Chef Sean Sherman of The Sioux Chef on Indigenous Food Systems

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Often when we talk about eating sustainably, we use the language of restriction: "don't eat this" or "reduce the amount you eat of that." To people like Chef Sean Sherman, Founder of The Sioux Chef, eating sustainably is so foundational to his cuisine, it's anything but restrictive. To share this food with a broader audience, Chef Sherman recently published a cookbook, "The Sioux Chef's Indigenous Kitchen," with Beth Dooley.

The dishes he creates beautifully present surprising ingredients that were found on this continent before the first Europeans landed here and brings traditional techniques to a modern setting. To do so, Chef Sherman sources his food hyper-locally through foraging and buying from nearby, sustainable producers who are often Native Americans. Chef Sherman is Oglala Lakota and was born in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, and most of the chefs, ethnobotanists and artists on The Sioux Chef team are also Native Americans.

In addition to highlighting indigenous foods, a central part of The Sioux Chef's mission is to educate people about and expand access to indigenous food systems. As part of this work, The Sioux Chef is opening a restaurant, publishing a cookbook this fall and has just launched a new non-profit namedNorth American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems.

To learn more about the sustainability of indigenous foods systems and better understand his team's approach to food, we spoke with Chef Sherman.

Could you talk a little bit about the sustainability of indigenous foodways and how traditional approaches could change and benefit the food system?

With our study of indigenous cultures, the commonality that we see with indigenous communities around the world involves a living connection with the nature found all around. So, whether they're a culture that has agriculture or not, it's really about being connected to the plant world.

Our study is North America: where cultures were before they were influenced by other cultures and then the status of where we are today. There was a lot of ancient agriculture happening here. We look at the practices of the Aztecs as the best example because they had such a gigantic civilization and their agricultural system was so sustainable - the world hasn't even really seen something comparable, even today.

We also look at permaculture techniques from tribes all across North America where people were reutilizing whatever landscapes they were in, whether it was harsh desert environments or harsh arctic environments. A large portion of the British Columbia area or the Northwest didn't have agriculture per se, but they were using permaculture technique to feed a large civilization sustainably.

Also, we take a lot of those lessons of not trying to bring in transplants from around the world, but really letting the land grow out the great stuff that naturally wants to grow there.

People should have an understanding of indigenous America because you have to understand that history to understand America in general.

We also need to understand the food diversification of peoples all across North America. We want to recognize just how much more diverse the diets were back then - and could be today - if people just had the knowledge of utilizing food and flavors that are particular to their areas.

So, what we practice is really the education side of things, which is why we're getting closer to opening up a restaurant. We're putting more of our time and effort into curriculum and education that teaches people about their own particular areas. People should have an understanding of indigenous America because you have to understand that history to understand America in general. And not just America, but all of North America. So we should look at Mexico, Alaska, Canada and the US. The work we do resonates around the world where any colonialism happened to any community, and there are many lessons to learn on a worldwide scale if we start to tie it together. 

Could you talk a bit about the importance of local food and - regardless of whether it's hyper-local or regional - how that impacts culture?

I've been working with local foods for quite a long time, ever since the late 90s in Minneapolis. And there are, of course, many benefits to local food systems. What we're doing particularly with tribal regions is to try to repair this piece that was forcibly removed from a lot of indigenous communities across North America. This had really consequential effects on health and livelihoods in general.

On my reservation, Pine Ridge, I think the average age of a male is 20 years less than anywhere else in the whole US. We have communities with a 60 percent diabetes rate. We just really want to help change that. With indigenous communities, we just want to get back to some of their traditional foods and methods, which could really directly impact a lot of health issues and economic issues. It's really about community and capacity building - rebuilding at this point - because if we can get people to grow the heirloom strains of vegetation that their tribes would have been utilizing, we can slowly get these communities to become self-sustainable through their own goods. It's so important to hold onto that heritage and to give people the education to start to not only gather the foods that grow around them throughout the seasons, but to also propagate them through permaculture.

These lessons can be used in any community. You don't have to be native to understand the plant life in your area and its biodiversity. We just want people to know that there are a lot of great lessons to learn through indigenous studies and food systems.

Chef Sean ShermanChef Sean Sherman. Photo credit: Heidi Ehalt Photography.

Can you talk a bit about seasonality and the importance of that to you and your cuisine?

You have to be really connected to seasonality when you're collecting foods in the wild, because you might have a two-week window for some things and then they're gone for the whole year. So a lot of indigenous communities are used to that kind of lifestyle: they know when things are blossoming and which parts of the plants to take during which parts of the seasons. We're very in tune with seasonality. Even our small staff, as we grow, all of us are like that too. All of us can't wait until springtime hits and food starts popping out of the ground. Seasonality is a big part of being in touch with your own region. It's being aware of plant life around you and is definitely a big part of how we're structuring our kitchen, as we're kind of creating this modern, indigenous kitchen.

There is this really interesting parallel between the movement to protect indigenous foodways and the movement to protect heirloom seeds and biodiversity. Could you talk a little bit about the connection between those things and why biodiversity is important to your team?

These seeds are kind of like their relatives in a sense; they've grown with them for so long. It's a symbol of resistance and resilience to still have some of these native heirloom varieties out there.

When we look at North America in particular, through an indigenous perspective, we see so much diversification because every few hundred miles you go, it's a new, different culture, a different language, different religion with different beliefs and different foods. When you look at the farming communities and the history of agriculture, you see it starting way down south near Central America thousands of years ago and slowly it moves its way north throughout North America all the way up into parts of Canada. We look at how many different kinds of seeds we were able to grow. Nowadays we still have hundreds of different varieties of corn, beans and squash, and things like that, which are a lot of the main staples of the indigenous agriculture of North America. But we see so much diversification. And even though today we still have a lot of it, we probably lost a lot of it during the expansion of colonialism throughout North America over the past couple hundred years. What we have left becomes even more special because we want to preserve a lot of those seed strains and that DNA.

We would love to get those seeds into the communities that grew them so they're continuing to have that heritage seed that is a part of who they are. These seeds are kind of like their relatives in a sense; they've grown with them for so long. It's a symbol of resistance and resilience to still have some of these native heirloom varieties out there.

Which is one reason that I was happy to be able to be on the board with the Seed Savers Exchange out of Iowa, just being around such a great group of people who are likeminded about preserving heirloom qualities and our seed varietals.

How do you go about sourcing meat in a way that works within your culinary framework?

We prioritize purchasing from indigenous vendors first just to try and open up opportunities for people in those communities to develop their own products.

We organize our protein structure by looking at pieces that people were utilizing largely before influence, but there are also some gray areas that really represent other cultures well. So if you look down south at the Navajo, or the Diné, and their production of sheep farming, it goes back a few hundred years and that's not something you'd want to remove from their food systems just by saying it's not indigenous to them. Because it's a big part of who they are and have been for quite a long time, it's a big part of their story. So for us, we've cut out beef, pork, and chicken, only because those pieces have only been within these indigenous communities for just over a hundred years at the most. We're putting more of our efforts into poultry farms that might have duck, quail, geese and even turkey. We also have tried to utilize a lot of the bison ranchers near us.

We prioritize purchasing from indigenous vendors first just to try and open up opportunities for people in those communities to develop their own products. Protein sources are a big piece of that, which we'd love to be able to help with by utilizing lots of farmed rabbits, bison, turkey or duck. Red Lake Preservation in Northern Minnesota have a fishery and we're able to purchase a lot of natural lake fish - like walleyes, perch and whitefish - directly from them. So we want to be able to support the indigenous communities and get some of them to see the opportunities of being able to raise proteins in their communities that are meaningful and traditional to their area.

Do you see a difference in quality because you source that way?

Oh, totally. Anybody who's worked in restaurants that has worked with local foods knows you can definitely see a difference. A lot of it is just humane factors of breeding animals too. Not having them just be factory raised in a pen, but have the grass-fed options that are able to roam around and be a little more free. So, with small farming or small ranching units, you see the protein is just better in general because the animals themselves are eating a diverse diet, which creates a healthier protein base: there's just a lot of vitamins and things that get into the meat itself when they're able to eat a lot more than just grain.

Could you give a little bit of advice from the sourcing work you do for consumers who are trying to source similarly?

So for sourcing, like I said, we prioritize purchasing from indigenous vendors first because we just want to get those opportunities out to those communities to be able to either collect foods from the wild or grow heirloom varietals. Next we'll use anybody that grows out foods that are particular to our region. So we use a lot of local cooperatives and CSAs and groups that are collecting food. As we grow - and we're hoping to expand slowly across the nation with these same formats - we want to be able to set up these businesses that support these very micro-local growers and collectors, so their foods can really represent their particular region, the cultures and histories. And as we have opportunities to work with much larger companies, we have to demand that their sourcing is a part of our mission statement. We need that sourcing to come directly from the area. We don't want everything coming from a big box truck or from corporate farms that are trying to mimic what we're trying to do.

With conventional foods, the data is there that they're not healthy. But with indigenous foods, what is the difference? What's the benefit?

The biggest thing with these indigenous food systems and diets in North America is that even though there are so many of them, one of the commonalities was the healthfulness of the diets that people had. It was this really super-diverse diet with lots of different plant life. It's super low-glycemic, low in salt and the fats are really good fats because they're coming from a lot of seeds and nuts and really healthy animal fats.

A lot of us have seen so much suffering with diseases caused from poor diets, and a lot of it is because of the oppression that people are still going through right now in indigenous communities...

Overall, North American people before they were influenced from other cultures weren't seeing a lot of these health problems because of a really awesome diet base.

So I don't see any reason why North American indigenous diets shouldn't be the next big fad, because it's hyper-local for people here and it's just got so many beneficial qualities. It's kind of like what the paleo diet really wants to be, you know? Because it's just dating back directly to whatever region you're in, and there's just so much awesome stuff you can utilize. It also supports the local economy immensely.

We just really want to get this information and knowledge out there, especially to the indigenous communities - like the ones that a lot of us on our team have grown up with - in order to help their health for the future. A lot of us have seen so much suffering with diseases caused from poor diets, and a lot of it is because of the oppression that people are still going through right now in indigenous communities where there might be a 90 percent underemployment rate and the only thing you can do is survive off of government food that isn't healthy for you. So our hope is that, by creating access points and education, we can make a really impactful change on health across the board.

I want to take a little bit of a turn, but in a very similar vein, and about this fascinating medicinal tradition that's associated with indigenous foodways. Can you talk about that and how it informs the food you cook?

Almost all the food that I'm dealing with, especially the wild foods, carry more than just culinary uses. You can look at plants three ways really - you can see it as food, you can see it as medicine, or you can see it as something that's utilizable, for instance as dyes, ropes or clothing. We want people to understand a lot of the traditional usage of these things. Because really, nature gave everything to the people that were living here before. They were able to create houses and baskets and clothing and all sorts of stuff with it. And it was also the medicine cabinet. I think it's a really cool part of the knowledge to understanding that medicinal side of plants, because that's obviously so much healthier for you.

A lot of folks talk about a spiritual connection to food. And I've read some interviews with you where you mention the same thing. Could you talk a little bit about what it does to the way you look at food when you have this spiritual connection? 

I think indigenous communities all share a very deep spiritual connection with the food and the plants and the animals around them. We utilize a lot of that common practice in our daily work life. So when we're doing events, we always have a traditional spirit plate before we have the dinner, just to thank everybody that had anything to do with the food and anybody that we wish could be with us. It's just an important tradition that we maintain with a lot of our work.

I think for indigenous communities there's always been an immense amount of spiritual connection with the food around you. It's a religious and belief system that is really built around being thankful for food and understanding how important it is that you're a part of the ecosystem, and not to trying to overtake it and force it to do things.

You're a community that works with it. It's something that's not a given, you have to work hard for it too. You know, in the old days it took a whole community to work around food, so it's something that's very important for indigenous communities pretty much all across the world.

If you could envision someone trying to eat locally in 50 or 60 years, what would a sustainable, just system look like? What would they be interacting with on a daily basis when it comes to food?

We've thought about that quite a bit because it's how we want to structure our business. With the creation of our nonprofit that we've just released, called the North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems, we want to directly impact a lot of these tribal regions that really struggle with their food - with problems like diabetes, heart disease and obesity. We feel like food is really a great center point for everybody - food businesses in general - because we're able to not only teach the public how to utilize a lot of these beautiful and simple foods, but we're also giving them the access point just to be able to get it.

The problem for a lot of these communities is that we see them struggling with having the wrong kind of infrastructure. So our plan with the nonprofit is twofold: one part is the indigenous education of teaching about food systems and the other is with food business development. So, the plan for us is to open up this first restaurant in the Twin Cities and to develop it to be more than a restaurant: a culinary educational center where people can come and learn about various parts of food systems:

  • About native agriculture, including seed saving, soil management and harvesting
  • About how to sustainably harvest wild foods by making sure things are re-seeding so you're not just clearing out a whole area
  • About permaculture and designing landscapes to be very profitable
  • About hunting, fishing and ranching
  • About food preservation, everything from drying, smoking, to fermentation
  • About salt, sugar and fat production

Basically what we're trying to do is kind of create a network of indigenous food systems that can slowly grow across the nation

We want to reach all of these educational places that people really need to understand as a whole. Then we want to get business plan models and help open up smaller units on tribal areas and help them grow and create their own indigenous food systems by giving them tools to have their own seeds that are particular to their tribes or regions, getting them the education they need to do permaculture. 

Basically what we're trying to do is kind of create a network of indigenous food systems that can slowly grow across the nation. Our model would be a large urban area with the large restaurant, catering, food training and education center, and then small satellites all around us. Then see areas that we want to impact and then take that model and move it around. So take any big city, like Seattle or Phoenix or wherever, and then satellite around them to be impactful in the same manner. And then slowly we become connected all across the country, and then hopefully we could move it to Canada and to Mexico to help them secure a lot of their indigenous food knowledge and to help it grow, so it's something that people will grow up with in the future.

Could you talk a little more about this project? 

We're just at the very beginning stage, but it's something that I've been developing for a couple years. I always knew the restaurant wasn't going to be the vehicle to get us to do what we want to do, which is to try to get this food out there to everybody, to all regions and to get people access to it. Because we really just want to right the biggest wrongs, which for indigenous communities is being reliant on government subsidies and commodity food programs, which unfortunately is extremely unhealthy. You can survive off of it and support families who don't have money, but it's not fixing any problems, it's not helping to create an economy, and it's only giving them really poorly produced food that's super high in saturated fats and sodium and sugars. That doesn't do any community good, especially if they're already suffering from a 60 percent diabetes rate or mass obesity. So we wanted to do something that's really going to make a change.

Where we're at with the nonprofit is just at the very beginning stages. So we have what we feel like is a really strong foundation. We're going to be doing a lot of work with our company, the Sioux Chef, in tandem with the nonprofit to really help develop these business plan models and to find people who want to work on the educational models and curriculums with us, so we can tackle it all at once. For us it's just a much better tool to grow and be impactful on a large scale.

This interview has been condensed and edited. This post was originally published in June 2017. 

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