The Important Lessons of Food:
Indigenous Dishes Are Teaching Tools at American Indian Museums

Stimulating the sense of taste is another way to enrich the museum experience for visitors. And at several American Indian museums across the United States, the menus rise to the occasion, favoring locally grown foods, seasonal produce or traditional ingredients.
Food is used to give visitors a sense of place and tradition. And however it’s done, offering food service gives guests a place where they can take a break during their visits without having to leave.

The Five Regions of Flavor

A salmon dish available at the Mitsitam Native Foods Café, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, in Washington, D.C. The eatery has salmon flown in daily from the Quinault Nation in Washington state. © 2009 Renée Comet, Restaurant Associates, and Smithsonian Institution.

At the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., Richard Hetzler, executive chef at the Mitsitam Native Foods Café, choose the menu items based on the five cultural regions of Native peoples in the museum’s educational mission: Northern Woodlands, South America, Northwest Coast, Mesoamerica and the Great Plains.
“We use Native indigenous foods that would have been eaten and grown from the Native peoples of that area,” said Hetzler, who also authored “The Mitsitam Cafe Cookbook: Recipes from the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.”
The café is divided into five food stations, one for each region. And the stations showcase traditional foods and cooking methods as well as “contemporary items with a native American twist.” The café even offers a take-home menu for Thanksgiving, so people can eat an entire turkey dinner featuring indigenous flavors.
With more than a million visitors each year, people are drawn to the familiar. “There are a lot of visitor favorites,” said Hetzler, “but the buffalo burgers are the most popular and Mesoamerica tacos [with] soft tortillas or crunchy shells are a close second.”
The buffalo burgers are from the Great Plains station, and the buffalo meat is sourced from the InterTribal Buffalo Council in South Dakota. Hetzler said the café tries to purchase as many ingredients as it can from Native sources. It even has salmon flown in daily from the Quinault Nation in Washington state. “The goal is really to give back to Native communities and educate the everyday guest about Native foods,” he said.
And if it’s not possible to use a Native source, the café uses products from local farms.
“I think food in itself is a teaching tool,” said Hetzler. “And if we can represent foods that would have been eaten traditionally or teach people about where foods really came from that is the real lesson.”

Artful Interpretations

The cafes at the Heard Museum of Native Cultures and Art in Phoenix and Scottsdale, Ariz., serve a menu of familiar dishes with American Indian influences or locally produced, seasonal ingredients.
“People from all over the world visit the Heard Museum,” said John Bulla, the museum’s director of operations, “and our goal is to create a culturally rewarding dining experience for visitors. Lots of people who live locally have never visited the museum, but they go to the restaurant.”
Lunch is served everyday the museum is open, and guests can order starters, salads, sandwiches, wraps, Southwestern specialties and desserts. And for the past two Thanksgivings, the museum has teamed up with Chef Freddie Bitsoie for its nationally recognized Harvest Feast: An Edible Gallery. Bitsoie, who is Diné, designed the menu to incorporate the food traditions from the Southern Plains, the Northwest, the Great Lakes and the Colorado Plateau.
“It’s a celebration of food highlighting Native ingredients and dishes from Native America along with a fusion turkey feast,” Bitsoie said.
And it’s quite popular, too. The event has sold out its 300 tickets each year.
The museum’s menu is mostly seasonal, and it makes sure to purchase enough tepary beans, a bean native to Arizona, to ensure its roughly 200,000 visitors each year can order its popular hummus appetizer year-round.
Another favorite is the posole, which was featured in Bon Appetit magazine. Bulla attributed the allure of the exotic to the popularity of its hickory-smoked bison burger. And the dessert star is fry-bread sundae, made with locally made fry bread dough, nutella and homemade vanilla ice cream.
It even sells its prickly pear salad dressing, which it makes in house, by the pint.

Southwest Fusion

Located on Museum Hill in Santa Fe, N.M., the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture is part of a campus of Museum of New Mexico institutions. And the Museum Hill Café serves visitors to the Museum of International Folk Art as well as attracts visitors from the nearby Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian and Museum of Spanish Colonial Art who are seeking a place to eat and relax.
Situated on a plaza, the Museum Hill Café also attracts locals with its stunning views, entertainment calendar and free wireless Internet.
“We have a really eclectic menu,” said Tahirih Bolton, manager of the café.
It serves lunch year-round, and it stays open to serve tapas on summer evenings. The favorites change with the seasons, said Bolton, but the Asian shrimp tacos are popular year-round. “They’re good, and there’s something different about them. It catches people’s attention,” she said.
Though the café doesn’t use food as a way to extend the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture’s experience to visitors, it plays to the innovative food culture in Santa Fe. The menu favors local ingredients. It includes traditional Southwestern dishes and puts its own spin on it.
It uses grass-fed beef from Bonanza Creek, raised just outside the city, for its albondigas (meatball) soup and other beef dishes, for example, and New Mexico chile peppers are used to make the sauce for its burrito and taquitos. “We very much love to support local products,” Bolton said. –

Definition of Terms:

Here are definitions for words that might be unfamiliar from the above article:

  • Diné: Or Naabeehó, means Navajo.
  • Fry-bread: An American Indian deep-fried quick bread.
  • Posole: A pre-Columbian soup or stew from Mexico.
  • Tapas: Spanish dishes that are typically savory

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