From his renowned restaurant Owamni in Minneapolis, chef Sean Sherman is leading a Native American renaissance.
For Sean Sherman, 2023 marks a milestone: a decade into his journey to revitalize Native American foodways. The world is rightfully applauding the Oglala Lakota chef as a leader of the Native American renaissance we’re currently witnessing — and in turn showering him with accolades and attention. All the acclaim is well-deserved of course, but this has never been about recognition. Rather, it’s all about representation.
When he and co-owner Dana Thompson opened Owamni in Minneapolis in 2021, it debuted to great fanfare as one of the nation’s first full-service Native American restaurants. That year, it was named one of The New York Times’ 50 best restaurants. Esquire also dubbed it one of the Best New Restaurants in America and crowned Sherman Chef of the Year. Then in 2022, Owamni snagged the coveted James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant (adding to Sherman’s two previous Beards, including a 2019 leadership award). And earlier this year, Sherman was named one of TIME’s 100 Most Influential People of 2023. Suffice it to say that Owamni has become one of the most coveted reservations not only in the Twin Cities but in the United States.
Named after the Dakota word for the waterfalls it overlooks, the 70-seat hot spot is situated along the banks of the Mississippi River in two reclaimed flour and wood mills. Here, diners can savor delectable decolonized fare, meaning dishes eschew Eurocentric ingredients that aren’t originally from these lands like beef, chicken, pork, dairy, wheat flour, and cane sugar. But the goal isn’t to eat like it’s 1491. Instead, this inherently healthy modern Indigenous cuisine takes its cues from the local bounty that’s been harvested by tribal communities for centuries — think cedar-braised bison tacos, fan-favorite roasted sweet potatoes, hand-harvested wild rice, and must-try cricket seed mix (trust me on this one).
“Owamni is doing exactly what I had hoped it would: representing what’s possible for modern Indigenous foods,” Sherman says with humility. “I still have so much work ahead of me as part of this big future, so it’s hard to look at these accomplishments from an outside perspective. I feel like I’ve already seen my path; I’m just moving along it and seeing so many of the seeds that were planted years ago come to fruition.”
“Just the idea that Owamni exists has been such an act of defiance,” adds Thompson, who is a lineal descendant of the Wahpeton-Sisseton and Mdewakanton Dakota tribes. “It’s right in line with the renaissance we’re experiencing amid a social justice reckoning, the pandemic, and the Great Resignation. It’s just time for a reawakening.”
It’s been a lifelong journey for Sherman, who grew up on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation (one of the poorest communities in America) eating government-subsidized foods. He started washing dishes at a steakhouse in Spearfish, South Dakota, at age 13 then worked his way up to line cook, eventually moving to Minneapolis as a young adult to work in fine-dining establishments. It was during a sojourn in Mexico, where many Indigenous foodways are alive and well, that Sherman realized just how little connection he had to the culinary traditions of his ancestors — the all-too-common consequence of the genocide and assimilation that countless tribal peoples faced.
This epiphany prompted a yearslong quest to absorb as much knowledge as possible about Native American foodways from elders, historians, ethnobotanists, and other experts. It also sparked the development of The Sioux Chef, an organization committed to revitalizing Indigenous cuisine that began with a catering company and later a humble food truck.
“We’ve come a long way since we first started The Sioux Chef in 2014, when I’d get asked what Native American food is,” Sherman explains. “Now, people are digging into issues like food sovereignty, and we’re seeing other Native American chefs start their own restaurants, which is what we hoped for. To me, Owamni is just one piece of the puzzle. It’s the proof of concept that this work is possible in today’s world and that the timing is now.”
Indeed, while he is certainly grateful for the acclaim, he has his sights set on something bigger. That’s where his nonprofit, North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems (NATIFS), comes into play. Its aim is threefold: to reestablish Native American foodways, to ensure access to Indigenous education, and to help address the ongoing economic and health crises plaguing tribal communities.
The nonprofit’s Indigenous Food Lab, based in Minneapolis, serves as an incubator kitchen for entrepreneurs like chef Crystal Wahpepah (Kickapoo Nation of Oklahoma), who spent time there learning from Sherman before opening her eponymous Native American eatery in Oakland, California. Making their debut in the Twin Cities this year to accompany the food lab are a marketplace featuring tribal purveyors and a community classroom, where local knowledge keepers can lead sessions about beading, farming, storytelling, seed keeping, and other longtime traditions.
The team also hopes to establish Indigenous Food Lab extensions in places like Alaska, Montana, and Sherman’s home state of South Dakota in the near future. The goal? To develop regional centers and support systems to help showcase the beautiful diversity of Indigenous foodways across North America. After all, the United States alone has 574 federally recognized tribes, all with their own unique customs to be celebrated.
Education is at the heart of it all. “I call it passive education,” says Thompson, who considers herself a social-impact entrepreneur. “We’re telling a story and laying out the facts without brushing anything under the rug, but in a way that isn’t triggering. Because it’s about connection, food, nutrition, health, and powerful Indigenous wisdom.”
These days, Sherman’s meteoric rise as a Native American change maker has him traversing the globe to promote Indigenous foodways and to connect with tribal leaders and entrepreneurs about partnership opportunities. In fact, he was recently named to the U.S. State Department’s American Culinary Corps, a program developed with the James Beard Foundation. He’s in good company alongside food world luminaries like Spanish chef-humanitarian José Andrés, Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi, and Chinese-Jewish Food Network star Molly Yeh. This network of more than 80 culinary professionals is called upon to act as diplomatic ambassadors both domestically and abroad.
“We’re working to open up the doors to work with the U.S. government, as mercurial as it is, to take necessary steps to make things better,” Sherman says. “I really want to see the work of NATIFS unfold, so we start seeing more Indigenous education centers pop up, more Indigenous curriculum being developed on a large scale, and a lot more Indigenous food production ramp up.”
Unsurprisingly, the inbound requests for collaborations are never-ending. For instance, NATIFS is participating in the USDA’s Indigenous Food Sovereignty Initiative, designing healthy, indigenized recipes utilizing food available in federal support programs combined with local, foraged ingredients.. Tribal schools are seeking assistance in shifting their lunch programs to include more culturally relevant fare. And of course there are countless entrepreneurs looking to Sherman for guidance and support in bringing their own eateries to life.
Sherman is eager to have a meaningful impact within tribal communities, which he acknowledges will take time, especially due to the nature of leadership election cycles. He emphasizes that Native American representation is vitally needed in national political offices, as is a unified approach among Indigenous groups. “If you look at the tribes across the country, we’re all facing the same issues,” he explains. “Indigenous communities could be a lot more powerful if our voices were combined. We were purposefully divided early on, because the fear was that we would be too dangerous if we all banded together. But food is something that can tie Indigenous peoples — and really all people of color — together on a global scale.”
Even with these big-picture initiatives underway, Sherman and Thompson remain focused on excellence and access at Owamni, which in so many ways serves as a beacon of hope for Indigenous peoples across Turtle Island. That dedication includes routines like saging the space before every shift to call in ancestors, the recent hiring of executive chef Lee Garman (Chinook) to oversee the eatery’s petite kitchen, and the exploration of possible warm-weather expansion opportunities beyond the peaceful riverfront patio and into a lower-level space. Ultimately, the goal remains to make Indigenous cuisine more accessible.
And what a singular experience dining at Owamni is. “I would describe it as profound, visceral, even sensual,” Thompson muses. “People come in and can’t get over the taste of the bison, the mouthfeel of the cricket, the smell of the sage. I really think we opened up a part of society that had been suppressed. It has created this emotional opening for so many people, Native and non-Native, because the Indigenous wisdom is so beautiful and powerful.” Combined with the soothing sound of traditional music and the breathtaking sight of the falls of the Mississippi River, a sacred place for regional tribal communities for centuries, the experience appeals to all the senses.
That magnetism draws diners from far and wide, who are eager to savor the cuisine and soak up the knowledge. “We still get people coming through the doors with suitcases almost every day who are flying in just to eat at our restaurant,” Thompson says. “I’ve had so many people grab my hands and say, ‘We traveled here from New Mexico just to experience this food, and here’s what we’re doing in our community because of how we’ve been inspired by this movement.’ Because this is so much bigger than Sean and me—it’s a massive global movement.”
Check out five Sean Sherman-recommended Native American purveyors to stock your shelves with here.
This article appears in our July 2023 issue, which is now available on newsstands and through our C&I Shop.