advocate for introducing healthy, traditional foods to schools. “Within the school systems in America, there are a lot of heavy sugars and processed foods, and oils and lipids – not traditionally consumed by our people. We didn’t eat anything processed or very sweet. A lot of our foods were plant-based with just the right amount of meat for nutrition,” Swagger says.

Meanwhile, Swagger is recording indigenous food knowledge through cookbooks, offering traditional recipes regularly prepared “prior to residential or European influence, before flour and domesticated cattle,” he says. He’s crafting a few cookbooks on specific tribal food customs, and another focused on “tribal fusion,” he says.

Despite his myriad projects underway, whenever he can, Swagger deflects attention to the important work and ambitions of other Native chefs. “Chef Brian Yazzie [Navajo] has been doing a lot of great work with food sovereignty, working closely with tribal elders,” adds Swagger.

In no particular order, the roster of professional Native chefs preparing traditional foods and encouraging Native people to return to their ancestral diets includes (disclaimer: this list is incomplete and only scratches the surface of the expanding global network of Native chefs): Loretta Barrett Oden (Potawatomi), Native chef and food historian; Nephi Craig, executive chef at the White Mountain Apache Tribe’s Sunrise Park Resort in Arizona; Sean Sherman (Oglala Lakota), founder of The Sioux Chef, a consulting and catering company, and Tatanka Truck, both based in Minneapolis; the aforementioned Chef Yazzie, chef de cuisine for The Sioux Chef and a Youtube (“Chef for the People”) and social media sensation; Tashia Hart (Anishinaabe from the Red Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota), culinary ethnobotonist for The Sioux Chef; Chef Freddie Bitsoie (Diné), award-winning, executive chef at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian; M. Karlos Baca (Southern Ute), chef/founder of Taste of Native Cuisine; Ben Jacobs, chef and co-owner of Tocabe in Denver; Rich Francis of the Tetlit Gwich’in and Tuscarora nations, contestant on Top Chef Canada; Lois Ellen Frank (Kiowa), food historian and founder of Red Mesa Cuisine, LLC; and Chef Walter Whitewater (Diné), Frank’s collaborator at Red Mesa Cuisine and co-author with Frank of the James Beard award-winning cookbook Foods of the Southwest Indian Nations.

“We’re hoping more Native chefs will come out of the woodwork,” Swagger says.

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Turtle Mountain Chef Josh Swagger Envisions Tribal Restaurants in North Dakota

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