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For centuries, Indigenous people came from near and far to give birth on an island teeming with spruce trees and bald eagles in the middle of the Mississippi River. The sacred power of the surrounding Owámniyomni, cascading waterfalls carved out by glaciers more than 12,000 years ago, drew them to Spirit Island, located near present-day downtown Minneapolis. Gnawed away by limestone harvesting throughout the 1800s, and eventually blown up in 1960 to make way for a now decommissioned lock and dam, colonialism has largely erased the sacred site's native culture—until now.
Owamni, chef Sean Sherman's first brick-and-mortar restaurant, is bringing Indigenous food and culture back to the riverbanks. Operating out of a location that was once home to Minnesota's first Japanese restaurant, the 215-seat concept is the crown jewel of the surrounding three-acre Water Works park project—an effort to bring the Owámniyomni's Indigenous history back to the forefront. The park's event spaces will eventually host Dakota language classes while its expansive green lawns will be dotted with placards that explain, in both English and Dakota, the culinary, nutritional, and medicinal uses of the plants that comprise the park.
"For Indigenous people who went through intense assimilation, we lost a lot of our food culture," Sherman says. "But we're at a point now where we can reclaim it and evolve it for the next generation. To be able to share culture through food will be really healing."
Owamni's offerings are designed to do exactly that. Featuring Indigenous dishes and ingredients like wild rice from Minnesota to nixtamalized corn from Mexico and beyond, colonial ingredients like wheat flour, sugar, pork, and chicken won't be on the menu. "There's lots of shareable plates for people to try a lot of things, there's a lot of completely plant-based items," Sherman says of the food, which naturally lends itself to several vegan offerings.
During the warm weather season that Minnesotans love, Sherman and company will be serving lunch and dinner with something of a fast-casual approach, supplemented by online ordering for picnic-ready takeout options. A tasting menu dinner series inspired by the phases of the moon will occupy the winter months.
Year-round, the restaurant will be supplied with ingredients and products from Sherman's Indigenous Food Lab, a nonprofit effort dedicated to reversing the damage of colonialism by increasing access to Indigenous foods. "The bigger goal is to eventually grow the Indigenous Food Lab so we can help train, educate, and support Indigenous kitchens all over the United States," Sherman adds.
Because of the stigma and stereotypes surrounding Native American cultures and alcohol, Sherman and his partner in life and work, Dana Thompson, were originally envisioning an alcohol-free establishment that keeps the focus on the food. In an effort to offer the beer and wine that park-goers tend to like, they devised a solution: Owamni features a robust non-alcoholic menu of mocktails and teas that feature indigenous ingredients alongside a beer and wine list that's fully women- and BIPOC-owned.
The duo was determined to be intentional about who they were giving a platform to and whose stories they were telling, but it turned out to be challenging. "It was a real learning experience about how difficult this is," Thompson says. "Turns out, the beer and wine industry is lily white."
By leaning hard on progressive distributors and sourcing from Mexico, South Africa, and New Zealand, they were able to secure a mostly Indigenous wine list. On the beer side, Sherman and Thompson have excitedly teamed up with La Doña Cervecería, a Latinx craft brewery in Minneapolis.
Thompson and Sherman's painstaking efforts to increase the visibility of cultures often left out of the mainstream market ties into the larger movement that erupted in Minneapolis last year.
Owamni is under four miles from the intersection where George Floyd was murdered. "We had the intensity of the uprising last year that's still going on as we speak in Uptown," Thompson says, referring to the protests that broke out in the neighborhood where police shot and killed yet another Black man, Winston Smith, in early June. "I think Minneapolis is a real place for the revolution to take hold. Racism is real and we're willing to point our finger at it and try to raise awareness about that and the erasure of Indigenous people throughout North America."
"We believe that there should be Indigenous restaurants everywhere because no matter where, we're on Indigenous land," Sherman says. Owamni will "help showcase further how Indigenous food fits into the American scene," he says. "You can't tell the story of American food while dismissing the Indigenous history of it all."