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Sean Sherman, aka The Sioux Chef, on Reclaiming Indigenous Cuisine

updated Oct 23, 2020
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Italian, Mexican, Japanese, French: You could probably name dozens of restaurants associated with these types of cuisines. But when it comes to Indigenous cuisine, the very food that was born of the land we’re standing on, can you name a single one? Chef Sean Sherman wants to change that. “We’re living in a world today where if you wanted to find an Indigenous restaurant focused on the regions, they’re very few and far between,” he explains.

A member of the Oglala Lakota tribe, Sean is one of the most prominent voices in Indigenous cuisine in North America. In 2014, he co-founded the Sioux Chef — a food organization based in Minnesota that focuses on education around Native foods — with Dana Thompson. There are many arms to the operation: catering, a food truck, a nonprofit (NATIFS), and, yes, before the pandemic hit this spring he was planning on opening a couple of restaurants (don’t worry, they’re still in the works).

On top of all this, he also co-authored a James Beard-award winning cookbook The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen in 2017 — and this month for Kitchn’s Cookbook Club we’re cooking our way through it. To better understand the role the book plays today, I talked to Sean about what it means to reclaim Indigenous cuisine, the Indigenous pantry, and the work he’s doing in Minneapolis after the murder of George Floyd.

You’ve worked in restaurant kitchens for a long time, but it wasn’t until later in life that you started to center your work in Indigenous cuisine. Did anything surprise you when you started digging a little deeper?
I was surprised by how robust and diverse it was. When I first started, I was really just looking at what my personal ancestors were eating. But the more I read about my Lakota ancestors, the picture got bigger and bigger. A lot of the information I was looking at was based on regions; there were a lot of commonalities in the kinds of plants that they were utilizing, gathering, processing, and preserving.

Today our focus is around the education of North American Indigenous foodways, but we really see it as a global thing because there are so many Indigenous peoples across the world that share these commonalities. We’re really just trying to set up a system to share, preserve, and understand as much of that knowledge as possible. Colonization and Western education have really erased so much of that really important Indigenous knowledge. But a lot of it still lives out there, so we found it really important to work hard to try and be stewards of that.

Indigenous cuisine is woefully underrepresented in the U.S. How did you go about learning and discovering all this information?
Yeah — I was teased that I couldn’t go and buy The Joy of Native American Cooking, right? So I started on my own path. I grew up in a tribal community up on Pine Ridge Reservation, so I was around a lot of Dakota and there was some foodways there. Then in Mexico I saw a lot of foodways still alive and utilized still today.

When I started researching on my own, I first looked towards plants. Right out of high school, I worked for the Forest Service. Part of my job was to learn about and identify all the plants in the Northern Black Hills. That knowledge base stuck with me. So, I started really researching a lot more ethnobotanical studies and that helped me understand how my direct ancestors utilized plants.

There’s also a lot of first-hand accounts from non-Indigenous peoples, which are usually very skewed because they’re coming from military or religious perspectives. But it helped to sift through all of these pieces with a culinary lens, and just try to understand how people were surviving with what was around them.

Credit: Mette Nielsen
Wild Rice Pilaf with Wild Mushrooms, Roasted Chestnuts, and Dried Cranberries

Part of your mission statement for Sioux Chef is to reclaim Native American cuisine. What does that look like for you and why is so important to your work?
Like you said, it’s so just so overlooked. We’re living in a world today where if you wanted to find an Indigenous restaurant focused on the regions, they’re just very few and far between. There are fewer than a dozen.

A lot of this is because Indigenous peoples have had such a hard time with the obviously atrocious history between the U.S. government and Indigenous peoples — we just didn’t have the privileges to be able to start businesses or have access to finances. Education, even, is a big deal when it comes down to it — so there’s a lot of work to do.

What’s the link between a decolonized diet and health?
Growing up, we didn’t have any restaurants on the reservation, and we had one big grocery store in Pine Ridge — basically to serve an area the size of Connecticut. We didn’t have access to healthy foods, and we relied on the government food program a lot growing up. And if you look at what’s happening in a lot of tribal communities that are still super-reliant on that program, you’re going to see a lot of health disparity.

So, you see just insane rates of Type 2 diabetes in some of these rural communities, and obesity, and all these food-borne illnesses. We think it’s going it’s going to be impactful to get Indigenous foods back out there, and get people to be really proud of their heritage of foods, and the health will come with that change in diet.

An Indigenous diet is low-glycemic and lower in salts. It’s also a good source of fat — whether it’s coming from seeds and nuts, or some of the healthier animal products. There’s also just so much plant diversity in the diet compared to the Western diet.

Credit: Nancy Bundt
Cedar-Braised Bison

You have so many arms to your business. There’s the food truck, the nonprofit research, catering, and eventually restaurants. What role do you think the cookbook plays in all of that?
We really hoped that people would use the cookbook as a guide — to think about the land they’re standing on differently, and the history of the land. And to open up their eyes about the world around them, to see how Indigenous peoples are looking at the world around them, and to start seeing food and medicine basically everywhere.

The recipes in this book aren’t obviously something that people necessarily ate back in 1491. What does it look like to make modern Indigenous cuisine?
We were trying to get more of a modern Indigenous approach to foods in today’s world and showcasing that it can be done — and that businesses can be created around it, and teams can be trained on how to work with these foods. We wanted to make sure people understood that we weren’t trying to be traditionalists; that we were trying to absorb as much knowledge of our ancestors, apply it to today’s world, but to really evolve and create something that works for today.

Do you have a favorite recipe in the book?
The wojape is something I always talk about — it just reminds me of being in my grandma’s kitchen. It’s a simple recipe, and very seasonal, too.

I want to hear more about the Indigenous pantry. Where and how are you sourcing some of your ingredients?
With developing our businesses, our first priority is purchasing Indigenous processed foods — especially regional Indigenous processed foods. So, here in Minnesota we were able to get a lot of the wild rice from different tribes, and we were able to get fish from the Red Lake Nation up in Northern Minnesota. We were able to work directly with some of the native farms around us and pick up a lot of farm products.

But then we also wanted to support our local growers, too, so we are supporting some of the non-Indigenous growers around us that are growing cool things, like sunflower oil and sunchokes. Supporting regional food systems is really the heart of understanding Indigenous foods. That’s something that we should be really focused on, because we’re too vulnerable as a society because we’re too reliant on over-processed, industrialized foods that are coming from all over the place. I think with this pandemic, it shows how fragile that is, too.

Community feels really essential to your work, and I know with COVID and the uprisings following the murder of George Floyd, you partnered with Minnesota Central Kitchen to provide 400 meals a day to people in need. Can you tell me a little about that?
The Midtown Market, where we’re setting up Food Lab, is just right up the street from where George Floyd was murdered. So literally, everything around us has burned down to the ground. There were no grocery stores or pharmacies nearby, so if you needed to get stuff, you had to go quite a ways out.

We wanted to just immediately shift and find some money, and just start putting out food for people in need. So, we were immediately able to get funding to do that throughout the whole summer, and we’re going to continue to do that through the winter. We took a little break, just to reset, but we have funding to get through the end of the year and we’re going to keep finding funding to help supply people with food as much as we can. We’ve just been taking out leftovers that we’re making, too, and just bringing them down to the homeless encampments, and handing out hot soup to people.

Last question for you: What are you eating lately that brings you joy?
I took a little Boundary Waters trip recently, and I had a big pot of wild tea going over the fire every day. I used wild conifers like spruce, cedar, pine, and balsam fir, and I also gathered herbs like wintergreen, and sweet fern, Labrador, rose hips. That was nice, because you’re just out there in the wild, and you’re gathering what’s right there, and making something healthy and nutritious for yourself right off the land.

Thanks for talking with us, Sean! Follow The Sioux Chef on Instagram, buy the book, and check out the website.