Sean Sherman: What Can We Learn From Indigenous Culinary Traditions?

Originally published on September 7, 2021 5:23 am

Part 2 of TED Radio Hour episode: The Food Connection

The loss of Native American food traditions has been taking place for centuries. At Owamni, chef Sean Sherman is trying to change that by serving food that celebrates and preserves Dakota cooking.

About Sean Sherman

Chef Sean Sherman is the founder of "The Sioux Chef," a company committed to revitalizing and reclaiming Native American cuisine. He is a member of the Ogalala Lakota Sioux tribe. His main culinary focus has been on bringing indigenous food systems like land stewardship and wild food usage to a modern culinary context.

His restaurant Owamni in Minneapolis, MN features dishes that prioritize Indigenous-sourced foods native to his region, and leaves out colonial ingredients like beef and chicken to create a "decolonized dining experience." In 2017, he co-authored the cookbook The Sioux Chef's Indigenous Kitchen.

Through his nonprofit NATIFS, he also co-founded the Indigenous Food Lab, a professional Indigenous kitchen and training center dedicated to preserving Indigenous food education.

He was the recipient of a 2015 First Peoples Fund Fellowship, the 2018 Bush Foundation Fellowship, the National Center's 2018 First American Entrepreneurship Award, the 2018 James Beard Award for Best American Cookbook and a 2019 James Beard Leadership Award.

This segment of TED Radio Hour was produced by Rachel Faulkner and edited by Sanaz Meshkinpour. You can follow us on Twitter @TEDRadioHour and email us at TEDRadio@npr.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. On the show today, The Food Connection.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: If you visit Sean Sherman's restaurant, Owamni, in Minneapolis, you will find a pretty unique menu.

SEAN SHERMAN: So we've got a lot of duck, a lot of geese, pheasant, venison, elk, things like that.

ZOMORODI: Dishes like preserved rabbit, bison tartare.

SHERMAN: Lots of wonderful lake fish from across this region and around the Great Lakes.

ZOMORODI: Grilled root vegetables with dandelion pesto and hand-harvested wild rice.

SHERMAN: We have many varietals of corn, beans, lots of wild berries, lots of wild foods in general. So there's a lot of cedar. There's a lot of bergamot, things like that.

ZOMORODI: But what you won't find is anything that isn't native to North America.

SHERMAN: We cut out colonial ingredients of things that didn't exist here before. So we don't use any dairy, any wheat flour, any cane sugar. And we're not using beef, pork or chicken for protein choices. So we just try to cook and make food taste like where we are and get people to think about the history of the land that they're standing on.

ZOMORODI: Sean is a restaurant owner, chef and the founder and CEO of the company The Sioux Chef.

SHERMAN: As in S-I-O-U-X, since I'm a part of the Oglala Lakota Sioux tribe.

ZOMORODI: When I called Sean on a Monday, the restaurant was closed, but he was prepping for the week ahead.

OK, so what are you doing? What are you cooking right now?

SHERMAN: So we've got a big pot of chokecherries today that my mom brought to the restaurant. She was just in the Black Hills. And I was probably cooking about 20 pounds of chokecherries. And that smell of wild chokecherries cooking just is something that always just shoots me back to being a young kid in my grandmother's kitchen.

ZOMORODI: Sean, Owamni sounds unlike any restaurant I have ever been to. And that is kind of the point, right?

SHERMAN: It is. You know, it's kind of unfortunate that we're, you know, one of the only restaurants of this kind out there. It opens up a lot of conversation. You know, it opens up that question, why aren't there more native restaurants out there? And it does start with history. I mean, it's just the relations of Indigenous peoples and primarily the United States government. You know, it's going to be important overall to know these pieces in history that have happened to us and have really kept us down for a long time.

ZOMORODI: Here's more from Sean Sherman on the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

SHERMAN: I think what's most damaging for us and why we don't have a lot of Indigenous restaurants out there was the loss of our education because this whole generation, like my great-grandfather's generation and my grandfather's generation, they should've been learning everything their ancestors intended them to learn - you know, how to fish, how to hunt, how to gather, how to identify plants, how to live sustainably utilizing plants and animals around us. But instead, we went through a really intense assimilation period. The boarding school systems stripped this whole generation of all that knowledge and education. And we're still reeling from that in our communities today because of this direct link to the trauma that happened there.

And being Indigenous in the 1900s wasn't much better. My grandparents were born before they were even citizens, which doesn't happen until 1924. We couldn't vote till 1965. We couldn't celebrate religions until '78, you know?

So what does it look like for me growing up in this? Like, I was born in the mid-'70s and growing up in postcolonial America. Like, what kind of foods was I eating? People in the media are always like, you're native. Like, what kind of foods did you grow up with? 'Cause they want to hear a cool story like, oh, I'd get up in the morning, take down an elk with a slingshot I made and have a big family feast.

(LAUGHTER)

SHERMAN: You know? But that wasn't the reality, you know, 'cause, like, I grew up with the Commodity Food Program because we were poor, like a lot of people on the reservation. And it's just the way it was. And we didn't even have the pretty cans when I was growing up. We just had these, like, black-and-white cans with beef and juices. And that's dinner, you know, and that sucks. We could do better than this. There's so much more to learn and more to offer with Indigenous foods.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: Sean, I just want to emphasize this point that, as you say, Indigenous foods, like the ones you are serving today in your restaurant, they weren't really around when you were growing up on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

SHERMAN: Yeah, we did harvest things like this wild prairie turnip that we call timpsula (ph) and chokecherries. And there were some elders that have held on to some recipes, but a lot of it was colonized. I remember my mom giving me a cookbook. She's like, oh, we already have a cookbook featuring all the Lakota foods. And it just kind of read like...

ZOMORODI: Oh.

SHERMAN: ...A Lutheran cookbook. So it's just like, no, Mom, I'm looking for recipes without cream of mushroom soup, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

SHERMAN: So I wanted to know, like, what kind of wild foods were we utilizing. So it just was a long path of self-study to try and figure it out 'cause there, you know, was no "Joy Of Native American Cooking" out there for me.

ZOMORODI: No. So where did you turn to as your sources for information about this? Was it people? Was it - I don't know - archives?

SHERMAN: Yeah, a little bit of everything, you know? 'Cause I would just talk to people - some of their memories, try to filter what might have been Indigenous and what was obviously brought on later. Spent a lot of time outdoors and really just trying to understand what are the purpose of all these plants that my ancestors would've known. You know, is it food? Is it medicine? Can you craft with it? Or can you do all three? And I think that was the best place to start, was just opening up my eyes and starting to see the world around me for what it had to offer.

ZOMORODI: So you run the restaurant, but you also founded something called the Indigenous Food Lab, where your goal is to teach people the fundamentals of Indigenous food education. What are those fundamentals?

SHERMAN: So I think the first thing that you do is just identify, what does the term Indigenous education mean? So to break down that, first off, Indigenous education was thousands of generations of knowledge being handed down family member after family member, community after community, giving people the - basically the blueprint to live sustainably utilizing plants and animals of your region and all the tradition that goes along with it and understanding the immense amount of diversity out there because Indigenous peoples obviously isn't one group. You know, there's still 576 tribes federally recognized in the U.S., 622 in Canada, 20% of Mexico identifying as Indigenous.

So when we're breaking down Indigenous knowledge, we're looking at the wild foods, permaculture, agriculture, seed saving, regional histories, medicines, food preservation, fermentation, nutrition, health, spirituality, sustainability, cooking techniques. Like, it just goes on and on. Like, it's a whole education 'cause that's what all of our educations were.

You know, we have a community garden that we do ourselves, and we're growing a lot of heirloom seed varietals, whether they're corns, beans, squash, amaranth, tobacco, chiles. And our goal is really utilizing our food lab as a place where tribal communities, especially around us, can work with us so we can help them develop healthy, Indigenous culinary projects for their community and share a lot of this knowledge base and education with their own community, too, and just help grow it.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

SHERMAN: And that's why we should have Native American food restaurants all over the nation run by Indigenous peoples, right? And for us, we just want to get this food back into tribal communities especially and make people healthy and happy and break a lot of the cycle of, you know, government reliance on food and huge rates of Type 2 diabetes and obesity and heart disease because of this low nutritional food base that the government's been feeding us for too long.

Indigenous diet is really kind of the most ideal diet. It's healthy fats. It's diverse proteins. It's low carbs. It's low salt. It's a ton of plant diversity, and it's seasonal, you know? It's just really good. It's like what the paleo diet wishes it was really...

(LAUGHTER)

SHERMAN: ...When it comes down to it, like, 'cause it just makes sense, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHERMAN: If we can control our food, we can control our future. And for us, it's an exciting time to be Indigenous because we are taking all of these lessons from our ancestors that should have been passed down to us, relearning them and utilizing the world today with everything it has to offer and becoming something different. You know, this is an Indigenous evolution and revolution at the same time.

ZOMORODI: You have said, Sean, in the past that sharing culture through food is healing. What do you mean by that?

SHERMAN: I think that, you know, again, like, it just opens up people. So if you think of the first time you maybe have experienced sushi or Ethiopian food or something like that and how that affected you, the flavors and, you know, the thoughts and how it changed your perception of that country or that culture of, whatever it might be. And it creates curiosity. And you want to know more, and you want to learn more.

And I think that for Indigenous peoples who have had such a rough time, especially with the U.S. government, and we've had so much stripped away from us that it's really important to experience some of these flavors that are true representation of where we are. If you can taste these foods and have places to taste them and understand, it's going to open up a lot more people for compassion and understanding. And, you know, we can live in a better world.

ZOMORODI: That's Sean Sherman, co-owner of a Owamni in Minneapolis and founder of The Sioux Chef. You can see his full talk at ted.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.