ChangeMakers: Sean Sherman, teaching Indigenous food traditions as cultural preservation

A man in a beige jacket stands in a yellow forest.
Chef, educator, and cookbook author Sean Sherman at the Quaking Bog inside of Theodore Wirth Park in Minneapolis.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Throughout November, MPR News is featuring Indigenous Minnesotans making history to celebrate Native American Heritage Month.

Sean Sherman, 46, is a Minneapolis-based chef focusing on preserving Indigenous food traditions and educating people about Indigenous culture. Sherman leads the way in revitalizing traditional Native cuisine and helping others re-learn their ancestral roots. His work focuses on educating people about ancestral diets, culinary practices and the understanding that food is medicine. 

Sherman got his start in a kitchen in Rapid City, S.D., called the Sluice. Now based in Minneapolis with his wife Dana Thompson, they run the Sioux Chef which Sherman officially launched in 2014 — though he says the concept had been decades in the making. They also run the nonprofit Natifs, and the newly-launched Indigenous Food Lab, a “nonprofit kitchen focused on creating access to Indigenous education and foods” located in the Minneapolis’ Midtown Global Market on Lake Street.

Sherman’s focus on educating people about Indigenous cuisine and diet is woven throughout his work. He recently hired an ethnobotanist from Bolivia to be the education director for the Indigeous Food Lab to teach people about foods traditional to Indigenous communities.  

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He also works with local farmers and forages on the outskirts of their land, incorporating local ancestral foods like hyssops, tamarack, wild onions (or ramps) and ginger in modern recipes. Sherman encourages others to forage responsibly as well, highlighting the connection between global climate change and the industrialization of food systems. Sherman points out that globally, Indigenous people have long been stewards of the land, able to maintain the ecological balance for tens of thousands of years. 

Sherman says of Indigenous, pre-colonial tribes, “living so closely to the earth around them, having thousands of years and generations of knowledge to live sustainably with the world. We just really want to be a center point for that knowledge and education. To be stewards of that education while making it accessible.”

Editor's note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What does it mean to be an Indigenous Minnesotan right now?

I think there's a lot of wonderful, unique history here. It's really important to understand the stories of the Indigenous peoples, the diversity of Indigenous peoples, the struggles that people went through, and the factors of everything that's happened to us in history. It's really important to address a lot of the ancestral trauma that's been dealt to a lot of Indigenous communities and continues to live on in those communities. 

With the work that we're doing, it's really important that we take time to observe and think about the land that we're on, the people that have been and are still here, and how we can move forward in a healthier fashion for the future.

What figures have shaped you as a person and your work or how you see yourself, how you move about the world?

I've always been very curious, and I've read a lot. I enjoy poetry, I enjoy art, I enjoy music. I have many different idols. And, you know, I'm always open. When we're running these kitchens and you give somebody a chance and they show their creativity, you're learning from people that you're teaching at the same time. I think creativity is all around you and you have to keep an eye out for it, because we can learn from everybody, everybody around us, and everybody has something to show everybody else.

It's been really fun with this program. We've been focused on trying to understand more about Indigenous foods, learning more Indigenous plants, and really taking the time to be outdoors, as a group — just being a kind of a collective. We had some people who were really well trained on the names of the plants in the different languages like Anishanaabe, or Dakota. We've had some people who could tell stories from their grandparents, who still knew their native languages really well, so we could learn a lot through them. 

And you know, we kind of opened up the doors to limitless education, and learning with what we're doing. We're trying to create a unique environment in our kitchen, that's going to allow everybody involved with our team to be a part of this as we grow — to offer what they have and have the opportunity to learn themselves.

What's your vision for future generations of Indigenous people in Minnesota — either Indigenous to Minnesota or Indigenous people in Minnesota?

“We're trying to set up foundations and structure for future generations to have access to their own education when it comes to Indigenous food ways. And also just have access to Indigenous foods. It's insane that we haven't had Native restaurants all over the place. We just started doing everything we can to change that, so hopefully, in 50 years, there'll be numerous Indigenous run businesses featuring this cool diversity even just within the state. 

We just look at the tribes that have been here, the people and the communities that have lived here for a long time. And we really try to understand what they were eating, particularly right here, and relearning a lot of those lessons. So we're not trying to replicate necessarily recipes of the past, but we're trying to understand a lot of this knowledge and bring it into today's world. 

We're looking at the lessons of Indigenous agriculture — what kind of seeds people were growing here, if those seeds are still alive, how do we keep them alive. Looking at those varietals of corns and beans, squash and all those heirloom forms. Understanding the use of all these plants around us and the different seasons that we utilize to collect the different parts of the plants for different pieces, whether it’s food, medicine or crafting. There's so much and it's just being in tune with all of that. When we're looking at Indigenous foods, we're just thinking about what people were surviving with for so long, bringing that knowledge into the modern day and having fun by creating and evolving that knowledge and creating something new for these new generations.”