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November is National American Indian Heritage Month, and the depth of our nation's "pre-contact" heritage is nearly inconceivable.
By the time Christopher Columbus belatedly arrived in the “New World” with bells ringing and banners waving, the place’s original inhabitants had been established here for a scant 20,000 years. The European Old World nevertheless swarmed into what was considered an enormous unpopulated space overripe with unbelievable natural beauty, bottomless resources, and — most damning of all for the original inhabitants — boundless potential.
Within 350 years or so, indigenous language, traditions, oral history, ecological and dietary practices— all distinct characteristics of the various established nations here—had been overwritten by the European arrivistes.
Clean, Green Cuisine
For thousands of years, indigenous people of the North American continent (as it came to be called) had parlayed the treasures of this endlessly fertile landscape into a sustainable—and necessarily organic—dietary legacy. The breadth and variety of Indigenous “cuisine” today is represented by such numbing cultural shorthand as the ever-present ”Indian Fry Bread” booth at your regional State Fair. That’s all about to change.
As National Native American Heritage Month is commemorated this November, there may be no better way to begin one’s long-overdue acquaintance with America’s first citizens than at the dinner table, as a handful of noteworthy indigenous chefs are making waves — and drawing attention to a long-neglected culinary heritage.
Sous to Sioux
You've sat at your favorite local eatery and stared in wonder at the gang of white-garbed culinary magicians dancing smoothly around each other in a smallish smoke-filled kitchen the size of a small walk-in closet. The sous chef?
That is the hyper-busy person you see doing hasty and precise prep work, corralling the kitchen staff with tightly-hollered instructions, or gesturing madly for a waiter to come and take away an order. The sous-chef is traditionally the second in command of a commercial kitchen.
Okay. How about a Sioux Chef?
Sean Sherman’s Indigenous Culinary Revolution
Sean Sherman is an Oglala Lakota Sioux. Born and raised on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Sherman acquired skills in hunting, foraging, and botanical identification when he was still a kid. At 13 he took a job as a dishwasher and busboy in a Rapid City, S.D. restaurant called The Sluice. He surprised himself by taking to the scene.
Sean Sherman gathering ingredients
Then the following summer a job at South Dakota’s Sylvan Lake Resort found him grilling alongside some freewheeling college kids willing to try anything. His grill-mates were experts at Steak, but were happy to experiment with beaver and rattlesnake. Sherman loved the creative elasticity he saw in what he’d always considered (from afar) a fairly rigid skill set. He was off and running.
Twin City Eats
Sherman moved to the Minneapolis/St. Paul area and worked his way up the restaurant ecosystem. At 29 years old, he’d been a successful executive chef at La Bodega in Minneapolis for some time; and was exhausted. He left his hifalutin chef’s position and moved to Mexico to figure out a next move.
Indigenous Huichol of Mexico
Communing with the indigenous Huichol people near Puerto Vallarta, Sherman saw how completely they brought their tribal culture — including its culinary legacy — into vivid daily life.
One day the young Oglala Lakota Sioux/Master Chef had a revelation, and it struck him like a like a thunderclap: while Sherman’s culinary arc had familiarized him with hundreds of recipes from the classical French cooking canon, he remembered maybe two or three Lakota recipes he had vaguely picked up while kicking around his mom’s kitchen as a boy on the reservation.
Neither could he recall ever having seen a single restaurant that specialized in actual Native American-based cuisine. He’d fallen in love with cooking but at the unknowing expense of his own blood legacy. It was time for a U-Turn.
In 2014 Sherman founded The Sioux Chef — a caterer and indigenous culinary education business. Sean Sherman’s team is comprised of Anishinaabe, Mdewakanton Dakota, Navajo, Northern Cheyenne, Oglala Lakota, and Wahpeton-Sisseton Dakota members.
He describes their roles as “..chefs, ethnobotanists, food preservationists, foragers, caterers, event planners, artists, musicians, food truckers and food lovers.”
By 2017, Sherman had co-written a cookbook, “The Sioux Chef's Indigenous Kitchen”, which won the coveted James Beard award for best American cookbook that year. In 2019 he was recognized with the James Beard Foundation Leadership Award, whose themes are “..the complex realms of sustainability, food justice, and public health."
Sean Sherman’s mission is to reclaim as much as possible of the lost or quickly-disappearing “pre-contact” North American indigenous food history. His approach is all-in as he continues to immerse himself in Native American farming techniques, land stewardship, food preservation, wild food usage, and harvesting.
Again, these practices have never been monolithic — and Sherman is determined to learn from and understand culinary practices and histories of indigenous nations spanning the Americas.
His goal is nothing short of bringing indigenous cuisine and character to the front lines of an incomplete epicurean world.
Indigenous Chefs on the Rise
Sean Sherman is one of the more visible and publicly lauded — but by no means the only — indigenous chef working to revitalize historically lost culinary arts.
Kristina Stanley (Red Lake Cliff Superior Chippewa) runs two businesses: Abaaso Foods, a plant-based company, and Brown Rice and Honey, a wholesale and catering company.
Brit Reed (Choctaw) wrote a college essay in 2015 that quickly morphed into a 7500-member Facebook group called “Food Sovereignty Is Tribal Sovereignty” where recipes and traditions are shared.
Hillel Echo-Hawk (Pawnee and Athabaskan) opened Seattle’s Birch Basket catering after having earned her degree in Culinary Arts from Seattle Central College — and working tirelessly in Seattle’s swinging restaurant scene.Echo-Hawk is a private chef and in-demand speaker on the subject of resuscitating indigenous cuisine.
Hillel Echo-Hawk photo Chona Kasinger for TODAY
Paul Natrall (Squamish Nation) is a second-generation Indigenous chef, and owner/operator of Vancouver’s first Indigenous food truck, which won him a 2019 Youth Entrepreneur of the Year Award. Natrall is busily, and successfully, creating his own Indigenous fusion cuisine while mentoring young aspiring cooks.
photo Paul McGrath, North Shore News
M. Karlos Baca is a key player in the Indigenous Food Sovereignty movement. His expansive knowledge of wild Indigenous plants and the benefits they offer, culinary and medicinal, is central to his mission.
Brian Yazzie - (Diné / Navajo) is an Arizona caterer providing indigenous ingredients to those seeking indigenous authenticity. His website Yazzie the Chef emphasizes the marriage of ancestral cuisine and modern technique.
Brian Yazzie photo courtesy Dan of Food Sovereignty Symposium
Originalist Cuisine from the Heart
Sean Sherman grew up in the shadow of a colonial steamroller. It took him awhile to align his culinary expertise with his Selfhood as an Oglala Lakota Sioux.
He and a growing cohort of enthusiastic First American Foodies are today re-introducing their country to its newer inhabitants the best way they know how—at table; where bread is broken and community has neither border nor conqueror.
The New World is about to be renewed yet again…and not a minute too soon in this once and future home to Nations.