How The ‘Sioux Chef’ Is Fighting To Recover America’s Native Cuisine

Last year, Zach Johnston — a Native American writer keenly interested in Native American cuisine — helped deliver the tale of Sean Sherman to the masses. It was a larger-than-life narrative: One chef fighting to recover a food culture destroyed by the European colonization. Zach’s piece reminded us of how vital food is in our shared history and was named one of our “Best Stories of 2016.”

In the months since that piece appeared, Sherman and the “Sioux Chef” team have been hard at work, prepping to launch a brick and mortar space (after becoming the most backed restaurant in the history of Kickstarter). It’s a pursuit that feels vital to our current time and cultural conversation.

“If you really want to understand food and history of Americas,” Sherman told us, “you have to understand Indigenous food — because that’s where history begins.”

Sherman’s journey has been one part detective work and one part culinary exploration. He cooks according to a “NATIF wheel” of his own design and tries to break every hint of the post-colonization era out of his culinary offerings. It’s an extraordinary project and one which the food world ought to be paying close attention to. It’s also extraordinarily complicated.

“It’s all the same set of rules about being very in tune with nature and your surroundings,” Sherman told us in September, “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.”

Through Sherman’s efforts, we’re seeing the recovery of America’s first foodway and the return of a connection between Native Americans and their traditional food culture. Conversation around the Sioux Chef has also created a forum to reexamine the role of food in the lives of Native American people across the country — a relationship plagued by government cheese and other reservation staples.

“We want to get that [our food] out there to combat a lot of these foodborne illnesses that we see,” Sherman says, “especially on native communities where there are high rates of diabetes, obesity, heart disease… any of those things that stem from that diet.”

It’s a quest that we’re excited to continue covering. After all, food is the building block of our culture and to ignore how Native American cuisine has been missing from the conversation would be to paint an incomplete picture.

“The work that we’re doing in helping to revitalize and reintroduce a lot of these traditional foods and techniques and flavors is going to strengthen our cultures and strengthen our identities as we move forward.”