In his lecture, “The Evolution of the Indigenous Food Systems in North America,” Sherman explored the regional differences among various indigenous cultures from around the continent, noting that each area’s geography – coastal, swamp, desert, forest – led to distinctive approaches to food.
“To understand indigenous food systems, you have to think about the diversity that’s out there,” he said. “You can’t lump all Native American people into one group. North America is huge.”
“I realized I didn’t know anything about my own foods – like where are all of the Native American restaurants out there? Why don’t they exist?” he said. “In Minneapolis, you can see restaurants from all over the world, but nothing from the land on which we’re standing.”
That led him to conduct years of research into indigenous food cultures, and discovering that the best way to reconnect with those traditions is through learning more about plants.
“Plant knowledge is something that we share with our ancestors in real time,” he said. “Thousands of generations passed down knowledge of how to use these plants.”
At the lecture, Sherman also spoke about NATIFS (North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems), a 501c3 nonprofit organization he recently co-founded to promote indigenous food ways education and access to indigenous food.
“The most effective way to conquer people is to attack their food systems – burning crops, destroying food-storage systems, destroying bison, letting cattle graze on ancient fields,” he said. “If you can control the food, you can control the people. It’s a war tactic.”
One of NATIFS’ outreach efforts aimed at helping restore those lost food systems is the Indigenous Food Lab – a restaurant, education and training center in Minneapolis, set to open in the coming months.
“The best part of these indigenous diets is their health benefit, because you get an immense amount of plant diversity,” he said. “It’s a super-low glycemic diet,” which can help to address some of the health issues – diabetes, obesity, heart disease – that plague Native Americans.
Sherman’s visit to Cornell was co-sponsored by the American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program and the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future. Along with Cornell Botanic Gardens, these organizations share an understanding of the importance of indigenous food systems to the health of people and the planet.