The Sioux Chef
By Hannah Apricot Eckberg
When Sean Sherman prepares a meal, he does more than just combine flavors, he is reconstructing and revitalizing his indigenous heritage, and the implications stretch far beyond the reach of the dining table. The new cookbook, The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen, offers more than just delicious recipes – it offers empowering historical, cultural, and environmental lessons that may hold a key to our future. This work looks to the past to create a better future.
Research from around the world indicates one of the greatest ways to reduce our impact on climate change is for people of all ancestral backgrounds to adopt a way of living that is more closely connected to nature, seeing it more as a relative than a commodity; such as the traditions of the Indigenous peoples of North America dictated. This is cited as a key solution in Paul Hawken’s new book analyzing climate issues, Drawdown.
“Contemporary Aaboriginal people are heirs to unique knowledge systems that have developed over thousands of years of living, dreaming, and thinking about the lands, waters, plants, animals, seasons, and skies of the North American Continent,” shares Janet Berlo and Ruth Phillips in the book Native North American Art. Similarly, with all indigenous peoples, this deep understanding and sense of relationship to the natural world influenced the cosmology, creation stories, rituals, hunting, farming, and diets of the native people. Plants, for example, were a source of food, medicine, spirituality, rope, clothing, and shelter.
Phillips and Berlo remind us of a point in history when starting in the mid-1800’s, the US and Canadian governments teamed with Christian Missionaries to conduct direct assimilation of indigenous youth. Through forced separation from family and community, the goal was to erase all the child’s cultural ties to native language and traditions.
Although this devastating practice had ended by the 1970’s, when Sean Sherman was growing up on the Pine Ridge Reservation of North Dakota, he witnessed another form of oppression resulting from the continued cultural separation from traditional foods. The Native American community is among the highest percentage of diabetes and other diet-related illnesses. Some of these communities experience over 60% incidence with type 2 Diabetes.
Compounding the situation at the Pine Ridge Reservation, it is also one of the poorest communities in North America, with upward of 80% unemployment. For many it is a 120 mile round trip to a real super market. Many people depend heavily on the food commodities dispensed by the US Government. The food selection has changed little since Sean was a child.
Recently, he was shown the current commodities list and asked if he could work with it to make a good meal. The food itself is so high in sodium, bad fats, and sugars that no matter how good it might taste, the meal could not be considered healthy. This system is in need of a change.
Sean developed his culinary passion at the age of 13, when his family moved from Pine Ridge to Spearfish, South Dakota. He started working to help his mother make ends meet and took a liking to preparing food in restaurants. He continued doing this through college, and became a professional chef at a young age. After studying many different ethnic ways of cooking from around the world, he realized the wealth of knowledge tied in with the culinary traditions of his own lands. Sean made it his mission to use delicious food to help restore his indigenous culture, the health of his people, and the planet. To Sean, food can either be a medicine or a poison; denying access to healthy food is a form of oppression. Yet, through education and empowerment, this to can become a practice of the past.
The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen offers reflections of Sean’s personal journey and that of his people. While examining how the current food system developed such health disparity, Sean shares lessons based on indigenous wisdom, to help guide us in developing a new food system established from an “ancient pantry” rather than “oppression foods.”
This is Sean’s first publication, based on knowledge gained from his homelands of Minnesota and the neighboring Dakotas. Sean, along with Dana Thompson, co-owner of the Sioux Chef, and the rest of their team are already looking to their next book to explore the rich food of different regions and to showcase the healthy diversity available across North America. This is all part of the master plan to share with as many people as possible the health and environmental benefits that can be enjoyed by following a more native-based diet.
Recently they proved food is a tangible way to reach people and found folks eager for this information and ways to be involved. Dana and Sean’s efforts for a crowdfunding campaign to raise seed money for an Indigenous Peoples’ based restaurant resulted in a record amount raised in record time for a community supported restaurant.
To be located in Minneapolis, the restaurant will link with a community non-profit Dana and Sean helped found, the North America Traditional Indigenous Food Systems (NATIFS), to provide training and business coaching to those seeking a career based on Indigenous cooking. Through a food truck and organized community classes, food will be distributed in areas known to be virtual food deserts. The nonprofit will also offer classes year-round to assist those who wish to start community gardens, retrofit yards to provide food, and generally bring more permaculture and community to the world.
Minneapolis is just a beginning, as Sean and his team plan to then take this model across North America, and beyond, as a means to connect people with their own region’s rich ancestral cuisine. As Sean said, “Whether you are in the desert, along the coast, in the cooler valleys, forests, or mountains, there is much diversity in food available. First we must understand what foods are indigenous, what plants and animals people ate, and what were the customs. Getting people to think is really what we want.”
It takes a dedicated team for this mission.
Chefs, ethnobotanists, food preservationists, foragers, caterers, event planners, artists, musicians, food truckers, and food lovers make up the core team of the Sioux Chef efforts. They descend from the Anishinaabe, Mdewakanton Dakota, Navajo, Northern Cheyenne, Oglala Lakota, and the Wahpeton-Sisseton Dakota peoples. Their work ties in with other related efforts, such as food sovereignty, tribal rights, permaculture, and understanding and identifying the usage of wild foods. Concern about the loss of native plants has led Sean to be on the board of Iowa’s Seed Saving Bank as a means to network with others preserving the genetics of local seeds.
Last fall, their team worked with Midwestern Organic to gather donations for Standing Rock and sent truckloads of native foods to prepare a Thanksgiving feast for the Water Defenders protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline project. The spiritual and physical bump this gave the protesters is incalculable.
The traditional diet of native people was extremely healthy because it was a super-low glycemic diet and hyper-low calorie. Sean reminds us, “This is good for everyone. You don’t have to be of native heritage to reap the benefits of eating a super-healthy, super-local Indigenous diet.”
Through examining the evolution and migration north of farming from Mesoamerica, Sean has also identified impacts due to climate change. For example, wild rice and maple trees, both key staples of the people of the Northern Plains, have begun to migrate north with changing temperatures. Harvest times are drastically earlier, affecting cultural ties, animal dependence on the plants, and other ramifications yet to be witnessed. “We are going to have no choice but to adapt to climate change and to do our best as a worldwide community to address it,” he warns.
There is indigenous history and culture to be found most everywhere in the world. Because the governments of North America did such a thorough job of trying to wipe the native people and their culture off the map, there’s a lot of rebuilding and relearning to do. “In recognizing a culture’s gifts provides the opportunity to educate people and make food truly beneficial for everybody.”
Sean and his team hope to work with the governments to create a healthy commodity foods system and empower people to grow their own with permaculture and native-based farming practices. By creating diets based on pre-contact foods, connecting people to the land and the plants of different regions, the Sioux Chef and his team work to combine modern culinary practices with ancient techniques to create a web of indigenous food businesses with access points for involvement across the nation. “We really try to meld the best of both worlds so we cause the evolution of a new generation of an indigenous food system.”
Each of us can play a part in this mission by experimenting with and re-learning about the original foods of our own regions, connecting with nature, and by actually getting our hands in the soil.
Here’s the article as a pdf, as seen in Issue 06.
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