The Sioux Chef's Quest to Revive Indigenous Cooking

November 17, 2017

Sean Sherman isn’t worried about his food becoming co-opted as trend. He’s too busy and too dedicated to his project to pay much mind: “Some people are going to try to take it for the money and cash in on some of those fads, but for us, we just really care about what our focus is.”

The Oglala Lakota chef from Pine Ridge, South Dakota, has been cooking for 27 years, but it wasn’t until later in his career that he began to devote himself to centralizing indigenous food practices. He is the founder of The Sioux Chef, a multifaceted food company with a restaurant and educational center in the works. His book The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen, which he co-wrote with Beth Dooley, seeks to share his philosophy and his findings with others. We talked before he embarked on a book tour about hyperlocal ingredients, subverting colonial narratives, and why we should care what our grandparents were eating.

The following conversation has been edited for content and clarity. Scroll to the end: You'll find a recipe for a roast goose from Sherman's cookbook that he shared with us. We think it would make a particularly wonderful feast centerpiece.

Valerio Farris: Tell me about your book.

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Sean Sherman: The book comes from quite a few years of slowly developing not only our cooking style, but also the philosophy around our work. We feel like it’s a great starter book for people to think about ways that they can approach indigenous foods, and to gain a deeper understanding of the foods and flavors of their regions. No matter where you are in North America, all history begins with indigenous history, and it's still very, very recent. This is still the food of my great grandfather’s era.

We really want to get out there and embolden indigenous communities to pursue a healthier way of cooking, so we can slowly overcome the barrier of poverty and oppression that a bunch of us have grown up with.

VF: In many ways, your books reads like a history lesson. How do you see it fitting into a larger archive?

SS: Native American history—and indigenous history in general—is something not well-taught in our educational systems. A lot of people don't have any sense of the indigenous histories of their regions, and that just doesn’t make sense to me.

VF: Who did you make this book for?

SS: Growing up on the Pine Ridge reservation, I saw a massive amount of health issues that were a direct result of poor food access and poor food education. It’s one thing to teach people about nutritious food, but it’s another thing to just not have it anywhere. I have family members who live on the reservation who suffer from diabetes and basically have no access to anything that’s healthy. It's mostly processed foods bought at gas stations or grocery stores. We dedicated this book to the indigenous people because we wanted to see change, and we’re trying to lay groundwork for the next generation of young chefs and indigenous entrepreneurs to take this information and make something positive and strong for the future.

VF: To what extent is this project personal? And to what extent is it political?

SS: Well, for me, it became a personal passion for sure, but there have been so many great chefs before me and I really tried to include them. I reached out to chefs around the country to play a part in order to showcase the diversity of style and region.

Politically, it’s important to understand that a lot of these tribal nations are sovereign nations, and they suffer endlessly from food issues, like extreme rates of type 2 diabetes and obesity. Indigenous diets were once so healthy—low-glycemic, low in salt, high in plant diversity—that tooth decay was not an issue. And it all varied by region. This should be out there, and people should understand the differences between Apache food versus Lakota food versus Ojibwe food. Food is such a great way to understand culture because it really represents cultural identity, no matter who you are. You think back on your ancestral lineage and the food that your grandparents and great-grandparents ate, and for a lot of native communities across the U.S. and Canada, that food was forcibly and systematically taken away from these communities. We see the result of that with all these horrible health statistics.

Photo by Heidi Ehalt

VF: How do you and your community navigate Thanksgiving?

SS: For us, Thanksgiving is a great time to gather families. I grew up with Thanksgiving; it was really more a celebration of the fall harvest than anything. But there’s a lot of mythology surrounding Thanksgiving that people take as fact, that of a connection between Native Americans and pilgrims. There’s so much misconception around that. Instead, we want to develop more truth around indigenous culture, through indigenous food. Yes, we see a lot of commonality with how indigenous people are preserving foods, using particular cooking techniques, gathering salt, and utilizing plant ashes, but there are different communities with different food systems all over the place, just this huge patchwork of diversity. We want people to understand how much more there is to learn about this continent.

VF: Almost like a true cuisine rooted in what is actually here.

SS: Exactly. And we want people to see this is recent history. This is not archeological by any means. There are so many awesome lessons that we can pull from this, and for us, this is like an indigenous evolution of food. It’s about breaking out of that poverty cycle and being able to be stronger by understanding lessons of the past and applying the tools we have today to become something stronger and bigger.

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Valerio is a freelance food writer, editor, researcher and cook. He grew up in his parent's Italian restaurants covered in pizza flour and drinking a Shirley Temple a day. Since, he's worked as a cheesemonger in New York City and a paella instructor in Barcelona. He now lives in Berlin, Germany where he's most likely to be found eating shawarma.