On Northern Cheyenne Tribal ground, Dillion-grown straw bales, Indian Tacos, people from Busby, Lame Deer, Helena, Kalispell, Bozeman, Missoula, McAllister, Idaho, Kentucky, Florida, California, Washington, Illinois, Vermont, Nevada, make up the ingredients that mix to build a straw bale house near Lame Deer. Here the June spring lurches forward with snow, cold rain, and wind. Blankets of blue flax, purple larkspur, and puffy sage blossoms dot the landscape. Wild horses: paints, a blaze, and majestic grays kept us alert as they snuffled amongst tents, campers, and vehicles.
Just a five-hour drive from the Madison Valley where we live, but a world away, is the Northern Cheyenne tribe’s 450,000-acre reservation in southeastern Montana. This land of gentle rolling hills topped with ponderosa pine and rust rock outcroppings is the home of about 3500 people. Numbering more than 5000 total tribal members, many live off the reservation to seek employment and places to live. Back on the reservation, a list of over 300 people wait for a place to live. Red Feather, a Bozeman-based non-profit, partners with tribal members to build straw bale homes on reservations in Montana and Arizona. I do some of the cooking for volunteers who come to build a home in 28 days.
While my own recipes make up the Red Feather menu, I search out food that is native to Indian Country to set before people who may never have experienced Native cultures. I quiz Native community folks who visit our construction sites to share their favorite traditional foods. When one Cheyenne woman told me of a childhood favorite, her grandmother’s cow hoof stew, I did a double take! Come to find out, bison hooves make equally tasty additions to stew. Pretty Shield, legendary Crow medicine woman, recommended boiling bison hooves all day, changing the water frequently, ending with a gelled substance that is quite delicious. The remaining softened sinews can be dried to make baby rattles.
The owners of the Cheyenne home we were working to build, Albert Walking Turtle (McManus) and Clara One Feather, are renown for their traditional recipes shared at powwow feasts near and far. They offered to make their venison stew for evening supper one day last week.
Last fall Albert’s aunt killed a deer. He butchered the doe, and hung thin strips of meat on a pole to dry for six months. The venison strips were washed and then boiled in water all day on our gas-fired camp cook stove, despite driving rain and wind. Near the end of the day, we added potatoes, carrots, and wild turnips to the pot of venison. The stew was served with triangles of Clara’s famed fry bread with a dipping sauce of sweetened dried chokecherries. Alongside our own supper offering, the traditional Native food, by contrast, seemed to impart the taste of the ground upon which we stood.
Is it not perfectly fitting that the universal Indian Country sign for ‘Plenty Food’ is a simple drawing of pole-hung meat? The Plains Tribes were and are hunter gatherers. Their knowledge of what grows wild below ground, above ground, the four-legged, the finned, and the winged has been passed down from elders over the generations. The land provides and those who prosper remain close to this sacred wisdom.