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Opinion: We’ve Got American Cuisine All Wrong

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How indigenous cultures are reclaiming their foodways

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Sioux Chef
Chef Sean Sherman
Heidi Ehalt

This story was originally published on Civil Eats.

Although hamburgers, pizza, and Coca-Cola are among the foods most often identified as “American” cuisine, the truth is that over-sugared, over-salted, and fat-laden processed fare does not represent the true American diet. The original American cuisine arose from the vibrant and diverse indigenous cultures that thrived across the North American continent for thousands of years before colonization.

European colonists disrupted the indigenous cultures and their foodways — introducing white flour, sugar, dairy, and fat and pushing indigenous peoples away from traditions that honored elders, shared wisdom, and operated in tune with nature.

The impact of the colonial diet on natives of the Americas — and also New Zealand, Australia, Southeast Asia, India, and Africa — cannot be denied. Consider the health crises caused by obesity, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and tooth decay. None of these conditions existed prior to colonization. Given the massive, negative impacts of the colonizers’ diets, we can no longer ignore the culinary backbone of this massive continent.

Aware of this urgency, indigenous communities throughout North and South America are in the process of reclaiming their language, arts, seeds, knowledge, and cuisine. Those of us committed to the indigenous food movement are tapping into the wisdom of our ancestors — and using today’s technology to research and recover much of what was lost or destroyed. By sharing our research, as well as our elders’ wisdom, we are working together to bring something larger than any single one of us to the plate. This is not a revolution or reclamation; it is an indigenous evolution.

Becoming Aware of a Disconnect

The seeds of my mission to revive indigenous foodways were planted many years ago. I grew up on Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, where both of my parents were born and raised, and I only slowly realized I knew little to nothing of my own heritage and the foods of the Oglala Lakota.

My grandparents were among the first generation to be systematically assimilated to “American” culture — I heard stories of children kidnapped and sent to boarding schools, their hair cut, their language forbidden. How I wish I had been taught more than the handful of recipes I learned as a child — wasna (dried meat and berries), taniga (tripe soup), bapa (bison jerky), and wojape (chokecherry sauce).

When I was 13 years old, I began working in professional kitchens, and by my early 20s, I was an executive chef. I mastered the art of Italian, French, and Spanish cuisines until, at the height of my career, I knew I wanted to understand why there were so few Native American restaurants across the U.S.

The answer is simple. Colonialism and imperialism decimated indigenous cultures, eradicated indigenous knowledge, and destroyed natural resources. The Europeans stole the land indigenous people used for hunting, foraging, and farming. By removing the people from their foods and replacing their original, healthy diets, the colonists destroyed the lives of the people who had thrived for millennia. Such practices have had a devastating effect on our people and on the earth.

Spreading Indigenous Food Appreciation Far and Wide

I work with my partner Dana Thompson and a team of 10 chefs, plus a number of indigenous culinary partners across Indian country, on The Sioux Chef. Our vision is to create more than a restaurant — it will be a place where we can share our skills, knowledge, and passion, with the goal of spreading our work across the whole of North America. To help us achieve these ends, our new NāTIFS non-profit will focus primarily on indigenous food education and access. Through NāTIFS, we have created a research-and-development team called the “Indigenous Food Lab” to further our own research, document our work, and help us become better educators.

We are also building a replicable model that will place an Indigenous Food Hub in larger urban areas. The hubs will house a regionally unique indigenous restaurant that will not only make the indigenous foods available to the public, but also serve as a training center to educate students in the preparation, cooking, and preservation of indigenous foods. They will also house education centers that offer classes based on the many curriculums we have been developing to help people identify, understand, and apply the knowledge of indigenous food systems.

Over the long term, our vision is to work with the tribal communities surrounding the food hubs to open indigenous food satellites, regionally and culturally unique food businesses that can cater and make indigenous foods accessible to the areas most in need of healthy foods. We hope to create a network of healthy indigenous food businesses all across this country we call Turtle Island to showcase the truly unique flavors of our cultures.

Awakening People to the Lessons of the Past

As my team and I conduct research and come to understand the components of an indigenous food system that includes farming through permaculture; hunting and fishing; foraging for wild foods; preservation through canning; producing salt, fat, and sugar; and studying ethno-oceanography, we can both rebuild our cultures and create a food system that showcases and solidifies our true identities. We will realize how unique and special our homelands are and become the answers to our ancestors’ prayers.

Over the past few years, we have connected with a growing network of indigenous chefs throughout the country, which compels me to emphasize that this work is not about me. It’s about bringing awareness to the vast diversity of all of indigenous cultures throughout the world. It’s about the plants, animals, and techniques that truly define the tastes and histories of the places we were raised.

This work is the first step in unraveling colonialism so that we can see the original North American foods and realize their potential. It’s critically important for indigenous communities to produce and eat their traditional foods and for non-native peoples to understand the role they can play in bringing us all together to create a healthy sustainable future.

Through this work spreading knowledge and improving access to indigenous foods, we hope not only to strengthen indigenous cultures but also to awaken people to the lessons of the past and the importance of using them to build a better world for our children and their children. If all goes as planned, the foods of the Americas will never be the same.

In 2014, Sean Sherman launched the Sioux Chef, an indigenous enterprise based in Minneapolis, where a team of chefs, ethnobotanists, food preservationists, adventurers, foragers, caterers, artists, musicians, and food lovers — who are of Anishinaabe, Mdewakanton Dakota, Navajo, Northern Cheyenne, Oglala Lakota, and Wahpeton-Sisseton Dakota decent — research and teach original food systems, nutritional literacy, entrepreneurship workshops, and other capacity-building. Their efforts are made possible through the non-profit the North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems (NāTIFs). The group is also developing a restaurant that will open with support of the Minneapolis Parks Board in 2019 on the Mississippi.

Sherman, along with his co-author Beth Dooley, recently published The Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen. Out now, the book teaches cooks that it’s possible to use only regional indigenous ingredients — and cut out colonial foods completely.

The Sioux Chef Wants to Bring Pre-Colonial Cuisine to the People [CE]
The Wild and Native Foods We Should Be Eating [CE]

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