Growing up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in the 1970s, I ran wild with my cousins through my grandparents’ cattle ranch, over the hot, sandy South Dakota land of burrs and paddle cactus, hiding in the sparse grasses and rolling hills. We raced over the open plains, and through shelter belts of tall elm trees, the air full of dust and sagebrush. Our dogs chased prairie dogs, pheasants, grouse and antelope, and alerted us to rattlesnakes and jack rabbits.
In late summer, we’d harvest chokecherries and timpsula, a wild prairie turnip, and pick juniper berries off the prickly trees. We camped in the Badlands, sleeping under the stars, and gathered in our family’s rustic log cabin deep in the Black Hills.
Back then, there were no restaurants on Pine Ridge, just one grocery store and a couple of gas stations dotting the immense reservation. Our kitchen cupboards were stocked with government commodity food staples — canned fruit, canned meat, powdered milk, bricks of yellow government-issued cheese, and dry cereals and oats packaged in white cardboard boxes with black block lettering.
Luckily, we also had the birds we hunted, beef from the ranch and eggs from the chickens my grandmother raised. As members of the Oglala Lakota Oyate, part of the Great Sioux Nation, we took part in many celebrations and gatherings like powwows, sun dances, birthdays, weddings, naming ceremonies and cattle brandings, and our moms, aunts and female cousins cooked up contemporary and traditional dishes, like taniga, the Lakota intestine soup with timpsula. The sweet aroma of simmering wojape, the Lakota chokecherry dish, time-warps me back to my 6-year-old self.
I often think of my great-grandfather, who was born in the late 1850s and grew up like any other Lakota boy, riding horses bareback to hunt with a bow and arrow. At the age of 18, he witnessed the Lakota and Cheyenne victory against the U.S. government at the Battle of the Little Bighorn; he also encountered the aftermath of the Wounded Knee massacre, where hundreds of Lakota men, women and children were viciously slaughtered.
Later, his children were forced into boarding schools, forbidden to speak their native language, required to learn English and to become Christians. Through the 20th century, these harsh efforts at assimilation began to erase thousands of generations of indigenous traditions, wisdom and ceremonies.
As soon as I was 13 and legally eligible to work, I got my first job, at a steakhouse in Spearfish, South Dakota. I knew a little about cooking: As the oldest child of a busy working mom, I was often the one who got dinner on the table for my sister and me. I swept floors, bused tables, washed dishes, prepped food and eventually became a line cook. In college, I picked up work with the U.S. Forest Service as a field surveyor, identifying plants and trees in the northern Black Hills, and learning their medicinal and culinary properties.
Through my career as a professional chef, opening restaurants and cafes in Minneapolis, I gained experience cooking Italian, Spanish and other European cuisines. But it wasn’t until I spent time in Mexico, observing how closely indigenous people live to their culinary traditions, that I realized I had very little idea of what my own ancestors ate before colonization.
So I began to research the history of our land before the Europeans arrived. How did my indigenous ancestors grow, hunt, fish and then preserve and store their food? Who did they trade with, and where did they obtain their salts, fats and sugars? I met with community elders and connected with native chefs, historians and academics, such as ethnobotanist Nancy J. Turner, and Lakota author Joseph Marshall III, while also discovering rare historical accounts like “Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden,” the memories of a 19th-century Hidatsa farmer who lived in what is now North Dakota.
In piecing together so much of the story that has been lost, I learned that the original North American food system was based on harvesting wild plants for food and medicine, employing sophisticated agricultural practices, and on preserving seed diversity. My ancestors used all parts of the animals and plants with respect, viewing themselves as part of our environment, not above it. Nothing was wasted.
There are 573 federally recognized tribes in the United States alone, and 634 First Nations — aboriginal groups — in Canada. About one in five Mexicans identifies as a member of an indigenous group, according to recent figures from the Mexican government.
In 2014, I started a business, The Sioux Chef, with a focus on identifying, sharing and educating people on the authentic indigenous foods of North America, from Mexico to Alaska, with dishes free of the colonial ingredients Europeans introduced: wheat flour, dairy, cane sugar and even beef, pork and chicken.
Our team connected with indigenous chefs, farmers, seed keepers, academics and leaders to create menus for feasts that we served in tribal communities. We worked with indigenous chefs on the West Coast who use wild manzanita berries and acorn to add tang and substance to berry compotes and puddings. We obtained seaweed from Maine to season Atlantic oysters, and white cedar in Duluth, Minnesota, for a venison roast. Elders tell us they haven’t tasted these flavors since childhood.
This is not survival fare. These are bright, bold, contemporary flavors for today’s palate.
The New York Times asked me to choose dishes that, viewed together, form a portrait of Native American food in the United States. The recipes here reflect my team’s work over the past five years, traveling across the country and working in tribal communities.
I am not interested in recreating foods from 1491 — rather, I hope to celebrate the diversity that defines our communities now. And so these recipes offer a glimpse into the range of dishes indigenous chefs and cooks are making today, and highlight ingredients from the regions they reflect.
For example, in the recipe here from the Pacific Northwest — home of many indigenous groups, including the Muckleshoot tribe — blackberries add an assertive tang that cuts through the rich flavors of the salmon that has sustained communities there for generations. The contrasting colors are stunning. These two iconic regional and seasonal foods seem so right together.
Through this work, I have become increasingly aware of how much food and history surrounding us goes unnoticed. The greens typically called weeds that get ripped out of backyards make a delicious salad and can be a bold garnish — think of purslane, or wood sorrel. A sprig or two of cedar adds zing and aroma to braised meat and game, as in the bison pot roast with hominy, flavors from the Dakota plains.
The true foods of North America may not be available at every grocery store or online, and they are not coming from industrial farms: They are seasonal and vary from region to region. To experience true indigenous foods is to explore the many different ecosystems of plants and animals wherever you are.
Chicago, New York and Los Angeles, known for their thriving food cultures, have zero Native American restaurants that represent the same land they are built on. My team and I are working toward the day we will be able to stop at indigenous restaurants and experience all the richness of the varied original American cultures.