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NAICCO Cuisine food truck revitalizing Native American culture in Ohio through street food

NAICCO Cuisine food truck
Posted at 8:58 AM, Jun 10, 2023

CLEVELAND — The Native American Indian Center of Central Ohio's NAICCO Cuisine is a Native American-owned and operated food truck serving a menu of Native street food—but its mission goes beyond feeding hungry customers.

Ohio is a melting pot of culture, but some are more represented than others. While the population of individuals who identify as indigenous is less than 1% in Ohio, there are still thousands of Native people living in the state. A state with deep Native roots—from Ohio's name, which is Iroquois for "beautiful river," to the earthworks found around the state.

However, Native culture isn't always prominent.

"In all honesty, at times, it does seem as though our people are invisible. And the representation really isn't there. We're not only invisible unto the general public but unto ourselves as well," said Ty Smith, project director at NAICCO and member of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs. "There's no infrastructure in the state and there's really a lack of any kind of initiatives that speak solely to our people. Hence the reason we are taking matters into our own hands."

NAICCO has been addressing Native visibility through many grassroots projects and initiatives, but the one traveling the farthest is the one on wheels—NAICCO Cuisine.

NAICCO Cuisine

A first-of-its-kind food truck, NAICCO Cuisine's menu includes:

  • Fry Bread ("River People" Family Recipe)
  • NDN Taco
  • NDN Taco Bowl
  • NAICCO Pocket
  • Buffalo Burger

At its core, the food truck provides employment opportunities for Native community members, training them in different skill sets while allowing them to work alongside fellow community members.
"The revenues, everything earned from the trailer here, goes back into our programming for our people. So we're really all about our three main priorities—cultural preservation/restoration, community development as well economic development. And this encompasses all of that," Smith said.

While the NAICCO Cuisine food truck supports the Native community, the impact of the dishes coming out of the truck is even bigger.

On Saturday, NAICCO Cuisine appeared at Cleveland's Parade the Circle, a celebration of life, art and community at Wade Oval. It was the first time the food truck made its way to Northeast Ohio, and while gaining business was a benefit of the trek—it also introduced people unfamiliar with a piece of Native Culture.

Jessica Longstreet, a Cleveland resident at the festival, stood in line to try some of NAICCO Cuisine's offerings.

"They asked us if we had it before and we said no. They said 'You have to try it, it’s the best food you’ll ever have,' so I said, 'Why not.' And I saw people walking around with the fry bread and so I decided to try it," she said.

Fry Bread
Sweet fry bread from NAICCO Cuisine.

Longstreet was curious about the food, but even more so felt as dining at the food truck was an introduction to Native culture.

"When you think of food, you first think of culture. To be honest, we know about the Native American culture but not too many people know the foods associated with the culture," Longstreet said.

She and hundreds of others stood in line to try a piece of sweet fry bread or indulge in a fresh buffalo burger as they enjoyed the day of festivities. And in doing so, they got to ask questions of Smith and the other workers in the food truck, listen to Native music playing from speakers outside of the truck and get a taste of the mission of NAICCO.

Serving indigenous foods for NAICCO is like opening a window into the Native culture, not only raising awareness for their organization and community but shifting the feeling of being invisible.

"Here we are in the present day, a new emergence of us coming forward and showing that, look, our food is here, we're here," Smith said. "Our people's ways, they've always been there. And so I want to say that I think they're kind of resurfacing and people are starting to take notice."

NAICCO Cuisine's appearance in Cleveland marked an expansion across the state. The hope is for more visits to Northeast Ohio and beyond. Whether getting Ohio's first Native brick-and-mortar restaurant is in the cards moving forward remains to be seen—NAICCO is taking things one day at a time.

But through handmade street food and an emphasis on fostering community, the future seems bright for the revitalization of a strong and resilient culture.

NAICCO Cuisine

"We're on this healing journey. And it's about creating in the here and now, but hopefully laying the foundation for our children to come, their children to come, and the future ahead," Smith said. "Something like this, again, instills that sense of pride, allows us to engage the people—and we like to think our food is just a warm handshake to the rest of the public."

To learn more about NAICCO, click here.

For a schedule of events NAICCO Cuisine is scheduled to appear, click here.

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