In this exclusive conversation, Lakota chef Shawn Sherman, often called sioux chef, takes us on a journey through his mission to reclaim indigenous foods in North America. Recently, Chef Sherman was awarded the prestigious Julia Child Award for her pioneering role as the founder of Owamani, Minnesota’s inaugural full-service Indigenous restaurant, and the groundbreaking non-profit organization, North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems. Was hailed as a visionary. , NATIFS is on a mission to increase access to healthy indigenous foods.Thank you for reading this post, don't forget to subscribe!
Born on the Pine Ridge Lakota Reservation, Chef Sherman’s dedication to protecting and celebrating the culinary heritage of his ancestors has not only redefined the national landscape of Indigenous cuisine, but also been a pioneer in promoting Indigenous food sovereignty and health equity. There is significant power.
Forbes Contributor: Can you tell us more about your early life and how it influenced your culinary journey?
Chef Shawn Sherman: I was born and raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. My parents and grandparents were also from there. My journey into the culinary world began when I moved to Spearfish, South Dakota, where I worked in local restaurants. This early exposure sparked my passion for cooking, a love that continued to grow throughout high school and college. I also worked as a field surveyor for the Forest Service and gained extensive knowledge of traditional plants, which became invaluable later in my career.
fc, You wrote a highly acclaimed cookbook, Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen, and created the world famous restaurant, Owamani. What inspired you to pursue this mission and develop North American Tribal Indigenous Food Systems (NATIFS) and its Indigenous Food Lab?
Chef Shawn Sherman: I used to work as an executive chef in Minneapolis, where the farm-to-table philosophy was taking hold. I noticed that despite this culinary renaissance, the traditional foods of the natives of these countries were absent from the menu. This was not just a local issue; This was a nationwide gap in our understanding and appreciation of indigenous cuisine. Most of North America lacked Native American restaurants. The ancestral foods of Indigenous peoples were erased from our culinary landscape, and this gave me a mission to identify Indigenous food producers and work with them to eliminate all colonial ingredients like dairy products, flour, processed sugar, beef, etc. But inspired to go. pork, and chicken, and replace them with true indigenous foods that we can bring back into the diets of the next generation.
fc, Can you tell us more about NATIFS and its important role in supporting Indigenous food sovereignty?
Chef Shawn Sherman: NATIFS plays a vital role in supporting Indigenous food sovereignty by working to build and support Indigenous infrastructure, create access to Indigenous foods, and provide Indigenous culinary education. Through the Food Lab, we have a production kitchen and a licensed food packing system to help indigenous producers scale up quickly. For example, we have completed a pilot project to use traditional squash and process it into baby food that we are working to bring to market. And we also have a class where we will teach indigenous cooking. Our culinary education is different from traditional culinary or academic education. It discusses language, history, astronomy, craftsmanship, medicine, gardening, farming, seed knowledge, plant identification and soil management. As indigenous people, we have a blueprint for living sustainably through our food. The entire community works together to be able to provide in a traditionally sustainable manner. Everyone touches food, whether you’re growing, harvesting, planting, tending, foraging, gathering, hunting, fishing, processing. Whether living, rehydrating, or even teaching the next generation of kids to do it all, everyone participated, so there’s knowledge for us all. The organization’s goals are to promote economic development, establish food sovereignty, and preserve tribal history and culture across colonial borders. We’re showing that homegrown food operations are possible across the country. If you’re in Boston or any other American city you should be able to find food that represents the original inhabitants of that land. At the Food Lab, our two main goals are to create access to healthy Indigenous foods and access to Indigenous culinary education to make this a reality.
fc, Can you say more about how embracing Indigenous foods and food sovereignty helps address Indigenous health disparities?
Chef Shawn Sherman: Many tribal communities have a casino or convenience store, but other than bison burgers, good luck finding anything related to our culture in terms of food. You can’t eat healthy food from a convenience store. It is almost impossible to eat healthy from a commodity food program. So, there is a direct link to this huge health epidemic in tribal communities. In some communities up to 60% may have type two diabetes, and this is directly linked to the nutrition available to our people. Poor health statistics are not because our people are inherently unhealthy. The main reason for this is that colonization targeted our food sovereignty. The more our food sovereignty is restored, the healthier we will be. The colonial diet that was imposed on our ancestors after they were pushed onto reservations has had serious consequences for the health of Native communities. The prevalence of conditions such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer, obesity and tooth decay can be traced to these diets. Indigenous foods are not only highly nutritious but also important for cultural preservation. By reconnecting with traditional food practices, we strive to improve health.
fc, Can you tell us more about some of the initiatives in the works at NATIFS and its Indigenous Food Lab?
Chef Shawn Sherman: We want to help establish more homegrown food operations. Currently, we are working towards an Indigenous Food Center in Bozeman, Montana. We’re also keeping an eye on Anchorage, South Dakota and other cities. Maybe it’s a restaurant. Maybe it’s a catering job. Perhaps it is a more traditional food program in partnership with local tribes. We simply want to be a support system for indigenous people who want to work together to revitalize our food ways, to create healthy indigenous food choices. We want to help highlight Indigenous food producers and direct resources toward them to scale their operations, bringing more Indigenous foods into Indigenous homes. Even at our restaurant, Owamani, we are actively exploring more indigenous food products to add to our menu. For example, we currently receive products from the Pima in Arizona, the Diné in the Four Corners region, the Potawatomi in Michigan, and many other indigenous nations. If done right we can do it all. We can help other people build restaurants, we can support other food producers, and we can support tribal entrepreneurs. Ultimately, we will venture into online wholesale business, so that we can become a focal point for the average Indigenous family to find these wholesale materials at affordable prices. So this is our hope.
fc, In what respect do you see NATIFS’s work as part of the public health response?
Chef Shawn Sherman: Perhaps one day Indian healthcare physicians will be able to prescribe our traditional foods to their patients. Food is medicine. You don’t feel lazy after eating your own food. You feel good. And this is great for the health of our people, especially given the high rates of diabetes and heart disease in Indian country. Encouraging healthy eating habits involves education and connection with the origins of food. Indigenous cuisine provides a foundation for this, emphasizing the nutritious aspects of locally sourced, seasonal and culturally rich ingredients.
fc: What message do you want people to take away from your mission to restore Indigenous food sovereignty and health?
Chef Shawn Sherman: Indigenous foods are the native foods of this continent. They are symbols of stability, nourishment and cultural prosperity. By adopting these foods we can not only promote health but also preserve our history and culture. My hope is that people will recognize the importance of indigenous food and join us in this culinary renaissance.