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Sean Sherman On Normalizing And Popularizing Indigenous Food

Zagat Stories presents Restaurants 21/22, a collection of interviews with leading voices in dining, hospitality, food, tech, politics and more. Each story takes the turning of the calendar as an inflection point to consider what happened in 2021, or what’s likely to happen in 2022, in the world of restaurants and food. See all stories here. And feel free to check out last year’s collection as well.

In July 2021, chef, James Beard-winning cookbook author, and humanitarian Sean Sherman opened his Indigenous restaurant Owamni by The Sioux Chef on the Mississippi River in Minneapolis. The restaurant centers on decolonized cuisine, or dishes made without refined sugar, wheat flour, dairy, beef, chicken, and pork. Prior to opening Owamni, Sherman and business partner Dana Thompson founded the nonprofit NāTIFS (North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems), and in the summer of 2020 they opened The Indigenous Food Lab, a kitchen and training center, located near where George Floyd was murdered. Recently, the USDA’s Office of Tribal Relations tapped Sherman to develop recipes and videos for Indian reservations.

What’s nice about Owamni is that it’s not an ego project. It’s not about the chef persona trying to become big and get a Michelin star or something. That has nothing to do with anything. We’re trying to make social change, and we’re doing it through influence, and we’re doing it through food. It should be normal to see Indigenous restaurants all across America—even in North America, in general.

We try to use all that attention and continuously steer it to talking about some of the issues that are still out there—why there aren’t Indigenous restaurants everywhere, why people know so little about the Indigenous communities that we live in. It opens up a lot of conversation, and it helps bring a spotlight to some really amazing Indigenous food producers. We’re just carving a path for the new generation of young Indigenous chefs.

You have to understand the history and the relations between the United States and Indigenous communities, and the intensity of what happened in the 1800s—so much relocation and extermination and genocide. Then the 1900s being a complete century of segregation, and perpetuating a lot of the trauma that was dealt to some generations that are not that far back. I feel like we’re finally now in an era where’s there’s a lot of young Indigenous people who are highly educated, highly motivated, and kind of sick of seeing some of these things that have been upheld by society for so long—of keeping Indigenous people down, of whitewashing and homogenizing our cultures.

They’re sick of seeing things like the Thanksgiving mythology getting pushed onto school curriculums instead of teaching about true Indigenous histories. I feel like now is a great time for a lot of people to rise up and push back against this colonial structure that’s been comfortably holding a lot of people of color down for so long. We have to wake up and steward and protect a lot of Indigenous culture from being wiped off the map.

So there’s a lot of work to do, and normalizing Indigenous foods is going to be a huge step in getting people to be curious and to ask that question. Why aren’t there Native American restaurants in my city? I think that Owamni is proof of concept that this kind of restaurant can exist in today’s world, and it can be popular. We don’t need non-Indigenous European chefs telling us what Indigenous foods are. As Indigenous chefs, we have to utilize this time period to tell the world what our Indigenous foods are.

I think it’s extremely important to get these foods out to Indigenous communities, but I think that also having places like Owamni is really important because it creates a place where people can come and see their foods. They get to see their languages. They get to hear their music, and they get to feel like they’re in a space that is honoring a part of it—to see Indigenous workers and chefs in the kitchen. We can utilize that to be big role models, to get people to want to have this in their community also.

Sean Sherman and business partner Dana Thompson. Photo: Heidi Ehalt.

Our nonprofit is designed to work directly with tribal communities so they can develop their own Indigenous culinary operations to make that food accessible to those communities. We’re not here just to feed the rich. We have a nice restaurant, and it can be a little spendy if you want to eat there every day. But we’re creating something special and unique for people to be proud of.

People are very curious. Some are maybe interested in wild foraged foods. Some are interested in Indigenous people’s culture. Maybe people see us as a trendy restaurant and want to see what the buzz is about. But it opens up a lot of conversation because we just put so much attention to all the offerings. I feel like I’m always living six months in the future because we’re already looking at all these projects that we have, and that keeps us motivated. We were sending tons of food up to the pipeline protestors. The best we can do is try to do something that makes a difference.

People have to realize all this convenience comes at a cost. We should work harder for our food, and we should be a little bit more conscious of why that’s an important decision. We have to stop wasting water so much. We have to do something against companies like Nestlé that are just pumping out millions of gallons per minute all over the world to sell plastic bottles. If we took an Indigenous perspective and utilized a lot more permaculture and plant diversity, and started a lot healthier and more diverse organic farming practices that included a lot more plant species—pushing away from monocultures and GMOs and all the chemicals pumped into the soil to produce all these foods—some of those massive shifts of food production will really have to change. It’s going to be really important that we are prepared to be adaptable.

If you look at how Indigenous food systems have survived for countless generations across the world, they’re very localized and community-based. Those systems took an entire community and countless generations to develop—people figuring out ways to do it as efficiently as possible, and to work with the world around them. If we’re able to stop putting lawns, golf courses, and parking lots everywhere, and start putting food everywhere and utilizing community-based volunteer programs to harvest and preserve and create pantries, then we could supplement and create a lot of food for our community.

We rely on all these massive food corporations that are just pumping out poison to us, basically. We’re buying tons of sugar water for beverage choices—just tons of empty carbs when it comes to these food offerings, with lots of sodium to make it taste good.

Our work with the USDA is going to be really great. We can help people shift the way they think about who they purchase foods from, and what foods they’re distributing out there, and make some big strides and change the entire system, so people will have access to healthy, nutritional foods that still can be tasty and comforting. Hopefully as we grow in popularity, we can sway people and use that influence to get people to think differently. How do we really make impactful change? Maybe some of this change doesn’t even happen in this lifetime. All we can do is to start to push it toward that direction.