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Sean Sherman has built his name melding Indigenous foods with haute cuisine flair. He has a successful Minneapolis-Saint Paul catering business, The Sioux Chef, and a James Beard Award-winning cookbook, The Sioux Chef 's Indigenous Kitchen (buy it: $27.65, Amazon.com). In early 2020, the Oglala Lakota chef and his life partner, Dana Thompson, who is Mdewakanton Dakota, founded a culinary training and education nonprofit called NāTIFS (North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems), and launched its first project, the Indigenous Food Lab. At the time, Sherman was planning for the 2021 opening of his first restaurant, Owamni, in downtown Minneapolis. Then COVID came along and shut down his catering operations, sending his life's work in an exciting new direction.
Sherman grew up on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and has traveled all over North America talking to Native Americans and ethnobotanists about Indigenous food-ways and cooking methods. He weaves together dishes that pair Northwest salmon with blackberries and seaweed, or roasted Midwestern wild turnips and winter squash. Just as significantly, he refrains from using foods of European origin- wheat flour, dairy, cane sugar, pork and beef-that have had a serious impact on the health of Native Americans, whose rates of type 2 diabetes are significantly higher than rates among the general population and whose average life expectancy is 5 1⁄2 years less than that of all U.S. racial groups combined.
When pandemic closures and racial-justice protests overtook the Twin Cities, Sherman reconvened his cooking crew for a new purpose: preparing healthy meals for people living in local homeless encampments, many of whom are Indigenous. But that effort, a partnership with the Minnesota Central Kitchen, relied on donated food. So in October, he secured funding to prepare and deliver 10,000 nutritious, culturally relevant meals every week-smoked pheasant and root-vegetable soup, bison and tepary-bean chili-to Native organizations and 9 of the 11 tribes in the state.
The response has been electric. "Especially because this food is geared toward Indigenous peoples, it's reconnecting them with a lot of their ancestral knowledge base," says Sherman. He's electrified, too: A restaurant meal, or a talk at a powwow, has limited impact; this year, he's been able to share his food and his message with tens of thousands of the people he most wants to reach. In fact, the Prairie Island Indian Community in Southeastern Minnesota invited him to help rebuild two community kitchens on the reservation and develop healthy recipes for them to cook.
Sherman's Minneapolis restaurant opened-miraculously, he says-on time this spring. But his food-relief work has given new purpose to his mission: setting up Indigenous Food Labs across North America so these communities can incubate food businesses, rediscover lost traditions and increase access to nutritious local foods. Says Sherman, "We're just trying to set up a system to preserve these traditions and to make healthy food accessible to anybody that wants to learn about it."