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These Six Chefs are Championing Indigenous Food

Mery Concepcion

November 19, 2019

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Sean Sherman photo by Kent Miller Photography
Sean Sherman at the 2019 James Beard Leadership Awards (photo: Kent Miller)

November is Native American Heritage Month, a commemoration and celebration of indigenous people’s history, language, and culture in the Americas. As an ode the richness and diversity of these cultures, we're highlighting six chefs who have brought Native American perspectives into our national and global food narratives. Through their culinary and activist contributions, these chefs have shown their dedication to protecting native food cultures and sparking conversations and movements around food justice, food sovereignty, and cuisine.

1. Sean Sherman, Oglala Lakota

James Beard Award–winning chef Sean Sherman has been a leading advocate for indigenous food systems throughout the U.S. and the world. In 2014, he founded The Sioux Chef, an organization dedicated to revitalizing indigenous cuisine. Sherman and the Sioux Chef team are introducing precolonial cuisine into our modern culinary consciousness through projects such as the Indigenous Food Labs, the first of which is set to launch next spring. The labs will work as nonprofit restaurants serving indigenous dishes, providing education on food systems, and amplifying the work of food entrepreneurs from chefs to seed keepers to botanists.

2. Neftalí Durán, Oaxaqueño

Neftalí Durán, a chef, activist, and educator, is the co-founder of the I-Collective, a group of chefs, activists, herbalists, seed savers, and knowledge keepers committed to promoting indigenous culinary traditions. Born in Oaxaca, Mexico, Durán was 18 when he immigrated to the U.S. and began working in the food industry, eventually collaborating with nonprofit organizations fighting for food justice for marginalized peoples. Today, he works most closely with Nuestra Raices, an urban agriculture community organization based in Holyoke, Massachusetts. Durán leads the organization’s Nuestra Comida Project, where he teaches urban youth, many of whom depend on government benefits like SNAP, about food justice and cooking. He also served as a 2017-2018 fellow for Heal Food Alliance’s School of Political Leadership, where he mentored emerging food and farm justice leaders.

3. Brit Reed, Choctaw

In 2015, Brit Reed penned an op-ed titled “Food Sovereignty is Tribal Sovereignty,” which sent shockwaves through the indigenous culinary community. In the piece, Reed states that the native food movement should focus on defining their own systems because of the “massive disconnection from the land and…food sources” forced upon them by colonization. Following the article, Reed founded the Facebook group Food Sovereignty is Tribal Sovereignty, which currently has over 7,000 members. Four years later, page is still active, mainly serving as a platform for native peoples to share recipes, exchange knowledge of techniques and ingredients, and discuss the intersections of tribal governance and food systems. Reed is currently attending Seattle Culinary Academy and is involved with the I-Collective.

4. Hillel Echo-Hawk, Pawnee and Athabaskan

Hillel Echo-Hawk is chef/founder of Birch Basket, a catering company focused on producing indigenous food using entirely sustainable, pre-colonial ingredients—no eggs, milk, beef, chicken, or wheat. As a member of the I-Collective, Echo-Hawk has worked on events throughout the country, focused on restoring and protecting Indigenous foodways. She has been at the forefront of conversations about the significance of Thanksgiving for Native Americans, a day which commemorates colonial violence and the displacement of indigenous people. Last year, Echo-Hawk helped organize a “Takesgiving” event in New York City where chefs prepared a dinner using indigenous ingredients. She has been outspoken about using food as a way to challenge historical narratives about Native American history and culture.

5. Kristina Stanley, Red Cliff Lake Superior Chippewa

Kristina Stanley is a pastry chef and food activist based in Madison, Wisconsin, who runs both Abaaso Foods, a plant-based food company, as well as Brown Rice and Honey, a wholesale and catering company. Abaaso Foods focuses on producing healthful foods from tribally sourced ingredients as part of Stanley’s mission to “share a rich tribal history through food.”  She has also worked as an organizer and activist with the I-Collective, the Intertribal Agriculture Council, and the Slow Food Turtle Island Association on matters such as indigenous food sovereignty and the importance of tribally sourced ingredients. She initially became interested in these topics through her studies in horticulture therapy and sustainable agriculture.  Through planning conferences and pop-ups with various organizations, Stanley has explored how these issues disproportionately impact indigenous communities whose access to fresh, healthful food is severely limited.

6. Rich Francis, Tetlit Gwich’in and Tuscarora Nations

The first indigenous chef to be featured on Top Chef Canada, Rich Francis has been a vocal advocate for protecting indigenous hunting practices in Ontario. He has spoken out against government regulations that restrict the hunting of wild game—mainly narwhal, moose, beluga, and sea lion—that have been central to local tribes’ cuisine for centuries. Francis has stated that he is willing to take his fight all the way to Canada’s Supreme Court. He is committed to education and centering his community in his work by providing cooking workshops for indigenous youth using traditional ingredients and techniques. Francis recently appeared in the documentary series Red Chef Revival, which follows three chefs traveling to indigenous communities in Canada to shed light on pre-colonial food systems.

Learn more about Sean Sherman and the Sioux Chef's work.

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Mery Concepcion is the Gannett Editorial Fellow at the James Beard Foundation.