The Sioux Chef: Reinvigorating Indigenous Food Systems

Two images, one of a man with braids in a chef's coat plating several identical dishes; and several cobs of corn of different colors laid out flat

Images: Sean Sherman by Rina Oh for the James Beard Foundation; corn cobs from Cottonwood Canyon, Utah, in the Museum's collection. 

By Monica Rickert-Bolter, volunteer for the North American Anthropology Program

People are growing more concerned with what they put into their bodies, and it’s not just because they’re trying to keep the pounds off. Americans constantly debate which foods should be restricted and which are acceptable to consume to remain healthy.

One problem tends to be that reports and studies over the years contradict one another (as seen in this hilarious example from Funny or Die). A steady trend, however, is cutting out processed foods and eating more organic products.

Paleo-dieters have reverted back to a hunter-gather-type system, avoiding dairy and processed grains, “because humans did not invent such foods until after the Paleolithic.” It promotes high protein and vegetable consumption as well as emphasizing color variations with meals. This diet is not for everyone, but many have been exploring elements of it, like avoiding certain preservatives and returning to simpler food systems.

For chef Sean Sherman, aka the Sioux Chef, cooking with Indigenous foods and repurposing those ingredients goes beyond the paleo diet. Sherman is Oglala Lakota from the Pine Ridge Reservation and has spent nearly 30 years delving into pre-contact Native American cooking practices and farming techniques. He has traveled throughout his ancestral homelands to research the migration patterns and histories of Native American tribes to revitalize Indigenous cuisine.

Based in Minneapolis, Sherman works to educate local Native American communities and the larger public on healthy eating habits. In 2015, he and his business partner Dana Thompson (Wahpeton-Sisseton and Mdewakanton Dakota descendant) launched a food truck named Tatanka Truck, which featured dishes such as bison wild rice bowls and cedar and maple tea.

Recently, the Sioux Chef has expanded his outreach through the development of North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems (NĀTIFS), a nonprofit that focuses on Indigenous education, research, and food access. Some of the long-term goals include building a training center and collaborating with other Native American communities to create satellite projects to cultivate their own traditional ingredients and practices.

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Four people, three men and a woman, smiling at the camera in front of a large mural with a woman's face and hummingbirds.
Artist Chris Pappan and chefs Sean Sherman, Dana Thompson, and Nick Bajal of the Field Museum Bistro

Through NĀTIFS, he’s partnering with the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board to create a new restaurant called Water Works. After a record-breaking Kickstarter campaign, Water Works reached its funding goal and is set to open in 2019. The restaurant site will be located off the sacred site Owamni Yamni in the Central Mississippi Riverfront Regional Park and will be open year-round. Water Works will offer non-European ingredients and serve as an “Indigenous food hub,” according to Sherman.

In addition to making Indigenous cuisine more accessible, he is currently promoting the release of his new book The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen. He and his co-author chef Beth Dooley encourage working with locally sourced and seasonal ingredients while emphasizing bold and unique flavors.

The Sioux Chef made his rounds throughout Chicago institutions during Native American Heritage Month, including a book signing at the American Indian Center, keynote presentation at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and a tour of The Field Museum. After visiting collections and the Native American hall, Sherman and Thompson became acquainted with some of the staff at a luncheon and bounced some ideas on future collaborations. Both were inspired by the collections of cooking utensils, bowls, baskets and even corn cobs that are potential connectors between the past and the present. Staff found the opportunity to exchange ideas and learn from the Sioux Chef and Thompson in this enriching experience.

“Understanding the way people eat can really help people connect with the culture,” said Sherman while discussing the historical significance of food systems. Thompson continued his thought, “[It] helps to humanize Native cultures into modern times.”