The Sioux Chef is Reclaiming North America’s Indigenous Cuisine

Sean Sherman, co-author of a new cookbook and co-founder of The Sioux Chef, explains why original North American foods and Native foodways are vital to creating a healthy and sustainable future.


Although hamburgers, pizza, and Coca-Cola are among the foods most often identified as “American” cuisine, the truth is that over-sugared, over-salted, and fat-laden processed fare does not represent the true American diet. The original American cuisine arose from the vibrant and diverse indigenous cultures that thrived across the North American continent for thousands of years before colonization.

European colonists disrupted the indigenous cultures and their foodways—introducing white flour, sugar, dairy, and fat and pushing them away from traditions that honored elders, shared wisdom, and operated in tune with nature.

Old-Fashioned Cornmeal Mush with Poached Eggs. (Photo by Mette Nielsen.)

Old-Fashioned Cornmeal Mush with Poached Eggs. (Photo by Mette Nielsen.)

The impact of the colonial diet on natives of the Americas—and also New Zealand, Australia, Southeast Asia, India, and Africa—cannot be denied. Consider the health crises caused by obesity, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and tooth decay. None of these conditions existed prior to colonization. Given the massive negative impacts of the colonizers’ diets, we can no longer ignore the culinary backbone of this massive continent.

Aware of this urgency, indigenous communities throughout North and South America are in the process of reclaiming their language, arts, seeds, knowledge, and cuisine. Those of us committed to the indigenous food movement are tapping into the wisdom of our ancestors—and using today’s technology to research and recover much of what was lost or destroyed. By sharing our research, as well as our elders’ wisdom, we are working together to bring something larger than any one of us to the plate. This is not a revolution or reclamation; it is an indigenous evolution.

Sean Sherman and Beth Dooley (Photo credit: Nancy Bundt)

Sean Sherman and Beth Dooley (Photo credit: Nancy Bundt)

My commitment to this work resulted in the 2014 opening of The Sioux Chef, an indigenous enterprise based in Minneapolis. At The Sioux Chef, a team of chefs, ethnobotanists, food preservationists, adventurers, foragers, caterers, artists, musicians, and food lovers—who are also Anishinaabe, Mdewakanton Dakota, Navajo, Northern Cheyenne, Oglala Lakota, and Wahpeton-Sisseton Dakota—does research, education on our original food systems, nutritional literacy, entrepreneurship workshops, and other capacity-building through the new non-profit the North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems (NāTIFs). This is in addition to our catering company, the Tatanka Truck, which we recently sold, and the restaurant that we are in development to open through the Minneapolis Parks Board in 2019 on the Mississippi.

Over the last 18 months, I have worked with author Beth Dooley to document our enterprise’s work in our first cookbook, The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen, which we are celebrating with a book launch party tonight in Minneapolis.

The book demonstrates that using only regional indigenous ingredients—and cutting out colonial foods completely—equips us to live and eat the way we want to today, regardless of our backgrounds. It’s all-natural, local, seasonal, gluten- and dairy-free, and it is delicious. Among the recipes we’ve included in the book are Three Sisters Summertime Salad with Smoked Trout, Braised Sunflowers, Sage and Rose-Hip Roasted Duck, Bison Tartare, and many more.

Becoming Aware of a Disconnect

The seeds of my mission to revive indigenous foodways were planted many years ago. I grew up on Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, where both my parents were born and raised, and I only slowly realized I knew little to nothing of my own heritage and the foods of the Oglala Lakota.

Sean Sherman feeding corn to a bison. (Photo credit: Brian Yazzie)

My grandparents were among the first generation to be systematically assimilated to “American” culture—I heard stories of children kidnapped and sent to boarding schools, their hair cut, their language forbidden. How I wish I had been taught more than the handful of recipes I learned as a child—wasna (dried meat and berries), taniga (tripe soup), bapa (bison jerky), and wojape (chokecherry sauce).

When I was 13 years old, I began my working in professional kitchens, and by my early 20s, I had become an executive chef. I mastered the art of Italian, French, and Spanish cuisines until, at the height of my career, I knew I wanted to understand why there were so few Native American restaurants across the U.S.

Menu for indigenous dinnerThe answer is simple. Colonialism and imperialism decimated indigenous cultures, eradicated indigenous knowledge, and destroyed natural resources. The Europeans stole the land indigenous people used for hunting, foraging, and farming. By removing the people from their foods and replacing their original, healthy diets, the colonists destroyed the lives of the people who had thrived for millennia. Such practices have had a devastating effect on our people and on the earth.

Spreading Indigenous Food Appreciation Far and Wide

As part of The Sioux Chef, I work with my partner Dana Thompson and a team of 10 chefs, plus a number of indigenous culinary partners across Indian country. Our vision is to create more than a restaurant—it will be a place where we can share our skills, knowledge, and passion, with the goal of spreading our work across the whole of North America. To help us achieve these ends, our new NāTIFS non-profit will focus primarily on indigenous food education and access. Through NāTIFS, we have created a research-and-development team called the “Indigenous Food Lab” to further our own research, document our work, and help us become better educators.

We are also building a replicable model that will place an Indigenous Food Hub in larger urban areas. The hubs will house a regionally unique indigenous restaurant that will not only make the indigenous foods available to the public, but also serve as a training center to educate students in the preparation, cooking, and preservation of indigenous foods. They will also house education centers that offer classes based on the many curriculums we have been developing to help people identify, understand, and apply the knowledge of indigenous food systems.

Smoked Whitefish and White Bean Spread. (Photo by Sean Sherman.)

Smoked Whitefish and White Bean Spread. (Photo by Sean Sherman.)

Over the long term, our vision is to work with the tribal communities surrounding the food hubs to open indigenous food satellites, regionally and culturally unique food businesses that can cater and make indigenous foods accessible to the areas most in need of healthy foods. We hope to create a network of healthy indigenous food businesses all across this country we call Turtle Island to showcase the truly unique flavors of our cultures.

Awakening People to the Lessons of the Past

As my team and I conduct research and come to understand the components of an indigenous food system that includes farming through permaculture, hunting and fishing, foraging for wild foods, preservation through canning, producing salt/fat/sugar, and studying ethno-oceanography, we can both rebuild our cultures and create a food system that showcases and solidifies our true identities. We will realize how unique and special our homelands are and become the answers to our ancestors’ prayers.

Over the past few years, we at The Sioux Chef have connected with a growing network of indigenous chefs throughout the country, which compels me to emphasize that this work is not about me. The book is not ego-driven, about being a chef, or about creativity; it’s about bringing awareness to the vast diversity of all of indigenous cultures throughout the world. It’s about the plants, animals, and techniques that truly define the tastes and histories of the places we were raised.

Sean Sherman (photo credit: Dana Thompson)

Sean Sherman (photo credit: Dana Thompson)

This book is the first step in unraveling colonialism so that we can see the original North American foods and realize their potential. It’s critically important for indigenous communities to produce and eat their traditional foods and for non-native peoples to understand the role they can play in bringing us all together to create a healthy sustainable future.

Through this work spreading knowledge and improving access to indigenous foods, we hope not only to strengthen indigenous cultures but also to awaken people to the lessons of the past and the importance of using them to build a better world for our children and their children. If all goes as planned, the foods of the Americas will never be the same.

Author photo at top by Heidi Ehalt.

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  1. Aleta Weaver
    Thursday, October 19th, 2017
    Wow How can I get a copy of this cookbook? Please open one in Ithaca or Syracuse!!!! Love the idea, as a hippy vegetarian that worked at several restaurants that were structured as cooperatives with memebership/ownership I had a vision of them all across the counrty, and we were able to travel and work and plug in at any restaurant and always feel at home! Love this concept, with decolonized food, which could be supplied by locals and Community Supported Agriculture from each region! XXOO More power to you!
  2. Billy little
    Thursday, October 19th, 2017
    Exceptional
  3. Friday, October 20th, 2017
    I am an addiction psychiatrist specializing in food addiction obesity and love your play on sous and Sioux. Since Indigenous people and two other ethnic groups have the highest rates of obesity and obesity-related diseases, l'd like a copy of your cookbook and hope we can work together.
  4. Gloria Klomsten
    Friday, October 20th, 2017
    I do volunteer work with the Lakota on the Pine Ridge Reservation and lobe It! It would be great if I could somehow incorporate this knowledge with groups out there or is that already being done?
  5. Lori Rosenblatt
    Friday, October 20th, 2017
    So impressed with this article. I am a dietitian (retiring in 2weeks)/foodie; having worked with low income populations for the past 30+ years. My passion has been to get people away from the super processed, artificial foods and actually cook good tasting healthy foods. Love learning & teaching a variety of ethnic cooking with locally grown foods. Do you have any restaurants in the greater Boston, MA area? Should be. Would love to know more. Best wishes for ongoing success.
  6. Nicki Brandt
    Friday, October 20th, 2017
    This is such an awesome thing you are doing. I am going to buy a book when available. Sending good vibes for your overwhelming success!
  7. Friday, October 20th, 2017
    Hello there, I’m a student at a Indian school and I’m trying to open some of our peoples eyes, as they can only think of one way to have a fundraiser and that is to sell the traditional food they know of as “Indian tacos” and when I asked why do you think that Indian tacos are traditional food they said it’s what I grew up on, then I said why is this the only food we know how to make, if you can get back to me that would help me save our young children thanks
  8. Walter Meyers
    Saturday, October 21st, 2017
    This warms my heart to read this indigenous awakening to a proper diet... I support your efforts 100%!! Thank God for the wisdom you have collected!!!
  9. Mariel Dunn
    Saturday, October 21st, 2017
    Hello! Thank you so much for following this vision. I, too, am on a personal/communal mission to transform relationships to foods. I would love to be connected to your efforts and help out in some way here in Portland, OR. Please let me know of any opportunities here!
  10. Theresa Rose
    Sunday, October 22nd, 2017
    Please contact me I am starting a business in Traverse City Michigan and want to explore a collaboration between your business model and mine, they're very similar and I would like to learn more. I want to include indigenous farmers at my market and am looking for a cafe providers.
    Thank you, Theresa 810 772 8154
  11. Diana Bayer
    Monday, October 23rd, 2017
    WOW! This article really puts into perspective the devastating effects of “civilizing” a people. I became a Chef late in life but have always loved learning about food, particularly ethnic food. I can’t wait to buy the cookbook.
  12. kelly swette
    Tuesday, October 24th, 2017
    This is a wonderful historical and cultural endeavor, I hope you spread the word. I for one, look forward to reading the book.
  13. Jackie
    Thursday, October 26th, 2017
    My kids and I were just talking last night about what people from other countries consider American food. We came up with hamburgers and french fries. You are onto something! I'm curious to learn more about our American cuisine roots!
  14. Monday, October 30th, 2017
    great news - I'd like to stay informed on your progress, and know if there's a native -food restaurant in San Francisco
  15. Kristi
    Thursday, November 9th, 2017
    This looks fantastic. Thank you for sharing this gift of food and history with us!