Chef Sean Sherman, founder of the company The Sioux Chef, will lead events focused on decolonizing food systems April 14-15 at Illinois State University. (Find details here.) Before he joins virtual audiences for the Normal Food Summit, a discussion on Seeds of Change, a cooking demonstration of healthy Indigenous foods, and a formal talk on “The (R)evolution of Indigenous Food Systems of North America,” he took part in a Q and A from Illinois State faculty members.
Can you give us a definition of “Indigenous food” for people who don’t know what that means?
Sherman: Since we’re here in North America, we’re looking at what the Indigenous communities were eating and what their food systems were. We’re also studying how they utilized foods in their diet and how that connected to their practices.
There’s so much intense diversity amongst Indigenous peoples that you can’t really lump all Native American cuisine into one group. Instead, we look to these diverse regions and diverse cultures to understand what they were growing and how. That includes looking at Native American agriculture, seed saving, farming techniques, and ethnobotany. We also work to identify wild food and plants that were used in medicinals and food preservation.
Food systems also encompass understanding the traditions, languages, and ceremonies. It’s thinking about the land space that we are on and paying respect to the Indigenous cultures who have lived here for so long. It is Indigenous varietals, corns, beans, squash, sunflower seeds, and some of the Indigenous seeds that were brought over from Africa with the history of African Indigenous peoples being forced here.
You mentioned seed saving. One of the events taking place while you are here is the Seeds of Change discussion with the Horticulture Center. Can you talk more about the importance of seed saving?
Sherman: Agriculture is a big part of our study on Indigenous food systems because there’s such a wonderful history of Indigenous agriculture from the Americas. If you look at corn culture, you can see the migration from Mexico and shooting both directions into North and South America, across the Mississippi and Missouri River valleys. There is just so much of a wonderful agricultural history.
There are many organizations working to study and build seed banks. I sit on the board of Dream of Wild Health in Minnesota as well as the Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa, which is one of the nation’s largest privately owned nonprofit seed banks. They connect with other groups, like Native Seed Search in Tuscon, Arizona, and the Indigenous Seed Keepers Network, a nonprofit program out of the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance. The connection to these seeds is really important for Indigenous peoples, especially coming from the immense amount of farming tribes. The study of seeds is key for our generation to truly understand the history of North American Indigenous agriculture, and to become better stewards of what’s left out there, and to help to protect a lot of those cultural seed diversities. And really to kind of pay respect to the groups that have been able to keep these seed diversities alive through so much turmoil in the history of colonization of the Americans.
How does colonized thought relate to growing and eating food?
Sherman: When we examine how our society has adapted the modern, popular diet, we can see it has very little to do with this land space that we’re on right now today. It is a Westernized diet. When we’re looking at these Indigenous diets, they reflect so much of the diversity of natural flora, plants, trees, and vegetation. Part of removing colonial thought from food systems is to bring awareness to people who don’t really have a sense of Indigenous foods or Indigenous culture and history. We aim to think about the land space, and how Indigenous peoples who have been here for thousands of generations created the blueprints to live sustainably and utilize the knowledge of their regions.
You’ve spoken about the spiritual, mental, and physical connection with the natural world. How does food help us form a connection to that?
Sherman: I think that the more closely connected you are to the environment —you start to learn the names of the plants and the trees around you —then you start to see nothing but food and medicine basically everywhere you look. That’s important to be more connected to our environments. Then we’ll understand how the health of our environment is extremely important.
The colonized approach is to settle lands, pull natural resources, and to make other entities extremely rich through these extraction processes. We’ve seen that leave waste and long-standing environmental damage. There’s a deep benefit to understanding how Indigenous peoples connect to their environment. It is more than physical, it is spiritual.
You have mentioned food as a source of knowledge. How can people best share that?
Sherman: Food is such a cultural identifier. It is passed down family lines from people very dear and very special to them. Because of the history of colonization, Indigenous people were forced away from their culture, including food. The atrocities that came from a young United States government pushing from the East Coast to take over the lower 48 by the end of the century. Being forced in the 1900s to move to a segregated state of reservations and deal with racism and the erasure of Indigenous culture in schools. We’ve never had a chance to grow out of that intense trauma.
We’re finally at a generation right now where we can really start to identify the value of the lessons of our ancestors and apply them to today’s world. We can see a better path forward. Through food we’re able to understand and reclaim so many deep meaningful stories. It’s a direct connection to our ancestors.
Do you hope this legacy continues in places like Owamni, the new restaurant in Minneapolis, located in a park that was reclaimed from an industrial area?
Sherman: We’re excited to open Owamni soon. The name comes from part of the original name the Dakota gave the space. There used to be these really beautiful waterfalls in what is now St. Paul. The Dakota people lived there for much longer, of course, and their name for the area was “swirling waters” or Owmani-yomni. It was such a sacred space for the Dakota people that they named the entire Mississippi River the “River of the Falls.” It was a center point of their society.
This is The Sioux Chef company’s first Indigenous brick and mortar place. We’ll be able to tell a story through the food that we’ll be serving. It is also the next step in our mission to uplift Indigenous food producers and create a new generation of Indigenous chefs.
Owamni is inherently connected to the Indigenous Food Lab, our nonprofit kitchen that focuses on research and development of Indigenous foods. We aim to help tribal communities develop their own culinary operations, using the Food Lab as a training center. Eventually, we’d like to see support develop more and more Indigenous culinary operations. The work is to incubate food entrepreneurs, like chefs, caterers, and food truck operators, while also supporting food producers and food manufacturers.
How are you working with universities?
Sherman: The Indigenous Food Lab is working with our larger nonprofit, North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems (NāTIFS), to connect with higher education partners. We’d like to continue the efforts on research and development projects to further our knowledge of Indigenous foods, whether understanding nutritional benefits or new farming or agricultural techniques.
We also work directly with universities, helping them to develop Indigenous programming into their food facilities and connect them with Indigenous food growers. The goal is to help normalize serving Indigenous foods, having it appear on their menus on occasion.
We’re open to help make those connections and develop entrepreneurs, especially young entrepreneurs, who are working to bring Indigenous foods to the market. We need to see more Indigenous food production out there. And when people purchase those products, it’s going directly into keeping those cultures alive.