From April 14-16, indigenous food producers and chefs from all around the Great Lakes region gathered at the Oneida Nation conference center, and Tsyunhehkwa farm to discuss seed saving, exchange ideas around producer co-ops and techniques for improving soils, and to brainstorm ways of getting this amazing food onto the plates of community members. In addition to all of the fantastic presentations that I highlighted in the write-up of the conference, this summit was unique in that it highlighted the work of indigenous chefs for most of the meals. Loretta Barrett Oden (Citizen Band Pottawatomi), Sean Sherman The Sioux Chef (Lakota) and Arlie Doxtator (Oneida) came together to create beautiful food from local indigenous ingredients, and encourage conference participants to do the same.
Loretta Oden is one of the original celebrities in the Native chef circle. In speaking, she moves easily between tales of growing up in Oklahoma, to working in not-always-welcoming kitchens in France, Italy, Japan, New York and casinos around the country, proving herself in a male-dominated world. In 1993, with her son Clay, she opened the Corn Dance Café in Santa Fe, NM, the first restaurant in the country that showcased indigenous foods of the Americas, “from Nunavut to Terra del Fuego” as she described. What she wanted to accomplish was a refusal for Native cuisine to “be defined by frybread.” The Corn Dance Café was wildly successful, garnering appearances on television shows like “The Today Show”, “Good Morning America” and “Cooking Live.” She alsoappeared as a guest chef in the “Robert Mondavi Great Chefs” series.
In 2003 she decided to shift her focus. She closed the café and took to the road, working with Vision Maker Media and PBS to produce a five part series called “Seasoned with Spirit: A Native Chef’s Journey” which features indigenous foods and farmers around the country. She now also tours the country making appearances at events like this food summit, working to educate people on the beauty and importance of healthy native food: “the buffalo, the venison, the quail, the salmon, trout, corn, beans, squash, all of the amazing foods that were here, and are still here, and that we need to fight to get back out to our own people, and to use this food as a way to heighten people’s awareness about who we are. We’re here, this is our food, it’s fabulous food, it’s been here and we want you to know more about it… It’s about coming before our people and having you maybe dip back into your culture and start cooking this food again, start growing this food again, get your hands and feet and your kids and grandkids, back in the dirt and get our food out there. It is who we are. And my theory is that people, if you just grab them by the belly they’ll listen to anything you have to say.” After tasting some of Loretta’s dishes, conference participants were definitely paying attention.
Sean Sherman grew up on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota where he was a “latchkey kid” who learned his way around the kitchen early. At 13, Sean began working in tourist restaurants in the Black Hills area, starting as a dishwasher and working his way up in the industry. In 2014 he started The Sioux Chef in Minneapolis, a catering company that focuses exclusively on what he describes as “pre-contact pre-European style foods, trying to really showcase what healthy foods were here before and the flavors that were here– a combination of native agriculture, foods that were foraged from the forests, the wild game and the fish and a lot of these base pieces, and then also utilizing a lot of techniques like preservation techniques, some of the cooking techniques, and really trying to pull a good solid foundation of what Native American food is.” His food features no dairy, no wheat, and no imported produce (although he makes an exception for dandelion greens, which while not indigenous are healthy and abundant, and have been eaten by Native people for centuries). At some point soon, Sean plans to have a restaurant for The Sioux Chef to operate out of, but in the mean time he has been cooking at fundraisers and pop up events across the Midwest (and he’s currently with his crew touring the west coast). Sean also partnered with the Little Earth community in Minneapolis to start the Tatanka Truck, a food truck that will feature healthy regional indigenous foods like buffalo meat and wild rice. In talking to Sean about his motivations in starting The Sioux Chef, he replied “it was just picking up pieces, looking, digging through history, teaching myself about wild foods, learning about Native American farming techniques, Native American preservation techniques, salt making, all sorts of processes and technologies that were being utilized here, and then piecing it altogether so I had a foundation base where I was able to remove all European influence and just focus on what was indigenous here to move forward with kind of this sense of culinary where I’m at today.”
The hometown chef at the conference was Arlie Doxtator, who has been cooking with his mother and grandmother since he was a child. When Arlie graduated highschool, he cooked his own graduation dinner for hundreds of friends and relatives. Upon graduating, he went to Fox Valley Technical college where he studied the culinary arts before starting a family. He started off working in country clubs under European chefs who taught him how he did not want to treat his future employees. From there he worked at other restaurants in the area before ending up at the Wellington, the top fine dining establishment in the Fox Valley. There, he worked his way up to executive chef in 1994. He was then recruited by the Radisson at the Oneida Nation casino, where he served as executive chef for six years. He left to start his own restaurant, unfortunately just before the economy collapsed: his restaurant was among 7 in Green Bay that closed during this time. He then cooked for the Oneida Head Start program, worked at the Oneida museum, and worked in a series of other restaurants in the region. He has cooked for everyone from pre-school children to the region’s wealthiest consumers. His goal now is to incorporate more indigenous foods into his cooking, as well as indigenous cookware. Arlie’s friend, Oneida potter Ken Metoxen, had been conducting pottery classes at a café where Arlie worked. According to Arlie,“I watched him do some pottery classes at the cafe and I told him make me a pot I can cook in. Nobody I know cooks in clay pots anymore and that’s so important, that’s so significant to our history.” Ken crafted Arlie a traditional Haudenosaunee cooking pot, which Arlie then debuted at the Food Summit, where he cooked one of the Oneida “original foods”, corn mush. Arlie was deeply touched by the significance of this act: Oneida people had not cooked in clay pots since moving to Wisconsin in 1821. “I fired it up and put it on the little stove and I didn’t have to adjust the temp for the water and I cooked one of our original foods, the corn mush in it. And it was perfect, just the way it’s supposed to be, it was perfect in every way. It was history being made. And now my culinary career is being changed.”
The first night of the conference, the chefs served a series of small plates set up on tables around the banquet room, which allowed for participants to mingle with the chefs and learn more about their cooking styles and ingredients.
For the second evening of the conference, the chefs worked together to create an elegant four course meal. I had the opportunity to sneak back into the kitchen and watch the entire process as the chefs chopped, blended, boiled and baked their various techniques and ingredients together. The result was an amazing meal that had people talking about how they could now incorporate some of these ingredients into their own cooking.
This conference highlighted the beautiful, delicious and healthy meals that can be created from locally sourced indigenous foods. After having been to so many conferences where we spend the day talking about healthy food, and then sit down to a meal of salty, rich, hotel banquet food (with all due respect to the hard working men and women back in those kitchens), this was a refreshing and inspiring change. And more than that, this was a call out, a challenge to Indian casinos everywhere– you should be doing this. You should be supporting your local indigenous food producers, and your indigenous chefs, and sharing the beauty of Native cuisine with your visitors. Participants left these meals inspired to incorporate these foods into their own kitchens, schools, and health programs. A huge thank you to all the chefs, and conference organizers and sponsors, for making that possible.