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‘Sioux Chef’ Sean Sherman Decolonizes Owamni’s Menu in Minneapolis : NPR


Sean Sherman is the co-founder of Minneapolis restaurant, Owamni.

Heidi Ehalt / The Sioux Chief


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Heidi Ehalt / The Sioux Chief

'Sioux Chef' Sean Sherman Decolonizes Owamni's Menu in Minneapolis : NPR

Sean Sherman is the co-founder of Minneapolis restaurant, Owamni.

Heidi Ehalt / The Sioux Chief

At the James Beard Award-winning Owamni Restaurant in Minneapolis, diners order a menu that has been “decolonized”. All dishes are prepared in a way that reflects Native American food cultures, using ingredients native to North America before colonization.

“We plan to showcase the incredible diversity and flavor profiles of all the different tribes in North America, from all the different regions, and really celebrate that and cut out the colonial ingredients,” the co-founder said. of Owamni, Sean Sherman. “We don’t have things on our menu that contain dairy, wheat flour, cane sugar, … beef, pork or chicken.”

Known as the “Chief Sioux”, Sherman grew up on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota as a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe. Right after high school, he worked for the US Forest Service in the northern Black Hills of South Dakota, where one of his responsibilities was to learn the names and properties of different local plants. Looking back, he credits this work with sparking his interest in Indigenous foods.

“That connection with plants was probably one of the best ways for me to start…to see the world differently through this Indigenous perspective to realize that all of these plants around us serve some kind of purpose – whether it’s to food, medicine or crafts – and I really try to create and understand what this relationship means to me personally,” he says.

Sherman and his restaurant’s co-owner, Dana Thompson, have worked for years to raise awareness of Indigenous foods and food cultures through their non-profit organization, NĀTIFS. Sherman won the 2018 James Beard Award for Best American Cookbook for The indigenous cuisine of the Sioux chef. In June, Owamni received the James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant. Sherman says restaurant food is meant to paint a picture of where each dish comes from.

“We could have something with, say, wild rice or rabbit or rose hips or blueberries,” Sherman says. “These are all ingredients that you can see just standing in the forest and looking around.”

Sherman points out that using local ingredients doesn’t mean the food is outdated: “We’re not cooking like it’s 1491. We’re not a museum piece or anything like that. We’re trying to evolve the food towards the future, using as much knowledge from our ancestors as we can understand and simply applying it to the modern world.”

Interview Highlights

On customers having emotional reactions when dining out

I’ve seen a lot of people who are really struck by it, especially aboriginal people, because it’s not typical to be able to go somewhere and see our aboriginal foods on the menu and see aboriginal names on the menu, see aboriginal people cooking the food and serving the food and listening to native music coming out of the speakers and just the whole ambience. So it’s quite an experience and it’s something super special and unique. We should have Indigenous restaurants in every city to showcase the amazing cultures that are everywhere and the resilience of Indigenous peoples that still thrive everywhere today. There’s so much to it. So, some people get very emotional when they enter the restaurant and experience it for the first time.

On buying produce and meat from Indigenous producers

We prioritize purchasing from indigenous producers, local first, then national. So there’s an aboriginal non-profit organization that I also serve on the board of directors here in Minnesota called Dream of Wild Health, and it’s an aboriginal non-profit farm. And we can buy a lot of stuff from them in the summer months and just be a big fan. But we have many producers, [like the] Cheyenne River Bison, which is a Lakota tribe in the middle of South Dakota that we get all of our bison from, for example. There are a few aboriginal fisheries nearby, one in Red Lake Nation and one in Red Cliff Nation. Red Lake is in Minnesota. Red Cliff is in Wisconsin, and we’re always looking for more and more native growers.

We get wild rice from a few different spaces because the real wild rice you find in Minnesota is harvested entirely by hand. It is harvested on canoes. And it’s not like the black wild rice people might find in grocery stores. And we can get it from a few local growers, some from tribes and some from individual entrepreneurs.

'Sioux Chef' Sean Sherman Decolonizes Owamni's Menu in Minneapolis : NPR

Sherman says cooking with local ingredients doesn’t mean serving outdated food. “We’re trying to evolve food into the future,” he says.

Nancy Bundt / The Sioux Chief


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Nancy Bundt / The Sioux Chief

'Sioux Chef' Sean Sherman Decolonizes Owamni's Menu in Minneapolis : NPR

Sherman says cooking with local ingredients doesn’t mean serving outdated food. “We’re trying to evolve food into the future,” he says.

Nancy Bundt / The Sioux Chief

On the lack of access to healthy and regional food for indigenous communities

When I was growing up in Pine Ridge, we didn’t have restaurants and we only had one grocery store for [serve] fundamentally [an area] the size of Connecticut. There is therefore very little access to nutritional foods. Today there are more gas stations where people can get food. And, you know, there’s only a few fast food joints on the reservation, and that’s about it. So even today it’s really hard to see any kind of nutritional access and we really want to help reverse that. …

I grew up on basic food programs, so when I was young we got a lot of government staples…like government powdered milk, government cereals, canned government juices, canned fruits and vegetables. canned and canned meat – things like beef with juice and pork with juice and salmon – all canned stuff. And for me, as a chef, looking back, I’d say most of it isn’t very enjoyable. …I just remember lots of fruit and overly sweet syrups and I remember lots of overly salty canned vegetables and meats that weren’t ideal. I just have a lot of issues I guess with growing up on the Commodity Food Program and having to eat a lot of powdered milk with very dry cereal in the morning and literally putting pure corn syrup on everything just to things taste better. And we need to do so much better.

I think the Commodity Food Program has grown over the years. They are starting to introduce more indigenous products into their offerings. But there is still a lot of work to do. They really need to make the food much more regional. They need to buy as much as they can from indigenous producers to help develop this and they need to return these products to these regional pieces instead of trying to homogenize all the indigenous people into one group and send the same food everywhere. We really need a lot more regional diversity.

On Correcting the Thanksgiving Story

I wrote a story for Time magazine a few years ago that gets shared a lot over the Thanksgiving period that really explores how this program is about forcing people to believe and elevating this colonial history of the United States that is so dismissive of the intense violence that took place produced against aboriginal peoples, and I really feel like we have to completely let go of that narrative when it comes to pilgrims and aboriginals coming together and celebrating, because it really has nothing to do with it . And we should really focus this time around being together and being thankful for each other and celebrating with food, and why not celebrate with native food to start with, you know ? I really believe we could do a lot better and we should get away from a lot of these pieces of Natives and settlers getting together and having a wonderful dinner because that never really happened. It’s almost insulting to be so dismissive of the genocide that occurs throughout this time and the number of deaths that occur and the amount of displacement and racism that occurs against us as indigenous peoples.

Amy Salit and Susan Nyakundi produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the web.

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