Catch a glimpse of Brian Yazzie’s left arm, and you’ll see cranberries, sumac, and sunflowers near his wrist, blue Hopi corn on his forearm and Navajo squash holding court at his elbow. An illustrated sleeve of more produce and wild game are up next for the right.
Chef Brian Yazzie. / Photo courtesy Brian Yazzie
The inspiration behind the ever-growing tattooed bounty of Native American produce started at age 7 for Yazzie, when the aromatics of Navajo blue corn mush or the sound of a knife tapping on a cutting board drew him into the kitchen to help cook for his large family. Raised by a single mother in Dennehotso, Arizona, located on the northeast part of the Navajo Nation, Yazzie remembers eating traditional and freshly foraged foods like wild spinach and pine nuts but also commodity foods like government cheese, canned chicken, and powdered milk.
“That was what we grew up on,” said Yazzie. “But for me, as long as we had food, we were OK.”
He discovered his passion for cooking but at the time was equally lured into gang life, spending his teenage years in and out of detention centers and county jails and skipping classes, sometimes to just hide out in the home economics classroom.
“I was blessed never to end up in prison or passing on,” said Yazzie, whose sisters would call to tell him to come home because they missed his food. “That was their way of checking up on me. Cooking always kept me out of trouble; it’s what saved my life.”
It’s also what prompted Yazzie and his wife, Danielle Polk, to settle in the Twin Cities in 2013. They wanted opportunity but also to stay connected to Native communities. “The Twin Cities has one of the top five Native urban populations in the U.S.,” said Yazzie, who works closely with the Dakota and Ojibwe tribes there while continuing to help the Dennehotso reservation and other tribal communities around the United States.
In 2014, Yazzie enrolled at Saint Paul College, where his first assignment as a culinary student was to perfect any dish from around the world. “I wanted to make something beyond frybread, but I realized at least 50% of ingredients inside Navajo tacos are native to the Americas,” said Yazzie.
Toppings like summer squash, peppers, and eggplant reminded him of French ratatouille, and he found his dish. More importantly, he discovered the larger influence of Indigenous foods and his passion for reviving, celebrating, and recognizing their ancestral origins.
Chef Yazzie found inspiration in eggplant, summer squash, and peppers, like the one on this circa 1951 seed packet from our collection, during his first assignment as a culinary student. / THF294269
He and Polk started a Native American Club on campus and connected with local chef/author/educator Sean Sherman, CEO of The Sioux Chef, to cater one of their events. “Seventy-five percent of the appetizers he served were foreign to me,” said Yazzie, who went on to work for Sherman before he and Polk started their own catering company, Intertribal Foodways. “We wanted to bring awareness to what’s been overlooked for so long.”
Along with showcasing Native ingredients and techniques, that’s also meant addressing health issues like diabetes that have long affected Indigenous communities. “We try to implement food as medicine,” said Yazzie, now executive chef of the Gatherings Cafe inside the Minneapolis American Indian Center. “Especially during this pandemic, we have to keep our elders strong and safe; a lot of them hold lost languages and teachings.”
After COVID-19 hit, Yazzie and his team started making 200 healthy meals a day for elders in the Twin Cities, established a Dennehotso COVID-19 relief fund, and regularly sent healthy food and supplies to the Apache County community. He works with local farmers and foragers to bring Native ingredients into his food whenever he can, even if it means taking baby steps with dishes like unhealthy frybread (created by Yazzie’s Navajo ancestors while they were in internment camps at Fort Sumner, New Mexico, in the 1860s). “It’s still on the table across North America as a survival staple for tribal communities, especially during the pandemic, so I had to take a step back and listen to my elders, but we’re getting there,” said Yazzie, who lightens up the wheat-heavy bread with amaranth flour or wild rice flour.
In mid-August 2020, Dan Giusti posted a picture on Instagram of an empty cafeteria. Communal tables were stacked against the walls, and single spaced-out desks and chairs took their place. “Maybe a new norm?” he asked in the caption.
Feed Your Brain free food pop-ups on campus at Hamline University are making healthier pantry and produce options available to hungry college students. Hamline students pictured, from left: Maggie Bruns, Feed Your Brain co-founder Emma Kiley, Maddie Guyott, Feed Your Brain co-founder An Garagiola-Bernier, and Najma Omar. / Photo courtesy Andy King
On October 26, 2017, students of Twin Cities–based Hamline University left work and class to flock to a few benches in a campus parking lot where more than 2,000 pounds of nonperishable food items were stacked. “We ran out in 30 minutes,” recalled An Garagiola-Bernier. A sophomore at the liberal arts school at the time, she organized the donation event, called Feed Your Brain, with fellow students Elise Hanson and Emma Kiley.
Even if the administration couldn’t see it, these three became acutely aware of food insecurity at Hamline after a sit-in over immigration laws earlier that year. “Students posted about immigration laws being changed, and some testified to experiencing so much hunger it was affecting their ability to learn,” said Garagiola-Bernier.
Photo courtesy Hamline University
The three friends wanted to dig deeper. They sent a survey to all undergrads to assess how food insecurity was affecting them, and included questions that addressed sourcing culturally appropriate food and healthy options for those with allergies or chronic conditions. “They were questions nobody was asking but students were really concerned about,” said Garagiola-Bernier.
Of the nearly 360 students who responded, 76% admitted to having trouble accessing food, and findings revealed heavier insecurity among Muslim, Hispanic, trans, and gay/lesbian students.
“We wanted to make the administration, and even the general public, aware that food insecurity is a profound indicator of poverty on college campuses,” said Garagiola-Bernier. “And if someone is food insecure, they’re also likely housing insecure or experiencing trouble with utilities or health care services.”
The findings contradicted Hamline’s reputation, and that of private college campuses in general, as places of privilege where food insecurity is an unexpected issue. “College students fall into a type of policy gap where they’re considered dependents of their parents. However, we know they’re living in financially independent situations,” said Garagiola-Bernier.
The first free food pop-up more than proved that, and a second one was held a month later. Feed Your Brain pop-ups continued monthly over the next two academic years (some intentionally set up in front of administration offices), and the founders continued to research food justice and work with faculty to help find a home for a food pantry.
“It was relentless advocacy and action first, and then asking for forgiveness later if we broke the rules,” said Garagiola-Bernier.
It was important for the pop-ups to offer students access to nonperishable, non-commodity foods and fresh produce. Not only do all three founders suffer from dietary health issues, but Garagiola-Bernier, a descendent of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa, has seen the effects of unhealthy foods. “Being a Native woman, food sovereignty is a big issue,” she said. “Being able to choose what goes into your body and the repercussions of that, whether good or bad, and not just have commodity foods switched on you is vital. I’ve seen how having access only to unhealthy foods leads to extreme health conditions.”
In 2019, Feed Your Brain found a permanent home with the help of Kiley, who became the first campus food access AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteer in Service to America), and the organization started hosting dinners and discussions on topics like the stigma of food insecurity. “It was a space where students could have meaningful conversations around topics that are hard to talk about,” said Kiley, who has since graduated and passed the reins of VISTA on to fellow student Sophia Brown.
Photo courtesy Hamline University
This year’s survey solidified the importance of those conversations as a 15% increase in food and financial insecurity was seen among students since COVID-19 hit.
“When we started, food was the easiest entry point into this work. But at its core, it’s always been more about justice and reparations, and we used food to have those conversations,” said Kiley. “There’s a high percentage of students that are food insecure, but it’s about more than that. We have to change the way we think about distributing food so it’s more about caring for your neighbor and less about feeling bad for people or stigmatizing experiences.”