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The Sioux Chef uses only native ingredients, but isn't 'cooking like it's 1491'

Sean Sherman is the co-founder of the Minneapolis restaurant, Owamni.
Heidi Ehalt
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The Sioux Chef
Sean Sherman is the co-founder of the Minneapolis restaurant, Owamni.

At the James Beard Award-winning restaurant Owamni in Minneapolis, diners order off a menu that's been "decolonized." All dishes are prepared in ways that reflect Native American food cultures, using ingredients indigenous to North America prior to colonization.

"We look at showcasing the amazing diversity and flavor profiles of all the different tribes across North America, all the different regions, and really celebrating that and cutting away colonial ingredients," Owamni co-founder Sean Sherman says. "We don't have things on our menu that have dairy, wheat flour, cane sugar, ... beef, pork or chicken."

Known as the "Sioux Chef," Sherman grew up on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota as a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe. Right after high school, he worked for the U.S. Forest Service in the northern Black Hills of South Dakota, where one of his responsibilities was learning the names and properties of different local plants. Looking back now, he credits that job with sparking his interest in Indigenous foods.

"That connection with plants was probably one of the best ways for me to start ... to see the world differently through this Indigenous perspective of realizing that all these plants around us have some kind of purpose — whether it's food, it's medicine or crafting — and really trying to create and understand what that relationship is to me personally," he says.

Sherman and his restaurant co-owner Dana Thompson have been working for years to bring awareness to Indigenous foods and food cultures through their nonprofit, NĀTIFS. Sherman won the James Beard Award for Best American Cookbook in 2018 for The Sioux Chef's Indigenous Kitchen. In June, Owamni was awarded the James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant. Sherman says the food at the restaurant is meant to paint a picture of where each dish comes from.

"We might have something with, say, wild rice or rabbit or rose hips or blueberries," Sherman says. "These are all ingredients you can see just standing in the forest and glancing around."

Sherman emphasizes that using native ingredients doesn't mean that the food is antiquated: "We're not cooking like it's 1491. We're not a museum piece or something like that. We're trying to evolve the food into the future, using as much of the knowledge from our ancestors that we can understand and just applying it to the modern world."


Interview highlights

On guests having emotional reactions when dining at the restaurant

We should have Native restaurants in every single city to showcase the amazing cultures that are all over the place and the resiliency of Indigenous peoples that are still thriving here today everywhere.

I've seen a lot of people who just get really struck by it, especially Indigenous people, because it's not typical to be able to go someplace and see our Indigenous foods on the menu and see the Native names on the menu, see Native people cooking the food and serving the food and listening to Native music coming out of the speakers and just the whole vibe. So it's a whole experience and it's something that's super special and unique. We should have Native restaurants in every single city to showcase the amazing cultures that are all over the place and the resiliency of Indigenous peoples that are still thriving here today everywhere. There's just so much to that. So some people do get very emotional when they come into the restaurant and experience this for the first time.

On purchasing produce and meat from Indigenous producers

We prioritize purchasing from Indigenous producers, local first and then national. So there's a Native nonprofit that I also sit on the board with here in Minnesota called Dream of Wild Health, and they're a nonprofit Native farm. And we're able to purchase a lot of produce from them over the summer months and just be a big supporter. But we have a lot of producers, [like the] Cheyenne River Bison, which is a Lakota tribe in the middle of South Dakota that we get all of our bison from, for example. There's a couple of Indigenous fisheries nearby us, one in Red Lake Nation and one in Red Cliff Nation. Red Lake is in Minnesota. Red Cliff is in Wisconsin, and we're always on the search for more and more Indigenous producers.

We get wild rice from a few different spaces because the true wild rice that you find in Minnesota is all hand harvested. It's harvested on canoes. And it's not like the black wild rice that people might find in the grocery stores. And we're able to get it from a few local producers, some coming from tribes and some coming from individual entrepreneurs.

Sherman says cooking with native ingredients does not mean serving antiquated food. "We're trying to evolve the food into the future," he says.
Nancy Bundt / The Sioux Chef
/
The Sioux Chef
Sherman says cooking with native ingredients does not mean serving antiquated food. "We're trying to evolve the food into the future," he says.

On the lack of access to healthy, regional food for Indigenous communities

When I was growing up on Pine Ridge, we didn't have any restaurants and we had one grocery store to [serve] basically [an area] the size of Connecticut. So there's very little nutritional food access out there. Today there's more gas stations where people can get some food. And, you know, there's only a couple of fast food restaurants on the reservation, and that's pretty much it. So still today, it's really tough to see any kind of nutritional access and we just really want to help turn that tide. ...

I grew up with Commodity Food Programs, so when I was growing up, we just got a lot of staples from the government ... like government powdered milk, and government cereals, and government juices in cans, and fruits in cans, and vegetables in cans, and meats in cans — things like beef with juices and pork with juices and salmon — all canned stuff. And for me, as a chef, looking back, I would say most of it's not very pleasant. ... I just remember a lot of over-sugared fruits and syrups and I remember a lot of over-salted vegetables in cans and meat that was not ideal. I just have a lot of issues, I guess, with growing up with the Commodity Food Program and having to eat a lot of powdered milk with very dry cereal in the morning and literally putting pure corn syrup on everything just to make things taste better. And we need to do so much better.

I think the Commodity Food Program has grown over the years. They are starting to introduce more Indigenous products into their offerings. But there's still a lot of work that needs to be done. They really need to make the food a lot more regional. They need to be purchasing as much as they can from Indigenous producers to help grow that and they need to be returning those products into those regional pieces instead of trying to basically homogenize all Indigenous peoples into one group and send the same foods out to everywhere. We really need a lot more regional diversity.

On correcting the narrative of Thanksgiving

I really feel like we need to drop that narrative completely when it comes to pilgrims and Natives coming together and celebrating, because it really has nothing to do with that at all.

I wrote a story for Time magazine a few years ago that gets shared a lot during Thanksgiving time that just really explores how this curriculum around forcing people to believe and uplift this colonial history of the United States that's just so dismissive of the intense violence that happened against Indigenous peoples, and I really feel like we need to drop that narrative completely when it comes to pilgrims and Natives coming together and celebrating, because it really has nothing to do with that at all. And we should really just focus this time to be together and to be thankful for each other and to celebrate with food, and why not celebrate with Indigenous food to begin with, you know? I really believe that we could do a lot better and we should get far away from a lot of these plays of Indigenous and colonizers coming together and having a wonderful dinner because it just never really happened. It's almost insulting to be so dismissive of the genocide that happens throughout that time period and the amount of death that happens and the amount of displacement and just racism that happens against us as Indigenous peoples.

Amy Salit and Susan Nyakundi produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Sam Briger