The food on your plate came from somewhere. Do you know its story? What about the story of the people who prepared it? Or those who first foraged for it in your area? Today, Sean Sherman, the author of The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen cookbook, calls us to open our eyes to what’s behind our food, and who.
He discusses the wonders of local fruits, vegetables, and herbs first cultivated and eaten by indigenous people. He also explains why lawns are stupid, the importance of food awareness, and how to grow in food sovereignty. He shares his hopes for the latter and talks about what he and his team are doing about it: they are currently preparing 10,000 meals per week for communities in the Minneapolis area. And they have bigger dreams still: imagine fields and forests planted with native fruits, vegetables, and herbs for everyone to enjoy. This is Sean’s vision for the future of indigenous tribes, as well as people around the globe.
Listen to the episode here:
Within the below transcript the bolded text is Hilda.
The food on your plate came from somewhere. Do you know that story? What about the story of the people who prepared it or those who first foraged for it in your area? This is Episode 303. Our guest is Sean Sherman. Sean is the author of the James Beard Award-winning, Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen Cookbook. He has also established the nonprofit, NATIFS, and is the catalyst behind multiple projects to lift up food with stories as he puts it. Sean calls us to open our eyes to what’s behind our food and who. He discusses the wonders of local fruits, vegetables and herbs, first cultivated and eaten by indigenous people. He also explains why lawns are stupid, the importance of food awareness and how to grow in food sovereignty. He shares his hopes for the latter and talks about what he and his team are doing about it now. They are preparing 10,000 meals per week for communities in the Minneapolis area, and they have bigger dreams still. Coming up, Sean speaks to us about his experience in Mexico that led to where he is now and his vision for the future of indigenous foods.
Welcome to the show, Sean.
Thanks for having me.
You told me that you were making 10,000 meals a week for folks in Minneapolis-St. Paul area. Who are you serving and why?
We’re serving 9 out of 11 tribes across Minnesota. We’re going way out there, but we’re also working with quite a few different organizations within the city to disperse here in Minneapolis-St. Paul area too.
Has this always been your mission?
We’ve got the Indigenous Food Lab, which is a part of our nonprofit. Our nonprofit is called NATIFS, which is an acronym for North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems. The purpose of this kitchen is a training education and development center. Even though we’re doing a lot of food relief because there’s a huge need for food out there especially culturally and regionally appropriate foods for tribal communities, which is what our focus is, our real goal is to work directly with tribal communities, helping them to develop their own culinary programming and operations using ourselves as education, training and development, and eventually support. Our vision is that we’ll be working with these tribal entities, helping them to develop menus and recipes in their language, utilizing foods that’s for them and helping to develop all that, train all that and give them a program and systems to make that happen. We play a support system. We’re going to replicate this kitchen and move it everywhere we can and become regional center points of training, development and support.
I remember you showing a map of the world and how you’re hoping to replicate this. This is the thing, some people would say, “If people are hungry, give him any food.” Why is it important for it to be culturally and regionally appropriate?
I grew up on Pine Ridge Reservation, where I grew up primarily with the commodity food program. It was great that we did have food in our cupboards when we needed it, but it’s unfortunate that the nutritional access is not great. It’s no wonder why we see all these foodborne illnesses coming directly from these food situations. We see all this immense amount of Type-II Diabetes, obesity, heart disease coming directly from the food source and the nutrition source. If you look at it, it’s still modern-day segregation of what these tribes are being fed. We need to change that. If we can get tribal communities, especially as indigenous populations going back to a more indigenous diet, it’s going to have an immense amount of impact on the health situations and the wellbeing of people in general of being able to connect to something that is inherently theirs with, something their ancestors that they can connect with and feel better. When we’re doing these culturally appropriate foods and focus on indigenous foods, we’re cutting out colonial ingredients and things that didn’t exist here. We’ve removed dairy, wheat flour, cane sugar, beef, pork, chicken. It’s a healthier lifestyle in general.
This will resonate with the readers because The Weston A. Price Foundation emphasizes the importance of eating local, culturally appropriate foods. That’s what Dr. Price found when he traveled around the world. People were eating varied diets but were appropriate for where they were at. I like the actual emphasis on the culturally appropriate because there’s a sense in which it not only nourishes the body but feeds the spirit as well.
It’s going to be important to open up a lot of opportunity for more indigenous food producers in all these different regions. If we can see our vision through opening up these food labs in Seattle, Denver, Boston, Albuquerque and even crossing over colonial borders and being up in Canada, down in Mexico, South America, Africa, India, Southeast Asia, Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, we could do a lot of impact for helping to secure this global knowledge base of indigenous food ways because they are localized regional foods that have such rich histories. We need to be protecting that and we need to be celebrating that diversity.
Do you know there are people like Dr. Jack Kruse who say we’re so sick because we’re not eating our local foods?
People should open up because when we’re looking at indigenous food systems, you see these commonalities across the globe of how people had a huge awareness of if there was agriculture, these organic ways of farming, keeping the soil and protecting a lot of heritage varietals of seeds, but also this commonality of understanding the world around us, understanding the immense use of all those plant life around us and the amount of plant diversity that’s in indigenous people’s diets and how we can be bringing that back again. It’s going to be so important for people to open up their eyes because the Western diet has never come to terms with understanding how to utilize this amazing environment around us. That’s the same situation in many colonized countries around the world.
What do you mean?
Looking at Minnesota right here, if you go to any of these restaurants and look at the plant diversity on any of these menus, it’s going to be heavily colonized. You’re going to find a lot of dairy, a lot of pork and a lot of similar vegetables, but if you took the time to break down what is the plant diversity on the menus of all around us, you’re going to find the same stuff. You’re probably not even getting to 30 plant species because you’re going to have onion, tomato, potato, carrot, you’re going to stop. If you look at the indigenous diet, we’re including the world of where we’re sitting. We have all these amazing staples like the wild rice. We have all these tubers that grow wild around us. We have all of these flowers, flowering plants, herbs and berries. There’s so much more plant diversity in the diet. You can apply that mentality to anywhere you are in the United States. Think about how indigenous food from Florida differs from indigenous fruit from Seattle. You could say the same situation for the middle of Africa to Southeast Asia. It’s the indigenous peoples who had this understanding of how these localized food systems truly worked by truly understanding and integrating themselves with the world around them and the plant life around them.
They were so much more connected. You’re trying to help us reconnect. Do people want to do this?
There’s a lot of curiosity out there. Opening up to more food ideas, food is a great gateway for people to understand other cultures, number one, and it’s a cultural identity. People will want to understand, and the people are curious and want to try new things. People have their comfort foods and it’s fine, but it’s opening up the doors for so much more, and to showcasing this diversity, this global diversity that we have as indigenous food ways, instead of homogenizing it, to make it the same all across the board.
Talk to us also more about how you’re preparing these meals. You said it’s all from scratch.
The biggest thing that we’re trying to do is we only buy local. We’re not using any of the big box trucks and we’re processing everything from scratch. We’re making simplistic foods. We prioritize purchasing from indigenous food producers where we can. We have all these bags of different colors of corn and different kinds of beans. We had a bunch of squash. We had a bunch of beaver come in. We’re open to processing different styles of things. We want to push a lot of this opportunity back towards indigenous food producers and support them as much as possible, but also supporting our local food growers where we are. Even though we’re utilizing some non-indigenous food producers out there, we see the importance of supporting our local growers who are these families that are working hard to grow. It’s such a crazy time with the pandemic. Many people have lost so much business. We feel it’s going to be important to support the local growers around us.
Maybe more than ever, because it seems to me, people are concerned about the frailty of the system where we’re getting foods from California. We’re getting our produce from California, the produce from California, feeds or supplies, 3/4 of the US population or something. That’s not how it should be.
We should be focused on localized regional food systems which is what indigenous food systems are. If we’re utilizing both agricultural and permacultural situations and being able to supplement a lot of our pantries with foods that are grown right here, we can have a better system because indigenous peoples never had to pay for food. They just work hard as an entire community to produce a lot of food. We need to eventually start to break free from this capitalistic viewpoint of, you can only get food if you pay for it, situation. It doesn’t work because we have too many people without food, too many communities that struggle with foodborne illnesses from getting the bottom of the barrel foods. We need to fix that situation because we can train small communities to be able to grow food, to be able to re-landscape with the purpose of food and be able to have trained kitchens that can process all this stuff.
What do you do with a bunch of these wild plants when they come in or what do you do if somebody brings in some game? We need to be able to train a whole new perspective on how we think about culinary. The ultimate in culinary isn’t who can feed the rich and to be able to be so creative. It’s about how can we create a better system and support that system and how can we get healthy food out to everybody. It shouldn’t be a zip code issue or the color of your skin issue and how much nutrition you’re getting.
Have you heard of the gangster gardener? He’s this guy who lives in a city. He’s like, “Why don’t we grow food instead of grass and let everyone have access to it?”
We always say lawns are stupid. You should be focused on putting food plants everywhere you can. Think about all these open spaces, all these open lots we have and all these different communities. Some of these rural communities that struggle so much from food situations. If we relandscaped with the purpose of food, here in Minnesota, we can be growing food forests around the towns so they could have choke cherries, choke berries, wild gingers, wild onions, plums and all sorts of nut trees. There could be so much food to produce and a small area where they could supplement all of that harvest for that one community right there.
We always say, “If you can control your food, you can control your destiny.” We want to see if we can get tribal communities to have that frame of thought and take actions to working towards that. What we’re doing is trying to be role models and trying to set up a foundation and structure that can train future culinary programming to have this mindset. We’re not going to accomplish this in our lifetimes, and we know that, all we’re trying to do is build structure and foundation for the next generation to take it further.
How much interest has there been for folks in the tribal communities to take on this training and embrace this vision?
The demand that we tapped into, we always knew it was there, it’s pretty immense because we could probably triple the work that we’re doing right now, but we’re a small kitchen and a small crew, and 10,000 meals a week is capacity for us right now. We’ll be able to grow, but we feel like there’s going to be an immense amount of need, especially as tribal communities are getting these meals and it has their language on it so it’s going out in either Dakota or Anishinaabe languages. It’s connecting with these people. They’re going to know right away how it makes them feel when they’re eating something healthy for them compared to if you’re going to the gas station and getting some fried chicken and some potato chips. You can tell immediately how your body reacts to the kinds of foods. We’re doing our best to only cook healthy foods and to normalize having these healthy indigenous foods out there. People are going to see that there is a huge demand. We’re going to be there to help support that.
What about the individual who’s like, “Sean, I’m inspired by what you’re saying, but I don’t live near an indigenous community?” Are you going to help regular people get in touch with their local food and their culturally appropriate food?
A lot of people need to wake up and see the world around them because our indigenous histories and our indigenous communities have been removed purposefully from a lot of our textbooks and a lot of our knowledge base. People are largely unaware of the indigenous history of the land that they’re standing on. That needs to change because our country was built off of stolen indigenous land spaces. As indigenous peoples, we are still segregated and we’re still struggling. That’s something that’s going to have to change on top of stealing so many indigenous peoples from Africa to force build what we have here. People don’t realize this unspoken privilege that so many families are born into as a direct result from stolen land and stolen people. That’s something that we’re going to have to come to terms with. All we’re offering is showcasing the value of understanding a deeper indigenous perspective and why it’s important to understand these histories and why it’s important to protect some of these knowledge bases so we can all live as better humans in the future.
I went to Australia in 2019. I saw some communities, not unlike the reservations, I saw that segregation of the first nation people there. In some of these places, they still have this huge grocery store. The indigenous people are eating foods that their ancestors didn’t eat. I didn’t feel like it was helping them thrive. It was helping them die.
That’s colonization at its finest. You can find that all over the place. It’s what I grew up with. We had one grocery store on Pine Ridge Reservation when I was growing up to service the size of Connecticut. That still hasn’t changed. We still have the one big grocery store. We have a few gas stations stores, but try eating healthy out of any of those. It’s not going to happen. We need to systematically change how we’re doing things and how we’re feeding people, where we’re getting our food, who we’re supporting to grow these foods. The commodity food program in general, the food distribution program, they’re sending out all these staple foods. You have processed corn meals, processed wheat flours, cane sugars and corn syrups. That’s not real food. We need to be changing the way we are feeding ourselves and the way we’re feeding people that need health and nutrition. Health and nutrition shouldn’t be a wealth issue. You shouldn’t be able to have nutrition only if you have the wealth for it. We need to be feeding our entire community. We need to be rethinking how we’re treating our own citizens.
Can you tell me a story of someone who did start feeding themselves regionally and culturally appropriate foods that nourish them in many ways?
The work that we’ve been doing and the social media presence that’s out there on indigenous food sovereignty, we’ve seen many instances of people deciding to take the steps to try and eat only a healthy indigenous diet for even a month and documenting how it’s changing them. It could be that simple. With some of the studies from Weston A. Price, tooth decay wasn’t even a thing with a lot of indigenous communities. It could be an immediate impact that you could feel within 60 days by changing your diet like that and if we can support systems. We’re setting up this kitchen but we’re going to have a little native market so people can buy some indigenous food products. We want to see that being a part of this as normalizing this for the future so people would know how to identify what native American food of your region is. Somebody asked you, “I’m in DC, where can I go to find indigenous restaurant? I’m in Seattle, where can I find some indigenous food?” Hopefully we can see that situation truly happening ran by indigenous peoples that are still from these regions. We need something that’s real. We need to know that this is supporting people that need the support.
As you were saying, one of my daughters was working in a public school in DC. One of the goals of this food program she was a part of was helping kids know where their food comes from. Do you know some city kids have no idea that a carrot grows in the ground, for example?
We need to focus on education, which is what a big part of our work is. Our non-profit is founded on two focus points. One is normalizing and making accessible indigenous education. The other is making indigenous foods accessible. We’re going to do this in many different ways, but we see two specific goals of what we’re trying to accomplish.
Don’t you have a truck that delivers some of the food to various tribal communities?
We had a food truck in the beginning that was a for-profit program that we ran for a little while, but we grew to bigger and better things. We do have this nonprofit starting up. We haven’t even done any of our construction or anything. We just moved in and started being super productive. We also have our for-profit restaurant opening up, our first brick and mortar, which we’re excited about to bring an indigenous perspective to Downtown Minneapolis in front of what used to be these amazing waterfalls. It’s so amazing that the Dakota people named the entirety of the Mississippi after that waterfall system that was right there. The restaurant is called Owamni, which is from the Dakota word, Owamni Omni, which was the name of the waterfalls, which meant place at the swirling waters. The Dakota name for the entire Mississippi was ‘river of the falls.’
It’s hard for me to believe that an area like this with such rich indigenous history hadn’t had a restaurant of this kind.
People don’t even think Minnesota is the Dakota word for this place. There’s all this stuff around us. You can find that everywhere. If you’re out East, you’re going to see all these native names that don’t even think twice about it because it became part of the vernacular. Much of these name places have meaning. For example, with this new restaurant that we’re working on, Owamni in Downtown Minneapolis, we worked with the park board as rebuilding this whole park to put only indigenous plants back into the park and to have name plates. You’ll see the Dakota name of the plant first, then the English name, then a description of how the plant is used. It’s normalizing, understanding how deeply integrated this indigenous perspective is to no matter where you are.
Sean, what was your a-ha moment that helped you realize, “I’m eating foods that aren’t giving me life, I need to return to these ancestral food ways?”
I took a break because I’d been a chef for quite a few years in Minneapolis. I was a little bit burnt because the chef career will do that to you sometimes. It can be intense working in restaurants. I bought a one-way ticket to Mexico and moved down there and was living on the small beach town in the state of Nayarit on the Pacific. We chill over there. I was around a small community and I became interested in their history and it sparked a certain moment where I realized that these guys, I saw so much commonality in their artwork and their stories. I realized they’re like my distant indigenous cousins. It struck me to realize that I should be understanding more about my Lakota heritage because I didn’t know much about my Lakota heritage.I can only name a handful of Lakota recipes that were influenced by outside influence. I could name hundreds of European recipes, which were the colonizers. I’m speaking in a colonizer language. All of that came to me all at once. I saw a clear path of what I wanted to know. I truly wanted to know what my Lakota ancestors were eating, how they were storing foods, who were they trading with, what kind of foods were they growing or what foods were they harvesting, how were they harvesting and all of these questions that I had and started down that path of trying to truly understand that.
You’ve written a cookbook. Your vision is so broad though. Are you planning on writing any other books?
There’s another book in the works. We’re excited about more information on that project coming out, but it’ll probably take a couple of years to get that whole thing said and done because it’s 1/3 big, but we’re going to continuously keep working on this. This is now my life’s purpose and we’re going to keep trying to bring awareness to indigenous food, trying to develop more indigenous food entrepreneurs and chefs and caterers and food truck operators and growers and harvesters. It’s an exciting world out there.
Two more questions, what’s cooking in your kitchen right now?
They are making a simple turkey chili, about 2,000 portions of it. They’re using some tepary beans from the Southwest, which is a cool bean. We’re using some locally raised turkey that’s grown in the Northern forests here. We’re processing everything from scratch, at the same time we made a whole bunch of nixtamalized corn. We’re getting ready to make a pheasant and hominy soup. It will be about 2,000 portions.
I said two more questions but maybe I have two more now. One is if someone is so inspired because they’ve heard you speaking and they want to support this work, how can they do that?
We’re a nonprofit, so people can easily find us that on our website, NATIFS.org, that’s an acronym for North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems. We are a 501(c)(3). We have been getting a lot of foundational and public support for the work that we do. We will continuously need that. If people are in Minnesota anytime in the near future, they can come and visit our new restaurant and be a part of what we’re doing. I encourage people to learn about the indigenous history of the land that they’re standing on and the struggles that indigenous peoples went through, and try to find if there are any ways to support local indigenous projects that are around them.
I’m going to pose the question to you that I often pose at the end of the show. If the reader could do one thing to improve their health, and you might think of something that’s worked for you or maybe it’s related to what we’ve been discussing, if they could do one thing to improve their health, what would you recommend that they do?
I would recommend starting to reconnect with the land around you. Start to learn the names of the plants of where you live. That gets you outdoors, that gets you moving around, that gets you to be curious. It’s going to open your eyes because once you start to do that, you’re going to start to see nothing but food and medicine all around you. You can even take it a step further by starting to learn the original indigenous names of those plants around you because that’s the old names of what they are.
You’ve inspired me. Thank you so much for this conversation, Sean.
Thank you very much.
Our guest was Sean Sherman. Learn more about the work of his nonprofit at NATIFS.org, that stands for North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems. You can find me and resources that I offer at HolisticHilda.com. Thank you so much for reading. Stay well. Hasta pronto.
About Sean Sherman
Sean Sherman, Oglala Lakota, born in Pine Ridge, SD, has been cooking across the US and World for the last 30 years. His main culinary focus has been on the revitalization and awareness of indigenous foods systems in a modern culinary context. Sean has studied on his own extensively to determine the foundations of these food systems which include the knowledge of Native American farming techniques, wild food usage and harvesting, land stewardship, salt and sugar making, hunting and fishing, food preservation, Native American migrational histories, elemental cooking techniques, and Native culture and history in general to gain a full understanding of bringing back a sense of Native American cuisine to today’s world.
In 2014, he opened the business titled The Sioux Chef as a caterer and food educator to the Minneapolis/Saint Paul area. In 2015 in partnership with the Little Earth Community of United Tribes in Minneapolis, he also helped to design and open the Tatanka Truck food truck, which featured pre-contact foods of the Dakota and Minnesota territories. Chef Sean and his vision of modern indigenous foods have been featured in numerous articles and radio shows, along with dinners at the James Beard House in Manhattan and Milan, along with teaching and sharing his knowledge to gatherings and crowds at Yale, the Culinary Institute of America, the United Nations, and many more.
Sean has been the recipient of a 2015 First Peoples Fund Fellowship, 2018 Bush Foundation Fellowship, National Center’s 2018 First American Entrepreneurship Award, 2018 James Beard Award for Best American Cookbook, and a 2019 James Beard Leadership Award.
The Sioux Chef team works to make indigenous foods more accessible to as many communities as possible. To open opportunities for more people to learn about Native cuisine and develop food enterprises in their tribal communities, we founded the nonprofit North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems (NATIFS) and are working to launch the first Indigenous Food Lab restaurant and training center in Minneapolis.