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Sean Sherman won a 2018 James Beard Award for his cookbook, “The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen,” and a 2019 James Beard Leadership Award for his efforts toward the “revitalization and awareness of indigenous food systems in a modern culinary context.” In this Voices in Food story, as told to Julie Kendrick, Sherman discusses the harmful lie of the traditional Thanksgiving story and suggests that this year — maybe more than any other — is the right time to change our understanding of the past and reframe our thinking about what we’re eating on Thanksgiving Day.
On his geographical, cultural and culinary roots
I’m an enrolled tribal member of the Oglala Lakota Sioux, and I grew up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, which is the poorest county, with the lowest life expectancy, in the United States. When I was 13, I started working at The Sluice restaurant in Spearfish, South Dakota, and I worked in restaurants throughout my teens and 20s. I got my first executive chef job, at a tapas restaurant in Minneapolis, when I was 27.
Eventually, I realized that I knew a lot about European cooking, but very little about how my own people hunted, gathered and prepared their food. That realization changed the focus of my life, and now I’m the founder and CEO of The Sioux Chef, an organization that focuses on decolonized regional foods and avoids precontact ingredients like dairy, wheat or processed cane sugar.
On the traditional Thanksgiving story
In reality, Thanksgiving has nothing to do with Native Americans and everything to do with the lies we’ve been told. Non-native people perpetuate the sanitized story of Thanksgiving, but it’s such a slap in the face of Indigenous people. This story of a peaceful feast among colonizers and tribes ignores centuries of land-grabbing and annihilation.
On why — and how — he celebrates the holiday
Just because I clearly see the lies that have been told to us for years, it doesn’t mean I can’t be hopeful for the present. I reject that false “pilgrims and Indians” narrative, but I do look at Thanksgiving as a day to appreciate what we have right in front of us, whatever that is. So much has happened this year, and so many people have suffered and are suffering. I hope we can all have a chance to be grateful for the people we love and the food we have.
“One thing this pandemic has taught us is how vulnerable we are to outside sources for our food and nutrition. ... Indigenous communities had wonderful systems to utilize the things around them for food. ... We can reclaim that resourcefulness.”
This is the year to rethink Thanksgiving. We can all acknowledge the true history of the land we’re on and honor the hardships endured by those who came before and allowed us to be where we are today. It’s definitely time for a change of focus, and I think there’s no better year to do that.
We’ve all been through so much, and maybe through everything we’ve already survived, and everything we’re worried lies ahead, we can create a new kind of celebration. We all need food and we all need love. Understanding food helps us understand people who may be different from us.
Why this Thanksgiving is different
One thing this pandemic has taught us is how vulnerable we are to outside sources for our food and nutrition. Most of us buy everything we eat, and we throw so much of it away and are so wasteful. Indigenous communities had wonderful systems to utilize the things around them for food, medicine, crafting, tools, clothing, artwork and lodging. They had the resourcefulness that comes from living so close to nature. We can reclaim that resourcefulness, especially now when there are so many good reasons to do so.
How to eat on Thanksgiving
We Americans love our comfort food, but there are better things to do on Thanksgiving than frying a turkey while you’re drinking beer all day. Especially in the middle of a global pandemic, we should be sharing healthy meals with the people we love.
“This is the year to rethink Thanksgiving. We can all acknowledge the true history of the land we’re on and honor the hardships endured by those who came before and allowed us to be where we are today.”
There are so many parts of our Thanksgiving menu that have an Indigenous American background, like corn, squash, wild turkey, wild rice and cranberries. Begin by showcasing those ingredients, especially if they’re part of your community-based food system.
My suggestion is to keep it simple — cook simple, eat simple. You don’t need to douse wild mushrooms in butter and cream, for example — you just need to cook them enough to let their taste shine through. Do your best to make your food taste more like where you are. When I’m cooking with things like walleye, cedar and rose hips, for example, I can stand on the shore of any lake in Minnesota and see all those ingredients around me.
On The Sioux Chef’s latest projects
My co-owner and co-founder, Dana Thompson, and I just opened the Indigenous Food Lab in Minneapolis’ Midtown Global Market. It’s a professional kitchen and training center for Indigenous food research, preparation and service. The lab shares ancestral wisdom and skills such as plant identification, gathering, cultivation and preparation of Indigenous ingredients. Our goal is eventually to replicate this model across North America as a way to empower Indigenous food businesses, because we believe that food is at the heart of cultural reclamation.
Our first restaurant, Owamni by The Sioux Chef, will open this spring as part of Water Works, a Mississippi Riverfront park project in Minneapolis. It will showcase real American food, the food that was eaten for thousands of generations before Europeans ever showed up, and all the wonderful diversity that Indigenous people bring to our country’s cuisine.