Eat Traditional: The Story of the Sioux Chef's Indigenous Cuisine

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words by Eamon Whalen

photos by Izzy Commers

additional photos by Heidi Ehalt courtesy of The Sioux Chef

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“The recovery of the people is tied to recovery of food, since food itself is medicine—not only for the body but also for the soul and the spiritual connection to history, ancestors, and the land” - Winona Laduke

 

The idea of a true “American” cuisine is as difficult to pinpoint as the idea of a true American. As the saying goes, we are a nation of immigrants, and so what we eat is a product of the recipes, techniques and cultures from the old country that were adapted to a new land that otherwise would’ve been devoid of its own culinary traditions. Not so fast. Like the majority of their contributions as a people, the foodways of Native Americans have been erased from modern memory, or they’ve been appropriated and repackaged with a white face attached. Enter Sean Sherman, a long time Twin-Cities-based chef of Oglala Lakota Sioux descent, who is redefining American cuisine through the reclamation of the traditional food ways of his ancestors with his catering company, cookbook, nonprofit brand and soon to be restaurant The Sioux Chef: An Indigenous Kitchen.

Cooking traditionally means that Sherman works exclusively with pre-European contact ingredients. There is no dairy or sugar, instead Sherman sweetens his food with maple syrup and wild berries. He uses Minnesota-grown sunflower oil or duck fat in place of butter and olive oil. Proteins like bison, turkey, duck and wild-caught fish are swapped in for beef, pork and chicken. Staple grains are replaced by “the three sisters,” of squash, beans and corn, as well as the sacred Manoomin, Wild Rice. Through revitalizing this cuisine, Sherman is fundamentally changing the meaning of “local food,” or “healthy eating,” to a practiced philosophy that recognizes the interconnectedness between the well-being of human bodies and the well-being of the environment, cultural traditions, and local economies. 

In 2014 Sherman announced the The Sioux Chef, which was to be a Minneapolis-based brick and mortar restaurant that would exclusively feature the flora and fauna of the upper Midwest along with the cooking techniques of the region’s tribal groups. Sherman had devised a business plan and menu after nearly a decade of research on the region’s foodways. Just before he was set to launch the restaurant, Sherman and his business and life partner Dana Thompson were inundated with requests for out-of-town catering events. “I decided that I wanted to reach the most people that I could,” said Sherman, over the phone last winter during a break from prepping food in his test kitchen. “We realized a restaurant was probably the least proactive project to work on, because it would’ve literally locked us in a box.” 

Several months after our interview, after cooking for audiences as far as Italy, India and the United Nations, Sherman announced that he had began the process of fundraising for the The Indigenous Kitchen [Ed. Note: The Indigenous Kitchen was one of the most well-funded Kickstarter restaurants ever with $148,728 raised by 2,358 backers]. The restaurant-to-be will have wood-fired ovens, grills and a custom-made Comal, a smooth flat griddle used in Mexico and Central America. Though the restaurant announcement specified serving the cuisine of the upper-midwest, Sherman has experimented with widening his focus to include all of North America. At the time of our interview he was planning his first Mexican dinner, showcasing the southern Oaxaca region. The restaurant also has loftier, more noble goal than most: re-centering the importance transformative power of indigenous foods and indigenous wisdom while providing a blueprint for future indigenous restaurants and food businesses across North America.

The Sioux Chef’s first business partnership “The Tatanka Truck,” (Tatanka is the Lakota word for Bison) is perhaps a preview of what we can expect from Sherman’s restaurant, in both a culinary and community-building capacity. Sherman and his team designed the menu, which features a mix-and-match array of open-faced corn cake sandwiches, but the Little Earth community in Minneapolis –– the only American Indian Section 8 assisted housing community in the nation –– own and operate the food truck. “The truck was meant to help bring jobs to Little Earth, promote Native food, and really try to make these foods accessible,” said Sherman. 

It seems confounding that Sherman would need to make the foods that have been local for hundreds, if not thousands of years, accessible to those that were the first to cultivate and cook them. But as colonization brought upon a genocide of indigenous people, their foodways also suffered. In order to make tribal groups dependent on the U.S government, hunting territories were restricted, agricultural infrastructure was undermined and ecosystems were destroyed, which lead to numerous plants and animals going extinct. In their place came new, non-local staple ingredients, what Sherman calls “oppression food” –– heavily processed, nutritionally defunct food products like corn syrup, bleached flour, shortening, oil-based cheese and canned meat.

On a wider scale, the industrialization of the American food system has transformed the staple diets of everyone in the United States. Modern agribusiness –– monocultures, synthetic fertilizer, toxic pesticides and heavily processed food grown and preserved primarily for yield and shelf life –– has so fundamentally changed what and how Americans eat, that there now exists a parallel rise of chronic illnesses like obesity, cancer, heart disease and type 2 diabetes. These diseases have hit Indigenous Americans the hardest. According to the U.S Department of Health and Human Services analysis of the 2010 U.S census, American Indians are 2.3 times more likely to have diabetes than White people, and the rate of diabetes among Native teenagers has risen 110 percent since 1990. 

“Looking at indigenous cultures, especially in North America, it’s all the same story,” said Sherman, who grew up on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, which is among the poorest counties with the shortest life expectancies in the nation, and is also the site of indigenous resistance in Wounded Knee. “Before people were put onto this diet, there weren’t things like tooth decay or obesity or heart disease or type 2 diabetes. All of these ailments are directly related to the food that people are eating,” Sherman continued. Lately, as Americans have become simultaneously more food obsessed and less healthy, concerned eaters have been beginning to return to the traditional diets that have been there all along.

In 1939 a dentist from Cleveland, Ohio named Weston Price published a book called “Nutrition and Physical Degeneration.” The book was based on Price’s decade long study of the eating practices of communities that were still untouched by modernization. Inspired by what he saw as an alarming rate of tooth decay in his patients, Price conducted fieldwork across the planet with the hope of learning the “secrets of healthy people.” He studied traditional diets in remote parts of Scandinavia, the Andes, West Africa, Australia and nearly everywhere in between. He also studied people within the same culture and ethnic group that had begun to eat foods made with refined flour, sugar and processed ingredients. Price would then compare the two groups. He wrote: 

    “A critical examination of these groups revealed a high immunity to many of our serious affections so long as they were sufficiently isolated from our modern civilization and living in accordance with the nutritional programs which were directed by the accumulated wisdom of the group.”

What Price discovered is that diets should not only solely rely on the nutritional consensus of the day, but should be directed by cumulative community wisdom. He found that despite vastly different climates and foods available, traditional cultures all had one thing in common: the absence of chronic diseases and tooth decay. Though he was dismissed and marginalized by his professional peers at the time, Dr. Price was very much ahead of his time. His work has inspired a foundation in his name that advocates for a diet rich in pasture-raised animal meat and fat, fermented foods, nuts, organic fruit and vegetables and raw milk. Many of the most popular diets and health trends today –– Atkins, Paleo, Gluten-free, the pro-biotic and bone-broth phenomenons –– are remarkably similar to Price’s prescription. They’re also remarkably similar to Sherman’s. 

“I’m talking about the food systems of my great-grandparents, whereas with the paleo folks there’s sort of a mythology and vague section of history behind their idea. If they adopted an indigenous diet it would almost mimic it exactly.” For Sherman, it comes back to the glycemic index, a widely-used scale that measures the effect of a certain food on a person’s blood sugar levels. Dairy, flour and processed sugar all chart very high on the glycemic scale. Overconsumption of them, and one becomes at risk for diabetes and heart disease. “By dropping that glycemic scale so low, you’re cutting out those sugars and heavy carbs. It becomes clean burning food,” said Sherman. 

Despite the scope and importance of his pioneering study, Dr. Price was not without his faults. His perception was clouded by a colonial gaze, and in many ways he played the part of the typical exploitative Euro-centric outsider, fascinated with the bodies of what he called “primitive races.” Today, the wisdom of traditional nutrition continues to be deployed on a national level by mostly white faces such as the author Michael Pollan, chef Alice Waters and New York times columnist Mark Bittman. Considering the history, it’s irresponsible to advocate for traditional eating without reconciling the deliberate destruction of indigenous foodways, as well as the structural impediments that prevent many descendants from accessing it.

Coupled with the influx of commodity or “oppression” food, were deliberate efforts on the part of the colonizers to shame the traditional foods and practices of the colonized. “The government basically started handing out poverty to people, getting people to think they’re poor. There were stories about people getting made to give up their seeds and seed banks, so they’re completely reliant on whatever is being handed to them. Foraging, hunting and farming may seem like something that one would do if they’re poor,” said Sherman. 

Dr. Luz Calvo, a Chicana professor of ethnic studies at Cal State-East Bay details how this process of shaming happened in Mexico in her cookbook-manifesto “Decolonize Your Diet.” “Many people of color are given both direct and indirect messages that our cultures' foods are somehow inferior,” said Dr. Calvo. “At various points in history, reformers actually went out to teach Mexican women to feed their children wheat bread instead of corn tortillas.”

Calvo, as well Sherman, notes that in the past decade there has been an awakening amongst indigenous people and people of color across the country to reclaim ancestral foods and traditions as a way to recognize and combat the trauma and internalized hatred that is a product of the violence of colonization. “So many people of color, especially young folks, are feeling interested in food, and at the same time questioning the whiteness and privilege of mainstream food justice movements,” said Calvo. For Calvo, cooking a pot of beans from scratch, or planting a backyard garden is a “micro-revolutionary act,” that has much larger implications than what’s for dinner. “By calling for the decolonization of what we eat, we are placing food within a larger political context, especially the relationship of food to colonial expansion and capitalist economic relations,” said Calvo. 

Drawing such explicit connections between food and larger ideas of systemic oppression and physical and environmental health seems well-suited for a professor or activist. But is it the role of a chef?  For many in an profit-driven industry commonly referred to as a “pleasure business,” the answer is still no. But for an increasing number of chefs, embracing a greater social and environmental responsibility is the logical next step for their profession. For Sherman, any thirst for recognition he had as a chef was trounced by altruism. “I always knew, this work was way bigger than me, so from the beginning I removed my own ego as a chef from the work I was doing. It wasn’t about making a name for myself,” he said.

Considering the grueling hours and relatively meager pay, professional cooks typically gravitate towards the work for one of two reasons: economic necessity or culinary passion. For Sherman, his motivation started as the former and grew into the latter. Sherman was born, and spent most of his formative years on Pine Ridge, where he grew up hunting, fishing, picking chokecherries and cooking for his sister while his Mother went to school while working two jobs. As soon as Sherman turned 13 he got his first restaurant gig, and worked kitchen jobs at tourist restaurants in South Dakota’s Black Hills throughout the rest of high school and college. 

After graduation, Sherman moved to the Twin Cities, and worked his way through various local kitchens for several years. In the early aughts he found himself in Mexico, developing a restaurant concept in the beach town San Poncho. It was there where Sherman had his realization. “I had the idea to do an all Lakota cookbook, to really get in there and understand it all. Then it just shot me on this path, I realized quickly there was very little information out there and not a lot of people doing much with indigenous foods.” From that point Sherman began his decade-long research journey. He read books like the Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden, studied indigenous agriculture and food identification methods, traced old trade routes and migration patterns, and read about hunting, fishing and preservation techniques. “I put myself in a box,” explained Sherman of his research process. “If I were here 300 years ago what would I be able to make with all these foods in front of me?”

This past December, I had the chance to taste some of Sherman’s creations at the Maisdoo Giizisoons or “Feast Of The Little Spirit Moon,” a fundraising event for Honor The Earth, an Anishinaabe environmental organization led by activist Winona LaDuke of The White Earth Land Recovery Project. The meal was served family style, and the centerpieces of the table were cedar-braised bison with cranberry, puffed amaranth and crunchy turnips, and smoked duck with wild rice, roasted apple and greens. Side dishes included a porridge made of hominy and flavored with dandelion, honey and sunflower roasted sunchokes, sticky maple and sage roasted squash and crunchy grilled corn cakes with Woojapi. For dessert, a wild rice sorbet speckled with bits of the crispy grain and garnished with dehydrated apple and blueberry, a technique that concentrates the natural sugars in the fruit without adding sweetener. 

While no single dish had the salt, fat, sweet punch typical of modern restaurant food, each dish worked in a greater-than-the-sum-of-their-parts harmony. Nutty, fruity, herbaceous, smoky and rich while still light, the lingering savoriness epitomized the famous saying among chefs that, “what grows together, goes together.” Not only was every ingredient in season or naturally preserved from a previous one, every plant and animal on the plate could be found within a few miles of each other. “We think of a lot of the plates that we design as micro-regional compositions,” said Sherman. “A lot of the stuff you could find walking around a half-mile radius in a certain area. So a dish might have walleye, cattail [a starchy marsh plant], watercress, blueberries and sunchokes. You can find all of that just along the lakeshore in northern Minnesota,” he said. 

While Sherman showcased what Minnesota’s landscape had to offer gastronomically, LaDuke, speaking before the dinner, emphasized that the same landscape is under threat of resource extraction. Currently, Canadian energy company Enbridge is attempting to build the “Sandpiper” pipeline, which would bring fracked oil from North Dakota across northern Minnesota to Superior, Wisconsin [Ed. Note: This past September Enbridge withdrew it's application for the Sandpiper pipeline. Instead, they bought a 1.5 billion dollar stake in the Dakota Access Pipeline]. In the process, some of the largest wild rice beds in the world would be destroyed. As it is, Enbridge has six pipelines that carry polluting, carbon intensive tar-sands oil across northern Minnesota from Alberta, Canada while oil drilling, coal mining and natural gas fracking have poisoned the air, water and food of First Nations’ communities, rendering much of the land unsuitable for human life.

It would seem that now, more than ever, there is a need for indigenous wisdom and its holistic, spiritual relationship to ecosystems and human health. Last November, Sherman attended the Terra Madra festival in Northeastern India, an international gathering of indigenous peoples centered around sustainable food systems, where Sherman found a global kinship. “[I saw] people who really know their location and place, and who have this real spiritual connection to the food, plant and animal life. They understood that the land should be able to regrow and regenerate naturally,” he said. 

Sherman says that the reception his food and philosophy has received on reservations and in other Indigenous communities has been overwhelmingly positive, especially from elders. “[The elders] have seen so many health ailments in communities, and they can remember how their grandparents were living. They had this close relationship with the food and the outdoors, they knew what to pick and how to pick it and preserve it,” says Sherman. 

Still, it’s difficult to escape the fact that commodity foods have been commonplace for long enough that they’ve become their own traditions. Frybread is one such food, a leavened, deep-fried dough that can be sweet or savory. It’s a staple of what most would consider contemporary Native American food, but Sherman calls it “an example of everything that’s not good for you.”

Food is inextricably tied to memory, pleasure and pride even if it’s not nutritious, and Sherman is sensitive of this balance. “After a couple decades of oppression –– and fry-bread tastes good because it’s fried food –– instead of people talking about their grandmother’s recipe for some wild berry sauce or something, they started talking about their mother’s fry bread recipe,” said Sherman. Sometimes Sherman is asked about the absence of frybread on his menus, and he makes sure to air on the side of empowerment, rather than shame. “You know, we can argue about the history of frybread and culture and colonization but it doesn’t really do us any good,” he said. “We’re not telling people to eat ‘healthy,’ we’re telling people to eat ‘traditional.’”

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