Sean Sherman, famously known as The Sioux Chef, is seen at the Food History Weekend Festival in Washington, D.C., in November 2018. Photo: National Museum of American History / Smithsonian Institution
> The Sioux Chef under fire for overlooking key employee’s violent past
The Sioux Chef under fire for overlooking key employee’s violent past
Statement from Sean Sherman offers hints of praise for operations director with domestic violence record
Friday, July 22, 2022
Indian Country’s most celebrated chef is facing calls for greater accountability after hiring a domestic violence offender for an operation that has generated accolades in the culinary world and praise from prominent political figures.
In a statement on Thursday
afternoon, Sean Sherman — famously known as The Sioux Chef
— said he hired Shane Thin Elk as his operations director in February. He disclosed that this new employee came on board with a “clean background check” and even offered a glowing review of his team member’s work.
“In the short time we’ve known him, Shane has been an extremely competent leader who believes in our mission and our culture; he has been an asset to our team and we’ve seen no sign of the behaviors described in recent social media posts,” Sherman, who is a citizen of the Oglala Sioux Tribe
, said in the statement.
Sherman further acknowledged that he knew of “allegations” about Thin Elk’s past — but indicated he was able to overlook them. In the statement, he described a process in which he said his operation, which includes a growing non-profit and an award-winning restaurant with close ties to the Native community in the Twin Cities of Minnesota, accepted the presence of a domestic violence offender.
“Our staff therapist, who had been meeting with Shane weekly (as she does with all of our leaders), helped advise us and we set up open talking circles with our employees,” Sherman wrote.
“These sessions, led by our therapist, seemed to be productive and — in conjunction with Shane’s clean background check, and no other allegations coming forward — the decision was made to allow Shane to continue,” he continued.
It was only this week that Sherman changed his mind about Thin Elk, a citizen of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe
. He said the “allegations” against his employee were “corroborated” by information that apparently did not surface during his operation’s vetting process, which included a “national search” and “multiple interviews,” according to the statement.
“For the well-being of our staff and our community, Shane Thin Elk has resigned effective immediately,” Sherman wrote on Thursday in the statement posted on a social media account for North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems
(NATIFS), his non-profit.
“I want to be clear: the conduct described in the social media posts — conduct now corroborated by documents — is abhorrent and unacceptable; had we been aware of them in February when Shane was hired, it would have played a significant role in our hiring decision,” The Sioux Chef added.
Sherman did not disclose when he first became aware of the “allegations” involving his former employee. But two Native women who spoke to Indianz.Com extensively about the situation said The Sioux Chef’s operation was informed approximately two months ago — by a third Native woman who was alarmed to learn that Thin Elk had become part of the high-profile chef’s inner circle.
The two Native women said it’s well-known in the Twin Cities Native community that Thin Elk was not just part of Sherman’s non-profit but that he was a frequent presence at Owamni
, which just won a prestigious James Beard Foundation award for Best New Restaurant
last month. Sherman himself was a
and then a finalist for Best Chef in the Midwest region
“He’s there every day,” one of the Native women said of Think Elk’s visits to Owamni. “He’s there all the time.”
Owmani’s name is drawn from Owámniyomni
, the Dakota language term for a sacred place along a portion of the Mississippi River that runs through downtown Minneapolis. The NATIFS non-profit is housed a couple of miles away, at a building called the Midtown Global Market.
Social media posts seen by Indianz.Com show that Thin Elk boasted of his dining experiences at Owamni, which debuted a year ago
on July 19, 2021. The restaurant has quickly become such a point of pride
that Gov. Tim Walz
(D) just declared July 19 as “Owamni Day” in Minnesota
Lt. Gov Peggy Flanagan
(D), a citizen of the White Earth Nation
and the highest-ranking Native woman in a state executive position, even showed up to the restaurant on Tuesday
to read aloud the proclamation that hails Owamni
for “reconnecting people to Indigenous foods to nourish body and spirit.”
Thin Elk’s proximity to Sherman was also apparent in the lead-up to Owamni Day. Upon invitation from the Menominee Nation
in neighboring Wisconsin, the pair took part in a series of events that included stops at the tribal college
and the high school on the reservation.
Social media posts from the past few days show Sherman and Thin Elk working side-by-side with young people on the reservation, with one onlooker describing the apron-wearing Thin Elk as a “chef” despite food preparation not being listed in the job description for the NATIFS operations director
Thin Elk also appeared on stage with Sherman at the Menominee High School at an event on Saturday.
A Native woman who saw the posts confronted Sherman online, questioning Thin Elk’s presence around young people in light of the domestic violence record. The Sioux Chef appeared to offer an unusual reason for his director of operations needing to take part in the trip — an explanation that seemingly wasn’t linked to Thin Elk’s job at all.
According to a direct message seen by Indianz.Com, Sherman said Thin Elk joined the trip because he has a family member who lives on the Menominee Reservation
In his statement on Thursday, Sherman acknowledged that posts showing Thin Elk “helping at a community event” prompted a fresh round of questions about his employee. He said “new information came to light — including tribal court records that were not turned up in the background check — that impacted our understanding of the situation.”
The records in question come from the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate
. A Native woman on the tribe’s reservation in South Dakota obtained an order of protection against Thin Elk after he repeatedly victimized her, causing serious physical injuries. One incident took place when a child was present, according to the tribal court documents.
As of July 22, 2022, a staff biography for Shane Thin Elk is still visible on natifs.org, the website of the North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems.
Thin Elk, whose still-available staff biography on natifs.org
describes him as having prominent roles in tribal and non-tribal justice systems, didn’t attend any tribal court proceedings, according to the documents, causing a bench warrant to be issued against him at one point. A complaint filed by a tribal prosecutor accused him of two counts of physical violence, including an allegation that he threatened to harm the minor victim.
Finding that Thin Elk “committed acts of domestic violence,” the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate court made the order of protection “permanent” — barring the defendant from engaging in direct contact with his victims and from coming into contact with his victims through third parties, such as through social media posts, messages or online forums.
Under the Violence Against Women Act
, a federal law that has been updated to address Indian Country’s unique needs
and issues, tribal orders of protection are given “full faith and credit”
in every court system in the United States. The provision was written in recognition of the high rates of victimization of Native women, who have long been unable to obtain justice for crimes committed against them on their own homelands.
Allison Renville who is from the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate, is well known
for her political organizing work in Indian Country
. In a statement late Thursday night, she confirmed that she has been actively seeking accountability from The Sioux Chef. She was previously married to Sherman’s operations director.
“I’m glad to see some type of action was taken, although it’s disheartening to have to had gone to the lengths I did to be believed,” wrote Renville
, alluding to the period of time — roughly two months — it took before Sherman announced the departure of his employee.
“Our women are at such a higher risk over all for domestic violence and predatory abuse, we deserve to feel safe within spaces created for us and our families,” Renville said in her statement, which she shared publicly on social media. “It’s my sincerest hope that other women and victims who are not being heard or feeling unseen are empowered and feel the camaraderie in having conviction as they move toward their own healing and justice.”
Pointing to the high rates of victimization in Indian Country, Renville further explained that Native women should be able to turn to their tribes to seek safety — and that other governments and entities should respect tribal sovereignty by complying with tribal orders of protection, as envisioned by VAWA.
“It’s important for us from here on out to believe victims, support one another and properly vet our potential community leaders ensuring that we showcase a definite value for our Tribal Sovereignty and our Tribal court systems,” she wrote. “It’s important for us to seek [organizations] and business leaders who are upfront and forthright in their advocacy against unnecessary violence of all kinds, and support those who do so from jump not just when it’s tested.”
“Redemption, reparations and resolve are still new concepts in this current age where status quo is no longer accepted and accountability is key. So what comes next will showcase these realities; good or bad,” Renville added, encouraging Sherman and NATIFS to look into ways they can help address efforts to protect Native women from violence and harm.
“There are active solutions and resources already in place for these type of amends to be made, using them and encouraging their success are where change can happen; paving the way for real decolonization,” Renville wrote.
In a separate post on social media, Renville shared the documents from her domestic violence case in Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate court. In another, she shared a graphic photo of the injuries she suffered at the hands of her abuser during one of the incidents on the reservation.
is a Native chef who previously worked with Sherman
— and he has been been highly critical of a person he considers to be his mentor in the culinary world. In a series of social media posts
this week, he questioned why The Sioux Chef didn’t seem to take Renville and other Native women at their word.
“I have contacted you privately to address this problem and you chose to ignore a Domestic Violence victim,” Yazzie, a citizen of the Navajo Nation
, wrote in one post directed to Sherman.
“You should have fired Shane Thin Elk the first time you heard,” Yazzie wrote in another post
, this one in response to Sherman’s statement on Thursday.
“This is not about your image or your brands. This is about believing victims and keeping a safe environment for your staff,” he continued.
“From this issue, you have burned bridges and relationships. Hopefully, the victim receives an appropriate apology from you,” Yazzie said.
After Sherman faced new rounds of questions this week, his organization appeared to take steps to limit scrutiny. His statement on Thursday was posted to Facebook but comments were restricted, meaning that reactions — even negative or critical ones — are being monitored and moderated.
Additionally, the staff page on natifs.org has not been visible in the past few days. Visitors to the website will instead find a message stating that the “page can’t be found.”
But a search on natifs.org
continues to return a result for Thin Elk, identifying him as the operations director for the organization. The staff page is still available as of Friday afternoon, even after Sherman said his former employee had “resigned effective immediately” from NATIFS.
The board of directors page for NATIFS also has gone missing in recent days. Some critics of the organization have raised questions about the presence of Liz Hoover, a professor who has made a name in Native circles by claiming tribal ancestry
. The board page described Hoover as an “Expert on Food Sovereignty in Indian Country.”
Another person on the NATIFS board page, Felicia “Cocotzin” Ruiz
, has risen to prominence based on tribal identity claims that are unverifiable. The organization described her as an “Expert on foods of Southwest Indigenous Tribes” and listed an affiliation that is not the name of any Southwest tribe but is instead the name of a language group in New Mexico. Ruiz, whose “kitchen curandera” persona has been embraced by Sherman, has said she is a lifelong resident of Arizona
In the fall of 2020, Ruiz was featured prominently on an episode of a television show hosted by famed food celebrity Padma Lakshmi
. During the show — in which Yazzie and other Native people also appeared — Ruiz said she was still working on tracing her supposed ancestry. No new information about her claimed tribal affiliation was posted on the NATIFS board page in the time since the show aired almost two years ago.
A screenshot of the board of directors page for the North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems (NATIFS) was taken on March 14, 2022. The page went missing from natifs.org in more recent days.
In an inquiry sent via email on Friday morning, Dana Thompson
, executive director of NATIFS, was asked about the missing pages on the organization’s website. She was also asked whether the operation will start including tribal government records in future employee background checks.
Thompson, who identifies as a “lineal descendant of the Wahpeton-Sisseton and Mdewakanton Dakota tribes,” co-founded NATIFS in 2018, along with Sherman. She’s also the co-owner and chief operations officer
for the company known as “The Sioux Chef.” The company is responsible for Owamni
An inquiry was also sent via email late on Thursday evening to Thin Elk, asking whether he disclosed the tribal order of protection during his hiring process at NATIFS. A response had not been received as of Friday afternoon.
With greater accountability in mind, some Native community members in the Twin Cities are already taking steps to ensure organizations like NATIFS are honoring tribal sovereignty. They plan on asking the Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors
in Minnesota to adopt a policy that calls on non-profits to conduct background checks that include tribal court records and documents.
As for Renville, she suggested in her statement that Sherman and NATIFS consider a “sizable donation” to the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center
. The Native-woman led organization has been critical to the passage of laws like VAWA and to the development of policies that respect tribal sovereignty.
Video: The Sioux Chef Sean Sherman wins prestigious award for debut Native food restaurant Owamni