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Resource: Empowering Eaters Summit: Investing in Indigenous Foodways for Resilience – Fireside Chat with Sean Sherman

Fireside chat with Sioux chef Sean Sherman on the importance of investing in indigenous foodways for resilience. Presented at the Empowering Eaters: Access, Affordability, Healthy Choices, and Food is Medicine Summit in support of a National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health “The Health and Wellbeing of Future Generations in Policy.” Co-hosted by Duke University and Food Tank on March 3, 2024.

Transcript

Danielle Nierenberg

It’s my honor, my true honor to welcome author, chef, educator and advocate Sean Sherman to join me on stage. Round of applause. Sean is the founder of The Sioux Chef, co-founder of NĀTIFS and co-founder of the restaurant Owamni. It’s so good. Please go when you’re in Minneapolis. Try to get on the reservation list though now. He is also last year’s Julia Child Prize Award Winner and has won numerous James Beard awards. Yes. Okay. Thank you so much for being here. Another round of applause, please. We got to keep the energy up. We still have a reception and breakouts and lots of things to do.

So Sean, your work to repair food systems has been so important because it focuses on doing a lot of terrible things that have happened because of the impacts of colonization and also reintroducing traditional Indigenous foods that are delicious but have been lost in so many regions and communities. We heard about NĀTIFS earlier today. Can you talk more about NĀTIFS in the Indigenous Food Lab?

Sean Sherman

So NĀTIFS or North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems, which is a mouthful, is our non-profit. We’re a 501(c)(3) based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In Minneapolis, we have a public-facing entity called the Indigenous Food Lab, where there’s a market space where we feature over 50 different producers and growing, and we’re just putting a lot of attention on these Indigenous producers from all over the place. We have a classroom space where we outfitted it with lots of digital capabilities so we’re recording a whole bunch of education and classes on all sorts of Indigenous food everything, and just Indigenous education in general. So it’s more than culinary, but it’s also seed-saving and farming and language and star knowledge and crafting and anything we want it to be. But we’re really just trying to focus on creating more Indigenous education access.

Part of that is just thinking ahead because we’re creating a lot of food access, but sometimes if we give somebody a bag of dried corn, they’re not going to know what to do with it. So our goal is to create that education and make it really easy and accessible so people can just hit a QR code, go straight to a video and start to learn about some of these pieces.

We also have a big production kitchen where we make a lot of products. We do a lot of value-added things. We got USDA licensing to try to be a micro to medium sized co-packer to try to help get people or more cottage industry out there on the market. So we just finished a pilot project with an Indigenous baby food where a local Indigenous organization grew a whole bunch of native heirloom squash and harvested wild rice, and we processed it all into a really beautiful baby food called Indigi-Baby.

Then the restaurant’s actually a part of our nonprofit model also because the restaurant is owned by the nonprofit. The restaurant acts as a place not for food relief and food access, but a place where job creation happens because we’ve got over a hundred employees at the restaurant right now in the middle of winter, even though it feels like spring. We are just moving tens of thousands of dollars directly into the hands of Indigenous food producers because we’re doing about five and a half million

We won Best New Restaurant in the entire nation a couple of years ago, and that was big. But a large part of that’s food cost and a large part of that food cost goes directly in the hands of the Indigenous producers that we’re utilizing. And the restaurant just creates a voice for us because we’re popularizing healthy food without having to call it popular. And we’re showcasing so many more products out there, that because of our focus of basically trying to decolonize our food system is looking at the values that colonization has normalized in our lives, which we’ve seen a lot of normalization of the destruction of environment, a lot of dehumanization of people of color, and so many other things that have negative effects, especially on communities of color. And for Indigenous peoples to have lived in such invisibility for so long still today, and our food systems to be completely shattered and an afterthought at best, that there’s so much work to do. Because myself, growing up on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, which is the third-largest reservation, we had the one grocery store to service an area the size of Connecticut. I primarily grew up with Commodity Food Program through USDA, and there’s a lot of changes that have to happen, so that’s what we’re hoping to do.

But basically with NĀTIFS, we’re wanting to replicate that whole model, which is a hub-and-spoke because we’re just creating something to work with all of the tribal communities around us to help build more capacity for culinary, and just food access in general, by getting these foods directly into those communities and then doing that everywhere. So this year we’re getting ready to move into the Montana region, so we’re centering ourselves in Bozeman with Montana State, and we’re going to do the same thing of just setting up that. But we’re also got our seeds planted in Anchorage Alaska, in Honolulu, in Rapid City South Dakota and Tulsa, and we’re just going to keep building support systems all over the place. That’s the bigger vision. And eventually crossing colonial borders because we can do the same work in Canada or Mexico or wherever. There’s so much opportunity out there.

Danielle Nierenberg

It’s a beautiful that you are spreading and building. Thank you so much for that. I want to talk about resilience because that’s so important to the work that you do, and I was thrilled that Congress members mentioned resilience in their videos today. How does the empowerment of native communities help to grow forage and process food, build resilience, not just for them as communities, but for environmental sustainability?

Sean Sherman

When we’re looking at Indigenous values around food systems, it’s really community-based because people of color primarily all over the world, we’re community based food systems. So everybody worked really hard to make sure that the entire community had food. Any surplus would get traded from other groups out there. So it’s looking at a different way to think about that, but also within Indigenous values, there’s a deep connection to the environment, to the plants, to just the region in general. That deep connection helps us protect that because we care about the water, we care about the plants, we care about the land and there’s so much deep connection because we know that we’re a part of all this, and if we destroy that, that’s going to hurt us. Which colonization has normalized, is just so much rampant destruction and just the privatization of land spaces and making it really difficult to have land access out there, but we need land to grow food.

So I do a lot of speaking engagements, obviously, and I always tell people, lawns are stupid for an example, we should be just growing food everywhere. We should be a lot smarter about our environments and we should be a lot smarter about the kinds of seeds that are out there and how we’re going to continue the lifespan and life cycle of those heirloom varietals out there, and to really fight against a lot of these big groups that are trying to trademark a lot of these heirloom seeds for the sole purpose of gaining power to control your foods.

Danielle Nierenberg

Absolutely. Thank you. Thank you for that Sean. One of the things I’m interested in asking you about, and it’s a difficult question for me to ask because there’s this growing, food is medicine, movement that I think so many of us are finding out about for the first time. But it’s something that Indigenous folks have practiced for millennia. Of course food is part of keeping yourself healthy. I’m wondering, I guess, do you feel that it overlooks what Indigenous communities have been doing and co-ops it? Like regenerative agriculture, the term makes me feel uncomfortable, and I have to be very honest about it because it is what Indigenous folks have always done.

Sean Sherman

Yes, but I feel like there is some co-opting that happens a lot of times and we see that with Western-centric academia. We’ll use tech as a term and just popularize that. Now it’s food as medicine because it’s a little bit easier to understand, but it’s built into so many Indigenous cultures across the globe. So we look at colonization as something that’s affected everybody. It’s just North America, South America, Africa, India, Southeast Asia, Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, you name it, colonization has happened all over the place and it’s shattered so much of our own ancestry and so much of our own knowledge around food systems when it comes down to it.

But if we’re looking, at again, how Indigenous communities on a global scale were surviving through their food systems, there’s so much amazing education and practices that can come out of that. So food as medicine is something that’s just built in because it’s preventative. It’s knowing for sure we’re eating unhealthy, because with our method of just cutting out all colonial ingredients and just showcasing what our true foods in North America, and on top of that very regional foods, that everything in our restaurant is completely gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free, soya-free, pork-free, right. It’s just not free. It can be.

But again, we’re popularizing healthy foods without calling it healthy and we’re doing it in a manner that’s really getting people to be excited about what is native food. But on top of that, there’s a lot of interest outside of just the native communities because we’re showcasing that we can utilize a lot more plant products and there’s a lot more products that could be made regionally that the Western diet’s just completely ignored in North America. There’s just so much more out there.

Danielle Nierenberg

Right, and we’re missing it all and it could add so much richness to all of our lives. So thank you for the reminder. I feel like you talked about the invisibility that has happened for Indigenous folks for millennia. It’s only now in recent years that Indigenous folks are getting the attention that they deserve for the work and conservation and stewardship and culinary practices and all that they have done, and just the intensive knowledge that they have. One of the things that I think is problematic is our philanthropic model and what folks like you need is more capital and investment, but the system is set up in such a way that it’s not always… Communities aren’t always able to spend months filling out grants or hire consultants to help them do that. What would you like to change in that philanthropic model? I guess what needs to change and how do we need to look at philanthropy in the future?

Sean Sherman

I’m the Executive Director of my nonprofit, and it is difficult to try and find funds, especially when we have this huge vision. And we see so much philanthropic dollars going to these larger organizations that have just been out there for forever and just taking up huge chunks of that philanthropy. I feel like during the pandemic and during George Floyd that we saw a lot of support going to a lot of organizations of color, but we feel like that support’s not as prevalent as it was before.

We have this massive vision and we need monies to be able to lay out this infrastructure, because we’re just trying to create an infrastructure that doesn’t exist. It’s really important that this happens because we have been invisible for so long. This year in 2024, that marks a century that we’re allowed to be citizens in this country, which isn’t that long ago. It’s only been 35 years since we’ve been allowed to celebrate our own religions here in a country that goes on about freedom of religion. Just didn’t apply to the First Nations people.

So there’s so much to unpack because of this and so much damage that has happened to our cultures because of racism, because of the normalization of what colonization brought to us and there’s just a lot to do. We see other organizations, other native organizations, that are trying to do some big work, but we’re just trying to make changes because the status quo has been our invisibility for way too long. But we have so much to offer. We have so much diversity because Native America isn’t one unit. It’s a tapestry of so much diversity, and we should be celebrating that diversity, and really, truly understanding how this makes all of our regions separate, and how many amazing beautiful products can come out of all these different areas. And we could just be eating healthier if we just chose to eat like Indigenous peoples of North America.

Danielle Nierenberg

And it’s more delicious.

Sean Sherman

So delicious. And it’s so much fun. We don’t have to be stuck in the past and trying to create museum pieces of what we were eating 300 years ago. What we’re doing is modernizing it moving forward, because we have the ability to change and we have to evolve as humans no matter what. And because climate change is happening in real time, we literally just tapped Maple three weeks ago, which is three weeks way too early and that can’t be a good sign. But we have no choice but to be resilient and to roll with this, but we have to be smarter. We have to protect water, we have to protect land. We have to stop just allowing a lot of this access because there’s still companies like Pepsi that just buy up so much water just for the sole purpose of making plastic bottles.

Danielle Nierenberg

Right. So since we’re at this conference and there’s something big happening in North Carolina on Tuesday, I forget what it is, and it’s an election year, what would you like to happen from… I guess, what would you like to happen from state governments first and then the federal government?

Sean Sherman

I think again, we really have to rethink our food systems. I think that there should be a lot more policy and practice of growing foods. I think if one city just took a big empty area where there’s just an empty lot or lawn or whatever, and they can turn that into a food forest and they can use that food forest to grow lots of diverse products and they can use it as an education piece. They can get volunteers to process all those products and to preserve them and to make a large pantry that could be used against food relief. And just a two-acre lot could pump out a lot of food.

I feel like there’s a lot of little things that we can do again, but we need more diverse growing systems. We need a lot more education around growing systems, and we need to just get the kids hands-on, with their hands in the dirt and their hands growing and picking fruit from trees and whatever it takes. But that’s the kind of education we need and that’s just not the education we’re getting. Because if we’re going to high school in America, we don’t learn about history. We don’t learn about self-sustainability. We don’t learn about finances. What do we learn?

Danielle Nierenberg

Not sure.

Sean Sherman

Calculus sure helped me, I guess. I don’t know.

Danielle Nierenberg

Not me. I didn’t do well. I didn’t do well. But no, I mean, I guess in terms of what’s next for you and NĀTIFS, what do you see happening over the next year, two years, three years?

Sean Sherman

Our vision is we’re just moving as a nonprofit. We’re just starting our expansion phase because now we have this full model built in Minnesota, and we’re going to start working regionally around us with all the tribes, but we’re going to start these other pinpoints in Montana, in Alaska, and we’re just going to see this growth. So we can see Montana happening in the next one to two years. We can see Alaska happening in the next two to five years.

I always thought as a chef and as a restaurant, somebody who grew up in the restaurants watching some of these fast food places opening up 300 units of Five Guys burgers and fries in a two-year period, so can we use some kind of replication growth process, but to do it for food? To do it for the sake of food access, for food education, and can we replicate like that? And I think we can and that’s our vision, is just creating something that’s going to grow faster and faster and faster and more and more and more.

Right now we’re just learning the lessons of what it’s going to take to expand ourselves outwards. But again, just laying out really necessary foundational structures for the next generation. I’m hoping this work goes beyond my lifetime because I feel like, I’m turning 50 in a couple of weeks.

So I feel like I have X amount of years to actually do this work because Mecca and I want to disappear on a beach in Belize eventually. But we want to be able to leave something in a legacy for the next generation, and that’s the best thing we can do in our lifetimes, is set up the next generation for success.

Danielle Nierenberg

And that’s what you’re doing. You’re making me cry, Sean. Yeah, I can’t believe you’re 50, but call to action for this audience and everyone in here.

Sean Sherman

I think that we should really learn about the histories of the land that we’re on. I think we should fight to protect our histories, because we’re in a weird world right now where our Black and Indigenous histories are being completely removed. I think we should be standing up against that with everything we can. We should be learning from as much as we can to dismantle what colonialism has normalized. So I think learning history is a hugely important piece to everything, but again, just practicing food, learning the plants, go outside, stop calling everything a weed, but actually take the time to learn what it is.