The Food Truck Offering a Taste of Indigenous Cuisine

It’s easy for Native Americans – who account for a meager fraction of a percent of Ohio’s population – to feel invisible in Columbus. With little infrastructural support across Ohio, the Native American Indian Center of Central Ohio (NAICCO) has the tall order of staying connected with Natives from all corners of the state. Then, NAICCO Cuisine was born: a food truck that is not only helping to strengthen the NAICCO community, but is also extending a “warm handshake” to the rest of Ohio. Cover graphic by Ruth Chang for Midstory.

Tribal flags proudly mounted atop a decoratively wrapped food truck represent just a few of the tribes of North America’s Indigenous peoples, and are switched out periodically to represent and honor those working in the truck. This diversity is also reflected in the cultural origins of each dish served, from Navajo frybread to Northwestern Indigenous food platters.

In Columbus, Ohio, where Native Americans make up less than 1% of the population, the NAICCO Cuisine food truck is offering the city a taste of Indigenous culture. At its core, the truck serves as a visual and sensory representation of Columbus’ Indigenous community and seeks to extend “a warm handshake unto everybody else through our food,” according to Ty Smith, project director of NAICCO.

“Food is big in our culture,” Ty Smith said. “Often, it’s a sign of respect, warmth and a way of displaying love and care.” 

The flags are switched out to represent and honor the NAICCO community, including those working in the food truck. Image courtesy of NAICCO.
Image courtesy of NAICCO.

That care is reflected in NAICCO Cuisine’s menu: from the trailer’s frybread and NDN – or Navajo – tacos to the platters and NAICCO pockets  (all made in-house), it is uniquely intertribal, made to represent and pay homage to tribes from different areas of the country.

“We’re trying to be representative of all the people that we serve, the people we represent, the people that personify NAICCO,” Ty Smith said. “It’s a blend of dishes where contemporary meets traditional, or a reflection of what has taken place over generations.” 

The NAICCO pocket, for example — native goulash encased in frybread — is NAICCO Executive Director and Ty Smith’s wife, Masami Smith’s unique twist on dishes that are common in other parts of Indian Country. The intertribal platters “blend some traditional and contemporary parts and pieces” that represent different areas of Indian Country, according to Ty Smith. 

“In Oklahoma, they do a lot of smoking, so we did ribs for that platter,” he said. “We also did blue corn tamales, which is a food found in the Southwest area.” 

The NAICCO Pocket and the Northern Plains Platter. Images courtesy of NAICCO.

Foods like frybread, however, point to a larger story of perseverance, pain and survival in Native American history.

During the 1830s and ‘40s, tens of thousands of Native Americans were forced to leave their ancestral homelands and walk hundreds of miles on a difficult — and oftentimes deadly — journey, which came to be known as the Trail of Tears. Tribes in Ohio were pushed out into Kansas and Oklahoma.

It was during this forced displacement that frybread was born, created from the meager government rations of flour, sugar and lard so Natives would not starve.

By the end of the decade, few Natives remained in Ohio. 

This trend reversed slightly in the mid-20th century during the inception of the Relocation Act which encouraged Indigenous peoples to move to urban areas by offering vocational training opportunities in major cities. 

“One of the main motives [behind the Act] was that the government was trying to deplete the numbers on the reservations,” Ty Smith said. “They wanted to be able to manipulate and sway the vote of the people, thus getting them to sell their land.” 

The policy caused an influx of Indigenous peoples — mainly the Lakota, Dakota and Diné, according to Ty Smith — into Ohio. Over time, more Natives began to relocate to the state for reasons including higher education and job opportunities.

“This new emergence of Native people — they banded together, and they realized that, ‘Look, we have to stick together,’” Ty Smith said. “It didn’t matter which tribe they were from, they all knew they were Native people in an urban setting.” 

Despite the increase of Native Americans in Ohio during the latter half of the 20th century, they only make up 0.3% of Ohio’s population and 0.2% of Columbus’ as of 2020.

"We almost fall into the 'other' category most of the time," Ty Smith said. "It's just the reality of the situation because our population is so small ... we're almost invisible at times unto ourselves." 

This invisibility has culminated in a lack of Native American community infrastructure in Ohio — no reservations, no agencies, no organizations that might be commonly found in Indian Country.

This is where NAICCO stepped in.

The organization was founded by Selma Walker in 1975, who “recognized right away that she was in a different place and that there was no real presence of Native Americans[in Columbus],” according to Ty Smith.

“[She] began to go on drives in her car and go ‘Native hunting,’ visually looking for other Natives,” he said. “It’s a very grassroots beginning … NAICCO was her house, basically.” 

Founder Selma Walker came to Columbus by way of her husband, who was in the Air Force. Image courtesy of NAICCO.

Ty and Masami Smith, who are both from The Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, Oregon, took over NAICCO leadership in 2011. They managed the Circles of Care grant, which allowed them to “engage our community in the most intimate way, asking them what is of the utmost importance to our people’s wellbeing here in Ohio,” according to Ty Smith. 

What the community voiced went on to become the three main pillars that NAICCO stands upon today: cultural preservation and restoration, community development and economic development and sustainability.

Culture and community were especially important because “people felt as though they were isolated; we needed to have a sense of us,” Ty Smith said. 

He added that these two focuses have been the “driving force” behind NAICCO programming, from gathering as a community at NAICCO to taking their youth to Indian Country for immersion experiences.  

NAICCO programming reflects the community’s “yearning for a connection to home,” as well as connecting with youth, according to Smith. Image courtesy of NAICCO.

But one question remained: how could they address that third pillar of economic development?

The answer took the form of NAICCO Cuisine, which first opened in 2020 to the Native community only, celebrating and acknowledging their own presence as a people. 

To them, it is more than just a food trailer. 

“It’s going from just not being only in an environment that’s for us, about us, by us — it’s that they are a key component to the longevity, the future of NAICCO,” Ty Smith said.

Smith said they are making NAICCO Cuisine “about the community, for the community, by the community.” Image courtesy of NAICCO.

The trailer is also opening doors for a teaching process across tribes and generations. 

“People that are maybe from the Lakota tribes are teaching somebody that’s Diné or Navajo,” Ty Smith said. “We’re getting kids to understand these are how things are done and these are some of the things you would see back home if you lived on the reservation.”

Since its opening, the food truck has operated at around 50 events across Central Ohio, bringing their dishes to “places that would never see us otherwise, or maybe never even know that our type of cuisine existed,” Ty Smith said. 

Ty Smith said that Central Ohio has been “nothing but receptive and supportive.” In 2023, NAICCO Cuisine hopes to take the trailer around Ohio and major cities. Image courtesy of NAICCO.

“We’re the original people, and we’re still trying to have our presence be recognized in a positive way,” Ty Smith said. “Maybe by way of food, we can start to break down some of the stereotypes and misconceptions ... The whole idea of what NAICCO Cuisine stands for is that it’s for the best future, it’s us still honoring who we are, and trying to do this with some integrity and with good intentions.” 


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