Culture can be spread and shared through books, conversations and stories but perhaps one of the most enjoyable ways to do so is through food. Arizona was settled on lands that were long inhabited by indigenous people and is still home to a diverse population of Native Americans. While America has historically undervalued the cultural contribution of Indigenous people, some Native-owned businesses in Arizona are helping to share their history and culture through food and community engagement. One such business is Ramona Farms, a family-owned farm located on the Gila River Indian Reservation. Ramona Farms was started by O’odham Farmer Franciso ‘Chiigo’ Smith, and his daughter, Ramona Button, and her family have continued to operate and expand their business.
Ramona Farms grows many products but perhaps the most well-known is the Tepary Bean, a bean native to the Sonoran Desert that Native Americans have cultivated for centuries but had become nearly extinct. Ramona Farms helped to increase production of the Tepary Bean and grows the heirloom bean along with other traditional Native American foods like Heritage Wheat Berries and corn. They distribute their products to stores and restaurants all over the country. Brandy Button, Ramona’s eldest daughter, says that their seeds are sacred and deserve respect.
“Every single one of our products are native to the Desert Southwest and to the peoples that inhabited this land, which is our ancestors,” Button says. “They’re grown with intent, to carry out the nutrition that they have to offer, help to spread our culture and to bring awareness of our people.”
Ramona and her family use their business to connect with the community in many ways. Brandy says that her mother, along with other family members, often speak at schools and museums, sharing their history and cultural traditions. Ramona Farms also takes part in various events and fundraisers supporting Native American communities and organizations. Button says customers largely discover Ramona Farms by word of mouth and she says taking the time to talk to people is the best way to spread their culture and engage with their community.
“We enjoy finding people of like-mindedness who have the same intent and goodheartedness for their community as well as their people,” Brandy says. “Then we like to help support whatever function they have going and likewise hope that they do so when we have things happening.”
Button says Ramona Farms wants to share more than just their products with the community, they also seek to educate people on how to cook the food that they produce. Button says that they send literature and recipe ideas along with their food to anyone that they sell to and they love to hear about the meals their customers create with their products.
One local restaurant that uses many products from Ramona Farms and shares their mission to showcase Indigenous cuisine to the world, is the Courtyard Café at the Heard Museum located in central Phoenix. Irene Rutigliano, the director of operations of the restaurant, is responsible for creating the menu and recipes. While the menu is not entirely made up of Native foods, Rutigliano integrates traditional foods in her dishes to create a unique take on Native American cuisine.
The Courtyard Café uses the Tepary Beans from Ramona Farms in their famous Tepary hummus which they serve as an appetizer with fry bread and in a wrap as an entrée. They also feature the farm’s Pima Club Wheat Berries in their Dreamcatcher salad. Another Native product they integrate into their dishes is prickly pear cactus which they source from Tucson based, Cheri’s Desert Harvest, which produces fruits and vegetables indigenous to the Sonoran Desert. Rutigliano says that they use this in their margaritas, lemonade and salad dressing.
“I try to be as unique as I can within the Native American cuisine and introduce people to things without making it too intimidating,” Rutigliano says.
According to Rutigliano, the Courtyard Café, like the rest of the Heard Museum, aims to educate its visitors on Native culture by allowing them to experience the art and food of the Indigenous culture firsthand. The Courtyard Café features local Native art on the walls and in the table centerpieces. The menu also describes the importance of the Tepary Bean to Native Americans.
Rutigliano changes the menu twice a year and is always looking for new ways to feature Native foods. She says that she learns how to cook and use these products by reading cook books, doing research, meeting with people who visit the museum and chatting with growers and producers like Ramona Farms.
“Some of the things I don’t even know how to cook,” Rutigliano says. “So, it’s just collaboration and getting a little more information.”
Another restaurant that features Native American cuisine is the Fry Bread House on 7th Avenue and Camelback Rd.. This restaurant is Native owned and run and was started by Cecilia Miller in 1992. She passed away this past May and since then her daughter, Sandra Miller has been running the restaurant.
Miller says the restaurant serves traditional Native food that she grew up eating in her mother’s home. Miller says that due to Arizona’s proximity to Mexico, many Native foods that they serve, such as tamales, tortillas and tacos are also shared with the Mexican people.
The restaurant, as the name implies, is known for their fry bread. Miller explained that fry bread’s history as part of Native American cuisine originated when many Native people were forced by the U.S government to relocate from the land they traditionally farmed.
“The government gave them rations of flour and oil and salt and all these different things that changed Native diet tremendously,” Miller says. “And so out of that product that they gave, we turn that into something that a lot of people identify with, the fry bread.”
Miller says that she often cooked with her mother, who trained the two main chefs they have in the kitchen. All of the employees at the Fry Bread House are Native, as Miller says it is important that they have some knowledge on how to cook and prepare these traditional dishes. Miller also helps out in the kitchen when needed, as she grew up learning how to make the food.
In the past, Miller has given tours of the restaurant to school children, giving them an opportunity to learn about their culture and see how the fry bread is made. She says that a Girl Scout troop has also visited the restaurant over the years. In addition, Miller sometimes does workshops for Native American women and Native American entrepreneurs.
Miller says that she encourages customers to try the various things on their menu and says that fry bread is best enjoyed with your hands and not a knife and fork. According to Miller, the most important thing for non-Native customers to know is that their culture has historically been undervalued by people outside of their community, so their food deserves respect and appreciation whether or not the customer ends up liking the food.
“If you don’t come in here with respect and you’re not respectful to us and you’re causing a scene, you’re yelling, you’re upset about something, then you need to go because we have experienced that too much in our lives,” Miller says.
Miller aims to continue her mother’s legacy by creating a space that is welcoming to all customers, but especially to Native Americans. Miller says that when her mother first came to Phoenix there was nowhere that she could go and get traditional Native food and feel at home. That is what sparked the idea for this restaurant and is why Miller works to create a safe and inclusive space, even feeding those who are struggling within the community on Thanksgiving every year.
“My mother always said growing up that you never know what journey people are on and when they come into our restaurant our only job is to serve them really good food, to let them sit down and be nourished by the food, to give them time to reflect on whatever they have to do and then they will be stronger spiritually, with a full stomach to take on whatever they have.”
Native American culture is prevalent in both Arizona’s history and contemporary community. Many Native American business owners say that people can support the Native community by educating themselves on their history, getting involved with health and activist organizations and by supporting local businesses that help spread their culture like Ramona Farms, the Courtyard Café and the Fry Bread house. Businesses like this are part of a growing new Indigenous tradition aimed at preserving the food of their ancestors and bringing it to the 21st Century.
“There are so many opportunities to learn about Native culture in Arizona,” Miller says. “But if you’re not looking you just don’t know about it.”