Every day, Dana Thompson, co-owner of Owamni restaurant, sees it. Customers arrive by car after a 5-hour or longer trek. Some pull rolling suitcases, because they’ve squeezed in a visit during an airport layover. They’re in Minneapolis, even if briefly, to try the Indigenous American cuisine at Owamni, winner of this year’s James Beard award for best new restaurant. Like the staff, many have Native ancestry. “They sit in the dining room, and they spend time reading every word on the menu,” says Thompson, the restaurant’s co-owner. “Oftentimes, they just sit at the table and weep.”
The above is no exaggeration, she says. “It happens – every single day.”
What Thompson believes she is witnessing is proof that food not only has the power to unlock something deep – whether that’s memories, or long-buried secrets, or even feelings of intergenerational trauma – but it also has the potential to heal.
At Owamni, all food on the “decolonized” menu is prepared with ingredients common to Native Americans long before European settlers. Game meat is a star; dishes are made with cedar-braised bison and conifer-preserved rabbit. There is blue corn, hand-harvested wild rice and wild greens with toasted crickets. There’s no wheat flour, cane sugar or dairy — colonial foods not originally from Native land.
The concept is part of a broader movement called food sovereignty, or the right of Indigenous people to have culturally appropriate food raised through sustainable methods. The idea is embraced by the National Congress of American Indians, discussed in Tedx Talks, and increasingly, showing up in food carts, startups and restaurants.
While the scars of historical injustice can never fully be erased, Thompson and others believe that access to ancestral foods can help restore some of what was lost. “When you put these foods into the mouths of elders,” she says, “this really intense emotional shift comes out — these beautiful memories that had been suppressed for some time.”
Elders lived through forced assimilation, and the torture of boarding schools designed to strip Indigenous children of their culture. They have lost family members to the twin scourges of poor nutrition and addiction. They remember the rations that the government dropped off at reservations, filled with canned meat, processed cheese and sugary juices.
“There is so much healing to be done,” says Thompson, who is part Dakota. “It’s going to take multiple lifetimes for us to undo the effects of colonialism.”
Co-owner Sean Sherman, also known as The Sioux Chef, who himself grew up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, remembers harvesting chokecherries as a child. “I can just remember the smell of the chokecherry sauce, cooking on the stove,” he says. After a career in restaurants, and a break spent in Mexico where he learned about pre-colonial food, he began researching his own Lakota culture and its long-buried cuisine. That sent him on a path “to figure out what to do to reconnect with my ancestors.”
The path led to catering events in Minneapolis centered around Indigenous food and a 2017 cookbook, called The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen. Sherman and Thompson met at one of the events – she ate his bison meatball soup – and became business partners after he explained his vision. “I felt electrical currents running through my entire body,” Thompson says. “I felt like my ancestors were there with me.” (The two also were romantically involved until a 2021 breakup.)
Thompson, who came from “abject poverty” and left home at 15, had learned branding and marketing via a lucky break – a corporate job with Target. She brought those skills to the partnership, helping Sherman execute his culinary dream. In 2021, following a pandemic delay, they opened Owamni after winning the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board’s request for proposals for developing a new waterfront park.
The site overlooks a waterfall on the Mississippi River – the name Owamni literally means the place of swirling waters – and inside the restaurant, a wall of windows lets in light. A neon sign reminds customers: “You are on Native land.” When people with Indigenous bloodlines come through the door, “I want them to be greeted with this warmth, and to absorb the experiences with this high sense of dignity and comfort,” she says.
Thompson now splits her time between the restaurant and its nonprofit, North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems, which runs the Indigenous Food Lab, a professional kitchen that provides training on Native cuisine. She recently departed the executive director position in favor of becoming NATIFS’ senior director of health and wellness. She plans to spend even more time researching epigenetics, or how environment can impact how genes work.
“My theories are about how culturally relevant foods impact the DNA sequence as it’s formed,” she says. Indigenous foods – her favorites are wild blueberries and tea made with steeped fresh cedar – are naturally anti-inflammatory, vitamin-rich and packed with oxidants and flavonoids, she says. If we can empower communities to “access those foods here, especially after all the genocide and continued oppression in America,” she says, then “they can have control over this healing process.” ◼