Seed, Criticism

‘A Love Song to Ohlone Culture’

Mary Ladd (We Wai Kai First Nation)

Jun 23, 2023

For more than 10,000 years, some 50 Ohlone tribes have lived in a Northern California region spanning 360 square miles, where they use plant and land wisdom to gather and prepare acorns, fruits and tubers, seeds, wildflowers, fish, rabbit, and deer.

You might not know this if you grew up attending public schools in the state: California fourth-graders are taught a misleading history that the Ohlone (people of the West) are extinct, without context on the disease, death, Spanish and European genocide, missionization, land grabs, and discrimination that silenced and stamped the Ohlone out. But a new restaurant wants to bring these stories, and Ohlone foodways, back into the larger narrative.

An outdoor dining room with wooden tables and terra-cotta bricks

Credit: Tamara Palmer.

mak'amham (our food)/Cafe Ohlone is the world’s first and only Ohlone restaurant. Opened in 2018 on the University of California, Berkeley, campus, its mission is to bring ‘oṭṭoy, or repair, to a place and its people who have been denied their sovereignty for centuries.

Co-founders Vincent Medina (East Bay Ohlone) and Louis Trevino (Rumsen/Carmel Valley) meld family, traditions, and ingredients in a space outside the Hearst Museum of Anthropology. Trevino studied linguistics at UC Berkeley and met Medina in 2014 at a Breath of Life conference that brings together California Native communities to interact with institutional archives. Their shared love for Ohlone culture and languages “then developed into, of course, this love that we have for each other,” said Medina via video interview.

Two people stand next to each other smiling outdoors

Co-founders Vincent Medina (East Bay Ohlone) and Louis Trevino (Rumsen/Carmel Valley). Credit: Tamara Palmer.

Some of these same practices and gatherings remain quiet and private even today. Yet, as Louis’s own grandma put it, “In the right times, things can be brought back out again.”

The federal government previously recognized the Ohlone tribe yet removed its status in 1927 as a direct result of UC Berkeley’s intervention. According to family stories, as recently as the 1960s Ohlone culture was practiced quietly. Remaining out of sight was a survival mechanism because colonialism and discrimination ran rampant. To stay safe, Medina’s great-grandmother Mary Archuleta moved to nearby Castro Valley as a way to foster traditional foodways and language. Some of these same practices and gatherings remain quiet and private even today. Yet, as Louis’s own grandma put it, “In the right times, things can be brought back out again.”

The menu seems familiar to fans of farm-to-table “California cuisine” launched by Cal graduate Alice Waters in 1971 at Chez Panisse just down the road, yet it reflects thousands of years of Ohlone ingredients and culture. California’s state bird gets frequent menu rotation in a delectable soft boiled quail egg sprinkled with East Bay salt. In past centuries, the Ohlone used eggs from quail habitats located in nearby Alameda. Today the eggs are from a sustainable Central Valley provider, which is much further away. However, salt for the menu is still harvested from East Bay marshes in keeping with the ancient ways.

If food is love, then Medina and Trevino choose to show their love for their community by sharing these family recipes with restaurant-goers: a sweet-and-salty Ohlone salad with foraged greens, nuts, seeds, berries and California bay laurel coulis; venison backstrap, oyster and chanterelle mushrooms; crispy potatoes seasoned with East Bay salt; and rose-water chia porridge topped with black currant jam.

There are few dining experiences that begin with piped-in recorded bird songs (blue jays, geese, flickers, red-winged blackbirds) and seven singing trees. According to Medina, Ohlone believe that the purpose of trees goes back to when the creator established the world at Mt. Diablo. To them, trees are sentient beings able to use their stomata to communicate and in turn have agency. Here, it presents an intergenerational dialogue with jokes and melodies from students who participate in the couple’s Chochenyo language program, ranging in age from 10 to 91. “Angel Baby” is in the background, but changed to a Chochenyo love song that means “beautiful language,” which lets the continued reality be rooted in older tradition, said Medina.

Family members shared input on all aspects of the restaurant and received star billing on the menu and in Medina’s remarks. Auntie Dottie Galvan (“La Jefa/The Boss”), 92, is one such elder. I observed Dottie smiling proudly from the front row of a standing-room only crowd at a February Cafe Ohlone presentation at the California Academy of Sciences. 

Organizing community events such as visiting a Grandmother oak tree, foraging, ceremonies, camping, basketry, food-box distribution and activism remain Medina and Trevino’s life work. For winter solstice, which is traditionally the Ohlone New Year, when the darkest night of the year leads to brighter days, Trevino said that they planned to gather with the community in the hills, have a fire, and spend time celebrating the culture. 

The duo are 2023 Emerging Chef James Beard Foundation (JBF) award semifinalists—a coveted industry award. (JBF paused the awards in 2020 and 2021 to reform after long standing racial-equity concerns as well as allegations of unethical and illegal chef behavior.)

People seated in an outdoor dining room listening to someone speaking

Medina takes on public speaking and held posts at Mission Dolores and Heyday Books. He also penned a column highlighting California Native languages to allow “more Native people to be able to speak for ourselves,” versus having non-Native white anthropologists, and writers who often miss the mark. Credit: Tamara Palmer.

While the restaurant and museum are receiving much accolades, Cal has also brought strife, pain, and loss to the Ohlone. The 1862 Morrill Act signed by President Abraham Lincoln led to 150,000 acres of California land being expropriated from tribal nations to create the state university system. By 1868, xučyun (Huichin), the Chochenyo-speaking Ohlone ancestral home was seized by the U.S. government and given to the Hearst family to build UC Berkeley. 

This clear historical marker was devastating for many Ohlone people, who were forced out of their villages and land and into poverty. The university currently uses land acknowledgments that still whitewash the past atrocities. However, dining guests had a months-long wait last winter because mak'amham closed to support campus workers participating in the largest higher-education strike in U.S. history. 

Cal’s move to shutter the George and Mary Foster anthropology library next year is an austerity measure to make up an unknown portion of a $5 million shortfall for all libraries in the state system. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Department Chair Charles Hirschkind reportedly called it a “library of considerable historical importance,” holding 50,000 titles used by scholars studying Native American, African, and Japanese cultures. Cutting this library demonstrates the university’s priorities, which are especially stark when contrasted with Cal’s expenditures on athletics to the tune of a reported $76 million in the past three years alone, according to the Chronicle

A wooden sign with two birds that reads "ottoy"

Credit: Tamara Palmer.

The café’s open-air courtyard is part of the Phoebe A. Hearst anthropology museum, an institution that remains implicated in colonialism through the actions of former anthropology professor Alfred Kroeber and his wife, Theodora. In the early 20th century, Ohlone people were declared “extinct” by the University of California anthropologist Alfred Kroeber in his 1925 publication, The Handbook of the Indians of California.

In the 1930s and ‘40s, the Kroebers appropriated hundreds of Ohlone sacred artifacts from local tribes for use in their museum and encouraged outright grave robbing to take sacred bones. Many of these artifacts were taken without permission or proper compensation and at one time stored in garbage bags. Demand for repatriation of Ohlone remains, and Medina points to the progress happening with more input from elders and tribes via NAGPRA, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, in coordination with UC Berkeley. Repair is unfolding, albeit in stages: In 2021, the Kroeber building was finally unnamed in an acknowledgement of Kroeber’s actions and last year, a noted scientific study linked eight living Muwekma, which strengthens the case for federal recognition.

"We've never left our home. We never will. Our culture is beautiful. Our culture is valuable. And these old ways from before deserve respect and recognition. Our ancestors deserve respect and recognition."
Vincent Medina (East Bay Ohlone)

Medina knows all this history, yet chooses what insights and stories to share with diners. Standing tall in the center of mak'amham’s open courtyard, he proclaimed in a calm and strong voice that the Ohlone people are here, and that “we've never left our home. We never will. Our culture is beautiful. Our culture is valuable. And these old ways from before deserve respect and recognition. Our ancestors deserve respect and recognition.”

Research, care, and thought are clearly at play under Medino and Trevino’s tutelage, and community remains the true heart of this organization. “There's so much power and specificity of our experiences, and things that were incorporated by our own agency, our own choice,” Medina says. “And we don't dabble at all in generalizations or stereotypes. We want everything that we're doing to be informed by our families.”

Mary Ladd’s reported stories include meat dresses, dough-throwing pizza champions, the cold sweat of medical debt, and withered sexuality. She started writing professionally at the San Francisco Chronicle and later collaborated with Anthony Bourdain. Her writing is in many anthologies, Playboy, Health, KQED, and elsewhere. She is publishing The Long COVID Reader in November 2023, which features essays, poetry, stories, and commentaries from forty-five U.S.–based long haulers. You can follow her on Instagram and visit her website.

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