Sean Sherman helps Indigenous chefs, farmers, and environmentalists revive and popularize “pre-contact” cuisine as a way to tell a different, more accurate story about the Indigenous people of North America. He then harnesses all the interest and opportunities created to systematically improve food systems in tribal communities and beyond.
The New Idea
Sean Sherman believes that Americans are long overdue for a deep and meaningful reckoning with the legacy of the genocide of Indigenous people in the United States. This history has [only] been required teaching in public schools since the 1980s, and awareness has been raised by social movements and social media in recent years. Despite that, it’s still far too common for the average non-native American to think of indigenous people as part of the past, and not present or relevant in the United States today. (Hence the social media refrain #werestillhere.) Sean insists that we can get this conversation unstuck – as well as surface solutions for contemporary challenges – by tapping into the power of food to connect.
Through restaurants, food trucks, cookbooks, and now a non-profit Indigenous Food Lab and media center hosting apprentice chefs and food systems workers from across Indian Country, Sean is popularizing "pre-contact” indigenous cuisine. This is a thoughtful and effective strategy to create more cultural space for Americans of all walks of life to connect with each other and with history, whether in physical spaces through in-person experiences or through more indirect media and narrative change work. But it’s also an explicit strategy to infiltrate and improve food delivery systems that serve tribal communities, with specific strategies for wealthy communities with lots of infrastructure (like institutional kitchens and large workforces) as well as remote and resource-constrained communities (with publicly-funded food distribution networks) so that in 5-10 years every tribal community in North America will have at least one access point for healthy, local, culturally-appropriate indigenous food.
As this work gains traction, it’s clear that indigenous cuisines are healthy for people, and also for the planet. In this way Sean’s work also acts as a strategy to invest in regenerative economic and environmental practices that protect biodiversity by drawing on and keeping alive a global knowledge base essential for our current environmental challenges and for future generations. More awareness of and demand for indigenous cuisine translates into more seed saving, wild harvesting, land and game management, and cultivation of environmentally compatible indigenous plants. As people across the continent have fallen out of sync with our natural systems, any and all efforts to help us have less of a negative impact and, indeed, more of a redemptive environmental impact must be supported.
Through all of this, Sean is centering the leadership and agency of indigenous leaders as the best connections to and ambassadors of indigenous cultures, food systems, and environmental stewardship strategies.
For more than 20,000 years, people developed rich cultures and local food traditions in North America in sync with natural ecosystems. Yet today, human life on this continent is out of balance with the natural world and we are suffering the consequences, from environmental degradation to poor human health.
To understand how we got here, we must reckon with the history of genocide of the people indigenous to North American starting in the 1600s and continuing with the assimilation attempts of the 1800s into more recent times. Over these last few hundred years, indigenous people of the Americas and many of their cultural, legal, spiritual, and food traditions were pushed to the margins to make way for settler colonists and their imported ways of life: innovations like the reservations system for tribal communities, private land ownership for whites, family farms, and a diet rich in meat, dairy, and, later, processed foods, among other things.
In the grand scheme of things, these are all recent experiments for North America… and many are not working out. The reservation system is a “perfect example,” as Sean puts it, “of modern-day segregation and manufactured poverty.” The current American diet – in tribal communities and in general – consists heavily of animal products, and the way in which most meat and dairy is raised strains our very continent’s life support systems by polluting local water, degrading soil, and producing global greenhouse gas emissions. All told, as a result of our current systems, Americans and our environment are increasingly less healthy. Rural people living in extractive zones are worse off economically and health-wise than their urban counterparts, despite their proximity to natural resources. And tribal communities, both urban and rural, currently experience the nation's highest levels of poverty, food insecurity, and diet-related diseases.
The atrocities that were inflicted on generations of indigenous people by white settler colonists were justified through stories: stories about the supremacy of white people, about God’s will that these people populate the land, and about the indomitable spirit of a nation of “immigrants” (who didn’t learn the local Lakota, Anishinaabe, Cree, Diné, or any other local languages, cultures, and norms, but imported their own). Even today stories of friendship and Thanksgiving, and of firsts and lasts – like the “first” to settle a state or the “last” of the “noble Indians” – obscure the truth, sanitize the history of genocide and forced assimilation, invisibilize native people, and make reconciliation and repair all but impossible.
Sean believes that we need a different story that can make sense of our complicated past, our present predicament, and that can help us all see our way out of our current patterns of hurting each other and the environment. Not a “new” story, but rather one rooted in history that lifts up time-tested solutions indigenous to this part of the world. Sean believes that food can be both a catalyst for bringing more people into this new, true story, and also a practical part of the solution to the problems we’ve created.
Sean Sherman works across American Indian communities all over Turtle Island (also known as North America) to lift up and popularize pre-contact, indigenous cuisine to not only challenge and change the narrative of loss and genocide, but to catalyze positive, environmentally redemptive improvements to our food system in general, and to wholesale food distribution channels reaching tribal communities in particular.
Food is therefore both a means and an end. Sean believes that “understanding food helps us understand people who may be different from us.” This has indeed been his own experience, first of mastering European cooking, then reclaiming his family’s own dormant Oglala Lakota food traditions, and then finding the power in inviting more people to return to and revive North American food traditions more broadly. Through this Sean has discovered that exploring Native foods is the most accessible and inviting way for Americans of all backgrounds to enter this different story in a different way. “It has given me—and can give all of us—a deeper understanding of the land we stand on.” And about its history.
In a country where the history of indigenous people is usually taught and told in a superficial, simple way, the presence of diverse, pre-contact food traditions invites a different story in an open, enlivening way. If nothing else readers, viewers, guests, and diners alike encounter the diversity of tribal communities, the resilience of peoples that survived attempted genocide, forced removal, and assimilation efforts; and the mutually beneficial and environmentally redemptive potential of supporting indigenous foodways, chefs, and traditions.
Sean has personally experienced this transformation as a chef and an early evangelist of pre-contact indigenous cuisine over the last decade. He’s run a catering business called “The Sioux Chef” and a popular food truck. His Kickstarter campaign for The Sioux Chef broke crowd-funding records and his 2018 cookbook won a James Beard Award. But he was not content to be “just” the celebrity chef who, like a meteor flashing across the sky, might inspire onlookers below. Especially given the history of settler colonists stealing from tribal communities, it’s imperative that the revival of indigenous food traditions and cuisine draws on but also benefits the experience of tribal communities today. It’s great that millions more people across American culture are more thoughtful and reflective about our country’s history and their current food choices today, but over the years of re-learning and reconciliation ahead, Sean wanted to make sure that the experience of more and more indigenous chefs, botanists, farmers, hunters, and seed savers transforms lives in tribal communities themselves.
For this reason, he launched the non-profit NATIFS (North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems) and, in 2020, the Indigenous Food Lab to ensure indigenous people and tribal communities all across North America can develop satellite indigenous kitchens and make healthy, enlivening indigenous foods accessible in their own home communities, while also engaging the wider American public in conversations about history and culture over food.
At the core of NATIFS’ current efforts is The Indigenous Food Lab. It is a professional kitchen and training center for Indigenous food research, education, preparation, and service. According to Sean, “the lab shares ancestral wisdom and skills such as plant identification, gathering, cultivation and preparation of Indigenous ingredients” with the goal of eventually replicating this model across North America, “as a way to empower Indigenous food businesses, because we believe that food is at the heart of cultural reclamation.”
The Indigenous Food Lab’s physical space in Minneapolis, MN includes a working community kitchen staffed by apprenticing chefs from tribal communities from the Twin Cities and across the region. During Covid times the plans for a large on-site restaurant were shelved, and these days the non-profit is contracted by many relief and other non-profit agencies to provide hundreds of healthy meals per day to people receiving food aid and programs serving unhoused people, the elderly, school groups, and others. The space is also set up as a state-of-the-art recording studio to produce audio and video content for the growing national network of “indigenous culinarians” and will soon host an on-site open-to-the-public tea shop and marketplace. This kitchen produces hundreds of meals a day and is a significant buyer of ingredients from indigenous producers. Their on-site market plus growing numbers of chefs and home-cooks only drives more demand for Native growers producing heirloom beans, squash and pumpkins, and Native corn varieties and sourcing things like morels, ramps, wild ginger, chokecherries, crab apples, maple, wild rice, and cedar.
This energy and expertise are then focused on two particular points of intervention that Sean and his team believe will give them the best chance of positively engaging with the majority of tribal community members around the United States. For tribal communities that have become very successful through legalized gambling and other enterprises, NATIFS focuses on culinary programming, training, and education to help them transform their menus and culinary offerings, for guests and their workforces alike. Here Sean points out that, “tribes have the unique opportunity to design their own rules on where food comes from and we can help with that, but it’s an educational issue and these tribes with so much financial resources are great role models for truly implementing these programs." At the same time, for tribal communities that are more remote and that experience for food insecurity and access issues, a powerful point of intervention is the federal and state food access programs where staple offerings are “still high in saturated fats, over-processed, high in salts and bad sugars, and overloaded with carbs.” Here the Indigenous Food Lab is a model for how central kitchens can provide fresh-cooked regional indigenous foods, utilizing both wild and domesticated ingredients. Therefore, in addition to on-site trainings for the future workforce and video and online materials for more widespread consumption, NATIFS works directly with tribal communities to develop their own Indigenous culinary programming with consideration for every aspect from designing culturally appropriate menus to running a successful kitchen dedicated to creating healthy Indigenous foods, ordering, processing, storing, and serving food in a safe and decolonized way
Of note, the health and environmental benefits of promoting decolonized regional foods and avoiding pre-contact ingredients like dairy, wheat or processed cane sugar are significant. And the wider resilience of seed saving, wild harvesting, sustainable hunting, gardening, and food preservation have a dramatic and positive impact on biodiversity and the environment. And in all this work, the traditions and wisdom of tribal communities’ local “culture bearers” are recognized, validated, and kept alive. Sean doesn’t pretend that he will be able to single-handedly boil the ocean with any one of these interventions, but taken together they represent a number of important resets: a decolonized righting of relationships with the natural world, scores of dignified jobs in diverse regional foodsheds, a retooling of food systems serving tribal communities, and a strong signal that indigenous communities can and should be engaged as experts in natural resource and land management of their ancestral lands.
Sean and his team believe they will be able, within 5-10 years, to ensure that every tribal community around the US will have at least one healthy, local food access point. Many of these communities will be directly served by future Indigenous Food Labs operating as hubs for different biocultural regions all around Turtle Island. Each of these points – whether an indigenous kitchen as part of a school, casino, employer, restaurant district, or feeding program – will support indigenous producers, who will also in this timeframe see greater demand for their products from the general public. And we are already on the way. Sean and team have already contributed to the launch of more than 20 restaurants, catering businesses, or indigenous menus (at existing establishments) and supported dozens of traditional food system enterprises, from the increased cultivation of wild rice to the harvesting of sumac and cedar.
In all this, NATIFS balances the work of deep local changes in tribal communities with broader awareness, demand for indigenous products, and narrative change. For example, NATIFS has been working with the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board and the Minneapolis Parks Foundation. In spring 2021, Sean and team will open an indigenous food restaurant at a new riverfront pavilion, becoming the first year-round restaurant as part of the Minneapolis Park System. Sean’s team notes that the park on the banks of the Mississippi “has been a sacred site of peace and well-being for the Dakota and Anishinaabe people for millennia.” The restaurant called Owammi will honor that history by offering the park’s visitors (3 million per year, the third most popular park in Minneapolis) with wood-fired cooking, indoor and outdoor seating, indigenous plantings, and healthy food free of European ingredients like dairy and inventions like processed sugar. While many customers at this one restaurant will surely discover a new favorite food, and many suppliers of indigenous ingredients will see their business boom, the most exciting and also incalculable impact will be the power of countless more people internalizing a different story: of reclamation and resilience, of persistence and shared prosperity again on the banks of “The Great River,” or the Misi-Ziibi as its known in the local Anishinaabe language.
Sean Sherman (Oglala Lakota) grew up in the poorest county with the lowest life expectancy in the United States, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. “When I was 13, I started working at The Sluice restaurant in Spearfish, South Dakota, and I worked in restaurants throughout my teens and 20s. I got my first executive chef job, at a tapas restaurant in Minneapolis, when I was 27.” Around this time, it occurred to him that he had become an expert in European cuisine but had not taken time to understand his own food traditions. This realization set him on a decades-long quest to study indigenous farming, wild food, stewardship, and culinary histories. In 2014 he started a catering business called “The Sioux Chef” and, in 2015, the “Tatanka Truck” in partnership with Minneapolis area non-profits and tribal groups to share food from his Dakota background and using local, indigenous ingredients. In 2018 he won a James Beard Award for his cookbook, “The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen,” and in 2019 was recognized with the James Beard Leadership Award for his efforts toward the “revitalization and awareness of indigenous food systems in a modern culinary context.”
Sean is clearly motivated by a sense of urgency and history. So much has changed so relatively recently. He’s shared that,
"My great grandfather helped fight off General Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn [in 1876], alongside other Lakota and Cheyenne, not even 100 years before my birth. I think about my great grandfather’s lifetime, being born in the 1850s—toward the end of the genocides that began in the 1600s across America and stretching into the subtler but still damaging years of assimilation efforts we have endured since. He saw escalating conflicts between Lakota life as he knew it and the ever-emerging immigrants from the east. He witnessed the disappearance of the bison, the loss of the sacred Black Hills, the many broken promises made by the U.S., along with atrocities like the Sand Creek and Wounded Knee Massacres. He saw his children attend the boarding schools where they had their hair forcibly cut and were punished for speaking their languages."
If he were alive today, Sean’s great grandfather would see a glimmer of hope: despite several generations of attempts to wipe out tribal communities and their cultures, his great grandson is helping usher in a reckoning with this history and a revival of food and wellness traditions that have sustained humans on this land for hundreds of generations.