Millions of people lived and dined for thousands of years on a multitude of indigenous foods before Europeans began immigrating to North America about 500 years ago.
The pre-Columbian diet included many New World originals like corn, beans, peppers, squash, tomatoes and cocoa. Yet many of the traditional meals that Native Americans once prepared from the wild and cultivated ingredients gathered by their ancestors have become obscure.
Award-winning chef Sean Sherman has made it his mission to revitalize indigenous cooking traditions across North America and in Mexico.
“Food is a big part of your cultural identity, no matter who you are,” said Sherman, a member of the Oglala Lakota Nation.
Sherman and his business partner, Dana Thompson, will present a cooking demonstration at the Sun Valley Wellness Festival using indigenous ingredients gathered in the Wood River Valley. He will also give a talk titled “The (R)evolution of Indigenous Food Systems in North America.”
Born in Pine Ridge, S.D., Sherman has been cooking professionally for the past 30 years. He has become renowned nationally and internationally as a leader in the growing culinary movement centered around indigenous foods.
In 2018, Sherman’s first book, “The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen,” was awarded the James Beard medal for Best American Cookbook.
Sherman and his team of a dozen helpers work to restore indigenous food systems based on “pre-colonization” ingredients, using foods that were popular before Europeans began the process of forcing assimilation into mainstream American society.
The Sioux Chef’s recipes and food-culture impacts have been featured in The New York Times and Saveur magazine and on National Public Radio.
“My goal is to take indigenous food knowledge, adapt it and carry it forward into the future,” he said.
In 2014, Sherman and Thompson opened The Sioux Chef, a catering and food education business in the Minneapolis/Saint Paul area. They also designed and opened the Tatanka Truck (“Tatanka” translates to “buffalo” in the Lakota language), which featured pre-European-contact foods of the Dakota and Minnesota territories.
Sherman said he spent years exploring ethnobotanical texts, anthropological literature and first contact accounts by Europeans to investigate native North American diets. He also talked to tribal elders to verify his source materials.
It wasn’t always easy figuring out what had been authentic.
“In some cases, elders were even embarrassed to cook their traditional foods,” he said. “I try to use what I have learned and to see it through a culinary perspective.”
One of the most popular Tatanka Truck beverages was cedar-maple tea, Sherman said. He now travels widely to learn about native food traditions and how to prepare meals, both on and off Indian reservations.
Recently he prepared a seafood feast in Southern California that included traditional acorn dishes. At Dartmouth University he drew upon local Abenaki tradition to prepare a meal that included Iroquois corn, wild onions and wild game cooked in a broth made from pine needles.
While visiting a group of students in Palm Springs, Calif., his group encountered a seasonal bloom of caterpillars, which had once been eaten by local tribes in the area.
“I taught these kids how to cook and eat caterpillars,” Sherman said. ‘They loved it.”
The Sioux Chef’s recently founded North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems nonprofit is dedicated to addressing the economic and health crises affecting Native American communities by re-establishing native foodways.
“We imagine a new North American food system that generates wealth and improves health in Native communities through food-related enterprises,” the nonprofit’s website states.
“Indigenous diets have great proteins and excellent fats, and for the most part there was no heart disease, diabetes or cavities in teeth,” Sherman said. “Indigenous foods come from sustainable sources, and when you remove colonial ingredients, you can help eliminate Type 2 diabetes.”
Some native communities have a 60 percent incidence of diabetes, he said.
The re-establishment of native cuisine could bring about a healthier American population overall, Sherman said.
“When you take out dairy, sugar, wheat flour and also chicken and pork, it becomes a very healthy diet, kind of like what the paleo diet was trying to do,” he said.
Sherman said he’s familiar with some of the indigenous food varieties he’s likely to encounter in the Wood River Valley, foods that the Shoshone-Bannock and perhaps other tribes subsisted upon for thousands of years. Those include chokecherries, which are used to make a medicinal syrup, camas bulbs, which provided a sweet, starchy staple, and salmon and trout.
The Sioux Chef team will arrive early to personally search out wild ingredients, based on their research on the area. It’s part of their job while on the road, but they sometimes get extra local help.
“We won’t turn down a dried bag of morel mushrooms!” Thompson said.