Sean Sherman on Indigenous Food, Culture, and History

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Sean and cousin Justin on Pine Ridge, 1982.

The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen (University of Minnesota Press, 2017) by Sean Sherman with Beth Dooley is an introduction and education to the indigenous cuisine of the Dakota and Minnesota territories with an intent to expand beyond these borders. Part of the education includes dispelling notions about Native American food such as fry bread or Indian tacos. Readers are instead educated on the truth and areas of focus about which types of wild game and produce are embraced like venison, rabbit, duck, blueberries, sumac, wild turnips, and plums.

You can purchase this book from the Heirloom Gardener store:The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen

It is hard to describe the era and the area I was born into — Pine Ridge Reservation, 1974 — wide open prairies, scents of white sage, bergamot, tall grasses, big skies, and dry, windy, dusty heat. You can smell the weather coming on from miles away. Growing up on Pine Ridge in the 1970s was what most Americans experienced in the 1950s. No seat belts for kids: we rode in the open back of pickup trucks with gun racks in the rear windows.

My younger sister and I lived on our grandparents’ ranch with cousins a mile down the hill. We all were a motley and feral group of kids, as wild as the dogs we ran with, exploring the grasslands and sand hills, scouting out antelope, mule deer, pheasants, grouse, sandhill cranes, salamanders, mallards, geese, jackrabbits, bull snakes, rattlesnakes, prairie dogs, coyotes, porcupines. Our TV had just three channels, so, except for the Saturday cartoons or reruns of The Brady Bunch, Petticoat Junction, and Little House on the Prairie, we were never tempted to watch.

I remember my father trying to teach me to drive a stick in his ’76 Ford truck when I was just barely tall enough to stand up over the steering wheel. By age seven, I’d learned to handle a rifle and was good at hunting game birds and sometimes antelope and deer, could help dig the wild turnip of the prairie, timpsula, and gather chokecherries. We all pitched in with chores like mending fences, moving cattle to pasture, checking water tanks and windmills, tracking the horses and cattle. We were dusty and gritty, but I never knew that we were dirt poor.

The family ranch was about twenty miles outside the town of Pine Ridge and about ten miles away from Batesland, South Dakota, population 200, where I went to grade school in a class of about twelve. Being members of the Oglala Lakota, we attended powwows, Sun Dances, family gatherings, holiday parades, school events. Native American spirit was always present, as was the strong sense of our family. Lakota-language class was as much a part of our school curriculum as English, social studies, and math. My grandparents were both fluent in Lakota, and people from the smaller villages would stop by to visit and talk for hours in that musical language. We were proud of our tribe, proud of our heritage.

Every birthday, wedding, naming ceremony, cattle-branding day, national and traditional holiday, our extended family gathered on the ranch. Our mom, aunts, grandma, and older girl cousins bustled in the tiny kitchen cooking up hearty taniga, a traditional Lakota soup, and earthy timpsula (wild prairie turnip), and Wojape, the Lakota berry soup. It’s my favorite dish, and today, as it simmers in our indigenous kitchen, the warm, sweet aroma time warps me back to my freewheeling six-year-old self.

Except for the occasional trip to see other family and shop at the one grocery store in Pine Ridge, we hardly ever left the ranch. Our freezer was stocked with the ranch’s beef and the game we’d bagged. Our shelves were lined with government-issued canned corn, canned carrots, canned peas, canned salmon, chipped beef, saltines, white flour, and bricks of bright orange commodity cheese. Although my grandmother tended a little garden, her fresh vegetables were a treat, not the norm.

I suppose it was my destiny to become a chef, but I couldn’t have known that when my parents split up and our mom moved my little sister and me to Spearfish, South Dakota, to pursue her college degree. Spearfish is near a beautiful canyon, not far from the Needles Highway (named for the granite spires that jut out of the earth in the Black Hills) and close to our family’s cabin. It’s named H? e Sapa, in Lakota, and is close to Bear Butte, a sacred place for ceremonies and origin stories, considered the spiritual center of the universe.

For me, this hardscrabble city of 7,000 residents and 11,000 university students was a big, tough place — conservative, Bible-thumping, and white. As a brown and skinny kid with a thick rez accent, I was in the minority for the first time in my life. After school, I’d bike over to the university library where my mom studied and I was free to rove three full stories of books, a beautiful thing. On the rez, I’d explored the buttes and sand hills and here, in the vast open library, I wandered the stacks and pulled volumes of history, geography, anthropology, and fiction off the shelves and got lost in the thrilling landscape of ideas.

My mom, a single parent going to school and working two jobs, just didn’t have time to shop and cook, so she relied on my sister and me to put meals on the table. Because I knew my way around the kitchen, I got a job at the Sluice as soon as I turned thirteen. Named for the gold-mining chutes, the Sluice was a short-order, hectic joint; I bussed and washed dishes and helped prep. That next summer, I worked at Sylvan Lake resort as the youngest on staff. I was a quick study and hard worker and soon pulled up to the grill. Our crew, college-aged kids, bored with steak and potatoes, explored new items such as rattlesnake and beaver, which for me was a thrill. I knew then I loved this work.

Another summer, working for the Forest Service, I identified plants in the Black Hills, documenting their history and culinary and medicinal uses, made notes, and drew pictures in my journals. Coded in my Native DNA is a sense of their value as food — purslane, wild yarrow, mint, bee balm, cedar, maple — all the edibles that surround us and grow under our feet.

Like most young men in their early twenties, I was overly confident and seeking adventure, so I upped and moved to Minneapolis, hometown of Prince and the Replacements, and landed in the Uptown neighborhood. Chock-full of independent restaurants, coffee shops, and music venues, it was diverse and crowded and I no longer stood out. I became sous chef at Broder’s Pasta Bar and learned from chef Michael Rostance how to run a highly organized, efficient kitchen, skim stocks, roll out pasta, and navigate the wines of Tuscany and Bordeaux.

Kitchen experience, research, trial and error, and persistence made up for my lack of formal training, and I climbed up the restaurant food chain. By age twenty-nine, I was an executive chef overseeing several corporate white-table establishments and natural food cafés. But the price for such early success was high. Under the weight of soul-crushing pressures, the long, long hours and late, late nights, my marriage began to fray. I was young, I was burned out. I was hopeful and curious. So I headed to Mexico and took a year off.

We landed in the tiny village of San Pancho, officially San Francisco, north of Puerto Vallarta in the state of Nayarit. Its sheer remoteness and thick jungle prevented permanent European colonization until the late nineteenth century and much of the indigenous foodways have remained intact. Bananas, coconuts, and mangos grew for anyone to pick; chickens ran through the streets, and the fishing was great. I woke to the daily scent of strong coffee, chilies roasting over an open fire, tortillas baking on a comal. Kids in tattered T-shirts ran barefoot through the cobblestone streets, roosters and dogs wandered through the town at their leisure, plumbing was a luxury in the one room homes. But the food, the food was bountiful, crafted from tradition, cooked with care.

There, sitting on the beautiful wide-open, tourist-free beaches, I watched in curiosity the local vendors selling their handmade goods and jewelry. The women and children in traditional dress were Huicholes, and I was fascinated by how similar their artwork, mannerisms, and sense of humor were to my own. They had beautiful beadwork that reminded me of the geometric patterns I grew up with in Lakota country, the colorful and meaningful plants and animals reflecting stories and legends. In a sweat lodge, called a temescal, they practiced ceremony that sparked my own childhood memories of our indigenous spiritual practices. I was consulting with a local restaurant in a small boutique hotel that sought to reimagine its menu with an extreme local focus, highlighting flavors of the ocean and jungle, mostly vegetarian with some local seafood.

In an epiphany, I tasted how food weaves people together, connects families through generations, is a life force of identity and social structure. After seeing how the Huicholes held on to so much of their pre-European culture through artwork and food, I recognized that I wanted to know my own food heritage. What did my ancestors eat before the Europeans arrived on our lands? I saw North America as a whole, with vast and varied landscapes, ancient migrations of people and agriculture whose methods and techniques spread northward with the corn cultures. I saw the deep connections to nature, to the entire ecosystems of the indigenous groups. I yearned to understand all of the plants and all of their purposes. No longer did I see “weeds,” but food and medicine. I began to appreciate the purpose of everything in our natural world, to respect the plants and animals, sources of sustenance. As I began my research, I realized how grossly underrepresented Native American foods are in the United States. Mitsitam Café in the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., was the only Native restaurant I could find. No place showcased the indigenous foods of our different regions; there were no recipes with dishes that featured the wild flavors of the landscapes (local game, heirloom vegetables, foraged foods) cooked over wood fires.

I started reading everything I could get my hands on and had books shipped directly to me — cookbooks, magazines, research publications — that covered Native American cooking, history, wild foraging, ethnobotany, anything that might provide a glimpse into our authentic culture. I was excited to get back to the States and start talking to elders and exploring our landscapes. I had a clear vision of what to do next.

In my mind’s eye, I could see that long ago the tribes were sovereign over their food systems, maintaining food security through a rich knowledge of the land and its food resources. They cultivated crops, foraged wild foods, hunted, and fished as good stewards. They relied on complex trade, held feasting ceremonies, and harvested food in common sites. In order to understand this cuisine, I had to return to its beginning and work solely with indigenous ingredients using simple tools and basic techniques. I found that, more than anything, my ancestors’ work was guided by respect for the food they enjoyed. Nothing was ever wasted; every bit was put to use. This sparked creativity as well as resilience and independence. Above all else, they were healthy and self-reliant.

Most of what passes for Native American fare today — fry bread or Indian tacos — is not authentic at all. My early ancestors didn’t eat the foods I grew up with or cooked in restaurants. Other than the taniga (a soup/stew of bison offal), timpsula (wild turnip), bison, and Wojape (chokecherry sauce), I knew little about our food culture. The vision I had was all-consuming and it drove me to learn more in order to discover what exactly makes up an indigenous food system and how I could apply that wisdom in my own contemporary kitchen.

I moved back to the States, settling in Red Lodge, Montana, and spent a summer on the Lazy El Ranch, cooking, being outdoors, reading books, gardening, foraging, and planning. My vision became real in 2014 when, back in Minneapolis, I founded The Sioux Chef, a pure leap of faith. That August, I left my chef’s salary, determined to focus on indigenous cuisine. By the end of September, I was hosting pop-up dinners, catering events, teaching and lecturing, building a team — all covered by our local and national press.

The Sioux Chef is a mission-driven enterprise of indigenous team members. It includes a full-service catering company, the Tatanka Food Truck, and (soon) a restaurant. We host pop-up dinners that weave together multicourse dinners with indigenous music, spoken word poetry, and storytelling. In my work with the Sioux Chef team, I also lecture, teach, and write about indigenous foods. Our success at local, national, and international levels confirms how necessary this effort truly is. We’ve shared our work in California, Milan, at the United Nations. At the Terra Madre, Shiilong, India, in 2015, a gathering of more than six hundred indigenous delegates, we realized that our work in mapping our own indigenous food systems applies throughout the world. Every day our work becomes richer and more interesting as we travel and meet with elders, indigenous chefs, historians, researchers, health professionals, and food justice advocates.

Why isn’t the original indigenous diet all the rage today? It’s hyperlocal, ultra-seasonal, uber-healthy: no processed foods, no sugar, no wheat (or gluten), no dairy, no high-cholesterol animal products. It’s naturally low glycemic, high protein, low salt, plant based with lots of grains, seeds, and nuts. Most of all, it’s utterly delicious. It’s what so many diets strive to be but fall short for lack of context. This is a diet that connects us all to nature and to each other in the most direct and profound ways.

This book is about the joy of indigenous cooking. It reveals the delight in finding ingredients right outside our kitchen doors. In a world that has become overcomplicated and reliant on appliances, gizmos, and tricky methods, we are returning to simple preparations that enhance the bold, fresh flavors of our local foods. These recipes, inspired by methods handed down through the ages, generation after generation, are integral to our culture, and, as with all good recipes, the dishes will change from cook to cook. These recipes are meant to be guidelines, not formulas.

We are not alone in this work. Our colleagues from other regions in the country have generously shared their knowledge, wisdom, and recipes. We often collaborate with these chefs to create indigenous dinners that reflect a diverse range of Native flavors.

These recipes along with the stories of goodness and resilience are told with hope and joy. Pilamaye and Miigwech (thank you in Lakota and Ojibwe). Now, let’s dig in.

More from The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen:

From The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen by Sean Sherman with Beth Dooley (University of Minnesota Press, 2017) Copyright 2017 Ghost Dancer, LLC. All rights reserved. Used by permission of the University of Minnesota Press.

Indigenous Recipes

Sean Sherman, the Oglala Lakota chef and founder of The Sioux Chef, in his breakout book, The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen, shares his approach to creating boldly seasoned foods that are vibrant, healthful, at once elegant and easy.Sherman dispels outdated notions of Native American fare. There’s no fry bread or Indian tacos here, and no European staples such as wheat flour, dairy products, sugar, or domestic pork and beef. These healthful plates embrace venison and rabbit, river and lake trout, duck and quail, wild turkey, blueberries, sage, sumac, timpsula or wild turnip, plums, purslane, and abundant wildflowers. Contemporary and authentic, his dishes feature cedar-braised bison, griddled wild rice cakes, amaranth crackers with smoked white bean paste, three sisters salad, deviled duck eggs, smoked turkey soup, dried meats, roasted corn sorbet, and hazelnut–maple bites. The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen is a rich education and a delectable introduction to modern indigenous cuisine of the Dakota and Minnesota territories, with a vision and approach to food that travels well beyond those borders. Order from the Heirloom Gardener Store or by calling 800-456-5835.

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