Book reviews — Bounty from the Northwest

Published in Indian Country Today in 2007. For more on topics like this, see my book, American Apartheid: The Native American Struggle....
Where People Feast: An Indigenous People’s Cookbook
The dishes that drew diners to Liliget Feast House, the Vancouver restaurant run by award-winning chef Dolly Watts, Gitk’san, are on show in her new book from Arsenal Pulp Press. The handsome volume, with its stylish food photographs and carefully crafted recipes, is a collaboration with her daughter, Annie Watts, Gitk’san/Nuu-chah-nulth, as was the restaurant, one of the first Native fine-dining establishments in North America. The two women were among the groundbreaking chefs who during the last few decades created a cuisine out of Native cookery, until then a family and community activity.

Dolly, who has a degree in anthropology from the University of British Columbia, did not plan to become a restaurateur. However, one day she offered to make and sell bannock to help Native students at the university earn money for a field trip. Her fried breads were such a success, they became a business that grew to encompass salmon and soup sold from a food cart, then a catering business and finally her restaurant, which she ran for 12 years before closing it in 2007. Annie has two degrees, one in culinary arts and the other in computer science, and put her talents to use at Liliget Feast House, where she cooked and designed the restaurant’s promotional materials.

The cookbook’s 150-some recipes are dished up with dollops of Dolly’s youth: descriptions of gathering berries, making preserves, collecting seaweed, digging clams and more. The dishes derive their interest from innovative combinations of small numbers of ingredients and from inventive marinades and dressings. Many of the dishes contrast sweet and herbal flavors; for example, Chokecherry Glazed Grouse is suffused with rosemary, and Wild Huckleberry Glazed Duck includes marjoram. Sweet and salty flavors find their way into meat preparations, which often contain soy sauce.

Some recipes have ingredients that are familiar to many readers: salmon, venison, buffalo, elk and a range of commonly eaten vegetables. Other dishes feature items that are most easily found in the Northwest, such as herring spawn on kelp and oolichan, an anchovy-like fish that is eaten and used as a source of cooking oil. (Readers are assured that they can find sources of the more unusual foodstuffs online.)

In addition to offering authentic indigenous preparations, such as smoked and half-smoked salmon or Gitk’san Slush, in which wild berries are whipped with snow, the cookbook presents variants on mainstream recipes. Caesar Gone Wild Salad uses oolichan instead of anchovies and croutons made from bannock; venison liver stands in for goose liver in French-style pâté; and bread pudding becomes more flavorful when bannock is swapped for white bread. Whether traditional or contemporary, all preparations are imbued with two crucial ingredients: generosity and joy.

Chapbooks by Duane Niatum
The salmon that appear so often in Where People Feast also surface in the writing of Duane Niatum, Klallam (Jamestown Band). Since the late 1970s, Niatum has produced chapbooks, or handmade books, that partake of the worldview of both his mother’s Klallam people and his father’s European ancestry. Some of the chapbooks include his poetry, while others offer his prose retellings of traditional Klallam stories. He composed the latter, according to a note in a 1999 chapbook, Stories from the Land of Red Cedar, to support language and cultural preservation.

A widely published writer whose doctorate is from the University of Michigan, Niatum has taught at several universities and edited pivotal anthologies of Native poetry, including Carriers of the Dream Wheel: Contemporary Native American Poetry in 1975 and Harper’s Anthology of 20th Century Native American Poetry in 1988. Since the 1970s, a variety of presses have published books of his poetry; most recently, West End Press brought out The Crooked Beak of Love in 2000.

The homemade chapbooks offer a look at what he was doing in between these and other large works. They also remind us that once upon a time, all books were made by hand. With their earth-toned paper and bead-trimmed spines, the chapbooks stand out from the stolid conventionally manufactured volumes on the bookshelf. A light breeze will set the dangling beads to dancing and transform the slender volumes into a row of little people with messages from their world to ours.

In Niatum’s writing, distinctive cadences support the flow of meaning, often via percussive lists of words or phrases. In some cases, rhythm is subject matter. In “S’Klallam Spirit Canoe,” from a 2004 chapbook, Journeys That Criss-Cross Darkness and Light, we find:

“My paddle keeps to the sun’s path,
pulls back home to sea,
my blood on its travels to the whirling depths…
The drumbeat slips beneath the current,
rattles from genes to prow,
returns to ancestral fire and form
emerging from the trail of cutwater….”

The content of the chapbooks is as personal as their distinctive bindings. In both the poetry and the prose, actors in vivid natural scenes metamorphose before our eyes and stretch the boundaries of metaphor: Stars turn into handsome suitors for young women; a canoe is cleansed by singing; and a narrator describes a night on France’s Côte D’Azure, when he resolves “to live the syllables of a twig,//vowels of a flowering lemon.”

Much of the 2004 chapbook deals with the solitary and sacrificial life of the artist. Niatum includes Cezanne (a “lone wolf”), Van Gogh (“furies, poverty”) and others. He ends with a poem that eulogizes those who toil to “turn pain into song”:

“Nothing will remain of him
except four rising notes,
the passing through phase
skinny dipping the giveaway rush of sky.”

c. Stephanie Woodard; quoted text used with permission.

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