Newsletter Issue:
Fall 2022

Chef Nephi Craig: Landscape as Destiny, and Western Apacheria & The Culinary Art of Self-Determination

by Britten Chroman, Cohort ’20

Food nourishes the body—bodies require the intake of nutrients for physiological and cognitive growth. Food, as the old adage goes, also nourishes the soul. In a series of lectures to IDSVA, Chef Nephi Craig describes his use of indigenous foodways as a therapeutic modality to repair the detrimental physical, psychical, and spiritual effects of colonial violence. For Craig, growing, preparing, consuming, discussing, and sharing indigenous food act as powerful restorative practices to nourish various aspects of Native American life. 

Chef Nephi Craig is an enrolled member of the White Mountain Apache Tribe and is also half Navajo on his father’s side. Craig attended culinary school in Scottsdale, Arizona, and is the founder of The Native American Culinary Association (NACA), an organization dedicated to researching, refining, and developing Native American Cuisine. In his two lectures, Craig makes visible how the seemingly self-contained topic of food is tangled up in the construction of identity, community, property ownership, economic self-sufficiency, and social and cultural relations. 

Craig’s overarching work is to draw attention to the harmful effects of colonialism, specifically its impact on Native American psychology and culinary traditions. He targets issues such as lack of fertile land for agriculture, limits on foraging, hunting, and fishing rights, the outlawing of cultural practices, celebrations, and rituals, and the introduction of cheap, low-quality foods. These infringements on indigenous life tie directly to reducing the consumption of healthy, culturally appropriate foods and an increase in alcoholism and other dietary-related diseases. Craig sees reviving Native American food practices as an indigenous “resurgence” or culinary insurrection that addresses historical trauma, restores self-determination, and provides a pathway to better physio-psycho-spiritual health.

Still from "Gather." Image courtesy of Nephi Craig.

Craig defines the artillery of his culinary resurgence as storytelling, sacred transfer of ancestral knowledge, cooking, eating, and all other food and food-related practices. Native American Cuisine, according to Craig, is grounded in “cultural intuition that guides us to develop Indigenous Cuisine in an Indigenous way. Therefore, Indigenous cuisine will not be ‘fine-dining’ focused but rather driven by ancestral vision and the priority of healing Indigenous communities.” 

Craig’s passion and commitment are evident. Cooking was his path to recovery from substance abuse and his personal experience drives him to support other indigenous peoples to find alternative means to heal trauma as they recover from addiction. Reviving Indigenous culinary knowledge and food practices serves as a practical and accessible therapeutic modality to combat the multiple, compounding factors that increase Native Americans’ risk for drug and alcohol dependence. Food might not be able to cure violence, poverty, high levels of unemployment, discrimination, racism, and lack of access to quality education, but it can, according to Craig, nourish by re-connecting and enlivening a cultural core, re-building an identity that was violently stripped away, and feeding the body foods that allow it to thrive. 

Still from "Gather." Image courtesy of Nephi Craig.
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