Chef Sean Sherman grew up on his grandparent’s ranch on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. After working in kitchens, he ran a food truck, started a nonprofit, wrote a cookbook, opened a restaurant and won every culinary award there is. But he’d be the first to tell you it’s never been about him. It’s about relearning how to cook, reviving cultural foodways, and restoring health to the community. Laurie Stern reports.
By now you’ve probably heard of Chef Sean Sherman. Maybe you’ve eaten at his award-winning restaurant Owamni, overlooking the river in downtown Minneapolis. Owamni is the Sioux-Chef’s for-profit business. The nonprofit he started is flourishing too. It’s called NĀTIFS. And you can find it at the Midtown Global Market on Lake Street in Minneapolis.
It’s lunchtime at NĀTIFS’s Indigenous Food Lab Market. On the menu, tacos, grain bowls, and open-face corn sandwiches with bison berries and other ingredients that were here before the colonizers came. Dakota McGann is Assistant General Manager
“My family is enrolled in SWO, the Sisseton Wahpeton reservation. I’m Lake Traverse.”
Dakota knows the story behind everything on the shelves.
“Olive oils and beef sticks from SeKa Hills, which is out in California, which comes from a tribe that reclaim their traditional lands and then started using that land to grow and produce. What I love about working here is the ability to actually connect with our vendors. I met one of our vendors at a powwow. It’s really nice to be able to go to these areas, connect with these folks being able to work in the indigenous community on a day-to-day basis. And I think it’s very showing of our community that most of those places tend to be nonprofits,” said Dakota.
Across the aisle from the market is the big open kitchen where food is prepared for the market, the restaurants, and the community.
“My name is Vern Defoe. Pardon me one second, I’m gonna go stir this hominy. I’m from Redcliff, Wisconsin Anishinaabeg. I’m Bear Clan. And right now I’m making a bison hominy stew”
Vernon Defoe met Sean Sherman when they both worked at a now closed restaurant known for scratch cooking with locally sourced ingredients. When the Sioux Chef was ready to hire help, Vern was one of the first people he called. Vern had wanted to be a youth worker. But he also loved to cook.
“Now I get to kind of do both like teaching kids how to cook. And I’m good at cooking,” said Vern
Now Vern leads Indigenous Food Labs’ outreach to the community
“Learning and teaching. I guess that’s sort of my role right now.”
Learning and teaching. That explains Natif’s mission to reestablish traditional ways of cooking and eating. That’s about more than food. Indigenous kitchens will bring cultural, nutritional, and economic benefits to tribes and communities all over North America,
“Selling cigarettes and casinos kind of been the typical way that reservations have made money in the past. But now there’s all kinds of different stuff that reservations are doing and one of them is improving the quality of food for the community because they want to improve their community’s health and improve their sovereignty by trying to get rid of federal programs and doing it themselves because it’s a lot healthier and more relevant to Native people.” said Vern.
NĀTIFS is leading the movement to decolonize food. Indigenous Food Lab is a professional kitchen, a training center and a business incubator, with plans to expand this fall and ethnobotanist and a Navajo chef will join the team. Soon, NĀTIFS will stream demonstration videos from the kitchen. It wants to set up indigenous food labs in cities across North America.
You can find out more at natifs.org. NATIFS stands for North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems.
Their Spirit Kitchen is open Tuesday through Saturday 10am to 6pm.
Laurie Stern reporting for MN Native News
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