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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Celebrated chef Sean Sherman revitalizes Indigenous food systems for all

Sean Sherman
Susan Bence
Sean Sherman delivers keynote speech at the 31st annual Energy Fair in Wisconsin.

Sean Sherman has cooked in kitchens across the United States and Mexico for over three decades. He now focuses his work on the revitalization of Indigenous food systems.

Sherman was raised on the Pine Ridge Reservation, home to the Oglala Lakota Nation in South Dakota.

In 2017, Sherman and his team presented the first decolonized dinner at the prestigious James Beard House in Manhattan. A year later, Sherman won a James Beard award for his first book The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen. And in 2019, he won another James Beard for leadership.

Last year, Sherman opened Owamniin Minneapolis with co-owner Dana Thompson. The restaurant sits on the banks of the Mississippi River where the locks and dams are, but it used to be the site of a waterfall.

The restaurant’s menu is strictly Indigenous and earned a James Beard Award for best new restaurant of 2022.

WUWM environmental reporter Susan Bence caught up with Sherman at the 31st annual Energy Fair in Wisconsin where he delivered the keynote speech.

Sherman shares that his childhood in South Dakota led to the work he does today. "We grew up in the middle of nowhere for the most part. ... I think there was just so much missing 'cause going to school on the reservation. And you know, we did have things like Lakota class, so we learned, you know Lakota names of colors and animals," Sherman says. "But still we were missing a lot."

Besides going to the pow wows and the ceremonies, he says his upbringing lacked traditional food recipes and the recipes his family did have were not really traditional to his Indigenous roots.

When Sherman got into the culinary field, he recalls his mother giving him a cookbook from Pine Ridge, but says it did not have many traditional recipes. Sherman says, "Its just when I had the epiphany of the work I was doing was because I was in the culinary field. And it just seemed completely crazy that I didn't know anything about my own heritage and [yet] had been learning cultures from all over the world."

Sean Sherman autographs his book.
Susan Bence
Sean Sherman autographs his book.

When Sherman had this epiphany, he was living in a little town north of Puerto Vallarta, Nayarit, Mexico, where the Indigenous group — the Huichol resides and whom he learned a lot from. It is there that Sherman found a clear path.

In the dishes that Sherman cooks, he notes he tries to feature plant-based flavors. He says, "The Western diet just has largely ignored, you know, all this amazing diversity around us with the plant world and we should be better connected. We should be eating better, closer to the Earth ... and utilizing the plants and trees that like to grow really well where we are."

His restaurant prioritizes purchasing food from local Indigenous farms and tribal communities. "We're just trying to pump as much money into tribal communities as possible and really create this demand around Indigenous food and food production," Sherman explains.

He co-founded a nonprofit with Dana Thompson that is helping create a support system and a distribution point for Indigenous food.

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Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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