Sean Sherman’s latest cookbook, The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen, offers recipes mixed among wisdom about sustainable living
When the publisher asked if I’d like to review an advance copy of The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen, I said yes. I would learn more about Sean Sherman (Oglala Lakota) and his widely-recognized celebration and revival of Native People’s cuisines; plus, our home kitchen would have the benefit of his recipes. Now that I’ve seen the book, I assure you: The Sioux Chef provides food for thought as well as for the body.
I’m going to leave the job of reviewing the recipes—the book as a cookbook—to my friend T. Susan Chang, who knows a thing or two about the subject, and who has been studying food sustainability issues for more than a decade. My take focuses on The Sioux Chef as a harbinger of Indigenous survivance—the active presence of Native peoples in the world today.
Gerald Vizenor (Anishinaabe) revitalized the 17th century legal term “survivance” to help us understand that Native peoples are more than “survivors” hanging on to remnants of their invaded cultures: They are actively reshaping their cultures in the face of the world as it exists today, and they are participating in shaping the world.
The perspective of “survivance” opposes and transforms “victimhood.” Well-meaning people sometimes think they are being helpful to Native peoples by sympathizing with their “victimization” by the Christian colonialism that still infects U.S. law and policy. But, as Karl Kroeber pointed out in discussing Vizenor, when Native people accept a definition of themselves as victims, they “complete psychologically the not-quite-entirely-successful physical genocide.”
In short, “victim” perspectives undermine Native strength and courage, while every manifestation of indigenous life-ways in the modern world stands as evidence of continuing vitality. The perspective of survivance ought to inform every effort made by and on behalf of Native peoples—including educational, artistic, legal, political, and economic. The alternative relegates them to the past.
An emphasis on survivance does not deny that Native peoples have been victims of invasion and colonialism. Indeed, The Sioux Chef opens with a dedication affirming the “living proof of courage and resilience” of Indigenous Peoples “who have suffered through centuries of colonialism.” Shermanacknowledges—and provides personal stories of—experiences of colonial oppression; but his understanding of the past rests within a forward-looking perspective of the present. He offers his work “to the next generation so that they may carry the flame of knowledge…for generations to come.” He devotes the book “to the earth, Turtle Island, our home, our everything, in hopes that we indigenous people will always stand strong to protect her.”
Sherman provides a thoughtful introduction starting from memories of life on his grandparents’ ranch near Pine Ridge, moving to the “conservative, Bible-thumping…white” town of Spearfish, trying his hand at and becoming a success in Minneapolis restaurants in his twenties, and then, “burned out,” decamping to a village in Mexico, where he experienced an “epiphany, …how food weaves people together, connects families through generations, is a life force of identity and social structure.” Coming to “appreciate the purpose of everything in our natural world, to respect the plants and animals, sources of sustenance,” Sherman next undertook the research—cooking, reading, gardening, foraging—and planning that eventually led him back to Minneapolis and the founding of The Sioux Chef, now internationally recognized as an Indigenous Foods enterprise fostering “a diet that connects us all to nature and to each other in the most direct and profound ways.”
The book focuses on ingredients from Minnesota and Dakota territories—Dakota, Lakota, Ojibwe (Chippewa, Anishinaabe), Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, Ho-Chunk—but its methods are relevant to indigenous cuisines throughout the world: As Sherman puts it, “the methods in this book work no matter the ingredients.” Throughout the recipes and descriptions of ingredients, Sherman includes reminiscences of his early education about Native foods—learning to hunt and gather, to behave respectfully to plants and animals to assure their continued existence. He brings readers and cooks into an awareness that a recipe involves a collaboration not only with ingredients, but with the sources of ingredients: Human nourishment intertwines with the nourishment of all beings.
The Sioux Chef will be a wake-up call to those who think Native cuisine means fry bread and “Indian tacos.” Those foods have made their way into modern pow wows, but they don’t make it into this cookbook. As Sherman explains, “Fry bread is a simple food but also a difficult symbol…connecting the present to the painful narrative of our history. It originated…when the U.S. government forced our ancestors from the homelands they farmed, foraged, and hunted, and the waters they fished. …They lost control of their food and were made to rely on government-issued commodities…. Fry bread represents perseverance and pain, ingenuity and resilience. … Yet, fry bread contributes to…a recipe for chronic illness and pain.”
The disruption and dispossession of Native peoples’ lands and economies were part and parcel of the colonial invasion aimed to “kill the Indian to save the man.” The U.S. deployed armed force and criminal penalties to force Native children away from the influence of their families, breaking their connections to Native food systems and life-ways generally, and breaking linkages between generations. The U.S. forced Native children to attend Christian schools, where their hair was cut according to Anglo customs, their clothing likewise; and where they were subjected to corporal punishment amounting to torture for speaking their own languages.
Sherman says, “controlling food is a means of controlling power.” He offers a way—many ways—to “stand up to the foods that have destroyed our health, the forces that have compromised our culture.” And, he adds, “our corn cakes are easier to make and far tastier than any fry bread.”
Beth Dooley, award-winning cookbook author, joined Chef Sean Sherman in creating this presentation of his recipes. The recipes will teach cooks everywhere how to pay attention to the world around them for sources of ingredients and how to prepare those ingredients. The personal stories—the wisdom they share—will teach all readers about sustainable living—the interdependence of beings, living with the earth instead of on the earth.