Navajo Tacos with Venison

Call me a glutton, but the first thing I do at any pow wow is a quick scan of the area. I’m searching for the tent, the one with all the women underneath— usually several generations of them— toiling over balls of sticky dough, hot oil and steaming pots of meat. They are making the iconic fry bread, a slightly crispy and chewy flat bread that has become synonymous with Native American culture.

Intertribal Gathering Pow Wow at Fort Robinson State Park in 
Crawford, Nebraska. Photo courtesy of Nebraskaland Magazine.
Eat fry bread by itself, as a sweet treat with a bit of honey, or a filling “Indian” taco generously topped with ground meat, beans and cheese. Most powwows occur outside, and after spending several hours in the sun with the aromas of spiced meat and fresh bread wafting around the dancing circles, you work up a good appetite. In this case, the taco is the way to go. 

The meat in this recipe might resemble that of taco weeknight at your house. I thought about simmering venison hindquarter or shoulder in a complex stew of roasted peppers, herbs and spices, but I decided not to— it wouldn’t have been genuine. (Though, we have made something like that previously:

All the Indian taco recipes I’ve seen online and at powwows generally consisted of simply-seasoned ground meat and chili beans. I realized that Indian tacos wouldn't be Indian tacos if they weren't simple.

Fry bread was borne out of necessity and hardship. First made by the Navajo during the Long Walk, fry bread is a reminder of a painful past. Naturally, the taco followed the bread, and in thinking of the recipe, I imagined that ingredients and resources would’ve been limited. You can see this scarcity in the bread itself—flour, salt and baking powder—fry bread was an attempt to make the most of meager government rations. 

Today, many Native Americans embrace fry bread as symbol of perseverance and survival, while others disdain fry bread because it represents a history of persecution and confinement. Love or hate fry bread, it is a food of great cultural significance. [More on this topic:]

For this outsider—after years of being away from schoolbooks and lectures— researching, making, and eating fry bread allowed me the opportunity to ponder upon a history that should never be forgotten. 

Servings: 4 (8 tacos)  
- 1 pound of ground venison  
- 1 teaspoon of sea/kosher salt  
- About 2 teaspoons of vegetable oil  
- 1/3 cup of chopped onion  
- 3 cloves of garlic, minced  
- 2 teaspoons of chili powder  
- 1 teaspoon of sweet paprika  
- ½ teaspoon of cumin  
- 1 teaspoon of onion powder  
- 1 teaspoon of dried oregano   
- 1 cup of Mrs. Grimes Original Chili Beans, or your favorite brand/recipe  
- Freshly cracked pepper, to taste  
- Toppings: sour cream, diced tomato, shredded lettuce, pickled red onion, chopped cilantro, shredded cheddar cheese, hot sauce, etc. 

Fry Bread Dough  
- 3 cups of all-purpose flour, extra for dusting  
- 1 tablespoon of baking powder  
- 1 teaspoon of sea/kosher salt  
- 1¼ cups of warm water  
- 2 sticks of shortening 


1. Coat the surface of a skillet with oil, and heat over medium heat. Add chopped onion and sauté until soft and translucent. Next, add minced garlic and stir for 30 seconds. Then add venison and brown, breaking up meat with a wooden spoon. Season with 1 teaspoon of salt, chili powder, paprika, cumin, onion powder, oregano and cracked pepper. Stir in chili beans and cook until warmed through. Take off heat and set aside.  

 2. To make the fry bread, combine flour, baking powder and salt in a large bowl. Make a well in the middle of the flour mixture, and then pour in the warm water. Gradually work the flour and water together to make dough. It should be fairly sticky— knead until you can form a manageable ball. Sprinkle in more water or flour as necessary. 

Turn out dough onto a floured surface. Roll dough into a log and divide into 8 equal pieces. Place dough onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, and then cover with plastic wrap to prevent dough from drying out.   

3. In a cast iron skillet, heat 2 sticks of shortening until the temperature reaches 350 to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Flatten a dough ball into a ¼-inch-thick circle with the palm of your hand or with a rolling pin—remember to flour your work surface and your hands. Carefully drop the rolled-out dough into the hot oil and cook on both sides until golden. Drain, keep warm (in an oven on the warm setting) and repeat with the rest of the dough balls.   

4. Reheat venison and bean mixture if necessary; stir in a splash of water if mixture looks dry. Assemble warm fry breads with meat, beans and desired toppings. Fry bread is best served immediately. They will harden if kept too long.