Photography by Caitlin Abrams
Tatanka Truck Traditional Native American Truck
By early next year, Minneapolis could be the site of the first native, indigenous, tribal foods restaurant in the whole country. While the location was, at presstime, still being narrowed down, the idea is clear. It’ll be called The Sioux Chef, an Indigenous Kitchen, and it won’t serve any European grains like wheat, modern inventions like soybean oil, or Asian sweeteners like sugarcane. What’s left? Owner and chef Sean Sherman let me taste a preview: thousand-year-old varieties of teosinte, a corn precursor, pulverized into a cracker boasting a certain rye-like earthy quality, and paired with a bean-and-smoked-trout spread, mashed ripe blackberries, and sour wild sorrel. A salad of diverse wild greens looked generally like the things I’m often weeding out from the tomato plants. Dressed with tamarack pine bud and honey and covered with a flurry of bonito-like shaved dried rabbit, it tasted like nothing I’ve ever had before, entirely tangy and alive.
Sherman, a member of the Oglala Lakota Sioux, made his name cooking in Minneapolis restaurants including Three Muses and Common Roots. Sherman tells me his restaurant will be affordable and family-style, a bit like Brasa, with platters of bison, walleye, and wild rice for a family to share, sourced whenever possible from native people and tribes. “We want this restaurant to be the flagship for a model that can be done all over the country, to get everyone to think about the history of their lands,” says Sherman.
Speaking of history, what was food like in and around the Twin Cities a thousand years ago? Let’s jump in a time machine. The food scene in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the Dakotas was booming. Native people had raised-bed gardens literally everywhere, distributed on diverse sites around each village—for instance on south-facing hillsides, and on meadows and valley bottoms, to ensure that whether a given year was cold and wet or hot and dry, enough harvest would come in at the end of it. In these raised beds were bottle gourds and many different edible squash, sunflowers, corn, and beans. There were also plants modern iPhone jockeys might not recognize as crops, though ancient people did, such as goosefoot, a local cousin of quinoa grown for its seeds and leaves.
Food also came from lakes and streams. Native people had a special way of tying down wild rice seed heads to differentiate one family’s wild rice from another’s. They’d weed, plant, and tend the wild rice as a garden. Forests, too, produced an abundance of food. Bill Gartner is a senior lecturer in geography at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and one of the country’s few specialists in the archaeology of native farming. Typically, Gartner says, “there was a sort of humanization of the forest itself through time, resulting in something like an orchard.” When people went into the forest every day they’d make choices about what to harvest for firewood and what to let grow for food. “In the upper Midwest there were about three-dozen fruit and nut trees that native people relied on for a long, long time,” says Gartner.
Gartner has combed through the records left by voyageurs and other explorers. “They were amazed,” he says of the French traders. “The forests are full of food, it’s the land of milk and honey, it’s incredible! They never seemed to realize that it was intentionally created by native people.” It was also a foodscape a modern person has to stretch to imagine. Picture a forest full of chestnuts, for instance. Chestnuts were once the predominant tree in North America, and passenger pigeons, which once numbered in the billions, were big chestnut eaters, leading to indigenous dinners of wood-roast pigeon and chestnut. Of course, there were also fish (smoked and fresh), venison and wild turkey, and local fruits including chokecherries, juneberries, blackberries, and raspberries.
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Chef Sean Sherman
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Wild sorrell, a native ingredient
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Honey from Wozupi Farm
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Chickens from Wozupi Farm
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Native corn at Wozupi Farm
Since we’re time-hopping, we may as well visit the nearly opposite time, native food-wise. When cultural genocide forced tribes from their historic lands and onto reservations, native people were no longer allowed to hunt and fish traditionally and thus had to make do with the commodities the federal government gave out as a way of fulfilling treaty obligations—foods like flour, cornmeal, oil, canned meat, and sugar. The Indian taco was born, a simple flour batter fried in oil, topped with ground beef. It was the best thing that could be done with the only ingredients to be had. (Not surprisingly, diet-related health problems exploded. Today, an estimated 15 percent of Native Americans have diabetes, some 80 percent are overweight or obese, and Native people die of heart disease and stroke at a rate 20 percent higher than non-Hispanic whites.)
One more stop in the time machine: A generation ago, native writers like the Minnesotan Winona LaDuke articulated what was lost with the disappearance of native foods, and a great many people took action. We’re seeing the fruits of that work today, with the Twin Cities becoming the center of the indigenous and native foods movement. The Sioux Chef is poised to be its crown jewel. Sherman and his Sioux Chef team’s first public foray into native foods was Tatanka Truck, the country’s first indigenous-health-foods food truck, owned by the Little Earth Community of United Tribes. The Tatanka Truck specializes in simple native foods—polenta-like cornmeal discs topped with roast squash, for instance. Today it’s not the only native foods quick-serve in town. The Gatherings Café opened quietly last winter in the Minneapolis American Indian Center. It’s a little counter-service spot offering a walleye melt made with fish caught on the Red Lake reservation and a warm wild rice, kale, quinoa, and mushroom bowl that tastes pure and healthy. In Prior Lake, the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community now runs a 19-acre vegetable garden and native orchard called Wozupi, which fills the country’s first “tribally supported agriculture” boxes for tribal members and also fills the shelves of Mazopiya, the country’s first native foods grocery store (imagine the Wedge or a small-footprint Whole Foods, but one of the hot items is always bison chili, and instead of cod in the frozen case it’s reservation-sourced native walleye). Seeds of Native Health—another SMSC project—is a native foods and wellness think tank that’s hosting the country’s first national native nutrition conference this month. In Hugo, Dream of Wild Health is a 10-acre garden growing out a tribal seed collection passed down from a Potawatomi elder.
One of the architects of this native foods movement is Lori Watso of the SMSC. It began simply, she recalls. “I had my own garden, and was trying to feed my own children well, with good clean foods. I was working with patients as a nurse, so many people with so many difficult issues, and I knew that every native community is a food desert. One day I had that lightbulb moment—that’s what we could do that could address all of these health disparities.” A $5 million commitment from the SMSC followed in 2015, giving birth to the Seeds of Native Health.
“It all fit into the philosophy of the tribe as a whole,” says Watso. “To restore and maintain a healthy environment for our community, to provide state-of-the-art holistic health care, to be good stewards of the land, good neighbors, and good employers, while supporting our small community.” The farm and the store are just the beginning. Seeds of Native Health is quietly developing policies and guidelines that will make the Twin Cites the policy capital of native foods. “Say a tribe in Wyoming is harvesting buffalo and wants to trade with the Senecas in New York for white corn, how can that be done?” says Watso. “Native people have 112 million acres, and while most of that land is not under their control for agricultural purposes, I think it’s possible that native entrepreneurs can feed native country.”
If it’s done, native people are going to need to learn how to farm again. Part of that work is being done by Diane Wilson—an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux tribe of South Dakota who is the executive co-director of Dream of Wild Health in Hugo. Wilson began working at Dream of Wild Health to help native people recovering from addiction.
“We started with a tiny little garden and a handful of different seeds,” she remembers. “Then a Potawatomi elder, Cora Baker, heard about what we were doing.” Baker donated her lifetime collection of seeds, which grew into the 10-acre garden Dream of Wild Health is today. For native people, says Wilson, a corn seed is more than a seed. “It’s an indigenous food, and the seeds have been handed down through families and tribes for many generations. It’s your legacy. You think of your ancestors growing out those seeds. There are songs and ceremonies which go with the food, with planting and harvesting. If you change your diet, what happens to the songs that go with the foods? The food isn’t just food, it’s central to culture.” Dream of Wild Health now offers native youth in the Cities opportunities to learn native foodways, job skills, and some language. In earlier years, it had 120 applications for 28 spots.
The poet Heid E. Erdrich, an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Ojibwe who wrote a book about indigenous foods, says it’s a mistake to look at food independently. “It’s the resurgence of culture,” she says of the Twin Cities’ burgeoning native foods movement. “Language, art, dance, spiritual activities . . . That’s where this comes from.”
The Twin Cities has been uniquely poised to recover their knowledge, says Erdrich. While many tribes were relocated a thousand miles from their ancestral homeland, tribes here were pushed to one side or another of their native homes, where they were still familiar with the plants, animals, and climate.
“There were a couple generations where people were really distanced from their own food, their own traditions, but I’m really influenced by the idea that a place influences how we behave,” says Erdrich. “How could we live here and not connect with what was always here?” So it was a thousand years ago, and surprisingly, suddenly those connections are being made again.