Chef Sean Sherman has been working in the culinary world for as long as he’s held a job. He began working at local restaurants in South Dakota during his high school and college years, and continued on this path well into adulthood. But one day, while working as a chef in a restaurant that celebrated exotic flavors and artistic cooking styles, Sherman realized that none of the food he cooked represented the Native land that the restaurant was built on. This realization was the first day of Sherman’s new mission: to research and recreate the dishes and cooking methods of his own ancestors.
After several years of research across different states and countries, Sherman not only discovered the ways in which he can promote these traditional dishes within tribal communities, but the ways in which diet had drastically affected the health of Native Americans. After Indigenous tribes were relegated to reservations across the country, they began to take on the diet of colonizers, straying from their traditional meals. This not only resulted in a cultural loss for these tribes, but began a slew of health problems like type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer that now disproportionately affect Native people today.
Sherman went on to open The Sioux Chef, a company named after his own heritage as part of the Oglala Lakota Sioux tribe. Through his new endeavor, Sherman partnered up with Indigenous food suppliers to create regional Indigenous foods that cut out ingredients that were once foreign to Native communities.
Now, Sherman is a leader in the movement to revitalize Indigenous food systems. A founder of the nonprofit NĀTIFS (North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems), Sherman leads a team of culinary staff and educators, and advocates creating resources crucial to the movement. NĀTIFS collects and disseminates knowledge of Indigenous food systems including agriculture, culinary, ethnobotany and more; serves as a point of connection for individuals and organizations interested in Native food culture and Native food sovereignty; and advocates for Indigenous foodways at a policy level. His work in cooking, researching and educating others has led him to receive numerous accolades, such as the James Beard Award and most recently—a spot among TIME’s100 Most Influential People list.
“I am thrilled to accept this honor on behalf of my ancestors, who lived in balance with the natural world,” said Sherman of his place with TIME. “For generations, they nourished themselves with the bounty of the land where we lived, and we thrived. The foodways that sustained our Indigenous ancestors have the potential to rebalance and heal our bodies, weave connections within our communities and bring harmony to our relationship with the planet. The cultural knowledge our ancestors left behind is a gift to us, one I am committed to recovering and sharing for the benefit of generations to come.”
The mission of building a new Indigenous food economy calls for new resources, leading Sherman to establish the first NĀTIFS Indigenous Food Lab in Minneapolis, Minnesota—a culinary training, development and support center. His restaurant Owamni, dedicated to decolonizing cuisine, was recognized by the James Beard Foundation as the Best New Restaurant in America in 2022. In 2017, he published The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen, which won the James Beard Award for Best New Cookbook in 2018. The cookbook showcases Chef Sherman’s philosophy on reclaiming Indigenous foods in a modern context.
Through his passionate activism and advocacy, Sherman has helped the health and wellbeing of Indigenous tribes while reclaiming and celebrating the rich culinary heritage of Indigenous communities around the world.
Sources: NĀTIFS, Sean Sherman Official Website