Sean Sherman appears for the Zoom interview with his hair tied back and wearing a flannel shirt. In the background is an aging built-in kitchen, the Minneapolis morning sun shining dustily in through the window. It all exudes a down-to-earthness that is somewhat unexpected.
After all, Sherman’s restaurant Owamni was chosen last year by the renowned James Beard Foundation as the best new restaurant in the USA, comparable to an Oscar for the culinary scene. Normally, this award is given to style-conscious star chefs in gentrified metropolises like New York or Seattle, who quickly charge several hundred dollars for a menu with wine accompaniment.
At Owamni, the most expensive dishes – a bison tartare with duck mayonnaise and a corn sandwich with moose meat and sweet potatoes – cost just 17 dollars. Much of the menu is purely plant-based.
“One day there should be indigenous restaurants like Owamni everywhere in the USA”
What makes these dishes stand out? All ingredients are “pre-contact”, meaning that nothing that European settlers introduced to North America is allowed. Sean Sherman’s cuisine is indigenous, rooted in the Sioux and Lakota cultures from which his ancestors come.
He is much more than “just” a chef: Sherman is an archivist, activist and networker at the same time. And he has a vision: one day there should be indigenous restaurants like Owamni everywhere in the USA. Sherman explains with concentration and passion how this can be achieved and what historical wounds need to be healed.
One senses that he is thinking about much more than the current menu in his restaurant or achieving culinary success. He wants to make a difference, to inspire people to engage with the history of America. Sherman knows that he is part of a tradition that goes back hundreds if not thousands of years. That gives him self-confidence. Forcefully, he begins to narrate:
“Before European settlers came to North America, there was an incredible diversity of cultures and ways of life here. Colonial and US governments disregarded and destroyed these for centuries.
“Why did we as an indigenous community know so little about our own food tradition, which reveals a lot about a certain way of life?”
The 19th century in particular was devastating for indigenous cultures in the US. Our lands were confiscated, large populations were deported, enslaved or murdered. Where had our hundreds, if not thousands, of years of tradition gone? What was the land like where our ancestors dwelled and what was their history?
As a Lakota descendant, these questions began to haunt me. I was not alone in this, of course. We have reached a historical moment where there are countless highly educated indigenous people who are aware of what their parents and grandparents endured.
They want to confront US mainstream society and show that much of their prosperity is due to the fact that many American homes stand on land that was once forcibly dispossessed. Many of their New England ancestors enriched themselves through indigenous slavery: During the period when some twelve million blacks were deported from Africa to what is now the USA, a good five million indigenous people were enslaved.
A crime that many people today no longer want to hear about. Especially as a cook, I asked myself against this background: Why did we as an indigenous community know so little about our own food tradition, which reveals a lot about a certain way of life? Why weren’t there indigenous restaurants everywhere long ago?
I myself grew up on a reservation, the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. On 29 December 1890, the Wounded Knee Massacre took place there. 300 Sioux men, women and children were murdered by the Seventh US Cavalry Regiment. An extremely historically charged place.
“The flavours and products we were serving had been on the menu there for countless generations”
My grandfather and father taught me to harvest wild berries and hunt there as a child. And yet, as a grown man, I realised that while I knew countless European recipes in their respective languages, I knew virtually none from the history of my ancestors. I wanted, I had to change that.
Around 2011, I started organising pop-up dinners. This was my attempt to recreate the eating habits and thus the way of life of lost indigenous cultures. It started with the “Anishinaabe Spring Tasting”.
The Anishinaabe are one of the largest ethnic groups in Minnesota. To recreate their cuisine, we spent several days wandering around the northern part of the state gathering ingredients: We found wild mushrooms, wild ginger, walleye, an American perch, and fern tips.
We wanted to create a very simple menu that expressed a fleeting moment of the season in a very specific region and paid respect to the cultures that existed there. The flavours and products we were serving had been on the menu there for countless generations. But the knowledge of this heritage first had to be painstakingly rediscovered.
“One dish that reflects our philosophy in its purest form is wild rice, which grows on the shores of the Great Lakes and is harvested by hand from a canoe”
Thus, a cuisine gradually emerged that I would describe today as “decolonised” and that does without everything that European settlers imported to America: Pork, beef, dairy products, salt and pepper, sugar or wheat flour. I now replace all these ingredients with indigenous animals and plants such as bison, wild berries, duck, insects, fish from the Great Lakes or corn tortillas.
One dish that reflects our philosophy in its purest form is wild rice, which grows on the shores of the Great Lakes and is harvested by hand from a canoe. To this “manoomin” we add something like dried currants. A simple and healthy meal that, like all our creations, is free of colonial products such as gluten, dairy, sugar, soy or pork.
Many intolerances and risks that modern nutritionists have only discovered over time were long known in indigenous communities. Dairy products were only eaten by children there until they were ten years old at the most.
After that, most people lose the enzymes that are essential for breaking down dairy products. In fact, all but a few northern Europeans tend to be lactose intolerant.
The pop-up dinners, and later my work at our restaurant Owamni, brought me closer to my own history and were also political acts. Large parts of the culture of the Sioux, Lakota and other indigenous tribes no longer exist.
“Many of the foods that are part of the food culture in Europe today came from the Americas”
But you can reconstruct them like a puzzle, you can find out what kind of plants grew in a given place, what kind of animals lived there, what tribes settled in a certain region, what languages were spoken to each other in and what gods they believed in. In the USA, it was forbidden to celebrate indigenous ritual practices until 1978.
Which is completely crazy in a country that has paraded the freedom of religion like some fetish since its founding in 1776. My work is just one of many approaches to approaching this topic in all its complexity and depth.
In order to understand the scope of the epochal breakthrough that the colonisation of the “New World” meant, this thought experiment is still exciting for Europeans: many of the foods that are part of the food culture in Europe today came from the Americas.
We recently organised a dinner in Italy near Turin, serving vegan arancini made from wild rice, polenta with tomatoes and chilli, and pannacotta made from corn milk with dessert sauce made from Mexican chocolate. All products that were completely unknown in Europe before the conquest of the American continent.
On the one hand, it is important to realise what it would mean to have to do without these foods - but also to reflect on the price we indigenous people had to pay for European colonisation: complete exploitation and almost total destruction of our culture and livelihood. Think about that the next time you go out to eat.”
Text and transcript by Ruben Donsbach