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Harvest Celebration: Chef Sean Sherman Elevates Indigenous Foods

Chef Sean Sherman gives public lecture
Catawba Indian Nation Chief William Harris, members of the executive council and staff, and Chef Sean Sherman at the Catawba Nation Longhouse.

Chef Sean Sherman, the Oglala Lakota chef and founder of The Sioux Chef, draws upon North America's native ingredients to create modern indigenous cuisines. Sherman's work is about food and health, but it's also about cultural identity. In his book, The Sioux Chef's Indigenous Kitchen, and through his restaurant and educational outreach, Sherman connects indigenous communities to their traditions, and offers us an alternative view of the foods we encounter every day.

Sherman visited campus last month as part of a Native Foodways event that included a public lecture and a special lunch at Vail Commons featuring recipes from his book.

In this Q&A, Sherman and Rose Stremlau, assistant professor of history, discuss food, cultural identity and our shared history.

Sean Sherman
James Beard Award-Winning Chef

How has your relationship to food changed throughout your life? And was there a moment when you knew you wanted to be a chef?
I would say that really learning how to cook pushed me into many different perspectives throughout my career and my path. Just understanding how to make things from the beginning and then having a deeper understanding of where my food comes from, and then when I was running restaurants working farm to table—we were buying food directly from farmers and ranchers early on when it really wasn't a thing, back in the late 1990s really. It was fun to start to experiment with different foods, and to keep the foods local. Then all of the sudden I had the realization that there was no native representation out there in the food world—that shot me on a path to understand what my own ancestors were eating, and how this could be applicable.

What happens when you reconnect indigenous people to their traditional foodways?
The biggest part of it is we can push people to a healthier lifestyle, giving them the understanding of how their ancestors were eating and how that can really impact them in a positive way, but it's also reclaiming part of our cultural identity and embracing the diversity we have around North America, too. We're all unique and special in our own ways, and there's so much to learn and understand that we can give, and it strengthens our own identity because food is so connected to cultural identity. When we think about our parents and our grandparents and how they ate, that says something special for us, but for a lot of indigenous groups the U.S. government tried to wipe that away, and we lost site of a lot of our traditional ways. But we can still make it a part of our daily lives, and just become something bigger and stronger.

What do you see as next steps for positive change in indigenous communities?
Just making it [traditional foods] part of our lives, utilizing foods that are particular to our regions and our cultures, and really celebrating if we have agriculture seeds and wild foods around us. We need to make it a regular part of our gatherings, and just really teach our children the importance of this healthier diet and push away from over-processed food and all this junk food. Part of this is trying to figure out how to get these foods into our communities to make it easier for the tribes to start making their own foods and to be able to make a business out of it if they want to.

In an interview with "Food 52" you mentioned you grew up with Thanksgiving, but it was really more of a celebration of the fall harvest. Do you plan to celebrate the holiday, and what will be on your table?
We really feel like we should drop the native perspective on Thanksgiving because it's not a perspective that any indigenous people were ever consulted about, to have this portrayal of this Indian and the Pilgrims getting along—it's a mythological story and it doesn't represent us at all in a healthy manner. I feel like we should just stop appropriating native culture for the sake of this national holiday when it should be about a celebration of food and families getting together to celebrate the year. That's what it was created to do, to join people with different perspectives, but it ended up alienating an entire population.

Because of the way Thanksgiving has been, a lot of the traditional pieces are indigenous food bases—you see wild rice, you see beans, you see pumpkin and squash, you see sweet potatoes, you see turkey. We want people to think about cooking hyper-regionally and having a deeper understanding of history—why not use a lot of wild foods and wild game? You don't just have to do the exact same Betty Crocker recipe—you can make it unique and special to your area.

Chef Sean Sherman, Rose Stremlau during public lecture
Prof. Rose Stremlau, Brooke Bauer (Catawba historian), Chef Sherman and Maia Harrell '20 at Catawba Nation Longhouse.

Rose Stremlau
Assistant Professor of History

What can food teach us about culture? 
I use food in classes as teaching tools. Specific foods are a digestible (pun intended!) way to represent complicated concepts and, of particular importance to historians, tangibly demonstrate change over time. Foodways, the analysis of food procurement, preparation, preservation, consumption and representation within the broadest cultural, social, political economic context, are a useful interdisciplinary lens into the human experience.

For example, I use coconut oatmeal cookies in the U.S. history survey to provide an example of how average Americans experienced global social and economic changes occurring during the late 19th century. We can talk about American expansion and industrialization in the abstract, but a cookie brings it home in a way many students find to be relatable and memorable, and so the availability of refined white sugar can teach us about exploitative and racialized labor practices (then and now), and the emergence of coconut as an "exotic" but affordable treat results from American expansion into the Pacific and the occupation of Hawaii. Oats were nothing new, but the shift to commercially refined oats branded by companies like Quaker that advertised their products nationally and through cookbooks with recipes suggesting new uses—like oatmeal cookies—was.

Cookbooks emerge in this period as a mass-marketing tool both to advertise products and to promote "healthy" eating (views of health and diet differed greatly then) and assimilation (conscious efforts by educators, reformers and missionaries to discourage the foodways of immigrants and urge their adaptation of a bland American diet).

The recipe I use is one of the oldest in my family's collection, and I ask students to think about the heritage recipes that their family still makes. I explain that the reason my great-great grandmother living in a small farm town in Illinois could first bake the cookies that I still make for my students is because of all of these complicated and interconnected factors—globalization of labor flows, U.S. expansion, the industrialization and standardization of food, the development of corporate advertising, immigration and xenophobia, and the increasing American desire for quick and portable foods.

Chef Sean Sherman is using food to help indigenous communities reclaim and reconnect with their identity. This suggests that food traditions have been lost, and with them, identity. From the perspective of an historian, how were those indigenous foodways lost in the Americas, what has been the impact of that loss on these communities?
We can understand the loss of indigenous foodways as a result of three processes: first, settler colonialism. Many Americans are reluctant to recognize the United States as a settler state, but it is, and part of the process of claiming sovereignty over our piece of North America was the intentional dispossession of native peoples. That occurred through several means—all related to food. George Washington was the commander of American forces, and he was the first commander to order the destruction of native food stores as a weapon of war. (In his case, Iroquois corn fields in what is now Upstate New York). The intentional destruction of native food stores, sources and supplies continued through the very end of the Plains Wars in the 1880s with the destruction of buffalo herds. Likewise, treaties, also a component of settler colonialism, facilitated the legal (but sometimes ethically questionable) transfer of native land and resources to settler governments (first colonies, then the U.S. federal government). The first lands the United States acquired were village sites, including their corn fields, and hunting grounds here in the East, replacing the indigenous agricultural system, rooted in corn cultivation, with the settler colonial one, preferring wheat, and hunting wild game with animal husbandry, producing protein from cows and pigs. As a result, within several generations, settler peoples physically separated native people from the land and resources they had lived off of since countless generations before European contact. Without access to those places, knowledge is lost.

The second process is related—that of assimilation. The United States and its citizens, particularly Christian missionary organizations, have made great efforts to assimilate American Indian people—to destroy their land-based cultures but bring the people themselves into the population of the nation. One of the primary ways to do this was the removal of American Indian children from their families for re-education in government boarding schools and adoption into white families, which was U.S. policy for a century beginning in the 1870s. Ironically, one of the justifications for this was the human-created poverty resulting from dispossession—if native families were unable to feed their children once removed from their homelands and resource bases, then, assimilationists argued, those children were "better off" in the care of non-Indians.

Separated from their traditional teachers and homelands, children didn't learn how to eat from their homelands and their spiritual tie to it was severed or at least severely damaged. Rather than understanding themselves as related to the land, as part of the land, these kids were taught what the Anglo legal system tells us—that land is a non-living thing that can be exchanged on a commercial market. By destroying families and their educational systems, that knowledge is lost.

Last, native people have adapted and included new foods into their diets as all other humans have. That, too, is a part of this story. When native people in the South begin building grist mills, for example, some women stop pounding corn by hand with mortars and pestles. No one forced that change. Women decided to spend those many hours a day doing other things. With innovation and adaptation, foodways changed, and native people selectively adapted European and African foodways to include new forms of knowledge. As a result, however, some other practices declined and disappeared.

What is one of the most common misconceptions about indigenous peoples that you encounter in your role as an historian, and how do you respond to it?
That indigenous people are no longer here. Many non-native people assume that because there aren't people living off the land in precisely the same ways as their ancestors did in 1491, or like culturally and historically inaccurate western movies suggest they did, that native American peoples have died off or been fully assimilated into the mainstream American society. This is problematic for a variety of reasons. To start, native societies have adapted and evolved over time, as have all societies.

I am of German descent. No one suggests to me that I am not a German American because I don't live how my ancestors did centuries ago as peasant farmers in Europe, and yet native people today regularly challenge stereotypes that they must be "traditional" to be a Native American person—one must live in a tee pee and hunt buffalo for a living, ride a horse everywhere, have cheek bones to die for, be fully self-sufficient, etc. Only a minority of native tribes ever lived that way, but American pop culture beginning in the late-nineteenth century popularized the notion that the relatively small number of northern plains cultures represented all native cultures across the continent. Some people, lacking awareness of how diverse native North America was at the time of contact with Europeans—and still is—don't recognized what's in front of them as indigenous because it doesn't look like it came out of a John Wayne movie.

This idea is particularly problematic in North Carolina because our state is home to eight tribes and four urban Indian communities comprising the largest American Indian population of any state east of the Mississippi River. This doesn't include the native people on whose land Davidson College exists, the Catawba Indian Nation, whose reservation is just south of Charlotte in South Carolina.

Chef Sherman's work is particularly useful in challenging this inaccurate perception. If you are eating the native foods of your region, you inherently recognize the continued presence of native people there, see their ongoing efforts to utilize and protect natural resources, and will be more likely to be aware of ways to support those initiatives if, like me, you want to live ethically as a descendant of settlers who is grateful to be able to live and prosper on this land.

What are the influences of native foods on our modern diet?
The foods of the Americas are everywhere. From grits to corn bread to baked beans to BBQ to donuts to tamales and tacos and chocolate—the foods, flavors, dishes and prep methods of this hemisphere have shaped all of the major cuisines we enjoy in the United States today. We see it most directly in southern and Mexican cuisines because of the preponderance of corn and beans, but imagine Italian without tomato and any Asian cuisine without chili peppers?! As a settler colonial nation, however, we are very intentional in how we socialize our citizens not to see that influence because it enables us to perpetuate the belief that our history begins in 1776 or, at least, with the establishment of European colonies here.