Dana Thompson Q&A

Dana Thompson Sioux Chef Owamni NATIFS
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Co-Owner/COO, The Sioux Chef; and Executive Director, NATIFS (North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems)


As co-owner of the company The Sioux Chef, Dana Thompson, is a lineal descendant of the Wahpeton-Sisseton and Mdewakanton Dakota tribes. The company’s flagship restaurant Owamni, the highly acclaimed Indigenous restaurant on the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, won the James Beard Foundation Award for Best New Restaurant in a ceremony in Chicago earlier this year. 

Owamni, which had been planned for many years and was one of the most anticipated restaurant openings in the Twin Cities this decade, opened during the pandemic. From day one, reservations were hard to come by. Dana Thompson and her partner Chef Sean Sherman, aka Sioux Chef, and his business founded the restaurant focusing on using ingredients indigenous to the United States — so nothing brought to the area by colonists. That means no wheat flour, cane sugar or dairy. It’s a challenging prospect for chefs and diners, but the thought-provoking meals have continued to draw attention locally and nationally. The lifetime Minnesota native, has been working within the food sovereignty movement for the past six years. Within that time, she has traveled extensively throughout tribal communities engaging in critical ways to improve food access.  Dana jointly founded the non-profit NATIFS (North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems) for which she is acting Executive Director. Through this entity, she is focusing her expertise on addressing and treating ancestral trauma through decolonized perspectives of honoring and leveraging Indigenous wisdom.

Total Food Service sat down with Dana Thompson to learn more about traditional Indigenous foods, where we may enjoy them and the new Minneapolis Mississippi riverfront park project, Water Works.


How did the Sioux Chef mission come to pass?

It started with Chef Sean. Sean has been a chef for many, many years, and learned all of the different types of cuisine, working in restaurants in Minneapolis, French, Japanese, Spanish, Italian, different types of cuisines from all over the world. And, at one point, he had taken a little break after he’d gotten burned out and was down in Mexico and was watching the Indigenous communities down there, working with their own ancestral foods. And he thought to himself, wow, how do I not know anything about my own ancestral foods? What were my great grandparents eating? What were my great grandparents handing down to my grandparents and my parents? And then he realized the reason that that knowledge was removed was because of the genocide and the forced assimilation that happened through the US and Canadian governments.

Please help our readers understand a sensitive topic: Institutions like The University of North Dakota were known as the Sioux for decades, but were asked to replace the name brand. Your company has, in fact, embraced and celebrates that tradition. Can you help provide some insights on where we are today in terms of how we look at the pride and celebrate what the Sioux and Indigenous tribes are all about?

Absolutely. The question is about how people identify themselves, and the definition of appropriation is when a dominant culture goes into another culture and profits from that culture. It’s honestly just about a culture that’s been oppressed, a culture that has been through extraordinary horrors, being honored and being able to use their own identity in the way that they feel is most respectful. And in sports specifically, there’s a lot of characterizations of Indigenous people.  From the Cleveland Indians to the Washington Redskins and on and on through to college since high school, it can be very painful for Indigenous people. And so, we’re in support of Indigenous people using the word if they want to, we used it because it’s a pun and sounds like that dad jokes. But it’s just a very funny, lighthearted way, because we don’t brush the hard history under the rug, but we want to address it, point to it, and then move on with positivity. 

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What is Native and North American cuisine? And what’s the history of it? 

Owamni Bison Entree
The Owamni menu prioritizes purchasing from Indigenous food producers locally and nationally. They have removed colonial ingredients such as wheat flour, cane sugar and dairy to present a decolonized dining experience. Menu items include the bison pot roast entree (Photos by Dana Thompson)

When we look at the Native cuisine throughout North America, which is our focus, we don’t look at the colonial lines of the US and Mexican, Canadian borders. We don’t even look at the states, we look at the original language maps of Indigenous people, because there’s over 500 tribes in the US that are federally recognized, over 600 in Canada, and 20% of Mexico identifies as Indigenous, that’s a lot of people, a lot of different types of communities and a lot of diversity. Owamni is primarily the focus of the foods of the Dakota, which is this specific land space. But there’s all these different types of foods all over North America. And so, our work is to go and to look into these other communities and say, what do you want? How much access do you have to your ancestral foods? And how can we help promote that? What resources do you need? What barriers are there for you to access your own ancestral foods? Because these foods, these culturally relevant foods are healthy physically, emotionally and spiritually for communities. And it’s also way more sustainable for the Earth itself.

What about in terms of the types of signature dishes? Are they beef based, poultry based? Are they plant based?

Sure, let me help. In North America, before Colonialism, there was no wheat flour, there was no dairy and there were no refined sugars, when sweeteners were required, maple was used, honey was used, and agave was used, sometimes berries were used. There’s that as a discipline, we don’t use those things. And when you remove those three ingredients, you drop the glycemic content down so low that the food becomes literally medicine. And it removes the foodborne illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, cancer, all these inflammatory diseases, even tooth decay, there was no tooth decay in North America before these ingredients were introduced. 

Tooth decay, crazy, boy that is nuts…

You’re thinking about what it’s doing to the gum tissue, thinking about what it is doing to the heart, thinking about what it is doing to the different parts of our body that we can’t really see. It’s profound, and using that discipline, we thought, there are so many amazing flavors all over the country, let’s remove the other proteins that were not here before Colonialism. We do not use beef, pork or chicken. There was no beef, there was no pork, there was no chicken, what we use for proteins are things like bison, turkey, quail, duck, all the different lake fish in our region. There’s ocean fish, of course, and all sorts of different types of crustaceans on both coasts. We’ve got rabbits, there are all sorts of different types of proteins, including insects, and insects are one of our most popular things. The crickets that we use at Owamni have become one of the most popular dishes, especially with kids, so, think about that. And, the protein is one thing but we’re really primarily plant based, 75% of our menu at Owamni is plant-based foods, we don’t use a lot of beef, pork and chicken, we use a lot of wild greens, a lot of berries, a lot of different types of tubers. And it’s just a lot of flavors that are nutrient dense, high in fiber, high in things like magnesium, which are painfully missing in American diet. And so, it’s fun to play with these flavors and show people that it can be healthy and delicious at the same time.

What are some of the signature dishes that you’ll find?

One of our most popular dishes is the white tepary beans spread with lake trout, that comes with these nixtamalized tortillas, tortillas that we make by grinding the corn itself down into flour and then making these handmade tortillas that are so delicious. We put wojape on the plate with it, which is a traditional berry sauce that was used by the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota tribes. And so, we make this beautiful design on the plate, and then the white tepary beans are fun because the tepary beans are grown in the Southwest actually, but they’re really small and drought tolerant and it takes twice as long to cook them and because of that they have this nutrient density that’s really fun.

Owamni Venison Tartare
The Owamni menu prioritizes purchasing from Indigenous food producers locally and nationally. They have removed colonial ingredients such as wheat flour, cane sugar and dairy to present a decolonized dining experience. Menu items include the venison tartare (Photo by Dana Thompson)

But we use a lot of different types of beans that are local as well. We have bison pot roast that people really love. I think one of the most popular vegetables on the menu is the sweet potato. We have the sweet potato with a chili sauce that people go crazy over, we’ve got green bowls that are packed with all sorts of different types of vegetables, wild greens, different types of fruit, we’ve got berries on them, we’ve got one with crickets. People love those salads. And then I would say one of the other really popular things is the venison tartare. We source the venison locally, and it is the best tartare I’ve ever had in my life, it just literally melts in your mouth.

When you went into planning to open a restaurant to celebrate Indigenous fair, what went into finding the right location to fit this concept? What went into doing the ROI in terms of what it was going to cost to serve and create some of these things, etc.? This is a very different type of approach.

Sean and I have had our business for eight years now. We ran a catering company for a long time, Sean was executive chef at a couple of restaurants and so he had that experience, I had run events, programs at different restaurants, and had been in the music industry for a long time, we had just a lot of different perspectives about how to run a business and how to be entrepreneurial. And, we have these disciplines like I just mentioned, and we had been requested by the park board to be the vendor down in this space, down on the park board, brand new park, which is called the Waterworks Park. And we decided to just create the concept through these disciplines, using the strategy that is really different than a lot of other restaurants. As far as the sourcing goes, which is how we get all our food, we purchase first from Indigenous producers, because we want to drive that out back into tribal communities if we can. 

That sounds great, but how do you create a distribution solution that works?

Through our catering company, we’ve been building these relationships for years. We’ve been really working with these communities that are producing food to kind of ramp up their production to be in preparation for Owamni and future concepts that we’ll have. Keeping in mind that we can only work with what we have, sometimes we run out of wild rice, and we must go to a different producer or something like that. It’s a little bit like the game of Whac-A-Mole, but we are making it work using this discipline. First, we purchase from Indigenous producers, second, we purchase from local producers, we purchase from BIPOC producers, next, all over the nation. BIPOC which is Black Indigenous people of color. And then fourth, we purchase from organic producers, which is basically in Minneapolis, we’ve got an organization called CPW, Co-Op Partners Warehouse and they serve food, or they bring in the food for all the co-ops, and they have a lot of organic options, those are basically the four things that we purchase. Every now and then we use US Foods and larger distributors for chemicals and different things that we need for the restaurant. But other than that, we’re able to source all the food we need from those four disciplines.

As the restaurant celebrates its first year, what has made it an award-winning success? 

We’ve built our brand up year over year for the last eight years. I’ve managed the PR and strategies for the company and Sean is the brilliant chef and speaker. And we have leveraged an organic fan base that has built up year over year to try to get emotional buy in from a lot of different types of groups. Of course, we want to be relevant, and hitting the mark really well with tribal communities, because we don’t represent every tribal community but, on some levels, people are having their first experience with indignity through us, so we have very high expectations of how we present ourselves. And then second, we work with a lot of different foodies, a lot of food organizations. People all over the country and all over the nation and even the world look to us, because the plates are so beautiful, the food quality is so beautiful, and it has such a deep meaning of sustainability. We look at that indigenous wisdom as a way to understand our interaction with the soil, and the land, and the water and all of the different aspects of the world that gives us all of these foods and all of this richness in beauty, and I think that through that discipline, it’s just created a brand that is really relatable for a lot of different organizations and demographics.

Owamni Interior Minneapolis MN
Located in Minneapolis, MN, Owamni is a modern Indigenous full service establishment.. Their mission is a commitment to revitalizing Native American Cuisine and in the process they are re-identifying North American Cuisine and reclaiming an important culinary culture long buried and often inaccessible. (Photo by Heidi Wigdahl)

You mentioned the plate and the food, did you go to somebody like Steelite and say, this is the look that we’re after in order to plate this stuff? How did you create and execute the tabletop look, and execute the tabletop?

Yes, we did talk to Steelite. And US Foods offers different plating mechanisms through their group, they have Robert Gordon and a couple other ceramics producers, we tried to work with some local ceramic’s producers, it was a little bit cost prohibitive, as you have to be careful when you’re opening a restaurant, because it was pretty expensive and we didn’t have any money, Sean and I don’t come from wealth at all. It was a little tenuous, but we got there actually using Steelite and Robert Gordon primarily, and we love the look that its got, we’re going to continue to look for local ceramic producers, as well, and we’ll kind of see how that transforms over the years.

What was your approach to the design of the kitchen to handle your menu?  

We tried to get live fire back there, we really wanted to produce the kitchen with live fire. And it turned out that the way that the kitchen had been designed, it wouldn’t accommodate that.  We pivoted to a more traditional kitchen design and worked with the knowledgeable team at Boelter to specify an equipment package that reflects the menu.  We tweaked the menu to be able to prep Indigenous foods, in a modern context. 

One of the things that’s fascinating us is that you get people to come in, and they have this wonderful and special experience. How do you get them to come back? And how often will somebody come back to something that’s different like this?

It’s funny, the moment that we opened the restaurant, we would release a couple of weeks of reservations through our reservation system, and they would just fill up within 24 hours. Every time we open reservations, we fill up again within 24 hours. It’s a mix, but what’s interesting about it that I think you’ll find compelling, is that every day, and I’m not exaggerating, this is truly, truly what happens, every day we get people through that restaurant that are coming with their suitcases, they’re flying in from another state or country just to see Owamni. We have been buffering in 10% of the seats just to try to accommodate from walk in from the neighborhood because we were getting some unhappy neighbors that were saying that they had a gift card that they’ve never been able to use or whatever it is because the reservations are so hard to get, so we just changed that and we’re buffering in about 25% of our seats, to be walk in to be able to accommodate people locally. And we’re still just as full as can be.

Your mission ties into the community that the restaurant lives in as you talked about using gift cards, etc. Talk a little bit about that immediate community that you share with your neighbors and talk about what your attitude is and what that relationship needs to look like.

It’s a very diverse community, because we’ve got the local neighbors and all the condos that are around Owamni right down there on the river. We’ve got a lot of local arts organizations and restaurants and different entrepreneurs that are nearby that we really love and we want to support so much. We’ve got the local Native community that we love serving and a lot of our staff are Indigenous people, and their families love to come in, which is exciting for us. A lot of foodies that come in from the city and from the suburbs, and from all over the Midwest, to eat with us, and just to have the experience. We have a lot of people that are also really interested in just the culture. I think we meet every one of those communities where they’re at. Our staff go through kind of an extraordinary training system so that they’re able to have extra time at the table to share their story, and to help the people that are sitting in the seats have a chance to really get to know them, and understand why they’re emotionally invested in our work, and why they commit to us. Because our staff is the heart and soul of our organization.

So, talk about how you’ve built that staff and talk about some of those stories.

We really leveraged social media. We didn’t use any recruiting firms to reach the tribal community. We just really leveraged Instagram and Facebook and Twitter and put out a call for resumes. And it was a flood, a flood of resumes. And we have been able to keep 75% approximately Indigenous staff members and the last 25% are just people that are really committed to the mission and are allies. We have people from Red Lake, waiters, people from Lower Sioux and Upper Sioux, we’ve got people from the Mexican community, the indigenous Mexican community that have worked with us and that we just really cherish. The diversity of indigeneity through our staff has been really humbling and beautiful and they bond very quickly. They just absolutely love each other and that’s really exciting to see.

Nice. What about in terms of building your culinary team? Does Chef Sean work alone? What does the back of a house look like?

Sean hasn’t really been in the kitchen a lot for several months. We’ve built an original team, Sean put together an awesome team. We’ve had several team members move from other states to join our team, we have housing here, we’ve got people from Red Cliffs, we’ve got people from some of the Dene tribes down in the southwest the Navajo Nation, we’ve got people from Mohawk communities, Canadian communities that have come down to work with us. And, we just really love making them feel like they’re part of the family, part of the community, and they’re able to offer their own culinary perspectives from the foods of their grandparents and their great grandparents, and modify the menu as they see, to offer different tasting profiles, flavor profiles, so that people can test it out. And I think the menu will constantly be evolving because of that, it’s certainly going to be influenced by the staff that we have.

Dana Thompson Sioux Chef Owamni NATIFS

The restaurant has a bigger mission too with NATIFS. Can you share your goals and mission for that platform?

NATIF has two missions. One is to bring back indigenous foods culture and the other is to bring back Indigenous education, and both were systematically removed. It is nonprofit, it has a culinary training center at the Midtown global market. We were originally going to put a restaurant in a training center, and then we got mowed down by the pandemic, and we decided to pivot. Our next initiative was to open our first market, which is kind of a threefold area right across from the culinary training center. It’s scheduled to open in October. We have a space that is truly a market where people can come in and buy ingredients and foods from Indigenous producers. On the other end of the market, we’ve got a classroom that is actually like a video production space, so that we can capture the technique and the flavors and the different types of foods from different areas where we’re going to bring in chefs from all sorts of different tribal communities to archive their creating of these plates so that we can share that open source with tribal communities. We’ll also do different types of classwork there that speaks to the culture and builds up the native culture, which is different and includes beadwork or seed keeping, braiding sweetgrass, understanding how to have ethical foraging, and soil management, all sorts of different types. In the center of that kind of organization or that organism, and based on global market, we have a thing called a Spirit Kitchen, where we’re going to be producing food, if an entrepreneur comes through, and they want to build up their own entrepreneurial skills, they can operate food out of that space. And we’re going to have resources to support them in any way that they need, whether it’s how to understand how to build a pro forma, how to test flavors or try to figure out how to create a menu, what equipment might they need? Do they understand how to get financing? How to talk to a bank, how they get the credit score figured out. There are just a million different things when it comes to entrepreneurship and that’s what that space is going to be for. 

What are your thoughts on receiving national recognition by winning a James Beard Award?

When we were nominated, we were excited about the splash that we were going to be able to make and the communities that we were going to be able to get our mission out to. It was such an honor and a joy to be included in that group of people that opened new restaurants in the middle of a pandemic. 

Very humbling and I wish that we could have spent more time getting to know those people. We were so excited to go to Chicago for the ceremony with some of our staff. It was so exciting to win and to be able to share with our team. When we won, it just kind of blew the top off of everything, it was just such an honor. We’re so humbled and grateful to be able to just share the mission of what we’re doing, because there’s so many different facets of why what we’re doing is important.

How will national recognition expand your horizons beyond Minneapolis?

Sean and I are really focused right now on just taking the first year of baseline numbers out of Owamni and see how we’re doing and how we can do better and what works well. Labor costs are so high right now, everything has changed in the restaurant industry. Labor costs are so much higher than they used to be, inflation has impacted us greatly with food costs and other things, just trying to figure out how we can have a good model, because Owamni is the first proof of this concept, and we’re building entrepreneurs through the nonprofit, Owamni has to be successful, and it has to be sustainable. We really want to drill that down, so we are not prevented from moving into any other fields right now, before we really get that happening, because we want to be cognizant and really responsible, we have to get it right. And then secondly, we’re simultaneously opening this market NATIFS through the Indigenous Food Lab, global market. Once we get that up and running and get a couple of months under our belts, I think that’s going to be really helpful for us to understand what we’re going to do there. But we have been approached by a few other entities in different states that are interested in this concept coming into their area. And it’s really exciting for me, I really have a lot of wonderful ideas. Sean and I have talked about some great opportunity there and I think that we can consider that probably closer to the winter of this coming year, we could think about maybe committing to another project, but it would be a two-year long project.

Curiously, when many people think of this type of fare, there are an awful lot of casinos that are Indian owned or managed, etc. Is there energy and synergy there of any type?

Absolutely. I think that that could be a really great option, but through the nonprofit we really want to build entrepreneurs up so that we can get these culturally relevant foods into all the different communities because we can’t do this all ourselves. We want to build people that are interested in really taking the ball and running with it and we’re willing to help. The point of the nonprofit is to create a nationwide movement. 

Keep in mind, this isn’t about building another Owamni, it’s about a restaurant that reflects each local Indigenous culture with awesome healthy foods. And we hope that the team at the nonprofit will be able to really support them too. Whether it’s Sean and I through a for profit model, the future has yet to be told. 


To learn more about Dana Thompson, Owamni, and The Sioux Chef, visit their website

  • BelGioioso Burrata
  • Imperial Dade
  • Waring
  • California Energy Wise Foodservice Instant Rebates
  • IRFSNY 2023 International Restaurant and Foodservice Show New York
  • DAVO by Avalara
  • ServicePower
  • New England Food Show 2023
  • RAK Porcelain
  • Arc Cardinal
  • Inline Plastics
  • National Restaurant Association Show 2023
  • Arctic Gardens
  • Day & Nite