November 29, 2023

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It’s Pow Wow Time.

August long weekend Wiki Pow Wow, sorry I mean Wikwemikong unceded Indian Reserve Annual Cultural Festival. Saturday, sunny. Hot, humid. I’m hungry. Time for a Taco, an Indian Taco. Small line up at the Recollet’s food booth. Five minute wait… no problem. My turn to order. “Taco please!” The reply, “Sorry we’re all out of sauce.” My heart sinks. There are two reasons why this statement devastates me. Number one: I’m still hungry. Number two: Since when did the ‘taco’ filling/topping become ‘sauce’?

Let’s start this story at the beginning. Not the beginning of time, the beginning of my time; my time on the Pow Wow trail. Wood chips. Fire smoke. Drum echoes. Wooden bows & arrows. Rubber tomahawks. And TACOS! Indian Tacos: Scone (fry bread) + Chilli (ground beef, kidney beans, brown beans, tomato sauce) + shredded cheese + lettuce + tomatoes = Pow Wow Time! Which booth shall I try? Does a long line mean I have to wait OR that it’s worth waiting for? Tent OR bus? Handmade sign with spelling mistakes OR vinyl banner? How much cheese are they putting on the top? Is the scone pre-cut for my eating ease? My whole Pow Wow day can literally depend on my enjoyment of the lunch-time taco.

I remember some summers getting tacos that disappointed with the small amount of ground beef they came with: some tacos were more beans than beef. At the time I considered them cheap. Looking back maybe they were onto the anti-beef health craze. Maybe they were Indigenous Vegans! I thought ‘Indigenous Vegan’ was Ojibway for ‘Bad Hunter’.

I was on the Pow Wow trail this past summer from the south to the north. Tacos for lunch Saturday. Tacos for lunch Sunday. But now the beans are gone (replaced by celery it seems) and the spices have vanished. There is no chilli left. ‘Sauce’ really is ALL that remains. Spaghetti sauce I suppose. Our traditional grains have been colonized by white flour in the form of scone. Even the word ‘scone’ is British! We just pronounce it differently. Now our chilli has been colonized with celery and the beans have been driven out! Forced to live on reservations somewhere, probably.

My love for the Indian Taco had all but subsided.

One November weekend, Queen Street West, Toronto. Keriwa Café is calling my name. Not so much on the wind as if from an eagle, more like on the phone to confirm my Saturday evening reservations (different kind of reservations). I’m informed that I will have to be out within two hours because my table is booked for a second seating. No problem I tell them, “Us Indians eat real fast and in complete silence.”

Keriwa Café is the new “Aboriginal Restaurant” in downtown Toronto. Everyone is talking about it and I mean everyone. Not that anyone I know has actually eaten there. Aboriginal Peoples are cautious and often ‘Late Adapters’. Usually so late that businesses fail because their own communities don’t support them.

We’re seated and the first question from the server is, “Sparkling or still water?” I reply with, “Keep those bubbles flowing all night long!” I look up at the ceiling near the entrance. A giant steel feather with small dyed bird feathers and small turquoise stones and crystals hangs there announcing an Indigenous presence in a stereotypical way. Probably creates some sort of ambience for the White people I think to myself. Now I’m nervous about this so called “Aboriginal Restaurant”. As an artist, I have become very sensitive to how Aboriginal Peoples are represented. I then need to relieve myself of more than my worries.

A teepee pole stair railing leads to the outhouse-esque washroom lined with reclaimed barn wood walls, a large stone bowl sink and a river rock floor. The artwork in the basement leading to the restrooms minimizes my worry. A suite of seven prints by Aboriginal Artist Barry Ace from his performance in Paris France. Barry Ace knows what he’s doing. Maybe Keriwa Café does too. I notice the Pendleton blanket material sewn into the bench seating against the wall. Comfortable. Old school rock blasts over the speakers reminding me of Rez91 – the Wasauksing First Nation radio station. It’s a Stompin’ Tom Connors song, Good Ole Hockey Game. Reminds me of a Rez dance.

I order something called, Braised Bison Pemmican, Red Fife Fry Bread, Summer Pickle Salad. This was the closest thing to an Indian Taco I could find. Bison is NOT buffalo. Buffalo are from Africa and Asia and usually have ‘water’ in their name. As for Red Fife? Who is he? I quickly Google it on my phone. Red Fife is a heritage bread wheat (Triticum aestivum). What? How can this be fry bread?? Where is the processed white flour? Why is Keriwa Café trying to make my fry bread healthy??? Do they actually care? Their slogan is Local, Seasonal, Regional.

The server brings the order to my table and tells me, “This is Bison Pemmican and Red Fife Fry Bread. Together they will cleanse your palette. It’s been updated with elderberry.” It arrives in a carved wooden bowl. The bison is fork tender, melt in your mouth, tastebuds soaring like an eagle delicious! The fry bread is fantastic! Not dry. Not greasy. It even tastes healthy! I hope the Pow Wow vendors don’t decide to #OKC (Occupy Keriwa Café). After all, Aboriginal Peoples have been occupying in protest locations throughout North America even before there was a Wall Street.

I’ve eaten in Four Diamond Restaurants with all types of cuisine from baby octopus to kangaroo. I can easily say that Keriwa Café is simply amazing. Healthy food, locally sourced, seasonal means fresh! Owner and Chef Aaron Joseph Bear Robe from the Siksika Nation in Alberta Canada, has created a masterpiece. Aboriginal Peoples and Aboriginal Fashion has been all the rage for a while now. So why not Aboriginal cuisine? Keriwa DOES care. It makes me proud. It’s a good day to be Indigenous. Going to Keriwa Café is a good day to be hungry.

It’s Taco Time!


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About The Author

Keesic Douglas

Keesic Douglas is an Ojibway artist from the Mnjikaning First Nation in central Ontario. He specializes in the mediums of photography and video. His work has been exhibited across Canada and in the United States and focuses on issues surrounding his Native heritage. His videos Rezurrection and Slide have been programmed at the imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival, with the Vanishing Trace winning Best Short Documentary in 2007. Keesic has just completed his Master of Fine Arts in photography at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Keesic also has a Bachelor's Degree in Hospitality and two Diplomas in Hotel and Resort Management. He has worked and dined in the finest of restaurants to the lowliest road-side stands and all kinds of Pow Wow food vendors.

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