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A closeup view of a pile of Off the Rez Cafe’s pulled pork fry bread taco inside a paper bowl, topped with coleslaw. Off the Rez Cafe

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How Indigenous Restaurants Are Decolonizing Seattle’s Dining Scene, One Plate at a Time

Local Indigenous businesses like ʔálʔal Cafe, Off the Rez, and Native Soul work to educate and contextualize Native ingredients and customs while advocating for investment

An exciting new Indigenous-owned business called ʔálʔal Cafe is opening November 29 in dzidzəlalič, or Pioneer Square, showcasing Indigenous cuisines as well as art. The nonprofit owner of the cafe, Chief Seattle Club, provides support to Native people experiencing homelessness; ʔálʔal, pronounced “All-All,” is the Lushootseed word for “home” and also the name of the building itself, which contains 80 housing units for formerly unhoused, mostly Native residents.

By sharing its Indigenous cuisine with Seattle, ʔálʔal Cafe hopes to uplift Native culture and improve the local community’s understanding of the history of a city named after Chief Si’ahl and home to many talented Indigenous chefs and artists, yet woefully low on Native-owned restaurants and galleries. It joins innovative pop-up Native Soul, which reinvents comfort classics with Indigenous ingredients, and celebrated food truck and cafe Off the Rez, known for its bison fry bread tacos, in making Indigenous cuisine in Seattle more visible. Together, these businesses and others are reshaping how many ingredients like salmon, corn, beans, and squash are used, understood, and contextualized in Seattle while also advocating for more investment from the city.

“People [in our communities] just need the right resources. They need the right person to speak their language,” says Colleen Echohawk, CEO of Eighth Generation, an Indigenous goods shop located in Seattle’s Pike Place Market, who is Pawnee and Upper Ahtna Athabaskan (also spelled Athabascan). Echohawk notes that small-business owners who have the money to hire someone to fill out grant applications and PPP loan paperwork, or the time and resources to do it themselves, are rarely the applicants who need grant funding the most. Louie Gong, who is Nooksack, founded Eighth Generation in 2008; the Snoqualmie Tribe now owns the company, and Echohawk says she is “very excited about the future.”

“I think that there is huge potential for more Native businesses to be very successful and offer a different way of doing business,” she says. Echohawk asks her own employees to consider questions like, “How do we indigenize [our ways] of doing business? How do we indigenize our customer service?”

At ʔálʔal Cafe, diners can expect dishes like wild rice bowls with berry vinaigrette and bison barbacoa tacos garnished with pickled onions to showcase traditional ingredients from many different tribes, including blue corn from the Diné (Navajo) and Ute peoples, bison from the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, salmon from Quinault Indian Nation, maple sugar and syrup from the Passamaquoddy Tribe, and wild rice from the Red Lake Nation. That last one is close to the heart of cafe manager Anthony Johnson, himself an Anishinaabe citizen of the Red Lake Nation.

The cafe’s menu is “influenced by the sheer quantity of tribal nations and tribal people in Seattle,” Johnson says. “It’s really a city that has hundreds of tribal nations and people.” Colorful art installations will highlight more of those people, with Lummi artist Daniel Friday’s blown-glass salmon roe lights illuminating a mural of the Coast Salish people’s precolonial history through present day, painted by Roger Fernandes from the Lower Elwha Band of S’Klallam and the Makah Tribe. ʔálʔal’s art and food will work in tandem to grow its customers’ knowledge of the scope and magnitude of Native contributions to Seattle’s greater food scene.

Other Indigenous businesses in the city are reimagining how their cuisine can be represented in 2022. Native Soul, a pop-up focused on Indigenizing comfort foods, opened a few years ago. The pop-up regularly updates its schedule via Instagram, drawing a crowd wherever it lands and frequently catering events. Customers queue up for the curry chicken fry bread taco, and after catering an event for the Seattle Mariners baseball team this month, Native Soul owner Jeremy Thunderbird said players praised the smoked-salmon mac and cheese as the best they had ever had. Thunderbird, who is Ohlone, Chumash, and Squamish First Nation, plans to someday open a food truck and a brick-and-mortar restaurant. For now, he is focused on growing the business organically and testing new recipes while incorporating traditions he’s learned from elders.

When Thunderbird was growing up, most of the men in his family cooked, and fry bread was often in the rotation. “They call it bannock in most of Canada,” Thunderbird says. “So it goes by different names. And the bread can turn out really different nation to nation. It’s always like an inner quarrel between tribes for who has the best fry bread.” Those experiences inform his own fry bread. Similarly, when he was searching for the right wood blend to smoke salmon, “It was a mix of seeing it done and using my family’s techniques,” says Thunderbird. “And now I’m incorporating my own methods.”

Thunderbird is committed to incorporating Indigenous traditions into his business practices. “A lot of people think you just use animals for meat. We use everything from the hooves to the hide — things for medicine,” says Thunderbird. He recently attended a workshop where elders taught how to use every part of a bison. “I want everything I do to have more of a story to it. If some elders were to come and talk to me, I want them to know I’ve been studying ancestral ways,” he says.

Seattle’s best-known Indigenous restaurant, Off the Rez, also showcases hyper-seasonal plates, with produce, fish, and bison sourced from tribal vendors whenever possible. Selected for James Beard’s Taste America event earlier in November, Off the Rez is owned by Mark McConnell, who is from the Blackfeet Nation in Browning, Montana, and his partner, Cecilia Rikard. In October 2019, shortly before the pandemic, the beloved food truck opened its first brick-and-mortar location inside the University of Washington’s Burke Museum; the space’s vaulted ceilings draw a refreshing breeze from an angled wall of sunny windows. McConnell and Rikard recently began roasting their own coffee with a blend that is well-balanced — not too acidic, with cocoa notes and a sweet-earthy aroma. The bison is tender, the sweet potato salad delicately spiced with a satisfying crunch of celery, the fry bread crisp and airy.

That fry bread is a crucial component of fry bread tacos, which have been Off the Rez’s main attraction since the food truck got started. “We all share the fry bread in common, kind of using it as a celebration of surviving when you don’t have a lot,” says McConnell. He and Rikard expended a lot of energy and resources to reach the level of success and visibility they have now. McConnell says Seattle can be a brutal place to grow a business from the ground up, citing mistrust of banks and the city’s extremely high rents.

“Seattle has a really strict permitting process. And a lot of Natives don’t have the resources — either the funding or they just don’t want to deal with Seattle,” says McConnell. “I think that’s why you see more [businesses] on reservations. It’s easier, more accessible, and more attainable.”

To help weather the pandemic, Seattle’s Office of Economic Development (OED) provided grants to BIPOC businesses through the Neighborhood Economic Recovery Fund. Johnson, whose background was in finance and business before he became the manager of ʔálʔal Cafe, says that he appreciates efforts to eradicate racial and economic disparity, but he remains concerned that grant application processes are intimidating and inequitable. “Seattle has this crippling paradox of being the largest city named after an Indigenous Native person but not having the self-awareness to recognize the Duwamish and give them the respect, dignity, and resources necessary to operate as a tribe,” he says. “It’s just despicable.”

Eater reached out to Seattle’s Office of Economic Development for comment, but could not reach a representative in time for publication. The OED blog notes support for Indigenous businesses and it offers community resources on its website, but keeping up with staggering inflation may prove to be difficult. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics for the Seattle region, restaurants face increasing food prices, which rose an average of 11.5 percent over the last year. On top of Seattle’s notoriously expensive rent, inflation this year has made opening and running a business exponentially harder.

McConnell also points to climate change’s deleterious impact on the restaurant industry, evident in the skyrocketing price of salmon and fuel. To help offset fuel costs and decrease noise and pollution, Off the Rez recently installed solar panels on its food truck.

Sustainability is also important to Hillel Echo-Hawk, sister of Colleen Echohawk and owner of Birch Basket Catering. Echo-Hawk is a member of I-Collective, an Indigenous sovereign food and seed keepers group that recently published a series of cookbooks featuring many different tribes. “If you look in your pantry or your refrigerator right now, that is Indigenous food,” says Echo-Hawk, who is Pawnee and Upper Ahtna Athabaskan. “You have tomatoes or tomato products, potatoes, squash, chiles. Corn is in everything. And you probably have vanilla and cinnamon.”

While most people in the U.S. eat Indigenous foods, Echo-Hawk says these foods are rarely cultivated, prepared, or cooked with traditional Indigenous techniques. The ramifications of this disconnect can be seen locally in the dwindling kokanee salmon population; the dangers facing the cockles of the Salish Sea; the region’s increasingly disastrous fires; and the shoreline’s decimated shellfish, literally cooked to death during last year’s heat dome. As ʔálʔal’s Johnson puts it, “The fate of salmon and Northwest Indians is intertwined.”

Seattle, known as a destination for salmon, berries, shellfish, cedar, and wild mushrooms, largely erases the Indigenous origins of these ingredients. In the end, it is still left to Native businesses to fold centuries of knowledge and culinary history into their dishes to better educate the communities that populate a city located on the unceded land of the Duwamish and other Coast Salish peoples. Johnson, for his part, says he looks forward to ʔálʔal Cafe serving foods that are endemic to the Northwest while introducing cuisines from other tribes across Turtle Island. “[We want to] cater to all the Indigenous people out here and educate the general public on what traditional foods look like across the country,” he says.

ʔálʔal Cafe is located at 122 2nd Avenue S. Off the Rez Cafe is located at 4300 15th Avenue NE. Native Soul pop-up does not currently have a permanent location.

Off The Rez Cafe

4300 15th Avenue Northeast, , WA 98105 (206) 414-8226 Visit Website

Off the Rez

, Seattle, WA (206) 414-8226 Visit Website

ʔálʔal Cafe

122 2nd Ave S, Seattle, WA 98104 Visit Website