Sean Sherman: The Sioux Chef

 ~Mary Burrows


As part of Crazy Horse Memorial's Native American

Educational and Cultural Center's(R) summer Talking

Circle series, on 16 August 2018, Chef Sean Sherman,

Oglala Lakota from Pine Ridge, South Dakota, and

now Minneapolis, Minnesota, whose culinary focus is

Indigenous Food Systems, presented his vision for the

future as it involves Humanity's quest for food.


Sherman was born on Pine Ridge Reservation and recalls that, when he was a child, his grandparents had a cabin in the Needles area of Custer State Park, Black Hills of South Dakota, where he spent a lot of time. Life at the cabin was very primitive: no electricity and no running water. He remarked on the comparison to what qualifies as a cabin today: a sometimes luxurious dwelling in the woods.


He spent the first part of his life living on his grandparents' ranch near Batesland, SD; a life he described as free and almost wild, rarely going to town. When his parents split, his mother moved Sean and his sister with her to Spearfish, SD, where she sought to complete her education. Along with the culture shock, a whole new world was opened to him in the college library, where he explored while his mother studied.


Sherman and his sister were responsible for preparing meals for the family because their mother worked two jobs in addition to going to school. At age 13, he got a job in a local restaurant, where he bussed, washed, and prepped. The following summer, he became the youngest member on the staff at Sylvan Lake Resort, in Custer State Park at one trail head to Black Elk Peak, where his hard work soon earned him a spot on the line. The innovative nature of the menu led him to realize how much he loved cooking and food.


At the age of 18, he worked as a Forest Surveyor. His duty was to identify all wild growing plants in the Northern Black Hills by both their common and Latin names. He also documented plant history and culinary and medicinal uses. He instinctively seemed to know their value as edibles...a treasure growing under his feet.


As an ambitious 20-something, Sherman moved to Minneapolis and began the corporate climb to executive chef. At age 29, he was burned out and his marriage was tenuous. In an effort to regain his equilibrium, they moved to Mexico.


There, in the remote jungle of the Sierra Madre, among the Huicholes: a culture largely untouched by European influence until the late 19th Century, Sean discovered an abundant Native food way “crafted from tradition, cooked with care.” He marveled at bananas, coconuts, and mangoes free for the picking, and unparalleled fishing from tourist-free beaches. Sherman was fascinated by how alike the culture was with his own. The Huichol practiced ceremonies that evoked memories of his early spiritual influences.


While consulting with a local restaurant that wanted to re-vamp its menu to an extremely local food focus, Sean experienced “an epiphany” wherein he yearned to know about his own food heritage, after seeing how the Huicholes held on to two important aspects of their pre-contact culture: their beautiful, beaded artwork and their food.


“I tasted how food weaves people together, connects families through generations, is a life force of identity and social structure. After seeing how the Huicholes held on to so much of their pre-European culture through artwork and food, I recognized that I wanted to know my own food heritage. What did my ancestors eat before the Europeans arrived on our lands? I saw North America as a whole, with vast and varied landscapes, ancient migrations of people and agriculture whose methods and techniques spread northward with the corn cultures. I saw the deep connections to nature, to the entire ecosystems of the indigenous groups. I yearned to understand all of the plants and all of their purposes. No longer did I see 'weeds,' but food and medicine. I began to appreciate the purpose of everything in our natural world, to respect the plants and animals, sources of sustenance.”


Following his time in Mexico, Sherman spent time in Red Lodge, Montana; cooking, enjoying the outdoors, reading, gardening, foraging, and planning. In 2014, he was back in Minneapolis and realizing his vision. In August, on a leap of faith, he left his day job and founded The Sioux Chef, determined to focus his energies on Indigenous cuisine. By the end of September, he was hosting what he calls “Pop-up Dinners” that included Native music, poetry, storytelling, and cuisine. He was also teaching, lecturing, and building a team.


“The Sioux Chef is a mission-driven enterprise of Indigenous team members. It includes a full-service catering company, the Tatanka Food Truck, and a restaurant.” (The food truck itself has since been sold to a local Tribe, but the name remains with Sean.) Sherman has shared his message world-wide and has found many like-minded individuals in elders, chefs, health professionals, and food advocates. During a conference in 2015, 600 Indigenous delegates recognized the importance of their work in mapping their own individual food systems throughout the world. His cookbook, The Sioux Chef's Indigenous Kitchen, (2017, University of Minnesota Press), is the 2018 recipient of the James Beard Award for Best American Cookbook. It was voted one of the best cookbooks of 2017 by NPR, The Village Voice, and others.


All oppressed and exploited communities in the world experience bad after effects relating to their food ways. Colonialism and Manifest Destiny destroyed the Native food ways in a deliberate act of war, an institutional destruction. The introduction of cattle destroyed the Timpsula, wild turnip...a staple of Plains diets, for example. With the discovery of gold, the land was overrun and homesteaded, thereby destroying a whole way of life that had been a good steward of the land.


Children were forcibly removed from their parents by the government, and “thousands of years of generational knowledge was interrupted.” Natives were forced to live off the largess of the federal government by virtue of what is known as “commods:” commodity foods provided to the poor and elderly. These were basically farm subsidies where growers were paid for excess crops. The commodities are usually starchy, high glycemic-index, nutrition-deficient processed foods. But when one is poor, one does what one can. They were also forced to eat government foods at school. Sean is thankful that they were at least able to hunt while they lived at Batesland. “Indian Tacos are a sham!” he exclaimed. “There are lots of things better than fry bread!” Natives were displaced and forced on to reservations, thereby losing control of their food. But they did what they could to survive.


Only Indigenous ingredients are on the menu at The Sioux Chef. Sean often receives calls from growers with foods for him. He purchases first from Indigenous growers, like Wozupi, a Mdwewakanton-Dakota farm that cultivates organic vegetables and an heirloom orchard in Price Lake, MN, followed by local, organic growers. “It is not 1491, but we use our knowledge to see food everywhere and utilize some of the old ways.” He spoke of real corn cakes that taste of a time when the people were healthy and strong, vowing that “we can stand up to the foods that have destroyed our health.” Sherman went on to describe how the tasting of the old food ways evokes waves of memories from Elders in every community.


“There is artistry on the plates,” said Sherman, “but the food is really healthy!” He serves nothing that was not here prior to European influence. No chicken, beef, or pork, for example, or dairy or European grains. All fish served comes from the Red Lake Nation Fisheries in Minnesota, where the pristine waters are sustainably fished. There is extreme diversity among Indigenous peoples, hence the diversity in their food ways in this hemisphere alone. Sherman laments the lack of Native American restaurants and encourages all to learn about our regional indigenous foods.


Sherman creates specialized menus in various regions, with the goal of connecting with Nature. He seeks to learn the plants of a given region. “Weed is a lazy term,” Sean said. “It just means that you don't know what it is. Earth gives us so much, if you listen to her. Live on only plants and animals from your area.”


He spoke of growing methods, such as the Three-Sisters (corn culture) mound of corn, beans, and squash; and the raised beds of ancient Tenochtitlan (Mexico City) that kept the whole city fed. The Zuni created a waffle system for collecting water. He also spoke of preservation. Buffalo Bird Woman, a Hidatsa, is famous for her garden and for her storage and food preservation methods described in the book about her. Sean also mentioned cooking with wood ash, particularly corn, and how that makes the nutrients more bio-available to the human system. How did the ancients know these things??


Changing from a European-influence diet to a more localized diet will do much to combat obesity and other serious health issues. Sherman mentioned the Seed Savers Exchange, where he found a few local seed stocks that he distributed to others in order to return the plants to the culture. Additionally, The Dream of Wild Health in Hugo, MN, maintains an enormous heirloom seed collection.


“Why isn't the indigenous diet all the rage today?” Sherman asked. He emphasized the benefits of locally-grown, totally seasonal, and extremely healthy. He lauds it as the diet that connects us all to Nature and to each other.


The model for all work at The Sioux Chef is known as Native American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems (NaTIFS), a non-profit founded by Sherman. Guiding principles are: Remove colonized thought; Reconnect spiritually, mentally, and physically with the Natural world; Understand and build Indigenous foundations; and Regain, retain, share, and practice knowledge.


Adjunct to NaTIFS, Sherman has created a 501c3, the Indigenous Food Lab, a lively, Indigenous environment where people can come to learn. He describes the lab as “Super unique!” It is a place where individuals grow, learn, and document what they gain from such education to showcase the diversity in Native American indigenous foods. Sean gets excited about food! He spoke of seasonal foods like spruce tips, fiddle-head fern, juniper berries, sage, chokecherries. On the way to Crazy Horse, he stopped beside the road to fill his coolers full of chokecherries free for the picking. They would make the journey home with him and be utilized and preserved at The Sioux Chef.


He spoke of processing foods with such ingredients as agave, maple syrup, and honey. Sap is also available from trees other than maple, including the birch. He sees no reason why there shouldn't be Native American restaurants everywhere. Sherman has designed a curriculum for kids, hoping to inspire youth in the many aspects of indigenous food.


The mission of the Indigenous Food Lab is focused on Indigenous Food Ways, Education, and Food Access. The goal is to create an urban indigenous food hub, consisting of an Indigenous restaurant and educational and training center designed to be a place to work, learn, research, and share the knowledge and skills that surround Indigenous Food Systems.


The subsequent long-term goal of NaTIFS is to help Tribal communities develop their own regionally and culturally appropriate Tribal food businesses and community gardens, focusing on strengthening communities through indigenous food knowledge and access. Such a goal would encompass many aspects of indigenous plant usage production, including growing, harvesting, transporting, preserving, storing, and cooking on the changing tide of Food Ways. “I can feel the movement!” exclaimed Sean.