“At this point, we don’t have any available reservations.”
“We’re going to open up the next round of reservations in a week here to open up the middle of October through the middle of December, so people will have an opportunity to get a reservation. Last time, once we opened up those reservations, people had about 72 hours to try to get one.”
It was just two months ago that Dana Thompson and her husband and partner, chef Sean Sherman, opened Owamni by The Sioux Chef, a restaurant focused on modern North American Indigenous cuisine in Minneapolis.
Owamni is set in a brand-new park building with a lot of foot and bike traffic, right down on the Mississippi River between the Stone Arch Bridge and the Third Avenue Bridge, and it is run by an over 80% Indigenous staff. And immediately, it’s become one of the most important — and hard-to-get-into — restaurants in the country.
Sherman, a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe, has spent much of his 30-plus-year career as a chef raising awareness about Indigenous foodways, with a focus on modern Indigenous foods. At Owamni, you will not find anything made with dairy, wheat flour, cane sugar, beef, chicken, or pork. The only ingredients Sherman and his team cook with are originally from the land: bison, rabbit, fish from the lake, wild plants, and Native American heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables.
Together with Thompson, a Minnesota native and lineal descendant of the Wahpeton-Sisseton and Mdewakanton Dakota tribes, they’ve both made it their mission to spotlight foods and traditions that, for so long, had been suppressed — or erased — by the U.S. government, and the settlers who eventually made their homes on native lands.
“We have people who come in and want to talk about the mission and how important it is that they have access to these foods, and they know how these foods were systematically removed by the U.S. government through the course of assimilation, genocide, and continued oppression,” says Thompson. “Every week, I see someone who is literally weeping into their plate. We try to spend some time with them and talk about their own experiences and the healing process that this restaurant really represents.”
Owamni is just one part of their efforts; the duo also founded a nonprofit called NATIFS, which stands for North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems, of which Thompson is the executive director. In 2016, the Minneapolis Park Board chose Sherman and Thompson to open a new restaurant at the Water Works Pavilion, a new park pavilion and site that sits right by St. Anthony Falls. (In the past, the space where Owamni now sits had once been home to the state’s first Japanese restaurant, Fuji Ya.) Six years later, the space was finally ready, and Owamni opened its doors on July 19.
Since then, diners have been ordering dishes like ancho chile sweet potato, chimichurri-laced bison, and mushroom tacos made with grilled and smoked mushrooms on handmade, warm tortillas with mustard seeds and mustard greens. At the bar, Kareen Teague, who is a member of the Red Lake Band Ojibiwe, and Lucas Herrera, a Mexican Huichol descendant, have put together an incredible zero-proof cocktail list; so far, the non-alcoholic drinks are selling better than the beer.
The response to Owamni’s opening has been incredible, says Thompson. “We’ve had a lot of tribal members come through. And, you know, luckily, we’ve got so many Indigenous staff members, and their families have all been here, especially during the soft opening, and in the first few weeks. It’s just really inspiring to hear their own personal stories and their own connections to why this is important, and how it affects their family systems and their own specific communities. And it’s just been a really emotional outpouring of community support.”
For the team and many in the community, Owamni is so much more than a dining room or business endeavor. As Thompson puts it, “Owamni is not like a normal restaurant. We’re not looking for a Michelin star. We think of it more almost as like a community service more than anything else.”
To begin to fully understand their mission, and how Owamni has already been a sacred undertaking, a little history about the setting may help. They know the name of the place, OwamniYomni, because of a map that Thompson’s grandfather made with his best friend; it was an atlas of the Eastern Sioux from a book called “Where the Waters Gathered, the Rivers Meet.”
“These indigenous names would have been lost forever, if it wasn’t for this document being put together,” she notes. Diners can see the map in the dining room.
“This area happens to be a place where there was a huge horseshoe of waterfalls,” says Thompson, “with a series of limestone islands that were known to the Dakota and the Anishinaabe people for millennia as being this really sacred space. It was a place where women would travel for hundreds of miles just to give birth on this one island called Spirit Island, which was particularly sacred. And when the first original settlers came and reported on this, they noted that it was easily as beautiful as Niagara Falls.”
But then industrialism started dismantling the area. Holes were drilled through the river bottom. The islands were disassembled. A lock and dam were installed. Both of those are now defunct — but they pretty much destroyed the falls as they were.
“We believe that, in spite of all of that tragedy, and sadness, that it can be a reckoning,” she continues. “So that we can be a place where people can see what was once there. We’re thinking through sustainability and thinking through the value of our natural resources. In the base of indigenous wisdom, we’re not just thinking about what you can get out of something in the next few years but what your grandchildren are going to be able to experience.”
That’s one thing they hope people can take away from this place.
“Owamni is going to be a great jumping off point for so many different messages. And I hope that the community will want to participate in that conversation and engage in a lot of community conversations that are about race and equity, and equality, and sustainability, and that people will not only be inspired by the delicious food — but by the bigger mission that we’re working toward.”