In this exclusive conversation, Lakota Chef Sean Sherman, often known as The Sioux Chef, takes us on a journey through his mission to reclaim Indigenous foodways in North America. Most recently, Chef Sherman was honored with the prestigious Julia Child Award for his pioneering role as the Founder of Owamni, Minnesota’s inaugural full-service Indigenous restaurant, and and as the visionary behind the groundbreaking non-profit organization, North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems. NATIFS is on a mission to enhance access to healthy Indigenous foods.
Born on the Pine Ridge Lakota Reservation, Chef Sherman’s dedication to safeguarding and celebrating the culinary legacy of his ancestors has not only redefined the national landscape of Indigenous cuisine but is also a pivotal force in championing Indigenous food sovereignty and health equity.
Forbes Contributor: Can you share more about your early life and how it influenced your culinary journey?
Chef Sean Sherman: I was born and raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. My parents and grandparents were also from there. My journey into the culinary world began as I moved to Spearfish, South Dakota, where I worked in local restaurants. This early exposure ignited my passion for cooking, a love that only grew throughout high school and college. I also worked as a field surveyor for the forest service, gaining extensive knowledge of traditional plants, which would later become invaluable in my career.
FC: You wrote the highly-acclaimed cookbook, The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen, and created the world famous restaurant, Owamni. What inspired you to take this mission forward and develop the North American Tribal Indigenous Food Systems (NATIFS) and it’s Indigenous Food Lab?
Chef Sean Sherman: I used to work as an executive chef in Minneapolis, where the farm-to-table philosophy was gaining traction. I noticed that despite this culinary renaissance, the traditional foods of the Indigenous people from these lands were absent from the menu. This was not just a local issue; it was a nationwide gap in our understanding and appreciation of Indigenous cuisine. Most of North America lacked Native American restaurants. The ancestral foodways of Indigenous people had been erased from our culinary landscape, and this propelled me to embark on a mission to identify Indigenous food producers and work with them to cut out all those colonial ingredients like dairy products, flour, processed sugar, beef, pork, and chicken, and replace them with true Indigenous foods that we can move back into the diets of the next generation.
FC: Could you tell us more about NATIFS and the critical role it plays in supporting Indigenous food sovereignty?
Chef Sean Sherman: NATIFS plays a significant role in supporting Indigenous food sovereignty by working to build and support an Indigenous infrastructure, creating access to Indigenous foods, and providing Indigenous culinary education. Through the Food Lab, we have a production kitchen and a licensed food packing system to help jumpstart Indigenous producers. For instance, we just finished a pilot project to utilize traditional squash and process it into baby food that we are working to bring to the market. And we also have a classroom where we’re going to be giving Indigenous culinary education. Our culinary education is different from traditional culinary or academic education. It discusses language, history, star knowledge, crafting, medicine, gardening, farming, seed knowledge, plant identification, and soil management. As Indigenous Peoples, we have the blueprint to live sustainably through our foodways. The entire community traditionally worked together to be able to provide in a sustainable way. Everybody touched the food, whether you’re growing, harvesting, planting, tending, foraging, gathering, hunting, fishing, processing, dehydrating, or even teaching the next generation of children to do all that stuff, everybody participated, so this knowledge belongs to all of us. The organization aims to promote economic development, establish food sovereignty, and preserve tribal history and culture across colonial boundaries. We are showing that it is possible to have Indigenous food operations all over the country. You should be able to find food that represents the Indigenous Peoples from that land if you’re in Boston or any other U.S. city. At the Food Lab, our two main goals are creating access to healthy Indigenous foods and creating access to Indigenous culinary education to make this a reality.
FC: Could you explain more about how embracing Indigenous foods and food sovereignty helps to address Indigenous health disparities?
Chef Sean Sherman: Many tribal communities have a casino or convenience store, but other than a bison burger, good luck finding anything that has to do with our culture when it comes to the food. You can’t eat healthy out of a convenience store. It is almost impossible to eat healthy from a commodity food program. So, there’s a direct correlation to this huge health epidemic in tribal communities. Some communities can have up to 60% type two diabetes, and this is directly linked to the nutrition that’s available to our people. Poor health statistics are not because our people are inherently unhealthy. It’s largely because colonization targeted our food sovereignty. The more our food sovereignty is restored, the healthier we will be. The colonial diets that were forced upon our ancestors after they were relegated to reservations have had dire health consequences for Native communities. The prevalence of conditions like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer, obesity, and tooth decay can be traced back to these diets. Indigenous foods are not only deeply nutritious but also vital for cultural preservation. By reconnecting with traditional foodways, we strive to improve health.
FC: Could you tell us more about some of the initiatives in the works at NATIFS and its Indigenous Food Lab?
Chef Sean Sherman: We want to help establish more Indigenous food operations. Currently, we are working towards an Indigenous food hub in Bozeman, Montana. We are looking at Anchorage, South Dakota, and other cities as well. Maybe it’s a restaurant. Maybe it’s a catering operation. Maybe it’s more traditional food events in partnership with local tribes. We just want to be a support system for Indigenous Peoples who want to work together to revitalize our food ways, to create options for healthy Indigenous foods. We want to help spotlight Indigenous food producers and push resources towards them to grow their operations, which will get more Indigenous foods into Indigenous households. Even in our restaurant, Owamni, we are actively searching for more Indigenous food products to add to our menu. For example, we currently source products from the Pima in Arizona, the Dine in the Four Corners area, the Potawatomi in Michigan, and many other Indigenous nations. If done properly, we can do this all over. We can help other people make restaurants, we can support other food growers, and we can support Tribal entrepreneurs. Eventually, we’ll get into online wholesale, so we can be a center point for finding a lot of these bulk ingredients at affordable prices for the average Indigenous family. So that’s our hope.
FC: In what respect do you see the work of NATIFS as a public health response?
Chef Sean Sherman: Maybe one day an Indian Health Service physician will be able to prescribe our traditional foods to their patients. Food is medicine. After eating our own food, you don’t feel sluggish. You feel good. And it’s great for our peoples’ health, especially given the high rates of diabetes and heart disease in Indian Country. encouraging healthier eating habits involves education and connection with the origins of food. Indigenous cuisine provides a foundation for this, emphasizing the nourishing aspects of locally sourced, seasonal, and culturally rich ingredients.
FC: What is the message you want people to take away from your mission and work in restoring indigenous food sovereignty and health?
Chef Sean Sherman: Indigenous foods are the original foods of this continent. They are the embodiment of sustainability, nutrition, and cultural richness. By embracing these foods, we can not only promote health but also preserve our history and culture. My hope is that people will recognize the significance of Indigenous food and join us in this culinary renaissance.