On a foggy evening, deep in the woods at the Catawba Indian Nation, chef Sean Sherman explained his epiphany. He thought back to the moment early in his career when he realized, “There’s lots of great food all over the world – but zero restaurants that represent native foods.”
Sherman, who is Oglala Dakota, held an audience of about 60 rapt last Friday as he described his journey from life as a child on a reservation to the work he’s doing to help reestablish and bring awareness to the value of native foods. He won the 2018 James Beard Award: Best American Cookbook for his work, The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen.
The South Dakota-born chef was working in Minneapolis and had learned his trade mostly from books.
“I had an ability to make food look pretty but I didn’t know what I was doing,” he said.
Projecting a startling collection of images on a screen in the darkened longhouse during his talk, Sherman literally mapped the challenges indigenous people have faced, especially during the era of colonialism when campaigns were waged to destroy the plants, animals, and culture of native people in the Americas.
“It was a war on indigenous foods … and a war on indigenous knowledge,” he said. He went on to describe what was the vitality of a culture where “anything is game and [we] can see food and medicine everywhere.”
He talked about ancestral trauma and dispelled some stereotypical myths about Native Americans.
“People want to hear that we get up in the morning and take down an elk with a sling-shot.”
He then discussed the deficiencies of the highly-processed diet of foods on which many depend, due to long-standing economic policies that disenfranchise and isolate indigenous people.
The typical American consumer eats no more than 20 plants. Noting the peculiarity of the term “food desert,” Sherman had a wry take on the topic: “Desert plants may want to hurt, kill, or maim you – but indigenous people know what to do with them.” He drew laughter when he described trendy foodies who pay $30 per pound for ingredients such as spruce tips, while never noticing “there’s a giant tree right outside the door.”
With a mission to “make food taste like where we are,” Sherman and partners in his home region collaborated to launch the Tatanka food truck and a catering business. They are now creating those authentic indigenous dishes that have been missing from the modern, American culinary landscape.
He closed with a mention of his current project, the North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems (NATIFS). It will provide resources, education, and opportunities for indigenous people.
“It’s the most important thing I can do in my lifetime,” he said.
After Sherman’s talk, Faye George Greiner presented the chef with a handmade basket as other members of the community bestowed a gift of Catawba pottery. Then attendees enjoyed a buffet of sunflower-crusted trout with apples, hunter’s stew, wild rice, and maple-sage roasted vegetables.
From a menu not found in any local restaurant, prepared without processed sugars or dairy ingredients, and using methods handed down for generations, it was a meal that revealed so much – right there on each and every plate – of our complicated and still-evolving history.
Sean Sherman’s visit to the Catawba Indian Nation followed local presentations at the Native American Studies Center at USC Lancaster, UNC Pembroke, and Davidson College.
To learn more about indigenous culture, the public is invited to attend the 5th Annual Craft and Food Fair at the Catawba Indian Nation; Sat, Nov 17 from 10 am to 4 pm. Admission is free. Traditionally crafted goods made by artisans will be available for purchase. A food tasting contest will run from 11 to 1. 996 Avenue of the Nations, Rock Hill, SC 29730. For more info call 803-366-4792.