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A conversation with The Sioux Chef

Sean Sherman on what it means to run a "political" restaurant, and why he won't serve frybread

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Sean Sherman at his restaurant, Owamni, in Minneapolis.

Chef Sean Sherman arrived at Owamni, which received the James Beard Foundation Award for the Best New Restaurant in the country in 2022, dressed in blue jeans, black leather clogs, and a slightly faded T-shirt. It was late September but still warm, especially by Minneapolis standards, so he only needed an unzipped hoodie on top. He kept his long, straight hair tied in two neat braids, parted in the middle. His plaits reached nearly to his waist. His voice was a calm, clear baritone that he used to speak in full, studied paragraphs. It was clear from our conversation that he is practiced at long, expansive conversations, but he showed no evidence of tiring of his subject: to acknowledge and understand the cuisine and foodways of this continent’s Indigenous peoples.

Sherman’s food began receiving national attention with the 2017 publication of The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen, a cookbook that drew inspiration from a time in North America “when the tribes were sovereign over their food systems, maintaining food security through a rich knowledge of the land and its food resources.” The book received a James Beard Foundation Award for Best American Cookbook, and two years later, Sherman also won the James Beard Foundation Leadership Award “for his efforts around the revitalization and awareness of Indigenous food systems in a modern culinary context.”

Decolonialism at Owamni means that the menu includes no ingredients brought to the continent by Europeans. The wine, cider, and beer sold on the menu diverge from pre-Columbian tenets—grapes, apples, and barley came with the colonists—but they are purchased from BIPOC suppliers. The preparation of dishes at Owamni is also not restricted to pre-colonial methods. (“We’re not cooking like it’s 1491,” Sherman says.) In fact, the way the restaurant is organized is decidedly of-the-moment. Owamni’s employees, many of whom are Native American like Sherman (he is Oglala Lakota and spent much of his childhood on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota), are professional and fast, but they don’t bellow oui, chef! as they work.

Owamni was full the night I ate there. Tables book up well in advance, and it took some wrangling by Sherman’s assistant to get me a reservation. The room, which overlooks the Mississippi River and St. Anthony Falls—Owamniyomni, Sherman has explained, is the Dakota name for the falls, and the inspiration for the restaurant’s name—had the crackling energy of a successful restaurant at the peak of its moment.

But there was an additional sensation in the air, a kind of, perhaps, relief among the diners. That emotion, it seemed to me, stemmed not just from the self-affirming act of “getting in” at a hot spot—and I live in Brooklyn, so I know that vibe—but was unique to Owamni and its mode of food. The restaurant reflects much about current interests and concerns over racial and cultural equity among white and well-to-do people, who made up what looked to be the overwhelming majority of that night’s diners. People want their acts of consumption to reflect their politics.

Owamni is a political restaurant, one that allows its patrons to believe they are confirmed anti-racist allies. To eat here is to get to be a good person, at least for a time, because what Sean Sherman is doing is a good thing. “We look at, you know, just showcasing the amazing diversity and flavor profiles of all the different tribes across North America, all the different regions, and really celebrating that and cutting away colonial ingredients,” Sherman said in an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air in 2022. You can be a part of that by eating Sherman’s food, which, if you think in this way, allows you to buy into that celebration, and also implicitly—and at no extra cost beyond the price of a meal—rebuke the crimes of colonialism. This is much easier than attending a protest or writing a letter to your representative in Congress.

This kind of politics is not exclusive to Owamni, nor is it the only reason one might eat there—reviewers have nearly universally praised the food, after all—nor is it necessarily fair to Sherman to view his project in this way. Le Bernardin in New York is a Michelin three-star French restaurant, with a French chef, serving French food, and France, as a nation, is eager to spread its culture, language, and politics around the globe, but particularly in places that were once its colonial possession, if they will allow them. But you would be hard pressed to find anyone trying to understand Eric Ripert’s food primarily as political, although it is every bit as much as Sherman’s.

That idea of the political restaurant, and what it does for people, animated my desire to interview Sherman. I wanted to know how he understood his work politically, because that would inform why he opened Owamni, why he wrote The Sioux Chef prior to that, why he opened a decolonized food truck called the Tatanka Truck before that, and what his plans are for the future—of which he has many. So, the day after my dinner at Owamni, I sat down with Sherman in a small room under the restaurant for a conversation.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Theodore Ross: What does “decolonized food” mean to you?

Sean Sherman: Colonization is just the policy or practice of acquiring full or partial political control over another country, occupying with settlers, exploiting it economically. You can boil that down to just exploitation for profit if you really want to. And we see colonization in many forms happening still today; there’s still Indigenous peoples in Brazil being removed because of the resources that are deemed valuable by outside people. And we see colonization happening in many forms—with education, with food. So for me, and for Owamni, it was understanding American colonization. And particularly because I grew up on Pine Ridge Reservation— I’m enrolled with the Oglala Lakota Sioux tribe—and we were still battling the United States government up until the late 1800s. And we kind of still are, really.

The food at Owamni, such as this smoked bison ribeye, is made only with ingredients found in North America before contact with Europeans.

I started looking backwards in my family history to understand: Why did I not have any education about my own Lakota foods? And why did I not have access to any Lakota foods growing up on Pine Ridge? In the 1970s and ’80s, we had one grocery store to serve a reservation that was the size of Connecticut. And I grew up with the Commodity Food Program, which was a food relief program, and so I grew up with a lot of government canned vegetables, which are packed in sodium, and canned fruits, which are packed in sugars, and lots of carbs, like powdered milk and government cheese, and cereals. It’s a very unhealthy food base. And it really has nothing to do with us as Lakota people. And there’s a lot of tribes out there, not just us, that have that same situation.

So when we’re talking about decolonizing food, it’s really taking a step back away from those policies and practices of colonizing, of exploiting something for money, and taking a look at how can we, as Indigenous communities, start to reclaim our identity through food, start to reclaim our health through food, and start to really understand the importance of reclaiming the knowledge of our ancestors to apply it to now, instead of being held down, assimilated, homogenized, whitewashed.

TR: How does decolonization work at Owamni?

SS: Our values and intentions start with trying to prioritize purchasing from Indigenous producers—first locally, and then nationally. Then our tier goes down to supporting local BIPOC producers. Then just local producers around us. Then we buy organic at the bottom of that whole scale. Mostly we’re trying to purchase what we can from Indigenous food producers and really trying to make recipes and menus that showcase a particular land space and culture.

That’s why we have things like the true wild rice that’s grown here on the lakes in Minnesota. Or using white cedar, or rosehips, blueberries, walleye—all of these are things that you could stand on the side of a lake here in Minnesota and see around you. Because that’s how our pantries were built, in precolonial times.

It’s also really important to stay close to how the seasons work. It’s wild rice season right now, and I just got a call from one of my friends up north who has a big company that sells a lot of native rice up by Duluth. We buy thousands of pounds of his rice, and we’re really proud to be able to do that.

TR: According to the census, there are over 35,000 Native Americans of different tribes living in the Twin Cities. How do they respond to the food at Owamni?

SS: We’ve gotten a lot of praise, a lot of support. People really do have good experiences when they come here. We feel really, really good about that. We’ve seen a lot of different emotions from Indigenous people coming here, because it’s an unusual restaurant. You don’t see this kind of restaurant anywhere else. There should be native restaurants all across the nation. We’re not quite there. Not quite yet. But the restaurant, for me, it’s a model of what we’re trying to build. I see the restaurant as something that creates a lot of cash flow. Restaurants don’t make a lot of money, but they move a lot of money through. We are also able to push a lot of food product through it, and have that power to purchase large amounts of Indigenous food products, to feature them, and really try to tell true stories. I use the restaurant as a tool, basically, for something that we’re trying to do to further Indigenous knowledge, further Indigenous food access, and showcase what’s possible.

TR: Another chef who lives here in the Twin Cities, Yia Vang, is Hmong American, and he is also a James Beard Award winner. I know that occasionally online, he’ll get criticism from people in the Hmong community saying, Oh, his cuisine, it’s too expensive, or It’s catering to white people, or, well, That’s not Hmong food. Have you had that kind of criticism with what you’re doing?

SS: There’s a lot of opinions out there, and social media can be a beast. So we’ve definitely been targeted. I’ve heard this and that. But really, we do have very accessible food, and we’ve done a lot of food relief. During the pandemic, we were doing 10,000 meals a week at the Indigenous Food Lab and serving only healthy Indigenous foods by cutting out colonial ingredients, removing things that Europeans brought over here, like dairy, wheat flour, cane sugar, beef, pork, and chicken—and just getting healthy food out there to people. We have this food truck where you can get a really low price taco, and you can do the same thing at the Food Lab. We’re working to get food to people that really need it. I’m hoping to do a lot of pantry boxes, just to get food out there to people in need, along with a lot of education on what to do with these foods. Because a lot of people might not know what to do with a pound of dried corn, for example.

TR: Our server last night told us about Owamni’s concept, how the ingredients work, what’s included, what’s not included. But do you still get people who don’t get it and are, say, disappointed that there’s not a beef ribeye on the menu?

SS: We’re not going to win everybody over. And I’m not too worried about that. We have overwhelmingly positive reviews, and we have some very aggressive bad reviews sometimes, too. That’s just going to be a part of it. But like any form of art, you have to be very confident, and you have to be very secure with it. I feel really good about what we’ve created. And I feel very good about what we’re going to create in the future.

TR: And no frybread.

SS: No frybread.

TR: Let’s talk about frybread. I’m a New Yorker. I know what frybread is, but I’ve never had it.

SS: So frybread is just what it sounds like. It’s a flat piece of dough. Depending on where you’re from, there’s different styles and different traditions around how it’s made. But it’s something that became kind of a staple in a lot of tribal communities. If you go to any powwow around the United States, you’re going to find frybread vendors selling frybread tacos—Indian tacos, Navajo tacos, whatever you want to call them.

Sherman created Owamni to celebrate Native American ingredients and foodways. The restaurant is clear about its intentions and values.

This particular recipe, if you look at the history of it, comes from the government. It comes from military forces, after Indigenous peoples are being rounded up and force-marched into areas and given subsidies and given commodities, like bags of flour, bags of salt, bags of sugar, vats of lard. There’s not a lot you can do with those basic ingredients, but people figured out how to utilize them. It was an old military thing to make a very simple unleavened dough and to just throw it in some fat and fry it up. It tastes good, and it’s quick and easy.

But it became something that became really ingrained, an oppression food, and a lot of communities had to survive off it. A lot of families are proud of frybread in their family history, very proud about their grandmother’s frybread recipe, but we chose not to go with it. One piece of food shouldn’t identify every Indigenous community across North America, because it doesn’t have much to do with us as Indigenous people. It’s a product of colonialism.

TR: I think there is an intellectual sensibility to how you present the food, and certainly the way you talk about it. You seem to have a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of Indigenous ingredients and the foodways of the North American continent. Did you ever have any formal education in ethnobotany or Indigenous foodways, in college or elsewhere?

SS: No, not at all. I didn’t grow up around much Indigenous food. It just wasn’t available to us. My grandparents raised some cattle, so we had access to fresh beef, which wasn’t typical for other families in the community. I started hunting at a very young age. I think I got my first shotgun when I was seven years old. I was pretty little. But we had a lot of birds around us, a lot of pheasants, a lot of grouse.

My mom moved us off the reservation right before I started high school. I pretty much immediately started working in restaurants, by the time I was 13, and worked restaurants all through high school and then college. And then as I was starting college, I worked for the U.S. Forest Service in the northern Black Hills in South Dakota. I was a field surveyor, and I had to learn all the plants and the names of all the trees, and how to identify them, how to age them. That’s what I did every day. That skill came in really handy much later in life when I kind of had the epiphany of doing what I do today.

TR: What was the epiphany?

SS: I was working a job for this large national fitness corporation that’s based here in Minnesota. I was overseeing about 85 units across the nation, with their menus, menu development and recipe development, and four different restaurants in Minneapolis, too. I was being pulled in a million directions, not getting paid that much, really, and just being overworked, living this corporate lifestyle that I wasn’t used to at all. So all these factors led to a little bit of a burnout, and I just moved down to Mexico. I ended up in this little tiny town on the west coast in the state of Nayarit, about an hour north of Puerto Vallarta. I was trying to figure out what to do next. The Indigenous people that were there, the Huichol, were always selling cool stuff down by the beach. They had all this amazing beadwork, and I started researching them because I saw a lot of commonalities with their art, with their mythology, with their religion, and what I grew up with. It was very colorful, a lot of animals, a lot of plants that are taken as sacred. It felt very similar to the Lakota values on Pine Ridge.

The more I started researching, the more commonalities I saw. And then I just had this flash, this idea. I had been studying all these foods for so long, and I had been in the culinary world and had been a chef, and I had gotten good reviews in papers, and I had a decent career and a decent background. I could name hundreds of European recipes off the top of my head in European languages. But I realized that I didn’t know anything about my own heritage. I saw exactly what I needed to do. I just saw a pathway out in front of me. I’ve always kind of been on that path a little bit, growing up on the reservation, learning a few things from my grandparents, and then from my parents, and having that job of learning the plants. I always knew that plants were going to be the key. I knew that I could reconnect with my ancestry primarily with plants first, because I knew that my ancestors had a vast knowledge of the world around them, which largely was plant life.

The food techniques and styles used at Owamni are not limited to pre-colonial methods. “We’re not cooking like it’s 1491,” Sherman says.

I feel like the animals are the easy part. Anybody can break down game meat. You can use nose-to-tail on pretty much any animal if you want to. But plants are a whole different kind of situation, because there’s so many out there. And it’s not a part of our education system in the U.S. We don’t learn about plants. I started looking deeper into that relationship with plants. I just wanted to start to learn, from a culinary perspective, how to identify, how to reconnect with these plants, and how to think about how my ancestors would have been utilizing these plants, how they would have been processing and preserving, and what kind of pantry items were they making out of these things. I also had tons of other questions, like, where did we get salts and what kind of fats did we use? How did we get energy? What were our nutritional needs? How were they being met? I had a lot of questions from a culinary perspective.

It was a long journey for me to learn this. What really helped the most was when I started actually doing this work and started being able to travel to different communities to put on some dinners, experiencing firsthand and listening to some of the stories from some elders in different regions, whether it’s Pacific Northwest or the Southwest, listening to all these pieces and seeing this deep connection with these plants and these foods around us. I also talked to a lot of elders in my own community, especially people in my family. They all went through assimilation, through boarding schools, and a lot of them didn’t grow up with Lakota as a first language like my grandparents and their parents did. I started just piecing together a guide of how to understand and decipher Indigenous foods, no matter where we happen to be.

Today, our main focus is North America. But we also see this as a global issue, because there’s Indigenous peoples across the globe that went through a very similar history of colonialism. I was just in Hawaii and in Australia, and there are very similar stories. It’s the same thing in India, in Africa, South America, Central America, the Middle East. There’s Indigenous communities across the globe that still have a lot of knowledge, but we need to start stewarding those knowledge bases and protecting them moving forward.

TR: I read recently that only 13 percent of Native Americans live on a reservation. I think about your childhood, on Pine Ridge in a predominantly Native American environment. But then when you were a teenager, you moved to Spearfish, South Dakota, with your mother, which was, if I understand it correctly, mostly white.

SS: It was a difficult transition, you know, I had a really thick rez accent back then, because I had spent my whole life on the reservation. I just saw a lot of open racism there, which I didn’t experience before. I remember in the gas station, there were pamphlets for the KKK, just a lot of blatant racism. When my mom first moved to Spearfish, she went to Black Hills State University. I was old enough where she wouldn’t get a babysitter for me and my sister. She didn’t have enough money to pay for us both. So I would go to the library, and I would be spending all my time hanging out with her while she was studying, just wandering around the library, learning how to use the Dewey Decimal System, which is a lost art nowadays.

Sherman plans to use his success with Owamni as a base to create and expand a network of nonprofits focused on Indigenous food and culture.

I would get these piles of books on whatever topic I felt like researching and just sit in corners and absorb whatever I felt like absorbing. To me, that connection to education was something that was really special.

TR: Do you feel that, in a way, Owamni is a poke in the chest to that difficulty you experienced in Spearfish, that open racism that you saw?

SS: Yeah. And I also see the insanity of a restaurant like Owamni being so unique. Why don’t we have Native American restaurants in every single city, in every single region? It’s because of the intense racist American history that we went through. It is standing up, utilizing this platform to make a strong statement. Especially with so much of a political divide as there is now, of things just pushing in the wrong direction. Like, this restaurant might not be able to exist in states like Florida right now, where they’re openly wiping away Black and Indigenous history and banning books on those subjects.

TR: I want to ask you about the name “The Sioux Chef.” Given some of these stereotypes about Native Americans, were you ever concerned about using the name?

SS: To date myself, I was using [email protected] and [email protected]—like those were my email handles, right? That’s just what I thought was clever. It was just a play on words. I also knew that the word Sioux was made up anyway. It’s a shortened version of a longer word that’s na-towe-ssi. And it’s part Algonquin and part French. So it’s like two languages coming together trying to describe a third party that they don’t know anything about. And there’s a couple of different theories of what that word means. One is “little vipers,” like, maybe we were jumping out of the grass and biting people. Or the more plausible one meant, “people who speak a different language.” And so the word “Sioux,” some people say it’s derogatory. But, like a lot of terms out there, it’s not what we call ourselves. I don’t call myself Sioux particularly. I did grow up in the Oglala Lakota Sioux Tribe, on Pine Ridge. But we would say we’re Lakota, and we could say we’re Oglala on top of that, right? Because it means specific things.

But I thought it was a funny play on words. It seemed like the right choice at the time.

TR: A lot of the interviews I’ve read with you focus as much on the mission of Owamni, the Indigenous Food Lab, and The Sioux Chef cookbook as they do on the food. And that seems a little unfair. How do you feel about the idea of Owamni as a political restaurant and a political venture?

SS: I think that I have this responsibility to utilize this voice correctly. Europe is so good about regional cuisine, no matter where you go, and people embrace that. We should be really focused on the regional foods of North America. And we can’t erase the Indigenous story line behind all that, even if it’s something shameful for the United States government to talk about. It should be embraced. It’s really important to talk about these hardships that we went through and still go through as Indigenous peoples—to talk about assimilation, to talk about genocide, to talk about all these things that are true parts of American history. There’s a lot that is still inhibiting us as Indigenous peoples to be Indigenous in today’s world.

So just making a statement of showcasing a restaurant that pushes back against European contributions to the foods themselves, and really focusing on what’s possible moving forward is a statement on its own. It’s almost more powerful what’s not on the menu [than] what is on the menu, when it comes down to it. It is a proof of concept that this can be done, that we can do this, that we can have a Native American restaurant with a lot of intention, with a lot of visibility, and we can do it well. We can be popular even within non-Indigenous communities.

It’s so crucial to have an understanding of the land you’re on, an understanding of the history, the people, the cultures, and the foods around us, whether it’s wild, whether it’s domesticated kinds of animals, the birds, the fish, insects, whatever might be utilized in those food systems from the Indigenous perspective. So that’s what we’re trying to showcase at Owamni. And we have a plan that we’ll open up other restaurants in other regions that feature true Indigenous cultures out there, diverse cultures and diverse land spaces.

TR: Tell me more about these restaurants. What sort of restaurants are they going to be? Are they going to be at Owamni’s level of fine dining precision?

SS: So let me talk through the vision. NATIFS is a nonprofit organization, and it stands for North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems. The Indigenous Food Lab is the public entity that we’ve created with NATIFS, a native market space in South Minneapolis in this multicultural food hall. In the market, you’re going to find a lot of dried retail products. We also have some frozen game meats like elk and venison and rabbit and duck. We nixtamalize a lot of corn. Nixtamalize is the process of turning corn into hominy, posole, nixtamal, whatever you want to call it, depending on which part of the continent you’re from. We turn that nixtamal into masa, which we make into tortillas. So if you had the tacos at the restaurant, then that’s all coming from the Food Lab, and we’re using Native American heirloom corns. We have some corn coming from the Ute Mountain Tribe in Colorado, some corn from the Pima Tribe in Arizona, and Potawatomi corn, and we have some corn from North Dakota from the Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara groups, and we have some corn here from Dakota and Anishinaabe.

We’re just trying to build something that will outlive my lifetime and set up a structure for future generations to steward Indigenous food knowledge.

We make bean flours, and we’re using a bunch of native beans, and of course processing a lot of wild rice, making wild rice flours, and puffing rice. You just pop it, toast it, and it just puffs up into almost like a rice crispy. We’re making a lot of tea. If you look at the teas at Owamni, everything is from Indigenous plants, especially from around Lake Superior. There is cedar and sumac and wild rice and Labrador and hyssop and mints and all these things that you could just find walking around the forests around the lake up there. We’re having a lot of fun with a lot of these products, and we have a small garden space here in South Minneapolis that’s owned by the Indian Health Board. We raised a garden that’s called Mashkikiwan. That means “medicine garden” in the Anishinaabe language. It’s a place where we’re growing hundreds of plants for seed propagation and for education. We’re able to bring some of those plants into the restaurant sometimes and into the Food Lab.

And we want to expand. One of the things we’ve done is also get USDA licensing to be a micro- to medium-sized co-packer, to help get more Indigenous food products out there on the market. We just finished a pilot project where we helped a Native nonprofit here create an Indigenous baby food. They brought us all this heirloom squash that they grew themselves. We processed it, packed it, and we have this beautiful little product that they’re able to utilize for themselves.

We want to do that with other products. We want to help Indigenous entrepreneurs grow their businesses, whether it’s food production, or catering, food trucks, restaurants, or whatever it might be. And then we also want to work with the Tribal communities themselves and make sure that they have some kind of Indigenous food operation so their community has access to healthy, Indigenous foods, whether it’s a small catering operation in some kind of community center or a full-scale restaurant like we have at Owamni. Our goal is to replicate ourselves into high tourism areas, because typically those touristy areas are devoid of any kind of culture.

We’re already working with groups in Montana to open up another Food Lab in Bozeman. Along with that, we’ve got Anchorage, Alaska; Rapid City, South Dakota; O’ahu on Hawaii; and we’re going to continue to expand and cross colonial borders. We can be in Canada. We can be in Mexico. Eventually, we can be all over the place. It can be in South America, it can be in Australia, it can be in Africa, it can be in India. We’re just trying to build something that will outlive my lifetime and set up a structure for future generations to steward Indigenous food knowledge. We want to get tribes to break free from having to be reliant on government foods, because the last thing we need are politicians deciding the fate of our food and education, especially for people of color. We should be taking that power back.

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