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Chefs are bringing back true, forgotten Native American food

One of Sean Sherman's hyper local dishes (Photo by Nancy Bundt)
LISTEN: Super local: Native american chefs are bringing back their long forgotten cuisine

The words “farm-to-table” and “local” are often used in food writing — they’ve almost become white noise. But there’s a particular American cuisine that is as local as can be. And it is just starting to poke its head out of the sand: Native American food.

Sean Sherman is a Minnesota chef, and co-founder of The Sioux Chef (gotta love that pun).

“I grew up on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota,” Sherman said. “I’m an enrolled member of the Ogalala Lakota Sioux Tribe.”

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After years of cheffing in fine restaurants, Sherman had an epiphany. He wanted to cook the food of his ancestors that had been long forgotten.

“We like to cook extremely micro-regionally because we just think about the area we’re sitting in,” he said. “So if we’re in northern Minnesota around one of the lakes, we have tamarack, we have hopniss — which is like a wild potato. There’s rose hip. There’s all the fish in the lakes like the walleyes. There are all the animals like the rabbits.”

“So we might have a plate that has sunchokes, smoked walleye, rose hip sauce, dehydrated raspberry, some fresh greens that are wild from that region,” Sherman said.

If his dishes sound fancy and snobby, they’re not. Sherman actually calls his food “unmodernist cuisine.” It’s simply the food that grows where he lives — the Native American food that was made before their land was taken away and they were forced to rebuild their communities on reservations.

According to the Census Bureau, one in four Native Americans live in poverty. And many lived on unhealthy government rations, which gave way to frybread. Frybread is perhaps the most common, modern-day Native American food people are aware of. In Seattle, we have a frybread taco truck called Off the Rez. But frybread is steeped in controversy and politics. Sherman refuses to serve it.

“As a chef, when I started really researching what was indigenous food and slowly wiping away European influence, frybread was one of the first pieces to go,” Sherman said. “When you are getting some of those government handouts and staples, there’s not much you can make with flour, lard, salt, sugar. You pretty much can make a simple dough and fry it up. It was really nothing that was traditional and there no reason that frybread should be considered traditional across the entire United States.”

“We try really hard to focus on very regional foods and wiping away all of that European culture,” he said. “Only because we wanted to showcase the bounty that was here already, and the people that were here and the flavors they had to play with. To bring this into the modern world and [to show] how healthy it is by cutting out all of that dairy, flour, and sugar.”

Northwest Native American food

Closer to home, Inez Cook owns Vancouver BC’s only First Nation restaurant, Salmon n’ Bannock. Like Sherman, her restaurant was also born out of an epiphany.

“The Vancouver 2010 Olympics were nearing,” Cook said. “The entire world is coming here and there isn’t anywhere you can get local, indigenous cuisine. It’s ridiculous.”

Cook’s story is fascinating because she didn’t actually grow up with a direct First Nation influence. She was adopted by a Caucasian family at birth.

“A time when the government went into the communities and adopted the native kids to white families,” she said.

But when she opened her restaurant, which specializes in local salmon, game meats and a biscuit/scone hybrid called bannock, she was reconnected with the Nuxalk Nation, the nation of her parents.

“It was all over the media that a Nuxalk person had opened this restaurant,” Cook said. “But because no one in the Nuxalk community knew me, they didn’t think it was necessarily true. I could have been choosing a nation that was just far enough away that nobody would ask questions.”

“So they sent in people to check it out and this one lady was asking me questions,” she said. “She made a phone call and when I came back to deliver her tea, she was standing there with her arms extended and she said, ‘Let me be the first to welcome you home, we’re a family.’ So that started a very emotional journey for me. Now it’s just such an honor showcasing my heritage with pride.”

Both Sherman and Cook source as many of their ingredients as possible from Native American suppliers, foragers and farmers and all of their employees are First Nation.

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