The Sioux Chef Wants to Bring Pre-Colonial Cuisine to the People

Food Justice, Good Food Vanguard, Nutrition

sioux-chef-trio-cookingChef Sean Sherman grew up Ogallala Sioux on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. After working his way up through a number of kitchens in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Sherman decided he needed to strike out on his own. In April, he launched his event catering business as “The Sioux Chef.” And he’s working on a restaurant of the same name.

Sherman offers his customers “pre-colonization” cuisine, a term used by Chef Nephi Craig, who founded the Native American Culinary Association, and writes at the blog Decolonial Food for Thought. With media coverage from sources like NPR and Al Jazeera, Sherman’s unusual approach is earning him accolades and bringing in the customers. But getting here hasn’t been easy.

“I quickly learned that there wasn’t much information out there, so I had to devise my own learning system,” says Sherman. First, he needed to expand his understanding of wild foods and to do that he needed to comprehend ethnobotany. “The animals are easy. Anybody can figure out what animals are from the region. The bigger study was understanding which plants were used,” he recalls.IMG_0114

Sherman took a deep dive into oral histories with members his tribe, used his own recollections growing up on Pine Ridge, and poured over dusty first contact accounts written from the European perspective.

“I found that it boiled down what was in Native American food pantries at the time. That started me to understand not only wild foods–but how foods are farmed and how they were set up to last long winters,” he says.

Come spring, tribes across the Great Plains would break the monotony of what they ate during the winter by foraging wide for wild foods like chokecherries and blueberries. Throughout the summer they would hunt, fish, collect, smoke, and dry foods to last them through wintertime. Otherwise, it was a three months of cold corn mush.

Today, Sherman prepares wild game – like buffalo, turkey and rabbit – with ingredients like cedar and juniper berries. He cooks with sweet potatoes, wild rice, and squash, and he makes stock and teas from things like pine needles, cedar, and maple.

Because Sherman’s take on pre-colonization cuisine is free of all processed foods, it’s also naturally gluten-free. It also doesn’t include dairy, making many of his offerings vegan.

It’s easy to fusion-ize things and make wild rice risotto, but I wanted to go old-school first,” Sherman says.

While pre-colonization cuisine takes inspiration from the past, it also has direct parallels to the current local food movement. Sherman works with local growers of duck, geese, and quail. He also utilizes the Red Lake Reservation and their fishery to secure fresh walleye, northern pike, and perch. He says the next step is to source completely from Native American producers.

“It would ideal for me to buy all my buffalo from native ranchers. I already source wild rice and heirloom variety of beans from native growers. Trying to keep these food dollars in native communities is critical,” he says.IMG_1312

Like on many American Indian reservations, life is often hard for residents of Pine Ridge. Unemployment is high and poverty is widespread. But there are some food producers there have been successful. Lakota Foods is running a profitable popcorn business and the Inter Tribal Buffalo Council is helping coordinate bison herds to give tribes better marketing and bargaining power.

Sherman hopes that exposing more people to Lakota culture through food might ultimately help pave a road out of poverty for his fellow tribe members.

“If my restaurant idea takes off and is successful, that would be a great starting space. It would be great to see one in Rapid City or elsewhere in South Dakota,” he says.

Sherman’s ultimate goal is to revive lost Native American food culture. American Indians were forced to adopt a western diet when the federal government ordered them onto the reservations, and many of the old foods and practices have since disappeared.

“Food really is cultural identity,” he says. “To have a culture that had much of its food history pushed away was a terrible thing.”

In the meantime the Western Diet has wreaked havoc on the health of Native Americans. Sixteen percent of Native Americans suffer from Type II diabetes, for instance. That’s higher than any other ethnic group in the nation. “The impact is pretty obvious across the board. I see it on many reservations. It’s the double hit of adopting a Western diet high in fat, salt and sugar, and then the lack of exercise. We used to hand grind corn for flour in a hollowed out log.”

While cooking pre-colonization food has found Sherman success in the culinary world, he sees plenty of room for others to share the space.

“I want to be clear, I’m not trying to say that what I’m doing is the whole of Native American food. I’m just trying to get to a bigger knowledge past frybread,” Sherman explains. “I’m a student with this food; I’m open to any suggestions or ideas I haven’t heard.”

 

Photos, from top: Chef Sean Sherman at work, Sumac and white pine stock, wild rice flatbread with wasna (dried buffalo, berries, fat), wojapi (chokecherry sauce), and wild purslane.

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  1. Esther Attean
    Tuesday, December 9th, 2014
    Do you also strive to ensure that you use food that has not been genetically modified or grown/raised without pesticides?
  2. June Moore
    Tuesday, December 9th, 2014
    I have enjoyed reading your idea I am sure you will be successful . I shall be putting out energy so that it will happen and do some good for you and your people. Sometimes we have to take a step to help ourselves in order to help others. Good luck I would like to know how you get on. I live in England but I would have been interested to try some of your foods.
  3. Brian k wagner
    Tuesday, December 9th, 2014
    Will you publish a cook book? You have me on the hook..because your idea about your food sounds so good. I hope it dose take off
  4. Tuesday, December 9th, 2014
    I personally would love to try everything at this restaurant. I am a huge proponent for local foods and awareness of food history. Seeing "frybread" at Pow-Wows has always confused me since not one single major ingredient of festival frybread is a native North American food- wheat, beef, lettuce, cheese, all of it was brought over by European conquerors. Even the cumin in the chili powder was brought over. Frybread is literally the food imposed on the natives by their conquerors. Kudos to Sean Sherman and everyone else educating themselves and the public about food history and culture.
  5. Catherine
    Tuesday, December 9th, 2014
    I am so happy Chef Sean Sherman said that he is still open to suggestions.
    If he can find TRUE corn before GMOs made it nearly unrecognizable to the First People's DNA, and the resultant increases in diabetes because of it, that would be wonderful!
    Also, please don't forget the scrapings from the inner bark of the elm tree (slippery elm--pale beige through a light tan is best, not the dark rusty colored powder). The sweet and nutritious gruel made from it has saved many of The People from starvation. Blended with a little honey to form a paste before adding water can be the basis for a pudding-like mixture with dried fruits.
  6. Jackie
    Wednesday, December 10th, 2014
    I want to wish you all the success in the world. You mentioned of a restaurant in Rapid City. That is great but is there a way you may build up the reservation with a tourist draw. Create something with your foods to bring the tourist to you.
    Again all success to you. Keep us posted.
  7. Even
    Wednesday, December 10th, 2014
    That 'fusion' wild rice risotto sounds incredible too. Can someone get to work on getting this man a restaurant already? I'd fly home to Rapid (from China) to try this. Also agree with the above -- this is going to be so successful.
  8. Sonia
    Wednesday, December 10th, 2014
    i have always been deeply interested in learning about the traditional American Native way of life and the food was the hardest to find any information about. I am based in the UK so even finding the most basic of information is hard in this subject, I knew cornbread, bison and fish was involved but that's as far as it got.

    If a cookbook was released, I would definitely be interested in purchasing it.

    I wish Sean all the luck in the world and hope his dreams of opening his own restaurant and helping his people out becomes a reality.
  9. Linda Kramer
    Wednesday, December 10th, 2014
    Prayers for what you strive for.....Black Hills would love this addition!!
  10. Sam
    Wednesday, December 10th, 2014
    Hi I'm a chef at England's leading spa resort and I'd be really interested in looking at your food with regard to possibly introducing audipg to our menu. Email me and let's see what we can do!

    Very best
    Sam
  11. B. Jeanne Hansen
    Wednesday, December 10th, 2014
    I wish you would also do a cook book and list some of your food sources in there so we could shop for the items we need.
  12. Dorthea Rose
    Thursday, December 11th, 2014
    Thank you for your practice of our Sioux history...
  13. Jennifer Sartell
    Friday, December 12th, 2014
    I've always been very interested in cultural foods and foraging for whats around me. This is very exciting. Lots of luck opening a location- hopefully in Rapid! Would love to see a cookbook maybe with foraging tips too!
  14. Margaret
    Friday, December 12th, 2014
    Fantastic. I hope individuals in other tribes follow your lead. The potential is vast. So many foods and culinary traditions have been lost.
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