Chef Nephi Craig: Decolonizing Recovery through Native Foodways
October 21, 2022
Written by CARRIE A. BACK & THE EDITORS OF CRAFTSMANSHIP MAGAZINE
Chef Nephi Craig leveraged his twin passions for cooking and Native American food sovereignty to heal himself from substance abuse. Today he uses his personal experience—and his kitchen—to support other Native people who are recovering from addictions.
photo by Ari Carter Craig
When he was growing up on the White Mountain Apache and Navajo reservations in Eastern Arizona, Nephi Craig, now 43, always had a love for cooking—and an entrepreneurial mindset. At just 7 or 8 years old, “I would bake cookies and brownies with my mom, put them in plastic bags, load them in my wagon, and sell them on the street,” he recalls. As he grew older, Craig realized he could build a future for himself around his passion for food, and he enrolled in culinary school right out of high school. But he soon felt out of place. “There was no talk about Native peoples or foods in culinary school at all. I would ask my chef-instructors questions, but they didn’t know anything [about Indigenous foodways], or they took a dismissive attitude,” Craig says.
“We’re also talking about recovery from incarceration, recovery from violence, recovery from loss. We are right at the very, very close core of recovery from historical trauma.”
After graduation, Craig found work as a chef all over the world, including stints in Germany, the U.K., Brazil, and Japan, before coming back to Arizona where he would spend 8 years as the executive chef at Sunrise Park Resort, a popular ski and recreation area. Then, 11 years ago at the age of 32, after years of struggling with substance abuse, he returned to his roots, on the White Mountain Apache reservation, and decided to get clean and sober. The loss of his father, who was sober at the time of his passing in 2010, inspired Craig to stay the course on his own recovery journey.
As a working chef, Craig was hardly alone in his struggles with addiction. According to a 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 16.9 percent of food-service workers in the U.S. are diagnosed with a substance abuse disorder, making food service the leading industry category in substance abuse. And although they constitute only 2 percent of the population in the U.S., Native Americans have the highest rates of alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, and hallucinogen use disorders compared to other racial and ethnic groups in the country. Habits of abusing alcohol and other drugs tend to occur at younger ages among Native Americans, too, compared to other ethnic groups. “I feel like it’s very important to talk about recovery in all of our work. And recovery does not just mean from drugs and alcohol,” Craig said at the fifth annual Native American Nutrition Conference last May, where he was a keynote speaker. “We’re also talking about recovery from incarceration, recovery from violence, recovery from loss. We are right at the very, very close core of recovery from historical trauma.”
In the past few decades, the approach to treating those with addiction disorders has evolved considerably, and several studies have shown that “culturally competent” rehabilitation programs—those that revolve around a person’s cultural traditions and beliefs—are the most effective modes of treatment for Indigenous Peoples. For Native Americans, a culturally competent approach might include ceremonies such as sweat lodges, drum circles, or other traditions of their particular tribe or nation. Craig’s approach to recovery focuses on reconnecting people with their traditional Native foodways and building Native/Indigenous Food Sovereignty. This catchphrase generally refers to the movement to empower Indigenous Peoples to control their own food systems for the health and welfare of their communities. (The independent documentary film “Gather,” a great resource that is currently available on Netflix, features Craig along with other Native American leaders of the movement for Indigenous Food Sovereignty in the U.S.)
“Even if we’re able to blend into society, there’s still a void in our identity,” Craig says. “So when we’re able to connect with food, we’re literally connecting with and embodying our Indigenous identity.”
Craig has served as Indigenous Foods & Nutritional Recovery Program Coordinator for the Rainbow Treatment Center (RTC), a tribally owned recovery program, since 2016. Last October, RTC opened Café Gozhóó inside a renovated gas station in Whiteriver, Arizona, on White Mountain Apache tribal land, appointing Craig as executive chef. The café has become known for serving seasonal, Indigenous dishes familiar to the tribe — pan-roasted zucchini and yellow squash, red chili, acorn stew (see Craig’s recipe below), and bundi’tunneh, an Apache bread, to name just a few. But Café Gozhóó is much more than a restaurant. Gozhóó means “beauty, balance, and harmony” in Ndée (an alternate name for both the Apache tribe and its language that translates to “the people”). Implementing a program designed by Craig, the café is part of a broader mission to help restore personal and cultural health to the community by revitalizing the Western Apache food system, and reintroducing Native foodways as medicine. One way Craig does this is by purchasing locally grown produce from Ndée Bikíyaa (“The Peoples’ Farm”), which has been owned and operated by the White Mountain Apache Tribe since the early ‘80s.
Chef Craig’s kitchen doesn’t just turn out appetizing food, it also provides vocational training, teaching therapeutic, practical skills that support people in recovery and promote their personal and professional development. In addition to his work as a chef, Craig is also a Behavioral Health Tech and certified Relapse Prevention Specialist. Three to four times a week, he teaches groups of people in recovery about Indigenous foods, Native Food Sovereignty, and the generational manifestations of colonial violence, including addictions.
As Indigenous Americans, “Even if we’re able to blend into society, there’s still a void in our identity,” Craig says. “So when we’re able to connect with food, we’re literally connecting with and embodying our Indigenous identity.”
Native or Indigenous Food Sovereignty draws from one force that traditional recovery programs don’t. “Spirituality—and I feel like that’s how it’s healing people, emotionally and mentally,” Craig says.
Speaking candidly about his own recovery process as an “up and down roller coaster ride,” Craig says he sees a clear connection between the health disparities faced by Native Americans, especially addiction, and the historical trauma, intergenerational grief, and other effects of colonization in their communities.
“A big part of what I do is to just be open and transparent about my journey, because that’s the most powerful tool that I have,” Craig said at the Native Nutrition Conference. “I really would like to contribute to the efforts to destigmatize mental health, suicidality, addiction, and even some of the shame that contributes to preventable, food-related diseases. And as we think of pathways forward, I want to frame that as part of the recovery from health disparities that have resulted from centuries of colonial violence.”
“In the recovery world,” he continues, “There’s a ‘biopsychosocial model’ [emphasizing the interconnection between biological, psychological, and socio-environmental factors in substance abuse], which is about how a person is affected by addiction, and how they’re going to heal or get better. Native or Indigenous Food Sovereignty hits on those three clinical quadrants, but it also hits a fourth one, of spirituality—and I feel like that’s how it’s healing people, emotionally and mentally.”
Chef Craig’s Western Apache Acorn Stew
- 1 pound top sirloin
- 1 ½ gallons of water
- ½ cup ground acorn powder (or more to taste)
- Salt and pepper to taste
Season the meat with salt and cracked black pepper. Char the meat on a hot grill and cook until just rare. When the meat is cool enough to handle, cut it into small cubes and cover with the water. Bring to a boil and reduce heat to low. Simmer until the meat is tender and the liquid has reduced, approximately 45 minutes to 1 hour. Add acorn powder, stir well, and simmer another 20 to 30 minutes. Adjust seasoning to taste. Serves 8 – 10.