Chef Sean Sherman from South Dakota is pioneering a movement to preserve and promote Native American cuisine traditions of his region, and has in turn become a role model for new generation of chefs who want to learn about an indigenous culinary craft. By Sudipta Dev
Chef Sean Sherman grew up on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. A member of Oglala Lakota tribe, he is a chef in the twin cities of Minneapolis and St Paul in Minnesota. He has a business called the Sioux Chef and his focus is on Dakota and Ojibwe food which are the two main groups of the region. “We do all pre-contact food – removing all European influences and using what was there before the pre-reservation days – wild foods from the region, a lot of agricultural foods that were produced before the Europeans came. We have bounties like wild rice and maple. Lots of animals around our region. We do not use beef, pork or chicken, only animals that were there before like venison, rabbit, turkey, bison, duck. And of course different kinds of fish,” says Chef Sherman. Most innovation is in terms of presentation. Interestingly most of the food is plant based – it is mostly vegan.
Modern dishes are made with traditional food products and ingredients, using indigenous food products and vegetation. “We do it in a modern sense. We have a catering business and do a lot of food for groups, events and parties. We also have a food truck in partnership with a native American urban group,” states the chef, adding that they do not serve beef, chicken, dairy, wheat flour, sugar or processed food. “Only fresh and healthy food is served as we want people to think about traditional foods and the health facts associated with it,” he says, pointing out that there is a lot of fun being a pioneer in this business. “We are getting a lot of followers and people are getting the understanding of businesses like these ones,” he adds.
Chef Sherman started working in restaurants since he was 13 years old, and continued to do so all through his high school, college and after college years. He moved to the city in the late 90s and became a chef. Originally he wanted to go to a school of art but realised that he could create art with food. “I studied many kinds of cuisine ranging from Ethiopian, Japanese, French, South American, Mexican. I always spent a lot of time reading and studying about the native American food culture and realised that not many people knew about it. I had to study and learn about the wild food – forging and wild food gathering. I read a lot about ethnobotany and learnt which plants were there before the arrival of the Europeans,” he mentions.
He contacted elders in the community to know what Native American food system used to be, how it can be applied in modern state with new businesses. “Economically it could help indigenous food producers which will help in bringing money back into the community. Our business models can be used as a job skills training ground for youth in our region who can learn how to cook indigenous food. It will give them pride about the culture and the foods that were there before,” opines Chef Sherman. Pointing out that there are many health benefits of these food traditions, he states that before Europeans came and people were living on indigenous diets there were no health issues like tooth decay, heart diseases and Type 2 diabetes. “All the diseases that are common today, is primarily because of bad food choices,” he asserts.
He acknowledges with humility, “All the work that I am doing is way bigger than myself. This information I want to share and reach a large group of people. This can stretch out to all the indigenous communities across the world, even if the food systems have been lost it can be brought back. It is kind of taking the first steps and setting the correct path for our indigenous cultures.” Originally he was going to open a restaurant but realised there is a better way to reach people. “Now we are working on a non-profit organisation and hope to build an indigenous culinary school in Minnesota. That is our future goal,” says the chef. He wants to train youngsters in all the foundations of food systems, that is indigenous agriculture, including soil management, land management, etc; along with forging, ethnobotany, gathering, how to harvest. There is also the medicinal side of it, along with a history to understand and go forward with it.
Preserving the past
Documentation is rare in most instances as tribes were wiped out, and languages lost. He believes that people are making bad choices in food because it is cheaper and easier to buy junk food than grow a garden or preserve food or use traditional methods of cooking. “Now I see a big movement in – people want to bring food systems back and a lot of positive energy moving forward. People are really getting interested in Native American foods. My focus is on my exact region but it has opened my mind to what is happening in whole of North America. I feel a lot of the work I am doing applies to all over the world in different regions,” says the chef.
The produce of the region includes many varieties of corns and beans. There is wild rice, which has been an important staple for people of the region for centuries. Maple sugar is used for sweetening drinks and seasoning food. Wild fruits/ tubor (onions/ garlic, turnips, ginger), wild moss, wild greens, plants that grow in water. “Animals are the easy part as they are still there, like bison and rabbit. The seasons are short so the trick is to gather things and use them throughout the year,” he mentions.
It is important to have role models to take this movement forward. The culinary school will go a long way in encouraging the younger generation to learn and take the Native American food traditions forward.