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Minneapolis restaurateur revives disappearing Native American cuisine


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: The pandemic took a particularly heavy toll on restaurants, with tens of thousands shutting their doors for good.

Special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro visited one unusual establishment that is bucking the trend and reviving Native American food traditions that disappeared after European settlement in North America.

It is part of Fred's series Agents For Change and our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: The city of Minneapolis has its roots in flour milling, its Mississippi riverfront today dotted with icons of that heritage.

But a new centerpiece of this historic district is an enterprise with a very different take on that history.

Sean Sherman, Founder and CEO Chef, The Sioux Chef: There was a really important Dakota village right here on this side of the river where our restaurant sits. So, for us, it's an act of reclamation, because we're able to bring the true namesake of this space back.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: That namesake is Sean Sherman's restaurant called Owamni, Swirling Water in the Dakota language, and named after the much higher waterfalls that existed before industrialization brought dams.

For Sherman and his life and work partner, Dana Thompson, the restaurant opening was timely, broadening the conversation about racial equity in a city still recovering in the aftermath of George Floyd's murder.

Dana Thompson, Co-Owner and COO, The Sioux Chef: The fact that it happened during a pandemic, after the uprising, and all the different layers of complexity, it's been a really important place to heal, to have space to have these really hard conversations about race and culture and food and equity and sustainability.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: The more immediate conversation, however, has been about the food.

Person: The verdict is?

Person: Wow.

Person: Amazing flavors.

Maggie Passmore, Diner: That's amazing.

Person: Really good.

Katy Lindblad, Diner: Delicious.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: Owamni's wide array of ingredients has some that have been revived after generations. And all of them are pre-colonial. That means no chicken, no pork, no dairy, and, in a city that calls itself the Mill City, no wheat.

Sean Sherman: And we're just trying to keep it really simple.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: Sherman says his recipes combine simple flavors and texture, rabbit on a bed of kale, venison tartare, braised bison garnished with dandelion greens, simple perhaps, but good enough to earn a nomination for best new restaurant from the James Beard Foundation.

From patrons we spoke with, two thumbs up.

Maggie Passmore: It's naturally gluten-free and dairy-free. And the food was just absolutely spectacular.

Katy Lindblad: I'm excited about Native people reclaiming their heritage and sharing it with us, because we have a lot to learn from the people who were here before us.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: Or relearn, says Matthew Teutimez, a diner from California.

Matthew Teutimez, Tribal Biologist, Kizh-Gabrieleno Band of Mission Indians: In Los Angeles, we have been so removed from our ability to have our indigenous foods, that we could not have a meal like this.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: He's a biologist for the Kizh-Gabrieleno Band of Mission Indians in the Los Angeles Basin area and was thrilled to see things like corn that's been nixtamalized or treated in an alkaline solution.

Matthew Teutimez: It's a process that our tribe did for thousands of years. And what this is, is actually, within grains, such as acorn, such as corn, they have a layer that needs to be removed.

So, in order for this product to actually be nutritious, you have to remove that. Every tribe had this component. It was like our chicken soup.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: A far cry from conditions across Indian Country today, says Sherman.

Sean Sherman: Our focus is indigenous communities. So, some of these communities can have upwards to 60 percent type 2 diabetes because of the nutritional access that they have around foods.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: Owamni is the latest chapter for Thompson, whose heritage is Dakota, and Sherman, who's Oglala Lakota, and their Sioux Chef enterprise, as an S-I-O-U-X.

Sean Sherman: You want me to sign this book for you?

Fred de Sam Lazaro: His cookbook with that title won a James Beard Award in 2018.

They also run a nonprofit that includes the Indigenous Food Lab, providing education and training. Wherever possible, they source from and helped create new tribal suppliers.

Sean Sherman: Like, all of our bisons coming out of Cheyenne River, and we're getting a lot of fish from a couple of the northern Anishinaabeg tribes, like Red Lake and Red Cliff. And we're just really trying to create a demand.

Dana Thompson: We're continuing to build them up. That's a big core part of our nonprofit is acting as an entrepreneur generator.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: Someday, those entrepreneurs could include staffers at Owamni, where indigenous people are in the majority.

Darryl Montana moved here from Los Angeles initially just to train at the nonprofit. Then he was offered a job here.

Darryl Montana, Line Lead, Owamni: So I basically packed up everything and moved to Minneapolis for this unique and exciting opportunity.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: What do you see yourself doing in 10 years or 20 years?

Darryl Montana: I would actually like just to keep spreading the word about our indigenous meals and our indigenous chefs and our indigenous cooking, going back to what our forefathers grew up on, what they foraged, what they hunted, how it was 100 times more healthier than what they're eating now, processed and sodium-based, just unhealthy food.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: Edward LoneEagle is another alumnus of the Indigenous Food Lab.

Edward LoneEagle, Line Cook, Owamni: I'm Ojibwe from Red Lake, Minnesota.

Growing up, I always wanted to make indigenous foods. I really didn't know much about it. Just cooking with pride.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: Alexa Wyatt, whose heritage include Shawnee and Quapaw, is the events manager at Owamni.

Alexa Wyatt, Events Manager, Owamni: Bringing my grandmother up here from Oklahoma, that happened a few months ago. And I watched her cry when she was eating one of the dishes. And she's like: "This reminds me of when I was a child."

Sean Sherman: And we're just kind of setting forth a path of how we can steward indigenous knowledge, reclaim indigenous knowledge, and practice it in real time, and be a role model for what that looks like right now today, and doing it through something as simple -- I wouldn't say simple, but something like a restaurant, which is far from simple.


Fred de Sam Lazaro: It's a heavy lift.

New restaurants, like most small businesses, have a high failure rate. At Owamni, so far, so good, say Thompson and Sherman. There hasn't been a day since opening last July that they have not been fully booked.

For the "PBS NewsHour," this is Fred de Sam Lazaro in Minneapolis.

Judy Woodruff: Yum. That's all I can say.

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