I arrived at the 26th annual Haskell Indian Art Market in Lawrence on a warm, sunny September morning. My friends Mark and Judy wouldn’t meet me for another half hour, so I headed to Fry Bread Alley — the center of food sales during this popular fall event, operating at the edge of the circular performance “arena.”
Nearby, an enthusiastic announcer offered Indian lore, lists of raffle winners and information about scheduled dance performances. Haunting Indian flutes and sonorous drums accompanied dancers as they filled the arena with a kaleidoscope of colorful feathers and stunning beadwork.
More than half a dozen food booths awaited, and I ordered a breakfast taco. Wrapped in foil and served in a soft homemade tortilla, the combo included scrambled eggs with mildly spicy chorizo. But the tasty taco didn’t quite satisfy my hunger, so I ordered a spinach-and-green chile tamale. It had just the right amount of spice and a nice helping of spinach, wrapped inside tender homemade masa and a corn husk.
About 20 minutes later, Mark and Judy met me in the heart of Fry Bread Alley. They ordered Indian tacos — freshly prepared fry bread topped with seasoned ground beef, soft pinto beans and chopped lettuce, with toppings of diced tomatoes and shredded cheddar.
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We headed toward a huge expanse of picnic tables beneath a large tent, where event workers cleaned tables almost immediately after visitors vacated them.
“This is the best fry bread I’ve ever had,” Mark said as he and Judy devoured their lunch and I sipped a large cup of sweet tea.
Food and art are deeply intertwined in American Indian culture, and food items also appeared inside the artisan tents. Several artists offered “Pueblo Cookies,” while others displayed an insulated case full of red chile cheese enchiladas beside their gorgeous jewelry. A third sold hand-painted coffee mugs and six-inch decorative tiles designed for table display or use as a stunning trivet.
One artisan displayed a huge inventory of highly detailed painted dried gourds, and another posted information from traditional teachings of the Iroquois regarding the significance of corn, beans and squash. According to this story, the “Three Sisters” have also been called the Sacred Sisters, long grown together because they provide nutrients to each other. Beans twine around the corn stalks, and squash leaves keep the ground moist and free of weeds, as the plants live in harmony with each other.
To the Zuni people, corn is the symbol of life brought to them by the Corn Maiden, who represents strength, creation and wisdom. Legend has it the sun gives life to corn, infusing human bodies with fire and making them as the Creator designed them to be.
Other vendors displayed silver and turquoise bracelets, sparkling sterling rings and green jasper earrings atop miniature corn cobs. Nearby, copper-wrapped silver bracelets and Laguna lace agate rings begged to be touched, while enormous handmade pots and unusual art created on antique paper received admiring glances.
Our bellies full and our art fix satisfied, the three of us departed an hour later. As I reached Lawrence’s eastern border, a red-tailed hawk landed on a treetop beside the highway, the midafternoon sun illuminating its crimson tail feathers. It was a fitting way to end my brief immersion into American Indian cuisine and art.
Lisa Waterman Gray is a freelance writer based in Overland Park. She specializes in food and travel writing.