Life

The ‘Sioux Chef’ Is On A Quest To Recover America’s First Cuisine

Prelude

The food we grow up with is part of what makes us whole. Cuisine is an inextricable piece of identity, no matter where you hail from. What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think Russia? Vodka and caviar, right? Italy? Pizza or pasta with vino? Germany? Brats, beer, and pretzels? Try to think about France and not conjure images of food or drink.

Numerous studies (and an endless stream of travel/food shows) tell us that our pride and confidence in who we are is deeply rooted in the food we cook, share, and pass down. Food instructs habits, rituals, religion, and even the way our brains function. Saying you’re Sicilian carries as much culinary weight as saying you’re kosher or halal. These become vital clues, windows into our what makes us us.

Consider the food you connect with on a cultural level — not just based on flavor, but based on your own unique history. Now, imagine that it was gone. Scrubbed from the earth and replaced with “comfort foods” that offer no real comfort. Empty calories, devoid of connection. This is the plight of Native American and First Nations people throughout the U.S. and Canada. Hundreds of cultures scattered across what is left of their homelands, raising families completely dislocated from their traditional foodways.

I. When Inspiration Comes

A long time ago Raven looked down from the sky and saw that the people were living in darkness
The sun had been hidden far away by an old, selfish man – Part I of Salish Creation Myth

As an indigenous person you get used to saying “we used to” a lot. We used to live sustainability. We used to have cities. We used to have infrastructure that rivaled Europe’s. We used to have law and order. We used to have land to roam. We used to have our salmon…our buffalo…our freedom. Then it came to be that we had none of those things.

So complete was the decimation of the indigenous peoples of North America that the food and infrastructure supporting them were wiped from the face of the earth. Our cuisine was replaced by the ultimate food of oppression — fry bread and government cheese. How can a person feel complete when the only food anyone associates with your culture is the result of oppression?

A few years back, chef Sean Sherman had a similar epiphany, while sitting on a beach in Mexico. He was on a trip, honing his cooking skills, and noticed a world were the indigenous population boasted an ever-evolving yet deeply traditional food culture. He saw dishes and ingredients that had survived colonization and were now part of a broader Mexican identity — a foodway which is now spreading across the world. This got Sherman thinking.

When he returned home, he quickly realized that the food of his people was invisible.

When I was living in Mexico I saw how well the indigenous food systems were able to thrive. I saw so many commonalities in the food from where I grew up on Pine Ridge. In that moment it seemed so obvious that I should be focusing on my indigenous foods.

I went home and first I tried to buy every book I could find on Native American cuisine. I remember being so excited, then so disappointed because nothing was speaking the way I had envisioned it — with an intense knowledge of medicine, foods, or craft. I knew there had to be more than just wild rice and cream of mushroom soup, or smoked salmon with risotto.

I started looking at eastern medicine and finding parallels with how plants were treated there and how indigenous groups in North America treated them. Slowly, things started opening up.

II. Detective Work

Raven turned himself into a spruce needle and floated on the river where the old man’s daughter came for water
She drank the spruce needle
She became pregnant and later she gave birth to a baby boy
It was Raven in disguise
-Part II of Salish Creation Myth

Tracking down the exact origins of indigenous cuisine in North America proved to be a mammoth task. First, there’s the fact that each region has a varied set of flora, fauna and environmental factors. That created massive variations in what a community in northern California had in their pantries compared to a Seminole pantry down Florida way. So Sherman decided to focus solely on what Lakota in and around Minnesota would have been farming, foraging, preserving, processing and preparing.

Only focusing on a single group of people narrowed the scope, but it was still a long process of discovery. Think about all the different cuisines just in Asia. There are rows in libraries filled with books about Persian cuisine, much less Indian or Israeli or Korean food cultures. Those books don’t exist for indigenous cuisine in America. No one wrote them. There were no Cliff’s Notes or cheat sheets.


Relying on ethnographic and anthropologic texts, foraging books, and the odd diary or oral tradition, Sherman started to piece together what Minnesotan cuisine might have been. Slowly, he was able to form a clear enough idea to open a food truck with his partner Dana Thompson and the Little Earth Community of United Tribes in Minneapolis. The focus of the truck was to present what pre-Columbian cuisine of Minnesota and the Dakotas might have looked like.

Fry bread was not a menu option. The Sioux Chef was born.

You can’t just call one whole region the ‘Cornbread region.’ There’s just too much diversity amongst the people and the nature for that. I like to look at North America as a whole, but through the lens of food migrations and people migrations and how corn and other agricultural items then evolved in those circumstances.

I started building models for an indigenous kitchen regionally, then I realized you can apply the model to any region around North America… or the world, really. It’s all the same set of rules about being very in tune with nature and your surroundings, knowing medicinal and edible properties of plants, understanding the usage of animals and insects for proteins, looking at how salt was produced. How sugar was produced. How oil was produced.

It’s really became a complete curriculum of what any cuisine is.

III. Taking Back The Story

The old man loved his little grandson
He promised him everything in the world
But the baby boy cried and cried
The old man gave him all the toys in his long house
But the baby boy still cried and cried
No one could figure out what the baby boy wanted
– Part III Salish Creation Myth

Indigenous Americans have a hard time finding positive roll models in today’s America. The gap between immigrant Americans and indigenous Americans seems, at times, to be an unbridgeable gulf.

Tribes are suffering from oppression, institutionalized racism, lack of education, health epidemics, rape epidemics, women are disappearing at alarming rates, and rampant suicide has caused a state of emergency on certain reservations. It’s difficult for many to understand that our tragic history didn’t end when we landed on the reservation. It is still happening right this very moment. There are still people living today who lived through the hell of school assimilation. And most Americans are blind to it all.

American Indians live in a world where a conversation about a white actor appearing in Red Face on The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is something people can “opt out of” (imagine the same scenario if Titus had been played by Alec Baldwin, occasionally appearing in blackface, and using only the most racist and stereotypical cliches…Don’t think this comparison holds up? Why not, exactly?). We live in a world were a conversation about institutional racism cannot even be resolved in our sports without being linked to polling data — an insult other marginalized people don’t have to endure. Hell, we live in a world where a principled athlete can make a stand against one form of oppression in San Francisco without anyone even conceiving of the disturbing irony of doing it in a 49ers jersey (when California drafted its constitution in 1850, it allowed any U.S. citizen to enslave the local indigenous population — a slave population that was mostly women and children being worked to death — and that was followed by 30 years of mass killings. Whatever you think about Colin Kaepernick, he’s a far better role model than the actual ’49ers).

Starting to see the irony? Imagine living in a world where all of your history was told by someone else. It’s soul crushing. How do we fight that? How do we regain our identity, our autonomy? We can start by taking back our food.

Sherman has a three-pronged approach to bolstering indigenous communities. For starters, we need to be healthy — both mentally and physically. That starts with the food we’re putting in our bodies. For the first time, people in Minnesota are eating the food their ancestors ate — without processed wheat, dairy and refined sugars. The health benefits of largely plant-based diet, fortified with non-industrial raised animal proteins means a healthier body and mind.

Second, Sherman has opened doors for indigenous kids to find work and learn a skill in his kitchens. This is crucial. Too many of our kids are barely making it through high school. Sherman and his kitchen are providing a new paradigm, a chance for kids to create a future in which they can resuscitate their identities and build their communities at the same time.

Third, Sherman wants to show to the world that we are still here. There were great cuisines and infrastructures across the continent. They are lost, but now there’s a chance to bring them back. Ironically, the future of American cuisine may lie in its distant past. Moreover by showing the world that there isn’t a singly “Native American” cuisine but unique foodways for the Lakota, Salish, Cree, Cherokee, Sauk, and so forth, the world might actually start to recognize our unique tribal identities, rather than lumping us together as one fragmented group.

This all comes together in Sherman’s NATIF (North American Traditional Indigenous Foods) circle. The elements are laid out to emphasize sustainability, spirituality, health and removing colonial thought.

Part of why we did Tatanka Truck was for the smaller community of tribes in Minneapolis, which have a native housing area. It was created in the early ’60s to entice natives into the city to hopefully get jobs and be able to send more money back home. Of course, it didn’t work our because the city was too racist to hire any of these people. So it just became a low economic area. When we developed the truck we did it with hopes of bringing jobs into the community and bringing skills into the community. Hopefully showcasing healthy food so people can understand it.

Now we’re expanding that idea to all of Minnesota and hopefully one day across the U.S. We hire all sorts of people from the reservations that have lived through the hardships and oppression of the reservation. We get these kids coming in that really get it, you know. They come in and they’re so passionate about the work.

I brought on one woman from the Red Lake Reservation who went to school for biology and we gave her the title of Culinary Ethnobotanist. I think every kitchen should have an ethnobotanist on their team! We’re really starting to rethink the way a kitchen works. We all have similar backgrounds since most of us grew up on a reservation or in the inner-city so we all see the value in what we’re doing.

The key is keeping it positive. Focusing on making things better for our mental and physical health that will create a positive outcome.

Part IV. Recovery of What’s Lost

Finally the old man gave the baby boy a great ball of light from a big box resting in the corner of the long house
As soon as he had the light, Raven turned back into himself and carried the light into the sky
From then on we no longer lived in darkness
– Part IV Salish Creation Myth

A long time ago, my fifth great-grandfather — a man named qadi´l’ẋqči (pronounced Khudee-lah-chi) — built a 50-foot long hollow-nosed canoe with his buddy up on the upper fork of the Skokomish River, in the foothills of the Sun-Ah-Do Mountains (now the Olympic).

When he finished building his great canoe, he paddled it down river into what’s now called the Hood Canal. qadi´l’ẋqči landed on a nearby beach, tied up his canoe, and feasted on clams. He made camp and drifted off to sleep.

The next morning, he awoke to a travesty. His brand-new canoe was gone. Thinking the tides may have pulled it toward the Salish Sea, he searched the whole canal from Quilicene to Hamma Hamma to Dosewalips to Skokomish and found nothing. In time, qadi´l’ẋqči gave up and went back up the Skokomish River to his village, crushed by the loss of his new canoe.

A couple weeks passed and qadi´l’ẋqči decided he’d give finding his canoe one last shot and headed toward the far end of the canal. Lo and behold his canoe was stuck on the shore near where a creek dumped into the sea. Ducks and geese flocked from shore to sky. The beaches were teaming with clams, mussels, and oysters. The creek was full of salmon. Deer grazed along the shore. It was a bounty of life and sustenance.

qadi´l’ẋqči paddled his canoe back up river to his village and told the tale of this wonderland of food he’d found. A place they all could live happily for ever. His family and friends all packed up and headed toward the end of the canal. They built homes, smoke houses, long houses and docks. They called their new home duxwle´lap (Duh-le-lap).

That town was the last extension of the Twana people before an apocalypse befell them. In 1855, the Twana peacefully agreed to move onto the reservation, never having fought a single war against the government. The U.S. Army burned down all nine towns and their long houses, just to make sure they would stay down.

That branch of my family’s story isn’t dissimilar to thousands of other stories that played out across North America over the past 500 years. We built our lives around food, and then it was taken away. Sadly these stories are still unfolding today. Luckily, chefs like Sean Sherman are starting to take a stand against the loss of identity and the loss of health that often goes along with it.

Almost everything we do, we make it very simply with two or three ingredients per dish at the most, and most of that is plant-based. It keeps it healthy. This diet is an extremely low glycemic diet. This is the food of our great-grandparents. It’s directly in our food line. This is our cultural identity. It’s culturally appropriate for us to have these foods. And it just happens to be one of the healthiest diets on the planet.

Sherman and his partners just wrapped up a Kickstarter campaign, becoming the most backed restaurant in the history of the platform. The campaign will fully fund America’s very first indigenous kitchen and pantry, opening in Minneapolis next year. It will be 100 percent fossil fuel free.

This restaurant will be an important step towards allowing all of us the opportunity to start saying we have a cuisine. We have an identity. We have a history. We have our health. And, maybe, one day again we’ll be able to say we have our freedom.

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