Because so many of the native food ways passed down through generations orally, they have been forgotten or obscured, and the quest to revive them has required a mix of trial-and-error, scholarly research and painstaking detective work.
LAKE TRAVERSE INDIAN RESERVATION, N.D. — The moon was full and the chokecherries were ripe in the southeastern corner of North Dakota. “It’s the one smell that shoots me back to being young,” said Sean Sherman, as the berries boiled under a red-veined froth.
Sherman has simmered corn silk with purple bergamot blossoms to make tea, and has braised rabbit with spruce tips. He has revived chaga, the fungus that blooms on birch trees, in warm hazelnut milk, and burned juniper branches and corn cobs all the way down to a soft black ash.
These techniques aren’t borrowed from the cutting-edge kitchens of New York or Copenhagen. Sherman, a 42-year-old chef who is Oglala Lakota, draws from the knowledge of the Lakota and Ojibwe tribes who farmed and foraged on the plains of the Midwest.
His work is part of a slowly gathering movement that he and other cooks are calling “new Native American cuisine,” or “indigenous cuisine” — an effort to revitalize native food cultures in contemporary kitchens. Sherman, who has been cooking in restaurants for nearly 30 years and plans to open his own in Minneapolis next year, jokingly refers to his style as “un-modernist-cuisine.”
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Because so many of the native food ways passed down through generations orally, they have been forgotten or obscured, and his quest has required a mix of trial-and-error, scholarly research and painstaking detective work. In some cases, Sherman has had to rely on his imagination to fill culinary gaps.
“He’s the second generation to do this work,” said Lois Ellen Frank, a food historian with a catering company in Santa Fe, N.M. “And he’s following in our footsteps.”
Intricate, diverse and delicious
When Frank began asking questions about Native American cuisine in the 1980s, she was told there was no such thing. “But of course they had a cuisine,” said Frank, who now has a doctoral degree in culinary anthropology, “and it was intricate, diverse and delicious.”
At his three-day cooking retreat in July, hosted by the Coteau des Prairies Lodge, on the Lake Traverse Indian Reservation, Sherman instructed more than a dozen people who had traveled from nearby towns and as far away as Atlanta. The group included a doctor, a college professor and a dentist who kept a small folding knife tucked in the elastic of her bra, ready for an afternoon of cutting lamb’s quarters and wild mint.
Sherman explained how the precolonial food cultures that inspired his work were sophisticated, supported by complex trade routes and traditions. To piece together their techniques, he interviewed community elders and academics, and studied books like “Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden,” the farming practices of a woman who lived on the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota at the beginning of the 20th century.
He placed a stack of resources, about 20 books on ethnobotany and indigenous foods, at the front of the room, but the real work took place outdoors, where participants were asked to forage ingredients for dinner.
Alex Jimerson, 27, a graduate student in the food-studies program at New York University, dug up burdock in the wild thickets between corn fields. “This holds so much more meaning for us than what people call Paleo,” he said, “because we can see the real diets of our ancestors, and we see how people lived in this region.”
Jimerson, a member of the Seneca Nation, was excited to help prepare the five-course dinner that would end the retreat. He went foraging for tannic buffalo berries and wild greens early in the morning, before the sun rose high over the prairie and it became too hot to trek. He had never seen clumps of white sage growing wild, and he picked some.
Later that night, he helped as the chef de cuisine, Brian Yazzie, used the sage leaves to quick-smoke duck.
The duck would be served with dried cherries and a delicate cracker of puffed wild rice and amaranth, with the flavor of just-popped corn. Sherman also put walleye, the big glassy-eyed perch, on the dinner menu, with a maple and corn broth, and wrinkled dry apple slices that came to life with dabs of lemony sorrel purée.
The dishes were typical of Sherman’s style: colorful and elegant, with roots in fine dining and ancestral cooking, pulled together from a mix of cultivated and wild regional ingredients.
They were also composed without wheat flour, sugar or dairy — the government-issued commodities that replaced many native foods on reservations more than a century ago. Sherman avoids them.
This means he does not cook fry bread, the simple deep-fried dough familiar to every tribe in the country. Fry bread was born as a food of survival, developed by ingenious cooks who needed to make the most of flour and lard, and it later became the base of the Indian taco: fry bread under ground beef and toppings like shredded cheese and sour cream.
In 2015, when Sherman was hired by Little Earth of United Tribes, a Minneapolis housing complex, to develop a menu for its food truck, he saw a chance to put everything he had learned into practice. He wanted to reach back into the history of indigenous cuisine, further back than the invention of fry bread, and surprise diners.
He tried to imagine what the Indian taco might look like if wheat flour and dairy had not become a part of the native diet. Sure, the answer would vary all over the country, but in this part of the Midwest what made the most sense to Sherman was a kind of corncake base, maybe seasoned with juniper ash, fried in a shallow depth of sunflower oil until the edges became brown and crisp.
Instead of the usual toppings, Sherman piled on heirloom beans and lean bison meat braised with cedar fronds. He smoked turkey and tossed it with fried sage. For vegetarians, he worked with whatever was in season — beans and hominy one month, a variety of summer squash the next.
He called this simple dish an indigenous taco. On the top, he sprinkled toasted sunflower, pumpkin and squash seeds, and a berry sauce called wojapi, made from fruits like chokecherries, which Sherman had been picking every summer since he was a boy.
Sherman used to spread a sheet on the ground and pull as many loose as he could, bundling the cloth up to carry it home to his mother, who would put on a pot to make wojapi.
Wearing a black T-shirt, his long brown hair tied back in a ponytail, Sherman boiled chokecherries until the pits sank to the bottom of the pot and could be easily removed. Over the course of the retreat, he would use the versatile fruit three ways. First, he made a big batch of wojapi, then a pre-dinner tea, infused with wild hyssop leaves and sweetened with a little maple syrup. He even used it to dress salad leaves, sharpening it with sour wild sumac instead of lemon juice.
Pine Ridge, where Sherman lived until he was 12, is the nation’s second-largest reservation and one of the most impoverished communities in the country. “My family didn’t have any money, so I started working as soon as I could,” said Sherman, who helped in his mother’s frame shop, and later had a paper route.
At 13, Sherman got his first restaurant job washing dishes, and quickly moved onto the line, cooking in Minneapolis and farther afield, where he learned to skim French-style stocks and roll out Italian pastas.
He was 32 when he finally turned his attention to indigenous foods. In 2014, he founded the Sioux Chef, a Minneapolis consulting and catering company that he runs with his life partner, Dana Thompson.
But Sherman’s ambitions go beyond dinner service. He hopes his new restaurant can bring jobs into Native American communities, and start careers in the industry. He wants to create a larger demand for Native American-owned food businesses. (He already buys walleye from Red Lake Fishery, and the wild rice he uses is harvested by tribes who live around the lakes of northern Minnesota.)
In time, Sherman and Thompson plan to open a culinary center and school focused on indigenous food systems.
Celebrate and empower
Picking up on the work of Frank, and chef and historian Loretta Barrett Oden, who once hosted a PBS cooking show, Sherman is joining a vital group that stretches across North America and Canada, using food culture to celebrate and empower native people.
Karlos Baca, a Colorado chef who creates startlingly beautiful dishes at the Dunton Hot Springs resort, draws freely on wild and hunted foods. Baca, who got his first job at 14 in a Mexican restaurant on the Southern Ute Reservation in Colorado, recently founded the Taste of Native Cuisine, an informal collective of native cooks that hosts large dinners two or three times a year.
Rich Francis, a member of the Tetlit Gwich’in and Tuscarora nations, recently gained fame as he represented First Nations’ cuisine in the final round of “Top Chef Canada.”
Back in the retreat kitchen, it was time to pick up the pace. Sherman instructed one group of his attendants to roll minced rabbit meat in big purple amaranth leaves, and another to blanch prickly nettle so it would be easier to handle. Two people got to work slitting open milkweed pods to fry and scooping out the feathery white buds to garnish a salad; outside, Jimerson turned corn over flames.
Bit by bit, a feast came together. “We’re a small but tightly knit community,” said Sherman, as the chokecherries swelled and fell away from their pits. “But we see the momentum growing.”