Apache Chef Nephi Craig Plans Native-Foods Conference

Published in Indian Country Today in 2012. For more on topics like this, see my book, American Apartheid: The Native American Struggle....

Nephi Craig, executive chef of the fine-dining restaurant at the White Mountain Apache Tribe’s Sunrise Park Resort Hotel, has put out a call for proposals for an early-November indigenous food-and-culture conference. It will take place at the resort, near Greer, Arizona. The setting is the glorious high-desert mountains of northern Arizona, with vast, gaping valleys and soaring mountains dotted with juniper and cacti.

Craig,  shown at center with his staff, is White Mountain Apache and Navajo. He has classical-French culinary training and worldwide experience as a chef and hopes the conference will attract a range of community members and outside folks interested in exploring many aspects and applications of Native foodways. “Native foods are not a trend,” says Craig,. “They are a way to recover our communities and decolonize ourselves.”

Craig says Native people are emerging from what he calls “the Great Interruption” in their foodways: “Pre-contact, we were expert farmers, hunters, gatherers, fishermen and cooks. Then we suffered a violent clash of cultures that lasted 500 years and ended in the reservation system and cheap, high-fat, high-carbohydrate commodity foods. They, in turn, produced rampant killers: diabetes, heart disease and obesity.” As a result, he says, healing is the most important ingredient in Native cuisine.

The conference’s stellar list of partners includes Native chefs and restaurateurs April “Bleu” Adams, Dine’/Hidatsa/Mandan; Bertina Cadman, Dine’; Arlie Doxtator, Oneida; Mark Mason, Dine’/Hidatsa/Mandan; and Chris Rodriguez, Xicano; along with scholar Claudia Serrato, P'urhépecha. Organizations that have signed on include the White Mountain Apache Tribe; the Native American Culinary Association, which Craig heads; Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health; and the People’s Garden, a local community garden where Craig and his all-Apache culinary team have given cooking demonstrations. Here’s an interview with Craig:

Why a conference?
A one-day workshop we did at the resort last summer attracted people from all over the region, and I thought we could go further and continue to explore ways Native foods can be used creatively to address many social and public-health issues. We’re expecting interest from chefs, but also from scholars and professionals in public health, education, agriculture and more.

As an Apache, you’ve inherited a holistic food tradition, yet the people coming together will have narrow specialties. Is there a conflict?
That’s the language of the world today. Things need labels to be understood. But Native foods will be the energizing force that brings all these people together. Like an old-time autonomous Apache band living on the land, everyone at the conference will all rely on every single other person’s resources. To get back to that historical way of being, we Apaches need the expertise of disparate people.

Will this help your community directly?
My community is hurting, and there is no quick fix for the problems here. I could get stressed out naming the ills—political, legal, social—but it all ties back to wellness and mental health. With the conference, we will be doing something positive, showcasing local people with special talents and information, as well as visiting experts, and talking about Apache values and their importance. We’ll help underline that the culture is intact and valuable.

How is the People’s Garden a part of this?
I’ve asked them to present, and we’ll be cooking with their food. I hope we can bring attention to the great work they do and encourage people on the reservation to take up farming. There’s an idea that we Apaches were warriors, so we shouldn’t get involved with farming, but I think we can make it cool—especially to youth. The elders need some strong backs out there!

Will your Sunrise Park Resort team be around during the conference?
They certainly will. My staff is so important to me. My training, experience and theories have all come together in this kitchen. We’re an all-Apache team producing food collaboratively in our sacred high mountains. We have taken some things from the classical French culinary canon, but other things we’ve modified—for example, making our kitchen less hierarchical in a way that’s more comfortable for us as Apaches. My goal is to have each of us think of ourselves as able to be both teacher and mentor every day and to carry this idea throughout our lives. This concept is working, too: team members’ skills have grown quickly, and of course, ironically, that means other restaurants are hiring them away. But that’s natural, and supporting their personal development is what it’s all about.

Has your blog (apachesinthekitchen.blogspot.com) attracted attention to NACA and your work?
It has. Chefs have noticed it, and one came all the way out here from Indianapolis to see us. He was interested in our ideas about the relationship of culture and food.

Are you learning as you go?
Learning is a constant, but it has to be slow. What we do in food here at White Mountain revolves around things that are special, significant. And there’s so much I don’t know. I went to our cultural center to look for photographs, especially of men cooking, because I wanted to show male staffers that food was traditionally of concern to men as well as women. What I saw in the photographs—preparations for a sweat or a ceremony, for example—was so powerful, I felt I was communing with the past. Even if food wasn’t in the picture, I knew there was a pit off-camera where meat was roasting, that there were acorns women had spent the summer gathering. I was intimidated, humbled. I even wondered, should I be seeing these things? My work here at White Mountain will take time, like the nurturing of a farm or a baby. And it needs the support of all the people—community members and partners from outside. 

Text c. Stephanie Woodard; photographs courtesy Nephi Craig.

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