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Kalle Benallie

A Native-owned restaurant is carving a path to modernize Indigenous foods, and they were recognized for it this week as the “Best New Restaurant” from the prestigious James Beard Awards.

Owamni, located in downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota, is owned by Sean Sherman, Oglala Lakota, and Dana Thompson, lineal descendant of the Wahpeton-Sisseton and Mdewakanton Dakota tribes. Together, they operate the Sioux Chef company which aims on “re-identifying North American Cuisine and reclaiming an important culinary culture long buried and often inaccessible.”

The food is served family-style and offers seasonally-based dishes such as game, fish, birds, insects, corn, beans and wild rice.

Sherman said customers not from Indigenous communities are able to gain perspective on Indigenous culture and the opportunity to try new flavors. Throughout the restaurant are messages like “You are on Native land” and “#LandBack.”

“We talk a lot about history, we talk a lot about all the hardships that our communities had to go through to even just be here today and how much reclamation is still needed to be able to really fully identify ourselves as Indigenous people in this modern world,” Sherman told ICT.

Currently, their best seller is the “Roast Sweet Potato” that has Indigenous chili crisp and scallion.

The location of the restaurant also has Indigenous roots. Located in downtown Minneapolis along the Mississippi River, it is a sacred site known to the Dakota and Anishinaabe people as “Owámniyomni,” meaning “place of the falling swirling waters.”

The natural waterfall spanned 300 feet across and 40 feet down. The Dakota people even named the Mississippi River, HahaWakpa, meaning “river of the falls,” in reference to the area.

It was renamed to St. Anthony Falls in the 17th century and the building of mills and tunnels disrupted the natural features of the falls.

“We basically just reclaimed the space by naming the restaurant Owamni because in the past, before colonization, people were going to go visit Owamni. There was a village on the side of the river that our restaurant’s on and it was a place for portaging, trade and all sorts of stuff,” Sherman said. 

Sioux Chef’s mission: Decolonizing the kitchen
Chef Crystal Wahpepah has arrived
Decolonized menu at Owamni by the Sioux chef

It opened in the midst of the pandemic in July 2021 and has been sold out every single night. There are about 100 employed at the restaurant.

“We should have these Indigenous restaurants in every single region, everywhere, showcasing all of our amazing diversity, all the wonderful foods, and all the cultures,” Sherman said.

He first learned how to cook at home. But at 13 years old he began working in restaurants in the Black Hills in South Dakota and continued throughout his schooling.

Eventually after college, he worked his way up and became a chef in a Minneapolis restaurant.

“It was kind of an accident, I guess, that I became a chef,” Sherman said.

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In his career, he has won the National Center’s 2018 First American Entrepreneurship Award, the James Beard Award for Best American Cookbook in 2018, and a James Beard Leadership Award in 2019. As well as the recipient of the First Peoples Fund Fellowship in 2015 and the Bush Foundation Fellowship in 2018.

Sherman was also up for “Best Chef” in the Midwest category at the James Beard Awards this year.

Crystal Wahpepah, Kickapoo Nation of Oklahoma, was also nominated for emerging chef for Wahpepah's Kitchen in Oakland, California.

The documentary “Gather,” won the James Beard Foundation Award for Best Documentary/Docuseries Visual Media. It explores “the destruction and appropriation of the Native America food system by chronicling those fighting for food sovereignty.” 

The James Beard Awards was postponed for two years, in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but a report from the New York Times revealed the inner turmoil from the lack of diversity in its nominees, leadership and voting committee.

“They really diversified their committee. There’s just a lot of people of color making the decisions because in the past it hasn’t historically been like that. A lot of times it would be very Eurocentric, white male-dominated people getting all of the awards,” Sherman said.

For him the win means that people want to see more of these restaurants out there.

“It’s really great that we can stand out. Especially doing what we’re doing with focus on Indigenous foods. Trying to do something different cause we basically pushed against everything European colonial by removing things like dairy, flour, sugar, pork and chicken” he said.

And he wants to create a path for others in the industry — to show their art, vision and ideas on the future of Indigenous food.

“If they (customers) get to Minneapolis, just come check us out. We’ll be there,” Sherman said. 

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