by Kayla Blau
Seattle is known for its plethora of culinary options, but there is one glaring hole in the Seattle food scene: Native American cuisine. Given that we are squatting on Duwamish land, Jeremy Thunderbird (Ohlone, Chumash, Squamish) is working to change that.
“I always hear people saying, ‛Oh, I know this bomb Mexican spot or phở spot in Seattle,’ but no one ever says ‛I know this bomb Native American restaurant,’ so I wanted to change that,” Thunderbird shares.
He started cooking when he was a little kid, and his first specialty was grilled cheese. His grandfather was a chef and passed the love of food and getting creative with flavors to Thunderbird.
When Thunderbird lost his job at AT&T three years ago, he started playing around in the kitchen and cooking for friends and family. One friend joked that he would pay Thunderbird to cook for him, which led to an Instagram post for a pop-up plate sale.
“It was supposed to be something temporary just to make extra cash, but word spread fast through social media, and I started getting catering requests. There were so many points where I thought I should just go back to a 9 to 5 job, but the steady stream of support kept me going.”
As Thunderbird’s following on social media grew, so did his business. Native Soul Cuisine was officially created a year after his first pop-up, and Thunderbird now employs friends and family to help keep up with the catering demand. Luckily, many of his family members and friends have extensive restaurant experience and lend their business savvy to Native Soul. They provide catering for everything from private dinners to family gatherings, and corporate events.
“At first, we were making whatever was requested. We still do that, but I wanted to incorporate the food I grew up with: smoked salmon, fry bread, Native American staples. Food is a map; it’s a history book to me. The more I learned about my own heritage, the more I wanted to share it. I have Ohlone and Chumash heritage on my mom’s side, and my dad is a descendent of the Squamish tribe. I try to use ingredients that are staples in Native American cooking, like blue corn for tamales, tortillas, and blue corn cornbread. Blue corn isn’t used much in this part of the country, but it’s a staple for Southwestern tribes.”
Through a process of self-discovery and unlearning false history taught in public schools, Thunderbird started to draw more and more connections between Native American food and soul food.
“I learned about the Seminole tribe who fought back against colonizers, which was made up of runaway slaves and indigenous people. The two cultures influenced each other so much that Native American food even made it to the Caribbean islands, because slaves who fled to the Caribbean took indigenous ways of preserving meat and cooking techniques. Once I learned that a lot of soul food was introduced through Native Americans and the commonalities between the two types of food, it clicked in my head to highlight that relationship through a Native American and soul food fusion.”
Thunderbird grew up in Renton and Bellevue and was immersed in Native culture through his extended family. He fondly recalls his grandmother singing to him in her mother tongue, Chumash, which is now a dead language. Some of his best childhood memories are at pow wows, one of the rare places he’d see his culture represented.
“It’s weird being Native in the city because you get mistaken for other ethnicities a lot, and it’s hard to find other Native folks. Almost any other ethnicity, you can find a lot of folks that share that with you, but that community isn’t really available to a lot of Natives based on our history. Pow wows gave me that connection growing up, and I want to make space for more of those connections. That’s why Native Soul is deeper than just making money for me. This is sharing and showcasing my culture and giving it a voice in the Seattle food scene.”
Native Soul Cuisine staples include blue corn tamales, cedar-smoked salmon mac and cheese, and Jamaican curry Navajo tacos on a fry bread taco shell. Some of the most popular requests from Native Soul’s supporters are Philly cheesesteak rolls, cajun pasta, fried chicken and red velvet waffles, and jerk chicken. Food is a universal language to Thunderbird, and he is truly fluent in it.
“I love being creative with food and creating new recipes. Eventually, I’d love to focus on solely Native food with locally sourced ingredients. Right now, we have a pop-up food stall and are hoping to get a food truck in the near future. One day, it’d be cool to have a restaurant and bar — something brick and mortar to showcase Native food. Until then, we’re going to keep these pop-ups going and continue to experiment with new flavors.”
Native Soul also has a presence at local breweries and distilleries across the city, with ongoing pop-up events. You can find them at Machine House Brewery in Georgetown on Saturdays, 3–7pm, and they will soon be featured at Future Primitive Brewery in White Center. Make sure to follow them on Instagram at @NativeSoulCuisine to keep up with their events.
Kayla Blau is a Seattle-based writer and youth advocate. She holds a master’s in social work, and more of her work can be found here.
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