Sean Sherman shares his path to becoming an Indigenous food chef
Sean Sherman is Ogalala Lakota, born in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. He is a chef, entrepreneur, author, speaker and founder of the nonprofit, NATIFS (North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems). He has been cooking for more than three decades around the world. He works to revitalize and increase awareness of indigenous food systems in a contemporary culinary context. He has won multiple fellowships and awards from organizations like the First Peoples Fund, the Bush Foundation and the James Beard Foundation. In the summer of 2021, he opened a restaurant in Minneapolis called Owamni by The Sioux Chef. You can learn more about his work from his website.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity
On his most recent work
We've done quite a bit over a short period of time. We've been working on the cookbook for the past couple years. We've been able to travel basically around the world to do events all over the place, to talk about our philosophy surrounding Indigenous foods and really trying to open up people's eyes that no matter where you are in North America, there's Indigenous history and culture and food and flavor. It's just been a lot of great work for us and we've been able to grow a really cool team and we're really excited for the launch of our nonprofit that we're hoping will help build Indigenous restaurants all across the country.
On growing up on the Pine Ridge Reservation
Well, you know, I think the 70s are a different time era for people anyways, but growing up on Pine Ridge in the 70s and 80s, we just had a lot of freedom. We were out there in the country and we roamed around a bit and we were curious and we never stayed indoors. I think I only had two channels of TV, so that was not even an option compared to nowadays and we were on a ranch, so we had lots of horses and we were able to move around quite a bit. It is a different perspective than I think most people had growing up.
Unfortunately, growing up on a reservation we grew up with a lot of the commodity food base, which is something that we address all the time. Because, if you look at the commodity foods, you just see a whole bunch of staples. You see a bunch of canned goods, canned meats, lots of dairy and flour and sugar, and things like powdered dairy. I remember having to have powdered milk and government cereal a lot growing up, so there's a lot of parts of it that weren’t that great. But also growing up on a ranch, I had access to a lot of beef. And we hunted a lot, so we had a lot of birds. There was a lot of pheasant and grouse and antelope growing up. We collected some wild berries, like chokecherry, out there on the plains, and we'd spend a good chunk of our time in the Black Hills too during the summers. Of course, there's just a whole bunch of different kinds of wild foods out there too, so it was pretty interesting. Part of my journey right out of high school, I worked for the Forest Service. My job was to learn all the plants in the northern Black Hills, which came in extremely handy when I started really studying wild foods much later in life.
On traditional foods growing up
We had pemmican which we called wasna, which is just dried meat, usually bison with some dried chokecherry and some fat. And we used that for a lot of ceremonies. And we had wojapi, which is the berry sauce we made out of the chokecherries. So, there were bits and pieces. Part of my work when I first started was just like looking for the recipes and the foods that I knew obviously had been around for a lot longer and really try to discern which ones were mixed in and just look for the truth of it. Like, look for the roots and the foundations of what those foods were from before European contact.
On his interest in cooking
Well, I started working in restaurants at extremely young age. Just because I grew up without a lot of money. So, my mom was working hard. She moved us off the reservation while she went back to school in Spearfish, South Dakota. It was just her, my sister and I. I got a restaurant job when I was barely 13 and started working in the back of the house, and I have worked restaurants pretty much ever since then. I had no idea that that was going to be my career path, 'cause I had always thought I would have something more to do in the arts, which it kind of ended up that way with culinary arts. But it wasn't the way I was looking at it when I was younger. When I moved to Minneapolis after moving out of the Black Hills I worked my way up pretty quickly to an executive chef position. I'd been an executive chef mostly around the Uptown area ever since around 2000 and you know, just had a really good experience there, but once I got my first chef position then I really kind of just started going for it, 'cause I hadn't gotten to culinary school. So I really did a lot of self-education, which is, you know, something that I've always carried, of just learning how to look for things I was curious about and how to push it into something bigger and better.
On connecting with Native foods later in life as a chef
When we started doing the foods we were doing, we cut out all the European ingredients. So there's no dairy or wheat flour or processed sugar. We're not using beef, pork or chicken. And it's just a lot of great foods that are out there. The first iteration of this work I did was way back in 2004, and I had designed a menu for a place here in Saint Paul and it didn't go through, but it was the first time I tried to do a Native American kind of focused menu. Then it wasn't until I was living in Mexico around 2008 or so, and then I really had the epiphany, like the kind of harsh realization that there was just no representation of Indigenous foods anywhere.
I can walk around Uptown or in Minneapolis and in any neighborhood and find food from all over the world and nothing representing the people and the culture and the history of the place I was standing on. So, it just really got me thinking. I just really wanted to understand 'what were my Lakota ancestors eating?' and it's kind of shot me on this path to where we are today. I still feel like we're just at the beginning of it. I feel like there's so much work to learn and to revitalize and to create 'cause you know for us, we're not trying to do a time piece. We're not trying to cook everything like it's 1491. We're just really trying to understand the knowledge of the past and pull it into the future. For us, we feel like it's more of an evolution of this food of bringing into something bigger and better, but holding onto the roots, of bringing a lot of that knowledge from the past to today.
On adapting his cooking to fit Indigenous ways
I think it was really fun for us to think outside the box and to kind of challenge ourselves to try to create foods using only Indigenous ingredients of the region that we're in. We were trying to focus on how we could create menus and recipes using just the foods right around us. It became surprisingly easier and easier the further we went. I think in the very beginning days we were still utilizing a lot of that European, and especially French kind of style of trying to make things happen. So, we would try to make corn breads or wild rice breads, and we're trying to use ratios like you would see in a European book. And we realized that we were trying too hard and we just had to keep it simple and we ended up figuring out how to make things with basically just those ingredients. So we can make wild rice bread using basically just wild rice and some maple. Or, sunflower cakes with just sunflower and honey or something like that. It's just been a lot of experimentation and a lot of trial and error, but we've also been able to create a ton of great recipes moving forward. And again, we feel like we're just at the beginning. There's so much more to learn, especially as we venture into many other parts of North America.
On the tastes of North America
Well, it's so exciting to think about, because no matter where you are in North America, it changes dramatically everywhere you go. Every few 100 miles it's a whole different food system, so there's different seasonings. There are different roots. There are different plants. There's all sorts of stuff to play with. And people were doing things in different ways, and you're going to find a lot of commonalities throughout all that also, but we feel like there's just so much to explore throughout North America. I spend a lot of time in Mexico. I spend a lot of time traveling, traveling around different parts of the U.S., and, we can really create these really true, strong regional cuisines utilizing Indigenous knowledge everywhere.
It's wrong to say that North America doesn't have a cuisine, because there's been people living here for thousands of generations. And it's really exciting to see, these different flavors that people utilized. Getting out of the colonial mindset that anything that the Indigenous peoples had didn't have any value, it's just not true, 'cause people were living and utilizing these foods and these wild plants and these animals. And just the immense amount of work that went into developing agriculture, it was amazing. There's so much cool history out there, no matter where you are. And food is just such a great way for other people to understand a different culture. It's also just a great way to have this cultural identity. It was unfortunate that a lot of the Indigenous people lost a lot of that cultural identity because of how things went down with Indigenous people, especially in the U.S. and Canada. But we're at the stage now where we can revitalize, and we can feel this movement happening of this food slowly starting to bubble up, and all these other great Native chefs around the country really kind of grabbing, hold onto it and creating something new with it. So, it's fun.
On young Native American chefs learning the craft
We're seeing a lot more young Native chefs starting to get passionate about this. We're trying really hard to create a place where we can help people learn and grow and work alongside us too. The nonprofit vision that we have right now, which is called NATIFS, stands for North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems. We're trying to create a place that's going to be not only a restaurant where people can work with us and develop skills, but also an educational and training center where people can come and take classes or teach classes about their passions. Whether it's Indigenous agriculture or wild foods, or food preservation or cooking technique or history, we are trying to create a space that people can come from all over and work with us and bring it back to their own communities.
On his vision for the non-profit and tribal communities
The second phase is that we want to work with tribal communities directly around us and help them to develop their own food businesses in their communities, for the history of the land, the culture and make it really unique to that community. We really want to get food access to some of these communities that suffer so much. Then the third phase is we're opening up this restaurant and the restaurant under the nonprofit is under the name, the Indigenous Food Lab, because it's also the educational center. We want to open up more of these Indigenous food labs all across the country in urban areas that are kind of in proximity to other Indigenous regions. We could do Seattle, Portland, Bay Area, Denver, Phoenix, Albuquerque, Boston. You name it. It's needed everywhere, so we want to open up Indigenous food labs everywhere that will then help to create satellite food businesses within tribal communities directly around them. We just see this creating this huge, large food network of Indigenous foods all across North America, eventually into Canada, Alaska and Mexico also.
On what he hopes people take away from his book and mission
Just seeing the deeper history of the land that they're standing on, anywhere you are in North America. There's a lot to learn everywhere. A lot of the times the Indigenous communities have really been pushed aside. They're not recognized here and there, so I think everybody needs to recognize that there's Indigenous history, no matter where you are. And there's just so much we can learn out there.
Lindsey Moon produced this interview for broadcast. Monica Starr adapted this interview for the Web.