The concept of sovereignty is typically reserved for self-governing states.
Yet at the core of self-governance is the ability to sustain a population’s livelihood, something impossible to achieve without access to food.
When European settlers arrived in North America they forced indigenous people not only from their ancestral lands but also from their ancestral food sources. Today food-related illnesses like hypertension, Type II diabetes, heart disease and tooth decay disproportionately affect indigenous communities.
In recent years the food sovereignty movement among indigenous communities has made strides in visibility. In a TEDxRainier talk, Valerie Segrest defined food sovereignty as “the right of a community to define its own diet and therefore shape its own food system.”
Segrest is one of four panelists joining The Sioux Chef, aka Oglala Lakota Sioux chef Sean Sherman, at a food sovereignty gathering Sunday and Monday at the American Wilderness Healing Barn in Wilson.
Sherman is a central figure in the movement to decolonize indigenous diets. He will give the keynote address at the event and have copies of his James Beard Medal-winning cookbook, “The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen,” available to sign.
Born in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, Sherman started working as a cook out of economic necessity and then moved up the restaurant food chain. As he learned more about the business he realized how much it lacked in representation of indigenous food.
Gradually, Sherman taught himself how to avoid thinking in the form of European-style recipes. That also meant cutting out three major culprits of indigenous food colonization: dairy, flour and refined sugar.
As he studied he learned more about pre-colonial ingredients and practices but also learned how to adapt indigenous practices to the changed ecosystems of today by incorporating contemporary regional ingredients.
In 2014 Sherman opened his own business, The Sioux Chef, to address that dearth of indigenous food systems knowledge. The Sioux Chef started out as a catering and food education company in Minneapolis and Saint Paul, but has gone on to create the North American Traditional Food Systems nonprofit, NATIFS, which promotes indigenous food education and access and has established Indigenous Food Labs to house indigenous restaurants and serve as food service training centers.
Sherman said food sovereignty is only one of many aspects in which indigenous people’s voices and perspectives are not visible in the mainstream.
“There are a lot of misconceptions about indigenous culture in general,” Sherman said, “because we live in an era where it’s still so normal to see so much cultural appropriation against indigenous peoples, from sports team mascots to brands using Native American people as mascots on all sorts of stuff from butter to baking powder, and even politicians using terms like ‘Pocahontas.’”
Sherman hopes to get people thinking about the history of the land they live on and of the people who historically occupied it.
“It feels like a better path forward of healing in general for people,” he said. “And the food itself just happens to be extremely healthy and we showcase that with the work that we do.”
When now co-owner Dana Thompson first heard Sherman speak about food sovereignty, only a few weeks after he first started The Sioux Chef, she had a visceral reaction.
“Not only was my entire body covered with goose bumps,” she said, “but I felt like I’d been hit by lightning.”
She’s been an integral part of the Sioux Chef team since and is passionate about its education mission.
“Indigenous foods were systematically removed by the U.S. government over the course of 250 years of genocide,” she said. “And that’s not taught in schools, and people, even in tribal communities, don’t understand that.”
For Thompson, the Sioux Chef mission is also unconventional in its prioritization of education over profit.
“We can bring people in from tribal communities to learn about the fundamentals of the indigenous food systems so they can bring that knowledge back to their own communities and start up their own companies,” she said. “We’re creating it like a franchise, but instead of profiting we want to push food access and education out.”
At the Healing Barn event, every ingredient in Sherman’s cooking demonstration will be foraged locally. Healing Barn CEO Benjamin-Scott Neal Clark and his partner, Heather Olsen, have been collecting the local ingredients. Wyoming elk meat will serve as the protein, and the chefs will also have wild amaranth, wild onions, nettles, fireweed, spring beauty and cattail roots at their disposal.
There will also be a small farmer’s market with local and regional producers selling everything from wild-crafted ingredients to fermented foods, medicinal tinctures, wild-crafted bitters and bee products.
Local chef Emily Zuber will prepare a meal for attendees using recipes from “The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen.”
Teton Science Schools teacher Kevin Taylor and Lander ethnobotanist John Mionczynski will also present. ￼