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The Tigua Indians: Food for Thought
Article first published in Vol. 9, 1991.
By Ed Thick
Your first thought when you read about the Tigua Indians is probably similar to mine before I researched their food habits. I have lived in this area for most of my life, and I never fully realized what contributions the Tiguas gave to the culture and lifestyle of the people of this area.
Corn growing in the oldest continually cultivated piece of land in the Southwest Tigua Indian Reservation. Photo by Karen Nash
My first assumption was that they were the Indians that lived in Ysleta and made jewelry. Although this is true, they are much more than that. They were among the first, if not the first, settlers of this area and contributed a great deal to the cultural food habits that exist today.
Catnip tea is believed to prevent colic in babies as well as helping them to sleep. Rosemary, which grows wild in and around El Paso, soothes an upset stomach while mugwort tea relaxes a patient. Tea made from spearmint is drunk to soothe a sore throat. In the seventies the Tiguas sold these and other herbs and spices to tourists. Although the Tiguas no longer grow these herbs as a tribe, many individuals still have their own herb gardens. Upon establishing the Ysleta Mission, the Spaniards reportedly grew their own grapes for making sacramental wine. Wisely, the Spaniards enlisted the successful Tigua farmers to cultivate their vineyards.
Daniel Archuleta, Tigua Education Coordinator, tells of a grapevine thriving in the Culture Center before it was remodeled into the present-day restaurant Wyngs. The vine was believed to be derived from a cutting of one of the original vines. During the remodeling, a workwoman inadvertently uprooted and discarded the vine.
Like much of Tigua history, the origin of the vine was not documented, so this history remains apocryphal. However, the incident reflects just one of the many losses the Tiguas have had to endure.
Apodaca says the Spanish and later American settlers of this area realized what a value the Rio Grande was to the farming of the area and eventually encroached upon the Tigua farmland, forcing the Indians to sustain themselves by other means.
Although the Tigua land has dwindled from approximately 23,040 acres granted them by the King Charles V of Spain in 1751 to a mere 67 acres that they now control, the Tiguas have managed to survive against overwhelming odds.
The only ties the Tiguas still have to farming is a small patch of land, located in the courtyard of the Tribal Center where they still grow corn. This land has been documented as one of the oldest continually cultivated pieces of land in the Southwest.
Living in the middle of a bustling community, modern Tiguas have come to rely heavily on tourism to survive. The reservation, just southeast of El Paso, has many attractions.
Outside in the courtyard stand three beehive ovens the Tiguas use for the baking of their bread, now sold to visitors. While the preparation of the dough is done out of view of the tourists, only the finest ingredients are used, and tradition is followed as closely as possible. While the sale of the bread to the public has necessitated obvious modernization of the preparation, the baking of the bread remains traditional.
Colored corn dried floral arrangement. Photo by Griselda Fernandez
Ovens are heated to approximately 400 degrees using mesquite wood common to the area. Just as the mesquite is turning to ashes, the bread is put in the oven in large grapefruit-size balls. The bread takes from thirty minutes to an hour to bake. Tourists meandering in the courtyard may find the alluring aroma of the baking bread permeates their every thought. They must to wait for the loaves to be retrieved in order to buy the large, round, crusty bread. Although the baking of their bread remains traditional, it is one of few traditional food habits still practiced by the Tiguas.
One of the reservation's attractions is its restaurants. The Tigua Restaurant operates during the day, and Wyngs, the newer of the two, operates in the evening hours. When you enter the gift shop at the east entrance, you will spot a small arrangement of tables and chairs that comprise the Tigua Restaurant. The aromas emanating from the kitchen invite you to sample the fare.
The Tiguas serve their own bread as an accompaniment to several dishes and heap brisket and a special sauce on slices of bread as one of their specialties. You can also order an "Indian Burger" served on thick slices of the fresh bread. But they also serve a variety of "Indian-Tex-Mex" foods, including green chile stew with meat and a red chile stew, named as the best in the U.S. by People Magazine.
The Tiguas also boast of "El Paso's First and Only Original Fajitas," marinated strips with pico de gallo and guacamole. The menu features "Pueblo Tacos," Indian fried bread (much like a soft fried flour tortilla) topped with the seasoned ground beef, fresh lettuce and tomatoes and shredded cheese. The Fajitas and these tacos are both a "must" when you visit the reservation.
From seventeenth-century refugees to farmers to twentieth-century restaurateurs, the Tiguas are determined to survive. Today they capitalize on tourism to do that. Maintaining their pride, the Tiguas have become one of the major tourist attractions in this area. All El Pasoans and visitors to the area should visit the reservation and sample their food, a unique combination of the predominant cultures on the border.