Long before the North American diet was ruled by imported and processed foods — beef, chicken, pork, wheat flour, sugar — Native Americans and indigenous people learned to eat what was available on the land. Oftentimes the terrain was difficult to grow in, but they learned to adapt to the landscape. Included in their diet was game meat, foraged plants and spices (think choke cherries, sage, and juniper), and other native fruits and plants.
Somewhere along the way, as Europeans moved in on North American land, forced indigenous tribes off their land, and resettled them on new reservations, Native Americans began to lose sight of their food traditions. New ingredients and animals, like pigs, cattle, sugarcane, rice, and wheat, were imported and introduced into the North American diet. Centuries later, Native Americans still suffer the impact of a homogenized diet: Native Americans and Alaskan Native Americans are 50 percent more likely to be obese than non-Hispanic white Americans, according to the HHS.
While Native American food may be forgotten to most, two Native American chefs are devoted to bringing it back to the table. To Sean Sherman, co-founder and chef at the nonprofit Sioux Chef, it only made sense to return to what people had eaten before on the land for millennia. “Nobody had any sense of what Native American food was,” he said. “It was something I had to figure out.”
Sioux Chef is a collaboration of many chefs, foragers, ethnobotanists, event planners, artists, and more, who come from a number of different Native American tribes. They work with indigenous food producers, who help them source authentic ingredients for catering, events, and a soon-to-open restaurant. You won’t find any of the European-imported staples like beef, chicken, and dairy products on the menu; instead, Sioux Chef serves proteins like venison and river trout, and native vegetables like turnips and blueberries. A preview of the upcoming Sioux Chef cookbook for pre-order gives a small taste of what Sherman and his team whip up: cedar braised bison, deviled duck eggs, roasted corn sorbet, and hazelnut–maple bites, for example. “We enjoy cooking foods that taste like a place,” Sherman says.
As Sioux Chef expands its mission and operations, the pride in Native American traditions remains. Sherman hopes that his meals serve as a starting point for conversations about what it means to be an indigenous person today. “Understanding someone’s food is a really great way to understanding who they are,” he says. “Food is the one thing we all have in common.” Watch Sherman’s story and learn how Sioux Chef is bringing the past of his ancestors into the future.