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The World’s First Ohlone Restaurant Is Opening Soon At UC Berkeley

Above Photo: Vincent Medina, left, and Louis Trevino stand in the walkway leading to UC Berkeley’s Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, near the future site of Cafe Ohlone. Jessica Christian / The Chronicle.

Can It Overcome The Location’s Painful History?

Dolores Lameira Galvan, 91, remembers hearing from her mother, aunts and uncles about their time working as housekeepers and laborers at Phoebe Apperson Hearst’s opulent mansion in what is now Pleasanton.

She still prefers not to speak of the time her Ohlone family spent as servants on what had been the Indigenous people’s own land, says her nephew, Vincent Medina. For the Ohlone, it represents just one painful chapter in hundreds of years’ worth of trauma and loss in the East Bay and beyond.

But decades later, Medina is working to reclaim his tribe’s history by opening the world’s first Ohlone restaurant in a space that carries the Hearst name. Cafe Ohlone, which he started as a pop-up with partner Louis Trevino in 2018, will debut in June at the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology at UC Berkeley. Members of the public will see the in-progress cafe for the first time Saturday during a preview event.

It’s both a hopeful and revolutionary location for the restaurant, which will use Indigenous foods and preparations to raise conversations about colonization, cultural erasure, and racism at a museum that is owned and run by the university but still has in its collection the bones of deceased Native Americans.

The museum began repatriating some of the remains and cultural objects a few years ago. Both the Ohlone and Berkeley communities hope that the cafe and its presence at the Hearst Museum can help heal a long painful relationship, while serving as a reminder of the university’s problematic history.

Tribal communities across California are watching closely, as other departments at UC Berkeley are clamoring to be part of the historic educational opportunity the cafe represents. But the future of Cafe Ohlone is uncertain: The university approved only a one-year pilot for the project.

“There’s still a long way to go when it comes to reconciliation and healing,” said Medina, a member of the Ohlone tribe born in San Lorenzo. “We’re not going to see all of our ancestors repatriated by having a presence (there) … but it will allow those conversations to be emboldened. We’ll constantly be a reminder of the living community that’s there.”

(The Chronicle is owned by the Hearst Corp.; the anthropology museum is named for Phoebe Hearst but is not affiliated with the Hearst Corp.)

When diners enter the courtyard restaurant, they’ll be immersed in the Ohlone world. They’ll be greeted by the voices of Ohlone elders and children speaking in Chochenyo, the tribe’s native language, playing from speakers hidden in “singing” valley oak and manzanita trees. The restaurant won’t be open for typical walk-up orders. Instead, people will buy tickets to eat dishes like venison backstrap and pasta tossed in an Indian lettuce pesto, while seated among traditional shellmounds and native plants. Ohlone regalia and baskets, which are still held at the Hearst Museum, will be the focus of interactive activities.

It’s a place Medina remembers hearing about as a kid during a class taught by an Ohlone elder.

“UC Berkeley is keeping thousands of our ancestors from us, keeping them in paint cans and plastic bags underneath the tennis courts, and there’s nothing we can do about it at this moment,” he recalled her saying. Medina also learned early on about Alfred Kroeber, the former Hearst Museum director and UC Berkeley anthropologist whose 1925 declaration that the Ohlone people were extinct led to the loss of the tribe’s federal land recognition. The implications of this persist today, complicating federal repatriation efforts.

Fatefully, it was the removal of Kroeber’s name from a university building in early 2021 that led to Cafe Ohlone’s new home. Kent Lightfoot, a prominent anthropology professor, floated the idea in a news article at the time as a way that Cal could initiate change beyond a largely symbolic renaming. The cafe had temporarily shut down in 2020 after its host, University Press Books in Berkeley, closed.

Medina and Trevino were intrigued by the idea, particularly because of what they described as a positive change in leadership and climate at UC Berkeley. Lauren Kroiz, the new Hearst Museum director, had a good reputation, they said, and Chancellor Carol Christ had backed the renaming of Kroeber Hall. (Both became staunch advocates, Medina said, who helped push the cafe through myriad bureaucratic approvals.) Medina and Trevino saw a chance to realize a longtime dream to have a dedicated, public cultural space for the Ohlone people in the Bay Area.

The pair brought the idea to their elders, who were supportive despite the museum’s controversial legacy. Galvan encouraged her nephew to bring Ohlone traditions to the campus, which sits on the territory of Xucyun, Ohlone land. She said she hoped the impact would be a visible reminder that “We’re still here. We’re not people who disappeared.”

As at the Cafe Ohlone pop-ups, which paired history lessons with nettle tea and smoked salmon, food will be a vessel to talk about Ohlone culture and history. Matthew Moore, a tribal historic preservation officer and member of the United Auburn Indian Community, said he hopes Cafe Ohlone will prompt important conversations around food sovereignty and land stewardship. The United Auburn Indian Community is also working with Berkeley anthropologists to study native foods and cooking techniques.

“There’s a big gap in knowledge as to what we used to eat … and how we took care of the land,” Moore said. “For us, it’s something that’s positive in a way that it’s bringing back something that was lost.”

Already, the cafe has sparked a cautiously optimistic new chapter in relations between the Ohlone tribe and the university. Kroiz, who was named director in 2020, is working to make the Hearst Museum a more inclusive space. She noted that a 2018 talk on shellmounds, native ceremonial places and burial sites, for example, was held at the Berkeley Art Museum partially because “people didn’t want to come to the Hearst Museum.” Lightfoot, too, said he was initially worried that Medina and Trevino wouldn’t want to bring Cafe Ohlone to Berkeley.

“There is so much historical trauma or historical weight,” Kroiz said. “We’re still in the moment of creating a bridge — the Ohlone community is on one side, and there’s still the Hearst Museum on the other.”

Building that bridge remains somewhat tenuous since Cafe Ohlone’s new home is not permanent. The university approved the one-year pilot, and the Hearst Museum says it intends to help support the project, including with funds raised from donors. But to continue beyond one year, Cafe Ohlone will need to rely on its own revenue, much like any other restaurant.

Beyond the cafe, other collaborative work involving Indigenous people is under way at Berkeley. The Hearst Museum has a new faculty advisory committee led by Professor Elizabeth Hoover, who is of Micmac and Mohawk ancestry, and is partnering with the Native American Student Development office to work with Indigenous students. Kroiz is fielding requests from people in linguistics, ethnic studies, environmental science and law departments to work with Cafe Ohlone.

Repatriation of native objects and remains is slowly beginning through Berkeley’s advisory committee on the state Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, on which Medina and two other tribal members serve.

“Supporting projects led by California Tribal peoples should be a priority of the university as the institution works to move through its history of violence against California Indians into a new chapter that will allow healing and cultural reclamation,” the chancellor’s Native American Advisory Council wrote in a February letter of support for the cafe.

This reflects Medina and Trevino’s most optimistic vision for Cafe Ohlone. More than a restaurant, they hope it will spur tangible, sustained change, like seeing the Chochenyo language reflected throughout the Cal campus or having members of the Ohlone tribe directly involved in urban planning to prevent building on sacred sites.

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