Making Tamales

Celebrating the Holidays

Uncredited photo from “antique advertising” on the web

I spent Saturday afternoon at a friend’s home learning how to make tamales, a tradition in many Indigenous communities in North, South and Latin America.

She invited a few pals to snack on hors d’oeuvres (deviled eggs, chips and tinned mackerel) and prepared a host of ingredients in advance: stewed pork, cooked chicken, sliced veggies and chunked cheese.

The guests surrounded our host and daughter, watching them make the corn-flour filling, melding masa with lard.

Then we got serious.

We each grabbed a ball of dough (which feels like raw shortbread cookie-mix) and flattened it with our palms.

We then learned how to smooth one-to-two dollops of dough with our fingers–or pressed the mix with an upside-down spoon–flattening the dough onto a corn husk.

Then, we loaded our ingredients on top of the dough: shredded meat or sliced veggies, or a combination of both.

Next came the rolling of the husk around the lump; perhaps the high-point of tamale-making: what the French call le finissage.

I’m told your skill is measured by how well the filling adheres to the husk.

My first effort looked great: a plump cake surrounded by corn husk.

It went downhill from there.

Each new tamale looked skinny and scrawny.

Yet, not a soul sat in judgment.

Our host stripped pieces from an unused husk, creating ribbons to tie the cakes.

Alas: my cakes needed more padding to make a presentable meal.

A glass of sparkling rosé lifted my spirits as I placed the carnage in a plastic bag, which took me back to a dinner with family at my mother’s reservation in Oklahoma.

A relative–who has been kind to me and my family–made a scrumptious feast for us when we visited one summer.

As we munched on our last bites of the Native feast, she invited us to look under our plates, where we found plastic bags.

She explained that when the Osage share meals with others, the visitors are offered leftovers for their journey.

Traditionally the Osage packed snacks in stacking boxes, and the containers are reminiscent of a miner’s lunch pail which you might find at an antique store (a tidbit I learned from my cousin).

When I rolled tamales in Portland, I found myself back in Oklahoma–and thought about my Eeko’s (grandmother) admonition: “always remember you are Osage.”

My Eeko was comfortable in her skin, and rarely treated us kids with sternness.

But on this point—about our heritage–she ruled supreme.

Eeko breathed Indigeneity, even though she and her descendants made homes far from the Rez: a movement fueled by the US government.

Loss of that connection to your heritage gives me pause.

I have learned to look for the Indigenous linkages in everyday living.

Now that I am an elder, I find most encounters warrant a nod to my Native heritage.

For example, when I recently read a story to my grand-daughter, I translate the words from English to Osage or Lakota (at least, the few words that I know).

When I read her favorite book about animals, I tell her: here is Shonka (dog) and here is Meeka (raccoon).

As an Osage I have responsibilities to my tribe, my community, my ancestors and my children’s children.

Foremost among the responsibilities is simply being, acting, and reminding my kin that we are…Indian.


Today’s blog is dedicated to my relative Leaf and her family, and to George, Lori and their family

15 December 2022

A note about the photo: Native American imagery, names and customs have long been used to sell products: from butter to tobacco. The Mazola corn oil company, founded in 1911, adopted the image (pictured) early in its marketing, and continued to brand its products as authentic and “pure,” which they paired with Indigeneity, most memorably in the 1970s and 1980s with television commercials featuring Native actors.

I honor the Native Peoples on whose ancestral homelands we gather here in the Pacific Northwest.



















About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
This entry was posted in nativescience and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Making Tamales

  1. J Mush says:

    So kind, thank for acknowledging me and dedicating this writing to me and George.
    Thanks also for your perseverance in continuing to teach ways and recognize our people.

    We are who we are and we are blessed to be who we are. It is good that our folks instilled the importance of our roots into our minds, bodies and souls and that we accepted and are comfortable in our roles. The connection that we have with our roots gives us a place of belonging in our earthly journey.

    Stay safe.


    Sent from my iPhone


  2. Thank you for this beautiful message; hope your holidays are joyful


  3. Jackleen de La Harpe says:

    Hi Cindy, This is just lovely. I’m so glad you wrote it. Love J.


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  4. Cynthia, thank you for this lovely post. Sadly my tamale skills were never great and are now totally non-existant. Tamales are even worse! LOL!
    I am so appreciative of the reminder to look for our ways in everyday moments! They are everywhere of course but much harder to hold on to when there is no everyday community.
    An aside: I was once given an afternoon of piemaking with a master baker. By the time I left I could make a fine crust. That skill lasted until I got home…..

    Liked by 1 person

  5. That’s so funny about the pies–my husband also took a class and made a great crust…and nothing since! I think the pandemic helped because the Osage had free talks and free classes, and it seemed like once a week I could be on the rez virtually. In April I’ve been invited to give a talk on my book as part of “Everybody Reads”–they are devoting the whole month to native authors so my hope is to attend as many talks as I can. Hope you have a delightful holiday, Cindy (Ista to to)


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