What is Native American Cuisine?

Pasta, sushi, tacos, samosas, and pad thai: In the U.S., enthusiastic eaters will likely be able to name traditional dishes from a wide variety of cuisines around the world. But most of us couldn't name a single Native American dish from any one the vast network of tribes, cultures, and cuisines that spread across the U.S. before Europeans arrived. Today, farmers, activists, and chefs are trying to change that. They're bringing back Native foods—not just to teach all Americans about the indigenous foods of their country, but to improve the lives of Native Americans themselves, who suffer from some of the highest levels of debilitating and often deadly diet-related diseases. Can a return to a Native diet help?

Chef Sean Sherman had been working in restaurant kitchens for decades. Then a strange fact struck him: the food of his people, the Oglala Sioux, was completely unrepresented in American cuisine. He'd grown up on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, one of the largest and poorest reservations in the country, and his childhood diet consisted of a combination of processed, boxed, and canned government-donated commodities, supplemented by hunting and foraging indigenous plants such as choke cherries and wild turnips. He knew, though, that the Oglala Sioux cuisine was much richer than the handful of Native foods his family hunted and foraged.

tashia-and-brian-at-sioux-chefTashia Hart and Brian Yazzie of the Sioux Chef preparing a salad. Photo by Nicola Twilley.

"I just had an epiphany," he said, "I should be doing the food of my ancestry and my heritage." In the past few years, Sean has launched Tatanka Truck in Minneapolis, a food truck focused on indigenous food, as well as the Sioux Chef, the catering company he runs with his partner Dana Thompson. Today, Sean and Dana are preparing to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant devoted to indigenous foods of Minnesota and the Dakotas. The public seems to agree with Sean and Dana that such a restaurant is needed: the Sioux Chef was the most-funded Kickstarter restaurant project, ever.

In doing this work, Sean is part of a growing movement to bring back Native American cuisine. These flavors were largely lost due to the forced resettlement of tribes far from their homelands, as well as government policies that attempted to force Native peoples to abandon their languages and culture. But, through hardship and even starvation, seeds were carefully saved and passed down through generations. Today, on farms such as Wozupi Tribal Gardens and Dream of Wild Health, these seeds are once again being cultivated. And chefs such as Sean are interviewing elders and scouring first-contact literature to uncover the cooking techniques and flavors that were lost.

wozupi-cg-rebecca-three-sisters
Rebecca Yoshino shows Cynthia corn, beans, and squash growing in the "three sisters" arrangement at Wozupi Tribal Gardens. Photo by Nicola Twilley.

diane-at-dreams-of-wild-health
Diane Wilson at Dream of Wild Health farm. Photo by Nicola Twilley.
As important as culture and pride are to Sean and his colleagues, the movement also aims to combat what some have called the new smallpox: diabetes, which has ravaged Native American communities. As many as one out of two children is at risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Rates of cancer and heart disease are also unusually high. We talk to the scientists and public health experts—including the first and only Native American adult endocrinologist in the world—who are studying whether a return to indigenous foods can help combat these diseases.

Join us this episode as we travel to Minnesota to meet some of the farmers, chefs, and scientists who are contributing to the rebirth of Native American cuisine, and trying to save Native lives by growing, cooking, and eating the foods of their ancestors.

wozupi-elderberries
Rebecca Yoshino shows Cynthia elderberries in the Native orchard at Wozupi Tribal Gardens. Photo by Nicola Twilley.

Episode Notes

Feeding Ourselves report

In 2015, Echo Hawk Consulting released its report Feeding Ourselves: Food Access, Health Disparities, and the Pathways to Healthy Native American Communities, authored by Crystal Echo Hawk, Janie Hipp, and Wilson Pipestem, and commissioned by the American Heart Association and Voices for Healthy Kids. You can download it as a PDF here.

The Sioux Chef

Chef Sean Sherman and his partner Dana Thompson are building their catering company, The Sioux Chef, into a flagship restaurant. You can find out more at their website.

Wozupi Tribal Gardens and Dream of Wild Health

rebecca-with-the-cool-old-squashRebecca holding the "cool, old squash" at Wozupi Tribal Gardens. Photo by Nicola Twilley.

Wozupi Tribal Gardens and Dream of Wild Health produce is available to their TSA (tribally-supported agriculture) members, as well as at several Twin Cities' farmers' markets and Mazopiya Natural Food Market.

First Annual Conference on Native American Nutrition

Tiffany Beckman, the first American Indian adult endocrinologist, was one of the people who helped organize this conference on Native American nutrition, which took place just last month.

Transcript

For a transcript of the show, please click here. Please note that the transcript is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.

Comments

  1. As I was listening to this I was thinking about the reference in Michael Pollan’s book, “in defense of food” where he discusses a study done in the 80’s of 10 Aboriginal men with diabetes living in the “bush” for 8 weeks and seeing a change in their health. I remember being unimpressed with the study (small sample size, no controls, ect.) but it would be so interesting to a really well done study on this idea of reintroduction of native diets, on a large scale. I’m excited to see if Tiffany Beckman is able to do it– the results will be fascinating! Here’s the study I reference: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/6373464 and an article from polkan and this article (if you scroll a bit) has discussion from Pollan. He’s a little too enthusiastic about a not so great study, but the idea is fascinating. http://michaelpollan.com/reviews/a-new-way-to-think-about-eating/

    Thanks for the thoughtful spotlight on an important topic!

    • We do, but only when we have help to prepare them! It’s just the two of us doing everything at Gastropod, so we can’t get to everything we’d like to do, but we’ve been lucky to have a wonderful volunteer, Ari Lebowitz, helping us, so we will likely have a transcript of this episode to come in a week or two.

  2. What a wonderful episode! When I was growing up in Tucson in the 1980’s, a family friend (who was a member of the Tohono O’Odham nation) worked for Native Seeds/SEARCH helping grow native plants for food to combat diabetes on the O’Odham reservation. There is now a restaurant, the Desert Rain Cafe, on the reservation serving native dishes – I look forward to visiting to try tepary beans cooked traditionally as opposed to in my pressure cooker! It is wonderful to hear that the movement to preserve native seeds is growing and spreading in such a lovely way in Minnesota.
    For more information on what’s going on in Southern Arizona, http://www.nativeseeds.org and http://www.tocaonline.org/desert-rain-café.html

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *