When Sean Sherman speaks about his work as a chef and the founder of a nonprofit dedicated to revitalizing Native American cuisine, he uses the analogy of a broken pot that he is putting back together piece by piece.
“Growing up on the Pine Ridge Reservation, I definitely knew some pieces,” he said. “We had some soups, we had dried meats, we had pieces that were obviously traditional and not tainted by colonialism, but there really wasn’t that much there.”
As he writes in “The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen” — the cookbook-memoir-manifesto co-authored by Beth Dooley — the pantry shelves were “lined with government-issued canned corn, canned carrots, canned peas, canned salmon, chipped beef, saltines, white flour, and bricks of bright orange commodity cheese.” Wild game and garden vegetables supplemented those ingredients, but meals were a far cry from what his Oglala Lakota ancestors ate just a few generations earlier.
“There’s a lot of these pieces we’ve been able to maintain despite colonialism, but there’s a lot we stopped doing as communities, too,” he said. “The knowledge is mostly still there. We might have forgotten a few things, but we can put it all back together.”
A family recipe for the slow-simmered wild-berry sauce wojape is an example of a food tradition that survived. But mastering indigenous cuisine isn’t as easy as going online and ordering “The Joy of Native American Cooking,” as Sherman quipped in a recent interview. Like language and so many other aspects of native life, food traditions were disrupted by displacement and forced assimilation.
Sherman’s mission goes beyond collecting the scattered fragments of native cuisine or attempting to reconstruct what was lost. He’s evolving native cuisine.
“For us, with food, it seems like such a great way for not only other people to understand our cultures better through our food, but also helps us reconnect to who we really were,” he said.
Sherman’s recipes foreground the flavors of game and foraged plants and fungi, but they reach beyond the popular concept of seasonality. It’s an approach to cooking that gives as much as it takes from the environment.
“If you look at lessons from indigenous communities, no matter where you are in the world, you’ll see that they’ve spent a lot of time taking care of the plants that were life-sustaining around them,” he said.
When he isn’t touring the country to teach and talk about his cookbooks, much of Sherman’s attention is currently focused on NATIFS, or North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems, a nonprofit founded with his business partner Dana Thompson. Sherman and Thompson also co-own their catering business, The Sioux Chef.
At the heart of the nonprofit concept is the Indigenous Food Lab —part educational center, part restaurant, part indigenous business incubator — which they aim to open as soon as later this year. Sherman said they were still searching for a space to host the lab, which he plans to develop into a hub supporting indigenous restaurants and other food businesses on tribal lands throughout the region.
At the same time, Sherman is in the beginning phases of planning a for-profit restaurant in a prime location on the Minneapolis riverfront. In September, he announced a partnership with the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, which selected Sherman and Thompson to open a restaurant in the former Fuji Ya space as part of a larger park development known as Water Works. A tentative opening date for the unnamed restaurant is 2019.
Sherman described it as “an amazing opportunity to be able to place a Dakota-focused restaurant right in front of some of the most spiritual Dakota landmarks that we have in this state.”
Makes about 4 to 6 cups
The scent of this traditional sauce simmering on the stove takes me back to my freewheeling six-year-old self. Our family relied on the local chokecherries I gathered as a kid. We’d spread a blanket under the trees and gather buckets full. There’s no need to pit them because the pits drop to the bottom of the pot as the sauce becomes thick and lush. We’d sweeten it for a dessert or serve it as a tangy sauce for meat and game and vegetables, and as a dressing.
6 cups fresh berries—chokecherries or a mix of blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, elderberries, cranberries, blackberries
1 to 1½ cups water
Honey or maple syrup to taste
Put the berries and water into a saucepan and set over low heat. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is thick. Taste and season with honey or maple syrup as desired.
Wild rice crusted walleye
Serves 4 to 6
The Red Lake Nation is an Ojibwe community in northern Minnesota, home of our
ethnobotanist Tashia, who shares her knowledge with our team. In the late fall of 2015 we participated in an Indigenous Sustainable Food Summit focused on our region’s Native heirloom varieties of corn, beans, and squash, and Red Lake’s wild rice, smoked fish, and game. We source all of our fish—the walleye, northerns, and whitefish—from the Red Lake Nation Fishery. The Red Lake community protects its beautiful and pristine waters by fishing sustainably.
For an impressive presentation, butterfly the fish (so that it’s filleted but whole and served head on). Garnish with fresh cranberries, chopped apple, or berries lightly tossed into the pan, right before serving. This recipe works nicely with trout, too.
4 to 6 walleye or trout fillets, or butterflied fish
½ cup Wild Rice Flour, or finely ground cornmeal
Pinch smoked salt
Pinch crushed juniper berries
¼ cup sunflower oil, or more as needed
Rinse the fillets, remove any pin bones, and pat dry. Pour the wild rice flour onto a flat plate and stir in the smoked salt and juniper. Dredge both sides of the fillets in the seasoned flour to thoroughly coat.
Heat the oil in a large skillet over a high flame. Without crowding the pan, fry one or two of the fillets in the oil for about 2 to 4 minutes per side until nicely crisped and cooked through. Drain on paper towels and serve immediately.
Wild rice flour
This flour is great for dusting fish before frying or to work into corn cakes. Whisk it into sauces and soups as a thickener. It will keep indefinitely in a covered container.
To make the flour, put the wild rice through a flourmill or grind in a food processor fitted with a steel blade. The more it is ground, the finer the flour.