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Minneapolis chef Brian Yazzie is cooking for protesters at Standing Rock

Brian Yazzie (far right) and other volunteers cook for Standing Rock protesters.

Brian Yazzie (far right) and other volunteers cook for Standing Rock protesters. Photo courtesy of Brian Yazzie

“Let’s see if I can find the words.”

Chef Brian Yazzie is a full-time chef with the Sioux Chef, the catering company and upcoming restaurant (and cookbook and television show and all around cultural phenomenon) created by chef Sean Sherman. Their kitchen focuses on pre-colonial Native American food and cooking.

When protests broke out in North Dakota over the Dakota Access Pipeline, Yazzie knew he had to follow his calling and help. He set out to feed the protesters on the front line. 

“It’s quite an experience,” he says.

He describes the scene: A 50’x50’ tent provides the main cooking area, and includes eight or 10 steel top burners, a small grill, and some running water out back mainly for washing dishes. A second tent provides space for serving and dining. 

There are also some smaller, family-style kitchens for protesters who have been living on the camp for a while. But the bulk of the cooking gets done at the large tent. Volunteers concentrate on feeding the masses pretty much around the clock to ensure that everyone gets a thrice daily meal.

A pantry is made up of mostly donated items, and Yazzie said that peering into that larder gave him a “negative ancestral memory of internment camps and government rations.” His full-time work with the Sioux Chef means working exclusively with pre-contact ingredients, which are inherently healthful and wholesome, mainly vegetables, legumes, grains, fruits, and lean meat and fish.

But here, he was confronted with oil, lard, commodity cheese and meat, and white flour. And just like his ancestors, he says, he knew he had to use what was available and make something as healthy as possible. “We had to make the most of what was given to us.”

When the lead cook was out, Yazzie was given the task of leading the kitchen thanks to his credentials with the Sioux Chef. He managed to make a blue hominy and bison soup using tribal-donated bison meat, as well as a vegan soup with three beans and ramps, and a side of roasted pumpkin with quinoa, sunflower seed, and maple, plus some tribal donated wild rice.

"I wanted to try and feed the people healthy food so that they could get their strength and nutrition daily." 

He had groups of volunteers split into stations, with a large group just cutting vegetables, another group just working on rice, another cutting bison. Again, it takes the bulk of the day. 

The meals are served family-style using donated disposable flatware and utensils. When those began to run low, Yazzie had groups of volunteers washing out tin cans in order to use them for makeshift soup bowls. It’s an enormous effort.

Yazzie is back in the Twin Cities but will be returning to Standing Rock over the Thanksgiving holiday and is accepting donations of dry goods, canned goods, and fresh produce to bring along. The most helpful items to donate include dried corn, dried beans, cornmeal, amaranth flour, quinoa flour, hominy, wild rice, snacks for kids, and kitchen supplies (utensils, pots, pans, foil, et cetera), plus winter clothing including warm clothing for children.

Donations are being accepted now at St. Paul Technical College Culinary School through November 21, or contact Yazzie at [email protected] for more information on how to donate.