Putting modern indigenous food on the map

From non-profit test kitchens and training centers to beer breweries, here are some brands leading the revitalization of Native foodways in the US, New Zealand and Canada.
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Sean Sherman, Shyla Sheppard, Shawn Adler, Rachel Taulelei and Upingaksraq Spring Alaska Schreiner are part of a slowly gathering movement that is seeking to put modern Indigenous food on the map. Because so many Native food traditions are passed down through generations by word of mouth, they have had the tendency to be forgotten or obscured. But these chefs are reclaiming their roots and sharing their take on traditional foods, redefining what it means to be a contemporary Indigenous food brand. In running their businesses, they often face a unique set of challenges to others working in the food industry. Here they explain what some of these barriers are, and how they are overcoming them. 

1. Sean Sherman

A member of the Oglala Lakota tribe, Sean Sherman has been at the forefront of the Indigenous food sovereignty movement in the US for the past five years. Alongside his partner Dana Thompson, of the Wahpeton-Sisseton and Mdewakanton Dakota tribes, Sean founded The Sioux Chef in 2014 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Today, they head up several small companies dedicated to helping revitalize the presence of and awareness around Native foods and foodways, and supporting the health of Indigenous communities. 

Sean grew up on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. After working his way up the ladder in restaurants, he realized how little he knew of his own cultural food history, due to the government-enforced boarding schools that had separated the two generations before him from their Native culture. At the time there was little, if any, Indigenous representation within the restaurant and food scene. Sean was determined to change that by opening The Sioux Chef, featuring a pre-colonial catering business and food truck. Following its success, he published the James Beard award-winning cookbook, The Sioux Chef's Indigenous Kitchen.

Sean Sherman opened the Indigenous Food Lab to provide education around Native food.
Sean Sherman opened the Indigenous Food Lab to provide education around Native food.

In 2020, under The Sioux Chef's non-profit arm and with the help of a small team, Indigenous Food Lab (IFL) opened its doors, where its operations include a test kitchen and Indigenous-focused training center. IFL's model helps to train and empower Indigenous youth and community members. It's also opened its most recent new venture – a bricks-and-mortar pre-colonial restaurant, Owamni – in 2021, as the first of its kind in Minnesota. The training model offered through IFL is purposefully scalable, with the aim of replicating it across cities and countries all over the world to help support other Indigenous communities. 

There have been some big challenges Sean has had to overcome. ‘Neither Dana or I come from money, so there was a lot of navigating just trying to understand how to speak in financial terms; how to talk to bankers, how to talk to funders, learning how to speak in financial terms so we could play the game correctly,’ says Sean. ‘In the beginning, nobody understood what the concept was. For the first two years, every journalist I talked to just wanted to ask the question: “What is Native American food?”’

Sean is very clear on the other ways that he plans to do things differently in his business. ‘In typical kitchens, there's such a strong toxic hierarchy that has been the norm for so long. We're trying to figure out how to navigate that. Especially with a crew that's largely Indigenous, that grew up exactly like I did; we were born with ancestral trauma that had nothing to do with us. We're trying to create a healthy workspace within our non-profit and we're hoping we can carry a lot of those lessons into our for-profit restaurant, too. We don't want to continue this toxic nature of restaurants.’

More: Making native ingredients part of the national cuisine

2. Shyla Sheppard 

Bow & Arrow Brewing in Albuquerque, New Mexico, is one of very few – if not the only – US-based breweries founded and run by a Native American woman: Shyla Sheppard, from the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, also known as the Three Affiliated Tribes. 

The brewery's taproom opened in 2016 and pays tribute to the founder's heritage and the Southwest itself with unique and tongue-in-cheek offerings like Denim Tux, an American-style pilsner that's brewed using New Mexican blue corn. The brewery brings a distinct perspective and voice to the notoriously homogeneous industry of beer. 

But starting out wasn't easy. ‘I felt like I was having to constantly prove and assert myself,’ says Shyla. ‘In time, however, I learned to take it all in stride and realize that many people haven't encountered women of color in leadership positions and I just kept focused on the things that mattered.’

Another significant challenge to Native Americans and other Indigenous business owners like Shyla, having grown up on a reservation, is finding startup capital. After being turned away from lots of banks, she eventually secured an SBA (small business association loan). ‘I personally guaranteed the loan, including using my home in Albuquerque as collateral,’ she says. ‘While this is the means by which many entrepreneurs secure a loan to fund their business venture and maybe sounds unremarkable, for Native Americans living on the reservation, this is not an option.

‘I moved off the reservation and invested in my own home that I could then use to collateralize the business loan,’ Shyla continues. ‘But this kind of asset and opportunity unfortunately proves elusive to Native Americans who live on the reservation since the land their homes sit on is held in trust by the Federal government, so banks really have no recourse.’

When she was starting out the brewery, Shyla explains, ‘It felt like people were automatically sceptical of us since we weren't the usual bearded dudes that society expects to open breweries. So while it felt like it took longer to gain a following and to be viewed as legitimate, coming up on our fifth anniversary, we now have an amazing following at Bow & Arrow that continues to grow.’

3. Shawn Adler 

Shawn Adler first learned how to identify wild plants with his mother, an Anishinaabe member of Lac des Mille Lacs First Nation; today, he utilizes this knowledge as the chef and owner of the Pow Wow Cafe and Wildside Soda Company in Toronto, Canada, incorporating wild foods onto his menu to highlight alternative ingredients and showcase his heritage.  

Pow Wow Cafe opened in 2016 after a series of successful food stalls during Canada's summer music festival season. Sean quickly became known for his ‘Indian tacos’ – a deep-fried, thick base made from flour, lard and sugar, then topped with ingredients from braised lamb to peanut butter and banana. The Indian taco, bannock, or fry bread (the name varies based on region) is a contentious food that came out of Indigenous oppression and colonization. It was a survival food; one that, according to Shawn, most non-Indigenous customers hadn't heard of before trying his version.  

‘People have an interesting relationship with the Indian taco and fry bread in general. It's a food of oppression but also I think it's a food of great ingenuity. Indigenous people have a certain relationship with it. My relationship growing up was eating it at pow wows every summer and it was always delicious. Once I became a chef, it was natural to go back to my culture for inspiration.’ 

The cafe also serves its own line of sodas, Wildside Soda, which are infused with Indigenous ingredients like cedar, wild blueberry and sweet grass. Having been in the restaurant business for more than 20 years, Shawn is happy to bring an Indigenous voice to the Toronto food scene – one that had little presence just five years ago. 

‘It's not [a] new [cuisine], but it's new that there are Indigenous-owned restaurants and food businesses. When people wonder why that is, well, I'm only one generation removed from residential school. My mum, my aunt, my uncle all went to residential school… now is the generation where we're not forced into residential school, so we can learn our teachings and our language. That's why we're seeing such a resurgence.’  

4. Rachel Taulelei 

Kono is the food-and-drink business of Wakatū Incorporation, which formed in New Zealand in 1977 and is owned by more than 4,000 Indigenous Māori families. Kono's guiding principles – ‘Love for the Land. Respect for the Sea’ – are a reflection of its Māori cultural identity and commitment to being a steward of the earth by preserving its resources for generations to come.

Ethical mussels by New Zealand's Kono, which is helmed by Māori Rachel Taulelei (above).
Ethical mussels by New Zealand's Kono, which is helmed by Māori Rachel Taulelei (above).

Kono specializes in ethically sourced and sustainable products including seafood, wine, beer, cider, fruit, hops and natural fruit bars. The name refers to a traditionally woven food basket that is offered to guests within Māori culture; a representation of manaakitanga (hospitality) and honor, and a reflection of the strength created through the interweaving of people and nature, alongside a symbol of the brand's numerous food offerings.

Rachel Taulelei came to be a part of Kono in 2015 and is now its CEO. ‘I think Indigenous businesses and Indigenous thinking hold the key to so much of what's needed right now,’ she says, ‘namely collectivism, intergenerational perspective and values-led business models. It's both incredibly rewarding and empowering for our team, owners and partners around the world. The halo effect of appreciating your responsibility to be a good ancestor is immense.’ 

5. Upingaksraq Spring Alaska Schreiner 

Farmer, agriculturist and founder of Sakari Botanicals, Upingaksraq Spring Alaska Schreiner is from the Valdez Native Tribe in Alaska. Spring (as she is known in English) began Sakari Botanicals in 2012 as a way to combine her science and cultural knowledge and adapt her career to a new location.

Following a move to Oregon, she noticed a demand for local native seed and tribal foods. Having grown up in the Inupiaq community, and with a background in natural resource management, Spring wanted to bring her knowledge to the region and into her business. Alongside producing a range of food and beauty products from local natural resources, Spring works to educate around Indigenous practices and foodways. 

Upingaksraq Spring Alaska Schreiner's focus is on remembrance and restoration of traditions.
Upingaksraq Spring Alaska Schreiner's focus is on remembrance and restoration of traditions.

‘I just started [the business] from scratch: the teas and food products and labelling… and then I was like: wait a minute – I'm going to put the names of this tea in my language so that somebody has to ask what it means. I'm trying to emphasize access to our language. I want to make sure that we get our language back, [that] we get our tribal foods back. I started using clear packages on tea so that if someone bought one, they could see the berries and remember: “Oh, I used to pick those.” So there became a real educational component.’

Spring not only teaches cooking classes using the traditional foods grown on their farm, but also produces items steeped in Native traditions – from immune-supportive teas to cedar-smoked salts and spices, and a range of hot sauces whose ingredients are grown from Indigenous seeds, right on the farm (seed saving is a longstanding tradition within Native cultures). With Sakari, Spring strives to marry delicious, fun, plant-based products with sustainability, to honor Indigenous history and culture, and preserve it for future generations. 

‘We have very powerful, old, healthy seeds that we're growing from. It starts with the seed and growing and caring for the food, then honoring and preparing it before we eat it… I think if we reach the point where we can get tribal foods in fast-food form, we're probably missing the point.’ 

This article was first published in Courier issue 40, April/May 2021. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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