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Leisure Management
2018 issue 1

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Leisure Management - Sioux-per foods


Sioux-per foods

Native American communities have the highest rate of diabetes of any US population. Sean Sherman, founder of The Sioux Chef, wants to reverse this trend through the revival of indigenous food. Kath Hudson reports

Kath Hudson
Sean Sherman founded The Sioux Chef to shine a light on indigenous cuisine
Sioux Chef restaurants will celebrate the food of the local area PHOTO: DANA THOMPSON

North America is an unusual country – you can go to a city and find cuisine from Europe or Asia, or anywhere else in the world, but there is no reflection of the country’s own indigenous past,” says Sean Sherman, founder of The Sioux Chef. “The Culinary Institute of America doesn’t even teach about indigenous food. American history has been rewritten, from the point the settlers came over, and its Native American origins have been all but wiped off the map.”

Growing up on a reservation in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, Sherman says he was raised on a diet of “oppression food” supplied by the government, such as tinned salmon and fruit. As tribes were moved away from their original lands, their means to produce their own food was limited and they became increasingly reliant on a less healthy diet, which they weren’t used to and which had a negative impact on their health, way of life and identity.

“Native Americans had lived on their own clean food for centuries, but the Europeans came and forced their diet on them,” he says. “Tribes were isolated by government policies and became dependent on packaged, canned and processed food, which were high in fat and sugar, as well as foods they had never tasted, like cane sugar and wheat flour. As Native Americans were unused to this diet, it has led to food-related diseases, like obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, as well as tooth decay, which was previously unheard of.”

Lost generations
Sadly, it wasn’t just the diet which was lost, but the whole culinary culture and agriculture. Knowledge of how food was grown and prepared, which had been passed down through generations, was stopped in its tracks. With his company, The Sioux Chef, Sherman is committed to re-educating North America about its roots. He believes food will be a game-changer in reviving the health and cultural identity of the hundreds of Native American tribes still in existence, from South Mexico up to the Rockies.

When Sherman was 13, his family relocated from the Pine Ridge reservation, where there were few jobs and little money, to a touristy area in the Black Mountains. Sherman started working in restaurants, which served standard American dishes, like steak and potatoes. However, as many of the dishes were made from scratch, he honed his culinary skills.

Later, he moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota, to study, continued working in restaurants and quickly moved up the ranks. “I came across a lot of different styles, such as French and Italian, but never indigenous American,” says Sherman. “At this point, I had an epiphany. I was studying all of these different cultures, but knew nothing about my own heritage, so I started researching Lakota food.

“It was very hard to research as it was so fragmented and not much was written about it. I wanted it to be entirely traditional, not fusion. I wanted to understand the different tribes and create a model of indigenous food systems.”

In 2006, Sherman moved to Mexico, where the food has retained a more indigenous influence than a Spanish one. “Take away imported food like dairy, pork and chicken, and the diet is still the same: corns, beans, squash and regional foods,” he says. “It opened my eyes to indigenous cultures and I didn’t know what I needed to know, but I knew what to look for.”

Back from the brink
Fortunately, Sherman’s epiphany had come just in time: his great grandfather’s generation had lived traditionally, and there were still enough elders alive from whom he could mine knowledge. Added to this, he has dug through history, anthropology and ethnobotany books to find out about plants, medicines, permaculture techniques and agriculture and to understand the plants and flora of different regions.

Sherman realised that a single restaurant wouldn’t be wide-reaching enough to revive a culture, so, along with his business partner, Dana Thompson, he started a non-profit organisation, NaTIFs (North American Tribes Indigenous Food Systems). The plan is to open a network of restaurants in tribal areas, each with an education centre to teach people about traditional techniques, including food preparation, foraging for wild foods and seed saving. Sherman wants to pass on agriculture and permaculture skills as well as culinary skills because in those days it was everyone’s job to be involved with food production.

Each restaurant will celebrate the food of that particular area and gradually the model will be introduced to big US and Canadian cities. However, it won’t be expanded to other countries: the point is not to have a chain of restaurants, but to empower tribal communities to take charge of their culture and health once more. “By giving back knowledge we can reclaim the food systems,” says Sherman.

The Sioux Chef


Partner Dana Thompson and Sherman are bringing a lost culinary heritage back to life

Formed by Sean Sherman and operated with partner Dana Thompson, The Sioux Chef is a team of chefs, ethnobotanists, food preservationists, foragers adventurers, caterers and event planners from a number of tribes, including the Anishinaabe, Mdewakanton Dakota, Navajo, Northern Cheyenne, Oglala Lakota, Wahpeton-Sisseton Dakota.

A cookbook called The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen, written by Sherman and Beth Dooley, is available to buy now.

The indigenous diet

The diet of indigenous people was so clean that there were none of the food-related illnesses that are common today. Similar to the paleo diet, the native American diet is regional and therefore more diverse. It is a local micro diet, low glycaemic, low in salt and saturated fats and naturally gluten and dairy free, with no soy, processed sugar, beef, pork or chicken.

It includes native animals like bison, venison, rabbit, elk and quail, choke-cherries, dried mushrooms, elderberries and juneberries and over 1,000 varieties of seeds. Each tribe ate according to the season and locality. For example, native people in the Pacific Northwest would harvest things like seaweed and seafood to sustain themselves, while indigenous tribes in the southwest depended on cholla buds, corns and beans.



Tatanka on the road

In 2015, Sherman and Thompson worked with the Little Earth Community of United Tribes in Minneapolis to design and open the Tatanka Truck. The food truck serves up indigenous recipes of the Dakota and Minnesota territories, using seasonal and local ingredients. Its signature dish is Indigenous Tacos, with braised bison or smoked turkey over corn cakes.

Tatanka is the Lakota word for “big feast”

Originally published in Leisure Management 2018 issue 1

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