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Sean Sherman Is Decolonizing American Food

By building decolonized food systems, the Sioux Chef and Indigenous Food Lab co-founder hopes to create more food security in communities across the United States

Man with long hair sitting behind table with a dark black background. Heidi Ehalt/courtesy Sean Sherman
Brenna Houck is a Cities Manager for the Eater network. She previously edited Eater Detroit and reported for Eater. You can follow her on the internet at @brennahouck.

A chef and educator, Sean Sherman is one of North America’s loudest voices speaking to the challenges and opportunities within Indigenous food systems. Sherman and partner Dana Thompson co-founded the Sioux Chef, an organization that highlights Native American cuisine while documenting a “decolonized” diet, as Sherman, along with co-author Beth Dooley, did in the James Beard Award-winning cookbook The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen.

Sherman, who belongs to the Oglala Lakota tribe, grew up on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, where he learned firsthand the food security challenges Indigenous communities face in the United States. As he told the New York Times in 2019, his family’s Pine Ridge pantry was often stocked with government-issued rations that they sometimes supplemented with food foraged on the reservation. When he was a teenager, Sherman left Pine Ridge to take a kitchen job in a Minneapolis restaurant. Over the years, his vision evolved to focus on researching and introducing contemporary cuisine made with pre-colonial ingredients to diners around the country, and creating pathways to more nutritious and culturally appropriate foods to Indigenous communities across the U.S.

Sherman and his partners also operate the nonprofit North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems (NATIFS), which is working to establish a network of leaders in Indigenous farming and culinary communities. Prior to the pandemic, NATIFS and the Sioux Chef were in the process of opening a restaurant, education center, and commercial kitchen focused on providing healthy food to the community. The current health crisis has made that path more difficult, but it’s also made clear the need for a more resilient, accessible food system that helps prevent the types of preexisting conditions that make BIPOC communities more susceptible to diseases like COVID-19. “We want to help support more young Indigenous entrepreneurs as we grow,” Sherman says, “especially once we get past COVID, helping to see more Indigenous chefs to come out of the woodwork and follow their dreams.”

Eater spoke with Sherman about his vision for the future of food and how it fits within the larger context of a global health crisis and social uprisings in Minneapolis and beyond.

Eater: What do you see as the future of food, especially coming from an Indigenous communities and foodways perspective?

Sean Sherman: A lot of our work in the beginning was just raising awareness to what Indigenous foods are and why that’s important and relevant information to understand. Showcasing the amazing bounty of the diversity that we have, both culturally and culinarily, across North America in particular, is our main focus. So for us, it’s been quite a few years of networking, researching, and visiting all these different regions and seeing the amazing food culture that exists everywhere.

What’s really come to light, because of COVID, is our vulnerability and over-reliance on over-processed and commercial foods. And it really strengthens our argument: The understanding of Indigenous food systems is the understanding of how regional food systems work, and I really believe that’s where we need to be moving toward in the future.

We need community-based food systems. We need a lot more local community-based farming systems. We need better usage of our land. Our work is focused on the culinary aspect and developing a lot of education around that. So we’ll be using our commercial kitchen as a showcase for utilizing these healthy and regionally produced foods, and doing it for us, in a cultural way — focused on Indigenous cultures of where we are. But anybody can be learning from these systems.

What sorts of real, concrete change do you see happening in Indigenous communities looking forward five years? Do you have any vision for what could actually take place?

With Indigenous Food Lab, it’s the whole vision. We were originally going to open up the first unit of Indigenous Food Lab this year, with a restaurant, a commissary production kitchen, and a classroom area to teach Indigenous curriculum. Since COVID hit, we decided that we can’t really invest in a dine-in restaurant at this moment, but we’re moving ahead and opening up the educational and production side.

Here in Minneapolis, we’ve been the epicenter of all this social uprising; our community member George Floyd was murdered just a few blocks from our kitchen. Our kitchen is on the main street; all the buildings around us are completely razed to the ground. So there was a lot of community food insecurity happening, which is why we mobilized and started pushing out free meals every day. We’ve been pumping out two to 400 meals every single day this entire summer, and we’re looking at doing it through the whole winter, because who knows what’s going to happen.

But the original vision was setting up the production kitchen so it could be a training center. People would come, and we would show them how to process Indigenous foods for 400 people a day.

Our goal is to work directly with tribal communities. We’re helping them to develop their own focused Indigenous kitchen for their community: menus and recipes that are relevant to that tribe with their language and their environment in mind. Hopefully, once we get those systems set up, we can give them the tools they need to grow better community gardens [with] Indigenous seeds, utilizing some of our partners that are focused on that.

If they have surplus of foods, that they could trade or sell. We’ll have a demand that we’re creating and be able to plug it into our system. So they can sell through us if they want to, or trade with some of the other tribal communities that are going to be doing the same kind of programming.

Our goal is to open up Indigenous Food Labs in cities around the nation. But each Indigenous Food Lab would do the same work of becoming a regional training center, education and support center for creating Indigenous food systems. And we can eventually cross borders.

The globe had been swallowed up by colonialist and capitalistic efforts for so long that we’ve lost touch with a lot of these really amazing foodways that still survive in many regions around the world. It’s going to be really important to understand that cultural diversity and that knowledge base that sits out there. We’re just trying to create something where we can become a center point to save that knowledge for this next generation.

With the pandemic, more people are seeing the cracks in the system that created so many issues for food insecurity. Do you see any opportunity to convince people that this is a model that’s more sustainable than the current one that we have?

We’re not super concerned with what other people are going to think. We see a very clear path for ourselves. We’ve been problem solving [this] even before COVID. It strengthens the work that we’re doing by showcasing [the fact that] if we did have better community-based and regionally based food systems set up, that we could be more food secure.

This is going to be a weird winter. We’re still surging with pandemic cases right now. There’s going to be a lot more unemployment, because restaurants are going to continuously be shut down, and we have no idea what kind of support we’re getting from our own government to get through this. What’s going to happen when flu season hits again?

I think it’s a great time to reset. It’s a great time to reflect, for people to think about something that they could be doing differently. Where are they getting their food? How are they writing their menus? They shouldn’t be relying on these big-box trucks bringing foods in from all over the place. We should be really focused on supporting our local growers, no matter where they are, and developing menus around that.

It doesn’t have to be ego projects. It should be not about the chef in charge. It should really be about, “How can we do this because it’s just beneficial for our own community?” We made the conscious decision ourselves to only serve healthy Indigenous food, and regional Indigenous food on top of that. You have to be socially conscious and aware of the food that you’re serving; it directly impacts your customers, your clients, and their health. So why not make people healthy and happy, and get people used to having this healthy food out there?

You’ve been planning this for a long time, and it seems like there’s been a long coming movement toward more Indigenous food sovereignty in this country. But do you feel more hopeful now than you were before, or do you feel cautious?

We feel absolutely hopeful. This has been a long time building, but our vision keeps expanding and we keep seeing how we can integrate with other communities and other leaders in the food sovereignty movement.

We see a very bright future, and we’re basically stealing some parts of franchise models. If a Five Guys Burgers and Fries can open up 200 units in a few years, why can’t we use a similar system, but do it for good and push healthy food out there? We want people to be aware of the special history of the land that they’re standing on, the true histories of the Indigenous peoples from there, how it differs from other regions, and all the plant diversity that’s around them. We hope we can be really positive role models. We feel like tribal Indigenous communities can be great role models to showcase how they can turn something around.

We have this vision of one day being able to drive across the country stopping at Indigenous-run businesses that are particular to the land that they’re on, from people that are still there, and showcasing the immense amount of diversity that you would see. Every few hundred miles, you’d be in a new region with different foods, with different language, with different cultures and histories. That’s something really to think about, celebrate, and preserve for future generations to see, instead of trying to whitewash everything and say, “American food is hamburgers” or “Canadian food is poutine.” There’s so much more we could be doing that is relevant to where we are, and weaving the Indigenous histories into the fabric of who we are. It’s going to be really important to not ignore those histories.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.