Sean Sherman’s (The Sioux Chef) 10 Essential Native American Recipes - Native American Heritage Month
Growing up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in the 1970s, I ran wild with my cousins through my grandparents’ cattle ranch, over the hot, sandy South Dakota land of burrs and paddle cactus, hiding in the sparse grasses and rolling hills. We raced over the open plains, and through shelter belts of tall elm trees, the air full of dust and sagebrush. Our dogs chased prairie dogs, pheasants, grouse and antelope, and alerted us to rattlesnakes and jack rabbits.
In late summer, we’d harvest chokecherries and timpsula, a wild prairie turnip, and pick juniper berries off the prickly trees. We camped in the Badlands, sleeping under the stars, and gathered in our family’s rustic log cabin deep in the Black Hills.
Back then, there were no restaurants on Pine Ridge, just one grocery store and a couple of gas stations dotting the immense reservation. Our kitchen cupboards were stocked with government commodity food staples — canned fruit, canned meat, powdered milk, bricks of yellow government-issued cheese, and dry cereals and oats packaged in white cardboard boxes with black block lettering.
Luckily, we also had the birds we hunted, beef from the ranch and eggs from the chickens my grandmother raised. As members of the Oglala Lakota Oyate, part of the Great Sioux Nation, we took part in many celebrations and gatherings like powwows, sun dances, birthdays, weddings, naming ceremonies and cattle brandings, and our moms, aunts and female cousins cooked up contemporary and traditional dishes, like taniga, the Lakota intestine soup with timpsula. The sweet aroma of simmering wojape, the Lakota chokecherry dish, time-warps me back to my 6-year-old self.
I often think of my great-grandfather, who was born in the late 1850s and grew up like any other Lakota boy, riding horses bareback to hunt with a bow and arrow. At the age of 18, he witnessed the Lakota and Cheyenne victory against the United States government at the Battle of the Little Bighorn; he also encountered the aftermath of the Wounded Knee massacre, where hundreds of Lakota men, women and children were viciously slaughtered.
Later, his children were forced into boarding schools, forbidden to speak their Native language, required to learn English and to become Christians. Through the 20th century, these harsh efforts at assimilation began to erase thousands of generations of Indigenous traditions, wisdom and ceremonies.
As soon as I was 13 and legally eligible to work, I got my first job, at a steakhouse in Spearfish, S.D. I knew a little about cooking: As the oldest child of a busy working mom, I was often the one who got dinner on the table for my sister and me. I swept floors, bussed tables, washed dishes, prepped food and eventually became a line cook. In college, I picked up work with the United States Forest Service as a field surveyor, identifying plants and trees in the northern Black Hills, and learning their medicinal and culinary properties.
Through my career as a professional chef, opening restaurants and cafes in Minneapolis, I gained experience cooking Italian, Spanish and other European cuisines. But it wasn’t until I spent time in Mexico, observing how closely Indigenous people live to their culinary traditions, that I realized I had very little idea of what my own ancestors ate before colonization.
So I began to research the history of our land before the Europeans arrived. How did my Indigenous ancestors grow, hunt, fish and then preserve and store their food? Who did they trade with, and where did they obtain their salts, fats and sugars? I met with community elders and connected with Native chefs, historians and academics, such as the ethnobotanist Nancy J. Turner, and the Lakota author Joseph Marshall III, while also discovering rare historical accounts like “Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden,” the memories of a 19th-century Hidatsa farmer who lived in what is now North Dakota.