You won’t find wheat flour, cane sugar or dairy on the menu at Owamni, winner of the 2022 James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant. The Minneapolis eatery is co-owned by Sean Sherman, a.k.a. the Sioux Chef, and Dana Thompson, and the idea is to serve and elevate Indigenous foods before colonization. It’s an example of how tribal ecological knowledge can be used in the struggle against climate change. Watch the inspiring video to see how Sean and Dana launched Owamni and how traditional Native farming can benefit both the health of the land and its people.
PIX: A scene in the Owamni restaurant: people eating, waiters working, chefs preparing food.
Sean: We cut out all colonial ingredients. There's no dairy or flour, sugar.
Waitress: So we're one of the first and only indigenous restaurants in the country. We're completely decolonized, so we don't have any beef, pork, chicken; no dairy, gluten or soy.
Sean: It's understanding Native American agriculture, seed saving, plant identification; understanding how you can grow with your environment and utilize all these plants for food and medicine and crafting.
PIX: Photos of Pine Ridge and Sean’s childhood.
L/T: Sean Sherman – Co-Owner – The Sioux Chef
Sean: I grew up on Pine Ridge Reservation. We were Lakota, just like a lot of people there. I remember us harvesting choke cherries throughout my childhood; and I can just remember the smell of the choke cherry sauce cooking on the stove. We hunted a lot growing up. We got a lot of grouse and pheasants, and ducks and geese when in season.
PIX: Sean scraping sap off tree.
SUE SOT: What are you getting here?
Sean SOT: This is balsam fir, and the sap is so good because it’s antiseptic, so you can use it like superglue on cuts. And it’s also, it’s a fire starter even when wet.
PIX: Sean gathering plants.
TEXT: Sean began working in kitchens as a teenager.
Sean: One of my first big jobs here was at a fresh pasta place in South Minneapolis, and just started to learn a lot starting from there. And then my career just took me through all sorts of twists and turns. So running Spanish restaurants, running Japanese restaurants, running, just, American bistros and farm-to-table kind of things, and it was pretty fun.
PIX: Sean walking through path between trees.
TEXT: By 2007, Sean was burnt out with work.
TEXT: He took time off and went to live in a small community in Mexico.
Sean: I guess I was just very curious about the indigenous community that was there. It reminded me a lot of growing up with my Lakota family, kind of like my distant cousins. And then all of a sudden realized that I knew very little about my own heritage food, even though I discovered so much about so many other cultures, especially European cuisines.
Sean: My ancestors would have had a really large knowledge of plants, and how to harvest them, when to harvest them, which parts to harvest. So I had to try to figure out what was still out there; understand, like, what were things like before European influences.
PIX: Sean and Dana foraging in field.
Sean SOT: All the choke cherry blossoms.
Dana SOT: Oh, they smell so good. It’s incredible.
L/T: Dana Thompson – Co-Owner – The Sioux Chef
Dana: My mom talked a lot about our Indigenous background because her father spoke fluent Dakota. She also was very much into being outside, hiking through the woods, planting a garden and understanding the wild foods all around us.
PIX: Dana foraging in field.
Dana SOT: This is so good for you. Not only is it nutritious, but you can make a poultice with it; put it on your cuts and it’ll heal it right up.
TEXT: Dana began her career working in merchandising and marketing at Target.
Dana: Working at Target was like going to college for me. I never thought I could go to college for a single day. I came from abject poverty, and it was a miracle that I even graduated from high school. To have that access to the network of these brilliant business minds at Target was such an incredible experience for me.
PIX: Sean at his restaurant fundraiser.
Sean SOT: Plants, you know, there’s so much to plants; it’s understanding there’s so much Native American agriculture that was happening…
PIX: Sean and Dana in an interview at the restaurant.
Sean: I spent quite a few years to identify, what are Indigenous foods? Not only looking at the past, but looking at the future. How can we bring this knowledge to where we are right now today?
TEXT: Sean began to host dinners using only foods that Native people ate before colonization.
PIX: Photos of young chef Sean.
Sean: I worked hard to get to the point where I actually formed my own company called the Sioux Chef, which is the play on words using Lakota Sioux, S-I-O-U-X, everything just took off.
TEXT: In 2014, Sean and Dana met at a small dinner he hosted.
PIX: Dana and Sean directing the restaurant flow.
Dana: As I started eating this bison meatball soup and salad, and he started talking about his vision and about the concept behind the company, I am not exaggerating when I say that I felt electrical currents running through my entire body. The bottoms of my feet, into the Earth; I felt like my ancestors were there with me.
Sean: And then Dana came on and just started help project managing and that helped out a ton. We were able to grow so much.
Dana: The Sioux Chef business is about uncovering the Indigenous foods of North America. Specifically with the word “Sioux,” we're talking about Dakota foods, Dakota Lakota foods, and Anishinaabe here in Minnesota.
PIX: At the Indigenous Food Lab, women mix corn in a huge vat.
TEXT: They opened a not-for-profit food lab to train and support Indigenous farmers and cooks.
Sean: Their goal is to be a center point to help create more Indigenous food operations, working directly with tribal communities.
PIX: Dana chatting with woman making taco flour.
Dana: I've seen over the course of the last year, you have just kept refining and making it better and learning ways to make it more, more authentic. And yeah, you're the specialist now. Yeah.
Woman: No, I try, I, I want to learn more. You know?
Dana: Me too!
PIX: Wozupi Community Farm sign – people farming, Sean and Dana picking herbs with David.
Sean: There's just so much great Indigenous produced food coming out of this place right here. It's great that they're able to do this for the community and that they keep the store pretty well-stocked with some really good food.
PIX: Matt, David and Sean in the greenhouse.
L/T: Matthew Smaus
Matthew Smaus: This is definitely a case, with this sort of thing, I think with greenhouse-type protection, where it's modern technology. And to the extent it's being applied here, it's being married with traditional values. So, the value of stewarding the land that you use to grow the food on for your kids for seven generations, right.
PIX: Dana walking in flower field with David.
L/T: David Pickit III – Wozupi Tribal Representative
Dana: My mom, her family history is from the Shakopee Mdewakanton. My grandpa, Clem Felix, raised his ten children here.
David: I guess I was always kind of curious if, like, our families knew each other because like, being around the same area.
Dana: Do you live right around here?
David: Yeah, I actually live like maybe a half mile from here.
PIX: David walking through Wozupi farm.
David: Diabetes runs rampant throughout Indian country. It's just everywhere. So I often think about that; if that was maybe a path that would happen for me or any of my siblings. And, I don't know. I kind of credit this farm a lot for that we're not all diabetic like a lot of our ancestors were.
PIX: David picking burdock.
David: So this is burdock. But burdock, you go to any really fancy restaurant and they might have burdock root on there. You gotta dig—like these ones probably go down about a good two feet. But those roots are really good, almost like a carrot.
Sue SOT: What did you grow up eating?
David: A lot of canned goods. I think I'm like one of the last ones from this reservation that remembers commods. That was when the government would give us the box and it'd be all the mushy stuff, and the can that just had “Pork” on it, had a little outline of a pig. When you grow up just eating that, it's not a far jump to just keep eating processed foods. And so it's a kind of challenge to get people to eat a lot of these, more fresh stuff, but at the same time, the ones that are shifting over are noticing stuff within a generation, within their lifetime.
PIX: Owamni exteriors; old paintings of pre-colonial land.
TEXT: Sean and Dana’s biggest dream was to open a restaurant.
TEXT: They converted an industrial space next to the Mississippi River in Minneapolis into Owamni.
Dana: “Owamni” means the place of swirling waters. The beautiful limestone waterfalls with four beautiful islands that were much, much more beautiful before colonization were incredibly sacred to the Sioux community.
PIX: Sean cooking in Owamni with Joatta Siebert; talking to customers.
L/T: Joatta Siebert – Senior Chef
Sean SOT: And the other one was the squash, because it takes some time, and I feel like a scoop . . .
Joatta SOT: Yeah. Maybe smash it down a little bit, because you also have to scoop that elk on there.
Sean SOT: Yep. We should add some special tacos sometime, just on that special list. Just as we get more and more efficient.
Sean: We know where all our food’s coming from. It's really super hyper local. We purchase from Indigenous producers. We know what’s available, and we just write our menu around that. We don't have to deal with everybody else's supply chain issues, trying to get food from all over the country here.
PIX: Owamni staff at the James Beard Awards.
TEXT: In 2022, Owamni won the prestigious James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant.
Sean: Our ancestors are proud tonight, because we’re doing something different. We’re putting health on the table, we’re putting culture on the table and we’re putting our stories on the table.
Dana: We plan to also insist on helping restaurants like ours open all over North America, by other Native people seeking access to their own ancestral foods. So thank you so much.
PIX: Plants, trees and the farm back at Wozupi.
Sean: Returning that Indigenous education is such an important part, but also just being very aware of what's going on with the environment.
Dana: We think about climate change a lot. Humans sort of have this bizarre thinking, like, “We're on the earth to take whatever we can get from it, and we're here to do whatever we want!” The fact is that we are of the earth. We were from the earth. We were created by this planet. The earth is literally what we were made from.
Sean: We just have to be way smarter with what we're doing with all of this resource that we need to survive, because we're just creating deserts out there, and we have to make some changes. I think that if we're in tune, we can learn how to at least pivot and to work with this changing world. But we're going to have to be very aware and understand that things are going to be different.