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‘Our whole mission is Indigenous education and Indigenous food access’: A Q&A with owners of Owamni by The Sioux Chef

Sean Sherman and Dana Thompson are preparing for the Indigenous food restaurant’s opening next month in the old Fuji Ya location at 425 W. River Road.

Dana Thompson and Sean Sherman outside their new restaurant, Owamni by The Sioux Chef, opening in July.
Dana Thompson and Sean Sherman outside their new restaurant, Owamni by The Sioux Chef, opening in July.
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh

According to Peter DeCarlo’s excellent and essential book “Fort Snelling at Bdote: A Brief History,” “Two great rivers come together in the center of North America, at what are now the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota. The Mississippi and Minnesota rivers drain huge portions of the state, and for millennia they were the nation’s highways, bringing people together at their confluence. An indigenous people of this region, the Dakota, call the place where the Minnesota enters the Mississippi Bdote (Mdote), which means, ‘where two waters come together,’ and it is sacred, surrounded by spiritual sites and the graves of relatives.

“… While there is no single creation story that compels belief, one account is widely held in this region. The spirits of the people came down from Canku Wanagi, ‘the spirit road,’ made up of the stars of the Milky Way, and when they arrived on earth, the Creator shaped the first people from the clay of Maka Ina, ‘mother earth.’ The people were the Oceti Sakowin, a society that reflected their cosmic origin.

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“The center of Dakota homeland is Mni Sota Makoce (Minnesota), ‘the land where the waters reflect the clouds.’ Many Dakota people believe that they and the Oyate originated at the confluence of the Mni Sota Wakpa (Minnesota) and Haha Wakpa (Mississippi) rivers. The mouth of Mni Sota Wakpa is called Bdote Mni Sota, and the district around it is generally called Bdote. At the heart of Bdote is Wita Tanjka (Pike Island), which some believe is the center of Dakota creation, where people were first made. At the confluence and everywhere, mni — water—is sacred. All water was pure at the time of creation and, like the land, was part of the people.”

At the moment, 10 miles upriver from Bdote, another creation site around the Haha Wakpa (Mississippi) river is erupting with new life, marked last week by the cacophonic sound of jack hammers, front-end loaders, bulldozers, and workers pounding out reconstruction of the Third Avenue Bridge, fixing potholes, repairing roads, building downtown condos, and putting the finishing touches on projects launched by Water Works at Mill Ruins Park, which is part of RiverFirst, the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board-led riverbank renovation.

In the middle of all this boom town activity are Sean Sherman and Dana Thompson, owners of Owamni by The Sioux Chef, the new Indigenous food restaurant set to open in the old Fuji Ya location at 425 W. River Road next month.

The life partners are a perfect two-person storm of passion, professionalism, education, history, good taste, and sheer fun. Thompson is a greatly respected singer and songwriter and CEO; Sherman is the James Beard-winning author behind “The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen” cookbook, and, given their Sioux Chef-attendant projects NATIFS (North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems) and the Indigenous Food Lab, this new endeavor is much more than just another restaurant opening in foodie-crazed Minneapolis.

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Thompson is Mdewakanton Dakota and Sherman is Olgala Lakota, and their family histories inform everything about Owamni by The Sioux Chef, which both artists say is nothing short of a mission. To be sure, the launch comes at a time when history itself is being retold, rediscovered, and recontextualized, and our recent conversation outside St. Anthony Falls took place to a backdrop of stories about Indigenous life and death, including the ongoing Line 3 oil pipeline protestsmass graves of Indigenous children discovered at the former site of a British Columbia boarding school; the land-back movementsports teams changing their racist names, and the Minnesota GOP’s push to gain control of historic sites – all of which point to a new dawn in which Indigenous peoples and their histories are being reckoned with, updated, reborn.

Sitting in the empty dining room of their new restaurant, with new chairs and tables having just arrived and a new staff quietly going through their paces before opening in July, MinnPost spoke with Sherman and Thompson about Owamni and its long journey to the banks of Haha Wakpa. The interview has been edited and condensed.

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MinnPost: Amazing everything that’s happened in the last few years for you, and now here you are on the riverbank.

Sean Sherman: It’s hard to believe how much has happened, right? I started the Sioux Chef in 2014 and I’d been working on the concept of it for a while and then Dana came on in late 2014, and we just had so many adventures. So many things happened that took us around the world to talk about the work and to meet up with other thinkers out there in the culinary world and go to different tribes all over the nation, and just bringing everything in. But to be able to think that our first big public thing a few years later would be this massive project on this really special Dakota space, which is such a power spot because the waterfalls were such an integral part of the Dakota life here as a village … You look and you find those old paintings and there’s a village right here on this side of the river, and it’s a crossing space, and so it’s this really important spot.

The name for the Mississippi River, which is obviously the biggest river, is Haha Wakpa, which means “river of the falls,” which means this very spot right here. Owamni Mni Omni is the full and true name of the falls from the Dakota, and the Anishinaabe, we call it “The Great Split Rock” and there was this cool feature in the middle of the falls or this island, that split the whole waterfalls, right in the middle with trees growing right on top and everything and just kind of floating around it. We’re thinking about putting a mural of the falls in the entryway.

Illustration of Owamni Mni Omni (named St. Anthony Falls in 1680 by the first European explorer, Father Hennepin) from Paul Durand’s book “Where The Waters Gather and the Rivers Meet: An Atlas of the Eastern Sioux.”
Courtesy of Dana Thompson
Illustration of Owamni Mni Omni (named St. Anthony Falls in 1680 by the first European explorer, Father Hennepin) from Paul Durand’s book “Where The Waters Gather and the Rivers Meet: An Atlas of the Eastern Sioux.”
Dana Thompson: The most important thing that I’ve been thinking about, is just to show America — hopefully it’s not just Minnesota — how really precious our natural resources are, and how shortsighted it was for them to destroy these beautiful falls. …

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MP: It’s impossible to come here and see all the concrete surrounding the falls and the river, and all the construction and [Owamni] in the midst of it and not see you guys as literally a voice in the wilderness, representing [Indigenous culture] in the here and now, but also from hundreds or thousands of years ago.

DT: Right, and with the Minneapolis Parks Foundation and the Park Board, I hope they’re a model for the rest of the country because they invested all this money and they pulled in all these stakeholders. The effort that they did just to preserve this cottonwood tree right here is a testament; they should get a frickin’ Nobel Prize for that.

MP: The Water Works project is amazing, and cool that Owamni is part of it and not some fast-food stop.

DT: People don’t even know. They’ll come off the bridge or whatever and come here and they’ll be hungry, and then following what I’m calling sort of “passive education,” they’ll be like, “OK, well I’ll try it.” And then they’ll be reading the menu and there will be Dakota words on there, and they’ll be talking to the staff, and having Indigenous people around and asking the questions like, “Why is it important that there’s no fryer?” “Why is it important that we don’t use wheat flour and dairy and refined sugar?” Kind of expanding their brains and their palates culturally.

Then maybe they’re going to walk away and identify some of the plants, because we were able to influence the landscape architecture as well, and they’re gonna be like, “Oh, this grows in my back yard; I didn’t even know that it was used for X, Y and Z, or that it was something that was medicinal or nutritional,” and they’ll walk away with a whole different idea of what Indigenous people are, because there’s been so much erasure in this country. Yes, there was a really successful genocide that took place here, but there are a lot of incredible Indigenous people that are still here.

MP: Every story I read about Indigenous people uses the word “resilence,” and that’s what this story is about. Restaurant as resilience.

DT: One of the things that I know that the Park Board is trying to do is just the whole spirit of the River First initiative is because the industrialization (of the 1860s) just took over this area so intensely, that the community members literally had no access to the river. I mean, now there’s kind of access if you go there and down, but it’s kind of dangerous and out of the way. So they created these two things: Water Works is the first one, with phase one being the Upper Harbor terminal, and that’s really powerful and I think it’s really cool that the first thing that actually came to fruition was in north Minneapolis to give that community access. I think that’s a really important message to send. But phase three of this project is that that fence that’s right down there along the river is going to go away. And my understanding is that there’s going to be literally kayak-ability between the two spaces, and that is going to give people an idea of really what it felt like back in the day, because if you’re [kayaking or canoeing] on the water you know it’s just a different, completely different perspective.

MP: This area — Nicollet, Hennepin, and Boom islands — was so important to the First People, with birthing ceremonies, villages, and so much life before the colonists landed. What’s your personal story with the area?

DT: For me this area’s really profound because I had my only child at HCMC and brought her to our home on Nicollet Island. So I brought my brand new infant to Nicollet Island and that’s where I raised her for the first two years. Living on Nicollet Island, our neighbors would say it’s haunted by Indigenous people that were not treated well here so you have to be really respectful, and that’s the way that they framed it. But I knew that this spirituality was really intense, and real, and these are my people, this is my grandfather’s relatives. And so, being able to really just understand the complexity of how the islands interacted with the river, and how people lived on both sides of it, and how they survived off of this river [has been inspiring].

MP: Amazing to see all the “Mill City” signage and statues of millers around this area, given the city’s true history: Successful industrial city, along with genocide and banishment …

DT: … forced assimilation, and all of it. it’s really important to tell the story, and just in the six years that Sean and I have been running this company together, we’ve seen Indigenous education starting to be put into schools, and that’s really important.

MP: There’s literally a reawakening going on, and Sioux Chef and Owamni are a big part of it.

DT: Honestly, I think so, and through the nonprofit we’re developing booklets, separate Lexiles for different age groups that are going to be free for schools to use. It’s about agriculture, plant-based; it’s about foraging; it’s about just knowing the natural elements around you. Eventually we’ll have them about wolves and bison and ducks and everything, and we’re building a team right now to develop it because our whole mission is Indigenous education and Indigenous food access.

SS: This Indigenous foundation that we’re building is really just about trying to understand all Indigenous peoples, like a pan-Indigenous exploration, basically, because there’s so many commonalities of Indigenous peoples all over the globe. And it’s looking at, what was their agriculture and what was their knowledge of that? What seeds were they growing? Organic farming styles and soil management and all that stuff; just that vast knowledge of the world around you and the connection to it, and all the plants for food, for medicine, for crafting, and all the stories and legends and traditions that go along with that.

So for us it was just building that map of what is an Indigenous consistent, how do you apply it basically anywhere you look? Starting here, right where we are, because so much of this is overlooked, not talked about, is completely unknown to so many people because our educational system is [messed] up, and we’re just opening up so many doors for so much story, getting people to truly understand where they’re standing and the history of what happened. Just making it a part of everything, and we’re doing it through food.

MP: I’ve learned a lot from just the Sioux Chef in the last six years, just as a person. Is the common denominator with all these Indigenous food supply stories oppression?

SS: Yeah, absolutely. I mean that’s a big part of what happened here. It’s why we don’t have Native American restaurants dotted all over the U.S., because we’re still living in segregated states all over the U.S. and the reservation systems, number one. All of our natural resources and any kind of economic opportunities have been withheld from most of us. Some tribes over the past couple decades have found resources in gambling to be able to help out financially there, but before that, “There’s oil on your land, you’re kicked out again,” or whatever, and it happens again. My grandparents were forced to homestead when the Pine Ridge Reservation was formed, and they wanted to use their land for bombing practice at Ellsworth Air Force Base in Rapid City, so they had to homestead somewhere else because of that situation.

It’s just a constant getting kicked around and it’s just full-on oppression that people have been so blind to because it’s been out of sight, out of mind for so many Indigenous communities, and the status of life hasn’t gotten any better, particularly because there’s still a lot of health issues, and a lot of it stems from the nutritional situation but also losing all of our education. So, how to apply all of our Indigenous wisdom in a real time? We’re trying to create a situation that will bring in, hopefully, more chefs, more restaurants, just a bigger push of how North American foods really should be looked at. It’s not hamburgers and pizza; it’s where we are in the land and history — all this food around us, all this flavor.

MP: Personally, given your background, what has run through your mind in your quiet moments as you look at the river, just in terms of starting the restaurant on this sacred space?

SS: Well, when I found what I wanted to do; I saw this path that just kind of opened up for me. I realized looking backwards in my life, I always had been kind of stumbling down this path anyways because certain things were just building me to have the understanding. And then when I just saw the path in front of me, I knew exactly what I wanted to do, and that passion overtook basically everything, and I just truly believe that this should have been out here in the world already.

I really wish my parents’ generation could have done a lot of this work ahead of time, because there could have been so many more stories preserved and so many more traditions probably preserved, because there would have been a lot more elders alive back then, with a lot of those direct memories that could have been saved. I just feel like time is short, that all of this knowledge is in dire danger [of being lost]. … a lot of this Indigenous culture is starting to disappear at an extremely fast rate. And I just really believe that we have to be stewards of this — of Indigenous culture, Indigenous knowledge of Indigenous foods, and bring that out to the forefront.

The Western diet, the Western culture, the Western colonization just kind of completely overlooked all of this amazing diversity out there and tried to homogenize everything across the board as best they could, and just destroyed so much culture in the path of that. There’s just so much that we need to preserve to realize that there’s so much relevancy to Indigenous food ways of living closer [to the food sources], utilizing a lot more plant diversity, having a deeper understanding of pretty much everything around you; just better diets, you know?

St. Anthony Falls today, as seen from outside Owamni.
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh
St. Anthony Falls today, as seen from outside Owamni.
MP: You mentioned casinos and gaming. It’s been overlooked that way, but food is as central to the culture as gaming, yes?

SS: Growing up with Lakota stories, people would start training the kids when, as soon as they can walk, basically, you’re teaching them games. Like shooting flies and grasshoppers out of the air with bows and arrows — just things that seem almost impossible but actually they get really good at it, right? They start training them for life skills at a very young age, and Indigenous education was teaching them how to build the bows, and how to hunt, and the skills that you need to survive, and how to identify all the plants and all the stories behind the prayers that you sing to them when you harvest from them and all that deep tradition. So even though culinary [arts and traditions] is what people see when they’re coming to us, really, Indigenous education is what we’re trying to rebuild.

MP: It seems to me that Owanmi is very much steeped in the present, but the past and future, too. And this whole area will look much different in 10 years, thanks in part to you guys.

DT: Everything we do … like there’s so much horrible stuff that we don’t gloss over. We talk about the genocide and the forced assimilation and the removal of culture and all the horrible things that happen to Indigenous peoples still. Every day it’s something else, be it the missing and murdered indigenous women, or… I mean it just goes on and on and that’s part of the work that I do with our organization, is talking about epigenetics and how trauma is transferred through generations.  That’s only 20-year-old research, and so I’m working with epigenetic scientists that are trying to figure out how to improve. They know the trauma transfer goes through at least three generations, back to my grandfather, but they think it’s more like seven. So something that happened to your grandparents or your parents, you manifest that in your own cells, and so the treatment of that is really different than trauma that happens directly to you. This is all really heavy stuff, and it can be really triggering for people, but all of our organizations are really deliberately cultivated with an eye on the future. Everything we’re doing is for the positive. We can’t undo the past. We don’t want to deny the past. We’re going to acknowledge it, but we’re not going to just let it consume us.

MP: And food is a celebration.  

DT: Absolutely. It’s medicine. My great grandfather went through the Dakota uprising. And my grandfather wrote it down, took down the oral history of his experience, because he had two little girls and a 9-day-old son [when the conflict started]. It’s archived at the Minnesota Historical Society, it’s called “The Ordeal of Hinhankaga,” [PDF] and it is the most gruesome, terrifying … It’s like 16 pages of hell. That happened right there, you know, like, 25 minutes south of here. And he had to say no to his culture to preserve his children. He was half-Dakota and half-white, and they were like, “Which side are you on?” If he chose Dakota, his children were going to die. Think about that. And a lot of that same kind of story happened with a lot of Sean’s ancestors, too.

MP: Is it too strong to say that that generational scar of the Dakota uprising and banishment led directly to Owamni and The Sioux Chef today? 

SS: There’s obviously so much and Dana and I both have family history that that’s directly involved, with the war itself.

DT: Sean just found out after doing some family tree work just this last week that he’s got some Dakota blood in him.

SS: I knew it was there because my mom’s mom’s family came from Crow Creek, South Dakota, which is where the reservation was created when Minnesota did the Dakota and Winnebago expulsion acts in 1863. They made it illegal to be Dakota and Winnebago in the state and kicked everybody out and that became a law passed in Congress …. The Winnebago people got kicked out all over the place: got kicked out of Illinois, kicked out of Wisconsin, kicked out of Iowa, and then they finally made it home by Long Prairie, Minnesota. They didn’t like it, it was too cool and they didn’t understand the growing season, and it was really foresty and they were used to not as much forest. So they traded for land down in Blue Earth, which was much better suited for them and they were pretty happy there because it was really fertile, and it was a really beautiful space. So that’s where they kind of reset and then they had to take a much smaller reservation space for that — or “treaty land,” I should say. But when the Dakota uprising happened, just because the Dakota people keep giving up when making deals with the U.S. and giving them more land space, but then they realize that game is being over-hunted and they can’t survive with what’s inside the land space that they got, and people keep coming in and breaking the treaties and nothing’s being done about it; all the annuities are not coming in and they’re not getting paid what they’re being promised or not getting food and all that kind of stuff so just, you know, complete broken promises constantly until they get fed up. And they try to stand up for themselves and then the battles ensue and then it goes down really quickly. So most of the Dakota people escape and run, run out to the West to try to meet up with some of their relatives on the Plains. And then it was a couple of thousand or so get rounded up, and then they’re forced to march from Mankato to Fort Snelling and they’re forced to stay in the prison camp there for a long winter. …

MP: You come with the history like a teacher. You know the story. All of which must make you feel like you’re on a mission.

SS: Absolutely. It’s absolutely a mission because it’s just opening up doors, and it gives us the opportunity to have these conversations. First, people are intrigued with the food and then they start to learn a little bit more and a little bit more and it just opens up the door to wanting to know more about the culture, and understanding the history is such a huge part of it because there’s so many wrongs that happened and we’re still dealing with a lot of the traumatic effects of all those things that happened not that long ago. You know, it’s just within the 150-year range; it’s not ancient history. We’re not doing it for ourselves, it’s not a namesake situation or an ego project; we’re trying to do it because it needs to be out there and we want to open up the doors for the next generation to just have better access to their own knowledge, their own culture and to the foods.

MP: And there’s so much going on right now with past meeting present, and land-back programs, and truths and true histories being told … you’re not alone — especially with it happening in Minnesota.

DT: It’s a good place for the heart of the revolution.

SS: Exactly. This is the first full-scale restaurant of its kind. There’s nothing like it out there right now. It shouldn’t be like that; there should be these Indigenous restaurants everywhere featuring their culture, their cuisine, basically anywhere — South America, Australia, New Zealand, everywhere, right?

DT: Sean and I really spent a lot of time thinking through every move that we made, and especially with this restaurant, it was so great that we got to be part of the design process with architects and the Park Board and everything else, and it’s really important to us that people come in here for their first taste of Native culture and that they see really high design and dignity, and beauty, because it is. I want to really humanize Indigenous people. I want people to come in and be like, “Oh, I get it. It’s so stylish and gorgeous.”

MP: What was your first quote unquote Native food that you remember either eating or making?

DT: My mom taught me to eat these citrusy clovers, oxalis. It’s a lemony taste. That was when we lived in Pipestone, but it also grew in Hibbing.

SS: I grew up on the reservation, so wojapi, which is chokecherry, when I was growing up. It was just around. We had a few different Native dishes that we would have, especially for big celebrations, but wojapi was always a treat, especially when it was real chokecherry, because a lot of times you go to some powwows later and it slowly started to turn into just cans of canned blueberries with sugar and cornstarch to kind of mimic that slow-cooking of getting it to be a saucy thing. It tastes good, of course, but it’s not the same as when you’re actually making it from real chokecherries. And we had a lot of chokecherry bushes just around our living area growing up, so it was, “Let’s go pick chokecherries.”

MP: Will there be celebrations here?

SS: Yeah, we’re looking forward to it! We’re not going to have a lack of opportunity. We’re going to first just make sure we even know how to open and be busy and feed everybody, and then we’ll look forward to having maybe some Indigenous Peoples Day celebrations and maybe down the road we can have some cool Indigenous music events or something like that. Because we have that beautiful space, and I can picture a stage down there, and people up above and people down below and just … food. We’ll use it for everything we can and share the opportunity as best we can with other Indigenous artists and musicians and food people and all that stuff.

DT: We’re going to get so much attention for this, and we’re just trying to kind of reflect that on to all the Dakota people around us. We’ve got a Dakota artist that’s making a design for our aprons and T-shirts and there’s just going to be infinite possibilities for that, and then we’re going to use that light that’s getting shown on Owamni to shine onto the nonprofit as well.