Are Indian tacos a traditional Indigenous food?

Go to powwows or Indigenous gatherings across North America and you’ll probably find someone selling Indian tacos. But not everyone is happy about it.
Feast Café Bistro in Winnipeg serves up Indian tacos, and owner Christa Guenther says she thinks they are a traditional Indigenous food. (Feast Café Bistro)

Go to powwows or Indigenous gatherings across North America and you'll probably find someone selling Indian tacos.

Although there are several variations, they're basically made up of seasoned meat, with Tex-Mex toppings like salsa, cheese and lettuce — all served on a platter of frybread.

But where did the Indian taco come from?

If you ask three people, you'll probably get three different answers.

"I think for me and for our culture, it is something that I consider traditional. They're very popular and it was something that I really needed to include [on the menu]," said Christa Guenther, owner of the Feast Café Bistro in Winnipeg.

Owner Christa Guenther includes Indian tacos on the menu of Feast Café Bistro. (Feast Café Bistro)

"Here ... I use a bison chili or a shredded chipotle chicken or a vegetarian chili, and you pile it teepee-high with lettuce and cheese — local Bothwell cheese is what I use — and red onions and roasted red-corn salsa, and then I use a maple-lime chipotle sour cream drizzle."

But not all Indigenous people like Indian tacos, in part because of the frybread they're served on.

"I'm probably the biggest bannock racist you'll ever meet in your life. I've never made it in my life," said Rich Francis, a Gwich'in chef and former Top Chef Canada finalist.

Francis says he doesn't consider frybread a traditional Indigenous food.

Frybread is typically made from wheat flour, which many people believe was introduced to Indigenous communities by early European settlers during times of starvation.

Gwich'in chef Rich Francis says he has never made bannock and doesn't consider it a traditional food. (Rich Francis/Facebook)

"I consider it a symbol of survival. That's it. I mean, it was never meant for us. Everything that was ever given to us was meant to wipe us out," Francis said.

A big issue with frybread is that it's not a healthy food — an issue Guenther is responsive to.

"A lot of people say it's not healthy but when you think of, for instance, what we do here at Feast, the bison has 85 per cent less fat than beef," said Guenther.

"We have a lot of beans and corn and tomatoes and fresh local vegetables on top, so really, the little bit of frybread ... it kind of feeds the soul more."

And for Guenther's Indigenous customers, frybread holds cultural significance, and eating it can trigger memories.

"I have a lot of elders that come through the café that have not had frybread since before residential school, or that their mothers made for them as little boys, and literally have seen them cry, having the frybread," she said.

"So I know that a lot of people think that frybread isn't traditional but I guess it depends on the person, and I think it has been part of our culture for many years."

With files from Tim Fontaine. To hear Tim's full piece, click the Listen button above.