In 2014, restaurateur Dana Thompson formed both a romantic and business partnership with chef Sean Sherman, aka The Sioux Chef. She became co-owner and COO of the brand, and in 2021, she and Sherman opened a decolonized Indigenous restaurant in Minneapolis called Owamni, which won a James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant in the U.S. Along with Sherman, she also co-founded the nonprofit NĀTIFS (North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems) and Indigenous Food Lab. However, in the past year, Thompson and Sherman have parted ways, both in their personal and business lives. Thompson continues to do the work she started with Sioux Chef. She’s also writing a memoir about her traumatic childhood and developing a THC beverage line. In the latest edition of Voices in Food, Thompson talked to Garin Pirnia about the split, how she struggles with being biracial (her father is Scandinavian and her mother is part Dakota), and why women need more credit.
With the work I’m passionate about, there’s really two lines. One of them is supporting women entrepreneurship, especially Indigenous female entrepreneurship. There’s been so much damage done. Historically, the matriarchy with Indigenous communities has been sort of the core of the community. Secondly, I’m really passionate about studying ancestral trauma, especially with regards to how it can be healed. I’ve been working with epigenetic scientists to understand the evidence that trauma can be passed through generations, and there’s clear evidence that it’s passed through at least three generations. But this is only 25-year-old research, and the scientists that I’ve talked to are pretty sure it’s more like seven generations. One way to block the transfer of trauma through generations is by getting culturally relevant foods into the mouths of pregnant women through their pregnancies. And so creating food access for women during the gestational period is something I want to continue to work on through my life.
Chefs, especially male chefs, have become the new rock stars of the world. And by and large, we know that they struggle with chemical dependency and insecurity and imposter syndrome. Look at the show “The Bear.” They pretty much hit the nail right on the head. I don’t want to take anything away from chefs. I love them so much, but there’s so much that goes into building a food enterprise.
“It is really shitty when people are working equally to build something and only one person is getting really seen for it or acknowledged for it. Throughout history, women have supported a man ... and then as soon as they reach that pinnacle, then the woman gets left.”
This is a really common story with women. I managed Sean’s career for seven years. I was flooring it 50-, 60-, 70-, 80-hour weeks. I’m really, really proud of what we accomplished together. He couldn’t have done it without me, and I couldn’t have done it without him. It was a symbiotic relationship that was really beautiful. The point was to raise the mission. The more fame he got and the more attention that we got for what we were trying to do, the more it fought white supremacy. The more funding we could get for the nonprofit, the more jobs we could create. Everything that I imagined happening literally happened. I meditated on him being on the cover of Time magazine, and then he got the Time magazine award. I’m not saying I was personally responsible for that, but I spent a lot of energy creating this amazing thing. I think building Owamni, working with the park board and creating a space for community healing is going to be part of my legacy and something that no one will ever be able to take away from me. We worked for years to get that open, and then we opened it during a pandemic and a racial uprising. I’m pretty proud of that.
However, it is really shitty when people are working equally to build something and only one person is getting really seen for it or acknowledged for it. Throughout history, women have supported a man to get their degree or to build a business or to get whatever they want, and then as soon as they reach that pinnacle, then the woman gets left. And that’s not just a story about me — that’s a story about so many women, and it can get really ugly. But I really focus on the positivity of the future. I wouldn’t be able to do the things that I have in my future if I hadn’t had this experience of the last 10 years. So I don’t regret a single minute of it.
One of the things I want to focus on is building other women up and raising awareness and highlighting them and showing that incredible work ethic, because women are also the ones who are taking care of the families and doing all the housework and getting groceries and doing all of these other things that they’re just expected to do.
There’s also the financial aspect of it. I’m really passionate about creating pipelines for the rematriation of wealth, creating ways for indigenous women to be leaders of the economy so that they can support their families, so they can support their communities and their tribal communities so we can rebalance that feminine energy and make sure that women are at the table making these decisions, deciding what they want to do and how they can do that through a matriarchal lens.
I’ve had a lot of time to process, and it was really painful at the beginning when the breakup happened. But I believe in my heart that this happened as a gift for me, that I wouldn’t have left unless it was this painful. It needed to happen this way.
It’s also been a really painful issue where people will question my indigeneity or my validity in the work that I’m doing, but I have to just ignore that because I have very clear documentation of my Native line. If I let the haters take that away from me, then they’re taking away all of this amazing work that I feel like I can do in the world. And also for other people who have native blood but don’t look native, I don’t want to take their identity away from them. If I do that, then I’m taking it away from other people. So I feel really passionate about fighting for my validity. It is totally an identity crisis, and what could be more painful than someone questioning your clearly documented identity? It’s bizarre that anyone would even want to do that.