For Native American chefs, recognition inspires a wider reckoning
In 2015, Sean Sherman debuted a charming food truck in Minneapolis: Tatanka Truck, an homage to his heritage as a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe. Raised at Pine Ridge, a reservation in South Dakota that is the nation's poorest, Sherman has in short order become a darling of the James Beard awards: In 2018, he won for a cookbook; in 2019, for leadership; and last year, for best new restaurant for Owamni, his bricks-and-mortar debut showcasing Indigenous flavors and cooking.
Sherman's onstage acceptance speech last year was both gracious and frank: "People of color from everywhere have been affected by colonialism, and we just went through centuries of racist bulls---," he said, the silver James Beard medal around his neck framed by his long, dark braids. "This is showing that we can get through that, that we're still here. Our people are here. Our ancestors are proud tonight because we're doing something different: We're putting health on the table, we're putting culture on the table, and we're putting our stories on the table."
More than a reclamation, reckoning or renaissance, Owamni evokes the spirit of "ottoy," a word from the Chochenyo Natives of California's Bay Area that means a healing reparation. And Sherman's restaurant is not alone in that mission. Indigenous food leaders across the country are speaking out and eating up.
Indigenous farmers markets have sprouted in Arizona, California, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Oregon and Wisconsin. The Swinomish people of Washington state have built the nation's first clam garden in 200 years. Indigenous-inspired restaurants are flourishing in Hawaii and Puerto Rico. Native Guamanian cuisine has dazzled San Francisco. And a Native culinary community is thriving across Seattle, including a coffee shop. Sherman himself, chief executive and founder of the Sioux Chef, is overseeing Indigenous food labs expanding to Anchorage; Bozeman, Mont.; and Rapid City, S.D.
To many of the nation's nearly 4 million Native Americans in 574 federally recognized tribes, Owamni's win seemed like a tipping point toward reclaiming long-trodden dignity.
"I'm trying to right something that was wrong when I grew up," said Sherman, 48, who was 27 when he received his Lakota name. "The reason Native restaurants and food are something so ironically foreign is obviously a direct result of the extremely violent and racist American history, which is why it has to be addressed. Indigenous peoples are still largely invisible, and this movement is not just about articulating the description of foods but opening up a larger conversation of why things are the way they are."
Native American history is often taught as a bundle of ancient tragedies - the Trail of Tears and the Long Walk in the 1800s - but lesser known is the Indian Relocation Act of 1956, which forced Natives into urban centers as suburbia became a haven for White flight. Or that, in a nation founded in 1776 in large part on religious liberty, Native Americans - inhabitants of the land for at least 17,000 years - were not granted that very freedom until 1978. Or that, though they gained the right to vote in 1924, Native voting remains under Jim Crow-style restrictions in Arizona, for example.
Sherman recalls a childhood of vile government rations sent only after tribes complained of their exclusion under the Food Stamp Act of 1976. Decades of similar mistreatment have created the nation's worst rates of alcoholism, diabetes, heart disease, hunger, obesity and other dietary afflictions on reservations. (Life expectancy at Pine Ridge, according to the local hospital, is 47 for men and 55 for women.)
In that context, Owamni is an astounding achievement. "We want to see this normalized," Sherman said, "to showcase all this diversity and our Indigenous perspectives on history, land and culture."
But everyday acceptance is a tall order for an American palate given that traditional Native diets don't include dairy - not even butter - wheat flour, cane sugar, beef, pork or chicken. Yet Sherman is amazed at the popularity of Owamni's maple chile cricket seed mix, ordered at nearly every table. He shouldn't be. According to the Journal of Ethnic Foods, 60 percent of the current global food supply originated in the pre-colonial so-called New World. Think chiles, chocolate, potatoes, tomatoes, turkey and the beans-corn-squash trio called "three sisters" - ingredients as rich and varied as the people who cultivated them.
Yet one of the wildest ironies of America's early relationship with Native peoples is that European settlers who knew the difference between being Baptist, Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian or Wesleyan treated the continent's various tribes - even confederated ones such as the Iroquois - with monolithic otherness.
"We ain't all just Indians. We're not all one and the same," said Loretta Barrett Oden, a Potawatomi chef consultant at Thirty Nine, the restaurant at the First Americans Museum in Oklahoma City. "We don't all wear feathers. We don't all say 'how.' We don't all wear turquoise. You hear the flute music and then cue the eagle. We're not all idyllic and free, thundering across the plains. We're as varied - culture- and language-wise - as all of Europe."
Now 80, Oden recalls a youth shaped by White, Eurocentric perspectives. She grew up in the golden age of "cowboys and Indians" - "Bonanza," "Davy Crockett," "Gunsmoke" and spaghetti westerns. By day, she attended powwows; by night, she rooted for cowboys at movie theaters. It was confusing then - and it remains complicated.
"In any city, you can eat anything imaginable - Thai, Mongolian beef, Italian, Mexican, Ethiopian, whatever - but you never see Native American," Oden said. "In this country, the ugliness of our past has been so tamped down and hidden that we can't recognize a Native American restaurant - our culture, our existence - without admitting to all the crap that got put upon us."
But there are other, more banal pressures: Many of the nation's Native restaurants are relegated to museums. (The celebrated Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian has been searching for a head chef since 2020.) "All these museums, my own included, are run by the big feeders: Sodexo, Sysco, Aramark," Oden said. "It makes authenticity a battle . . . but I'm making headway."
Growth is even coming to relatively long-lasting successes, such as fast-casual Tocabe in Denver, which opened in 2008. It now has two locations, a food truck and a planned major expansion into Denver International Airport, said co-owner Ben Jacobs, who is Osage.
"As Native culinary professionals - chefs, cooks, restaurateurs, caterers - we're in this beautiful experience where we're genuinely creating the direction of where Native food goes," he said. "We are the oldest cultures on the continent, but in many ways we have the youngest cuisine, because it's not clearly defined. We are reestablishing our voice for our ingredients. It's an inspiring time for Native foods."
The openness of next-generation Natives like Jacobs has let him serve 1,000 pounds of bison ribs a month with rotating housemade blueberry, blackberry and huckleberry barbecue sauces, and he's paying it forward: At Jacobs's Tocabe Indigenous Marketplace, for every two food orders, a third is donated to a Native organization. He has been inspired by the flourishing of agency among historically marginalized and excluded people, including movements such as Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate.
"When you see other communities rising, working, advocating, doing all these things for their own people, it reinforces the fact that the work you're doing has support and all that motivation behind it to make its mark," he said.
The collection of cultures represented or acknowledged on Native menus reflects the complex realities of Native existence being uprooted into historic ghettos such as Oklahoma, which was known for decades merely as Indian Territory before becoming a state in 1907 (its name comes from "okla humma," Choctaw for "red people").
"I grew up with different tribes: Navajo, Apache, Lakota, Dakota, Chippewa, all these different Natives from all over," said Crystal Wahpepah, the Kickapoo owner of Wahpepah's Kitchen in Oakland, Calif. "I make it a point to have different tribes on a plate so people can see an overall landscape of our history and heritage."
A recent menu included charred deer sticks with chokecherry sauce, oxtail stew with heirloom corn, green chile rabbit tamales, bison meatballs with blueberry sauce, wild native mushroom pumpkin seed mole, Mayan chocolate acorn crepes with maple cream, blue corn waffles with seasonal berries, smoked squash tacos, and cedar-smoked sweet potato tostadas.
She strives to use Native suppliers whenever possible. "We are each other's business plan," she said.
Across the board, Native chefs describe their motivation for legacy not as an act of vanity but one of duty.
"We just really want to showcase how vibrant Indigenous culture is in today's world, not treated like we're from an archaic past, riding around on mammoths or something," Sherman said. "I'm trying to set up a system that will run on its own and outlast my lifetime; systems for cultures and peoples to reclaim their identity through their own foods."
Davida Becenti, a Diné and Hawaiian chef at Indian Pueblo Kitchen, a museum restaurant in Albuquerque, mourns her grandparents, who taught her to cook, but sees their legacy in her three children: "They see me. They're proud of me. My 15-year-old daughter is in culinary arts. It's always about family. Whoever comes into the restaurant, that's my family."
Still, Becenti noted limits to what dishes Native people will serve outsiders, flagging alkaan, a corn cake baked by being buried under a fire. It's a specialty served at a kinaaldá, a kind of Diné quinceañera.
"Some things," she said, "are just for us."