Revitalizing Food: Oglala Lakota Chef Serves Pre-Colonization Menu

Before there was fry bread, there were sage, white pine, chokecherries and wild buffalo.

Before Europeans unloaded wheat and sugar cane and introduced beef to Turtle Island, Natives hunted and fished. They planted potatoes, squash and corn, and they flavored their food with purslane, rose hips and dandelion.

That traditional diet, or what Chef Sean Sherman calls the “pre-colonization diet,” is the bedrock for a new restaurant set to open this fall in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota. Sherman, who is Oglala Lakota, plans to use only indigenous foods in the restaurant, which he has appropriately named The Sioux Chef.

“I’m not using any European ingredients,” he said. “Everyone knows what meat was here, but I was interested in the other things—how they dried corn and squash; how they ground things into flour; and all the beans, berries, wildflowers and tree fruits. There are plenty of flavors to play with.”

Sherman, 40, was born in Pine Ridge and learned some of the traditional ways of preparing and preserving food from his grandfather. His great-grandfather fought in the Battle of the Little Bighorn, he said, so his grandfather was among the first generation of Lakota to live on the reservation and attend mission schools.

“My family knows what was growing on the prairies,” Sherman said. “When I have a big pot of chokecherries or buffalo simmering on the stove, or when I’m out there picking things from the forests or prairies, it’s definitely nostalgic. When I’m out there gathering sage, all those flavors bring back memories.”

Sherman started working in restaurants at age 13 and continued while studying business at Black Hills State College, in Spearfish, South Dakota. After college, he moved to Minneapolis, where he pursued a serious culinary career, eventually becoming a chef at age 28.

Sherman was sought after by restaurant owners who wanted a redesign or “rebranding” of existing kitchens, said Jael Kampfe, Sherman’s stepmother and owner of a working guest ranch in Montana. Several years ago, Kampfe hired Sherman to create a new menu and dining experience for clients.

“What I really love about what he is doing is the relationship he creates between food and culture,” Kampfe said. “Food is his central focus and he creates everything around it.”

Always drawn to local, organic foods, Sherman quickly found a niche working directly with farmers and ranchers to put quality, fresh meals on restaurant tables. He studied indigenous ingredients in Spain and Mexico, establishing communities around locally produced food and a return to regions’ indigenous flavors.

When it came to preparing foods native to his own people, Sherman found he had to do a lot of research. Many tribes cite fry bread as part of the traditional diet, he said, but he needed to dig deeper into the past.

“I realized there wasn’t a lot of information out there in terms of how to process foods or what they really ate,” he said. “I spent a long time studying wild foods. I talked to people and got oral stories. A lot of it had to come from history books and other accounts of how things were.”

His studies took him to reservations in Wyoming, Montana, Minnesota, Wisconsin and the Dakotas, and resulted in dishes like smoked turkey wasna, mixed berry wojapi, wild rice flatbread and grilled duck.

Sherman, who often does food demonstrations or hosts discussions about healthy eating, decided earlier this year that he wanted to open a restaurant and serve traditional Lakota and Ojibwe foods. He’s now catering in the Twin Cities area and plans to open that restaurant by December—once he finds the right space.

When The Sioux Chef opens, patrons can expect a fine dining experience that will appeal to simple and sophisticated palates. Sherman, who is equally comfortable picking berries in the woods and serving five- or six-course meals to black-tie guests, plans to use his restaurant to blend modern cooking techniques with traditional cuisine.

“It’s really a family-style concept of dining, but with pre-colonial foods,” he said. “My goal is to let the dishes speak for themselves.”

According to Kampfe, the restaurant couldn’t open at a more opportune time.

“This is really vital for the future of culture,” she said. “We have all this talk about revitalization of language or ceremonies, but there’s not enough talk about revitalizing food.”


Responses to "Lakota chef is 'helping bring a Native American food culture into the modern world'"

  1. Kristan says:

    This is just so cool. If I ever get up to that area I am certainly going to come try it.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I was so fortunate to be able to taste his amazing cuisine for a catered dinner party. Truly amazing food! What a treat.

  3. Unknown says:

    That's great!!! I wish you good luck and hope you are able to expand. It's important to have the old ways

  4. chicha says:

    This is amazing and it's definitely happening at the perfect time! There is so much revitalization of indigenous foods and cultures in South America already, it's time that we caught up with that here in North America

  5. would love to try some of this amazing looking food

  6. Unknown says:

    Will you write a cook book for those of us who can not get to the restaurant. The food sounds delicious.

  7. Unknown says:

    I would love to eat here! I forage and am deeply interested in indigenous food and cooking methods. Also would be nice to go somewhere that does not aim to use my gastrointestinal bane - wheat! Too bad it's so far from me. I'm on the East Coast :( Wish someone would do something like this here, too.

  8. Unknown says:

    wow definitely gonna us this as one of my topics when my students study International cuisines. this is ling overdue real American Food !

  9. Unknown says:

    A wonderful idea and I hope it spreads! One note of caution, however, check your plant species list for what's native. Dandelion is a European import.

  10. ED says:

    More cultural foods available? YES PLEASE!! Also, I love the idea of foods cooked by someone who knows what they are doing made from ingredients in my backyard! Lots of potential for super-local food there. Hopefully someone local to me will do something similar here in Seattle (I'm about to go Google to see if someone did, and I just don't know). We have a lot of local tribes, and I'm sure there are amazing foods that should not be lost.

    Oh, another vote for no wheat - gluten intolerant here, so more non-Caucasian food options really makes me smile.

  11. How many Americans are there who have some nave ancestry, but weren't raised in that culture, and so have always been a little curious about that part of their history? I know that's me. I'd love to try a native-style meal, even if it isn't the same tribe I'm descended from. I think it would be interesting. Even more, I'd like to try what MY ancestors ate but perhaps that will be possible some day if this sort of restaurant catches on. This is a good idea and I wish him the best of luck. :)

  12. Unknown says:

    Oh, this is excellent because I have a plan to bring food security and food sovereignty to reservations! Various ideas, in fact.

  13. Anonymous says:

    good luck to you. Innovative idea. Family history with Pine Ridge Reservation and Chief Iron Nation.

  14. This is great news. I hope he gets national traction on food shows so he can help bring this approach and information to the public. It has been way too long. Absolute fan.

  15. Anonymous says:

    Our modern diet is so hazardous to our health....kudos to Sean for preserving the ways of our ancestors in this way. I hope this catches on and more of our people join in this kind of venture.

  16. Anonymous says:

    You can take a course at Oglala Lakota College in Rapid City on Lakota traditional food.

  17. Elaine says:

    Best wishes to you. I hope you are successful!!

  18. I loved his play on words. Sioux Chef.

  19. Cook book please!!

  20. lynn says:

    i would make a special trip

  21. lynn says:

    I am allergic to processed foods and have been searching out the food of my grandparents. Sadly fry bread is always suggested when ever i ask for traditional. This is exactly what I was looking for. Outstanding!!

  22. Unknown says:

    Thank you for doing such beautiful work. Great research

  23. Noelle says:

    Good luck with your restaurant. I hope to be there one day to try all those wonderfully sounding dishes !!

  24. Susan says:

    LoVE it!

  25. Derek says:

    Sioux Chef - just got it! Traditions are only as good as the people who fight for them - deep respect.

  26. Cecilia says:

    Really authentic, I would love to taste Sean´s gourmet creations. Congratulations!

  27. Dr Bonnie says:

    As a functional medicine doctor, I have noticed that patients often benefit from adopting their original ethnic diet. You are doing a great service to the People. Aho!

  28. Anonymous says:

    I would love to eat at his restaurant one day! The mix of food and herbs sound wonderful! Best of luck for a successful restaurant!

  29. Anonymous says:

    I bought his book a few years ago. Sadly, living in SW France, some of the ingredients described in the book are either very difficult, or even impossible to get here. But it certainly provides food for thought! I've tried quite a few of the recipes in there, albeit having to substitute some of the ingredients with something else because of non availability of the real thing.

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