Revitalizing native California culture in the East Bay
We are pleased and honored to share a conversation with two native Californians, Vincent Medina and Louis Trevino. These dynamic partners are leading an effort to bring the foods, languages, and practices of their Ohlone ancestors back to their families and community. Their vision is a modern one – a vibrant blend of traditional and urban culture. And not surprisingly, native plants are part of this important story. This month, they open the new Café Ohlone in Berkeley, featuring modern interpretations of the native California foods.
We’re grateful to Malcolm Margolin, one of the Bay Area’s most influential authors and publishers, who interviewed his friends Vincent and Louis for this issue of Flora. Malcolm founded Heyday Books and co-created two uniquely Californian publications, News from Native California and Bay Nature Magazine. More recently he has launched the California Institute for Community, Art, and Nature (California I Can!) to continue and expand upon his work.
Malcolm: My name is Malcolm Margolin, and I’m speaking with Louis Trevino and Vincent Medina. I’m a member of the hippie tribe of Berkeley. I came in a VW bus in 1967, and I’m the real thing.
Vincent: [Laughing] Legit.
Malcolm: Very legit. So who are you guys?
Vincent: My name is Vincent Medina. I’m a member of the Muwekma Tribe and represent my lineage on the Tribal Council. I come from an old family that’s been living in the East Bay since the start and never left, never will. It makes us proud to know that we wake up and live every day in a place that every generation of our family has always been. It’s a good feeling.
Louis: My name is Louis Trevino. I’m Rumsen Ohlone from the Carmel Valley and Monterey area. I live in San Lorenzo with Vince, my partner, and together we work on the revitalization of our languages, our foods, our songs, our arts — all of the things that make us people. We’re bringing these things to our family. It’s a collective, multi-generational effort, and we’re grateful for the ability to live this way.
Malcolm: How did you grow up?
Vincent: I was born and grew up in the East Bay, in San Leandro and San Lorenzo, the Halkin area (sometimes spelled as Jalquin), where my family has always been. There are central, sacred waterways in our family’s area: San Leandro Creek which connects the tribal areas of Saklan and Halkin, and San Lorenzo Creek which connects Halkin and Yrgin villages. They all drain into the Bay. My Mom’s water broke right along San Lorenzo Creek, but in a Lucky’s, in a supermarket where she was grocery shopping next to this significant waterway.
When I was growing up, the Muwekma Tribe sponsored cultural programs that preserved and revived a lot of our traditional identity, that work was guided by an older generation of my family. I‘m grateful I grew up seeing and being around many of our elders, especially my great-grandmother Mary Archuleta. It fills me with pride to know the strength that we come from. These elders were central figures for our community; they had a solid identity and nothing to prove to anyone. As a young person I was raised to be proud of my identity and I knew it was a special thing to be Ohlone. I saw how rooted my family is, and I grew up knowing we’ve been here in the East Bay since the start.
Malcolm: Can you talk about the cultural loss?
Vincent: Right now, it’s hard to talk about cultural loss, because it feels like there is so much abundance. And while that’s such a beautiful thing, abundance wasn’t always our reality for the last century. I never grew up hearing my language as a kid, eating my traditional foods, knowing those old stories beyond maybe one from my grandfather. Those things were connected to the suppression of our culture by colonization, by people coming in and taking things that weren’t theirs. But whenever my family could continue [our way of life], they did. They found ways. When I was growing up, I would always see the strength of those older people, just how proud and undefeated they were. They stood with their heads high, and that was passed down to me, and I know to Louis too.
Right now, it’s hard to talk about cultural loss, because it feels like there is so much abundance. And while that’s such a beautiful thing, abundance wasn’t always our reality for the last century.
Malcolm: When I first started meeting your people back in the early 70s, I was saddened by how much of the old ways had been lost. But when I looked deeper, I was impressed by how much had been retained: a sense of family, of relationship with the land and other living beings, attitudes, values, an understanding of life. While the visible structures had been destroyed, the foundation was amazingly intact, and it’s provided a solid basis for cultural revival.
Vincent: Thank you. And I think so too, because what we’re doing would be impossible unless we had people to learn it from
Malcolm: Do you want to talk about Alisal?
Vincent: Mission San Jose was secularized in 1834. While the Mexican government freed the Indians from slavery, the people had nowhere to go. The places where they had lived for thousands of years were now part of big land grants and ranchos, controlled by white folks who didn’t want Indians on what they thought was their land. A Californio [Spanish Californian], I believe it was Bernal, allowed my family and other Indians to continue to live on the rancho he managed in Sunol, which was stolen from Ohlone people in the first place. However, that place was called Alisal, [sycamore grove], and there things began to flourish once again. A roundhouse was constructed, and powerful ceremonial dances returned. The structure of a male political leader and a female spiritual leader was resumed.
With the missions behind our people, life became vibrant and culture thrived. Although Alisal held together through the 1920s, the US Government took away our federal recognition, and people started slowing leaving the Rancheria. My great grandmother moved from the Rancheria around our East Bay homeland to Niles, West Oakland, and then to Halkin, our family’s old tribal area before the Missions along the San Leandro and San Lorenzo Creeks, and we’ve been there ever since.
Malcolm: How about you Louis?
Louis: Well, I grew up in Los Angeles, away from our Rumsen homeland. That history is tied to our displacement as a people. While some Rumsen families were able to stay in the Monterey area, my family wasn’t. In the 1830s, they moved northward to Mission Santa Cruz and then to Mission San Jose where we lived at Alisal. In the 1860s, we moved southward to Mission San Gabriel [in East Los Angeles.] My impression is that my family was always looking for someplace safe where they could live, be together, and find work.
Gloria Castro, my great-grandfather’s cousin, remembers those old people who made that trek to Los Angeles. Gloria is of the generation that got to hear our language, got to know those people. She remembers her mother keeping her hair, disposing of it later in private, and burying her food. And she remembers how, when older relatives would come, the adults would go off and tell stories. They would cook together in earth ovens and pits. They would go into a house and close all the doors and stop up all the gaps. The kids weren’t allowed to hear what was going on. It was probably that they were sharing old things they didn’t want the kids to know, she says.
Those are the people that we come from in my family. People who had all these memories. I think there are a lot of different kinds of remembering: some of these things are sensory, some are emotional, some are spiritual. Some things are intellectual facts about our homeland, the geography, ways of being in that place. I think what we’re doing by talking to our older family and by learning from the documentation is making those memories into living things again.
Vincent: That’s such a beautiful and articulate way to express that. We have these elders in our families, Gloria and my Aunt Dottie, who are just about the same age. They can remember these powerful, traditional ways. But outsiders imposed shame on our communities for no reason. It can sometimes feel isolating when you’re the only person walking down the street wearing abalone or clam shells or you’re the only person gathering your food, but we still see the value of these ways. People have tried to make us feel bad for doing these things. They gave us derogatory names and insulted us. Whites called California Indians ‘diggers’ for digging our bulbs and roots up, these things that shouldn’t be insulted. I feel when we do these again and keep traditional alive, we bring pride to them, to our families. It’s something I feel grateful for.
Malcolm: So, what kinds of foods did you eat as kids? Greens collected from the fields, or “real” food like Twinkies?
Louis: Twinkies [laughing]. The occasional Twinkies. A lot of the foods in my family are Mexican foods. Foods that our family acquired from people who married into our families. My great grandparents had a restaurant that was all Mexican food that were my great grandmother’s recipes.
I think what we’re doing by talking to our older family and by learning from the documentation is making those memories into living things again.
Vincent: For me it’s similar. One of the things I’ve noticed is how our family has adopted things from the outside and made them our own. It makes me feel comfortable to know that there were things that were embraced, like coffee. We have stories in our documentation about how much people like coffee, and we created a word in our language for coffee — sii-sirkewiš, literally black water.
Do you remember, Malcolm, years ago when you had native people come together in the Heyday conference room to imagine what a Bay Area would look like with a stronger native influence? A lot of people were talking about a very traditional, all pre-contact world, nothing of foreign influences or from the outside. I like that thought. But I imagined the Bay Area as it is but with a very heavy dose of everything that’s Ohlone. So you’d hear, walking down these busy streets, people talking Chochenyo everywhere, and you’d see roundhouses in the hills instead of churches, you’d see freeway signs and BART stations with Chochenyo place names, and tule boats in the Bay. Ohlone architecture and basketry aesthetics everywhere, and acorn soup in coffee shops. But it would still have that busy urbanity that is the East Bay I grew up in.
What would the Bay Area look like if our culture had been allowed to adopt things on our own terms without having them imposed on us? I like to think that what we’re doing is what that would look like in the 21st century, like having hashtags in Chochenyo, having our food be slightly modern. Those are things that we do intentionally as well.
Malcolm: That’s wonderful and utterly refreshing! Some people might insist that to honor tradition, you should use only the plants that were here before contact. But adapting to different environments, borrowing from others, and creatively embracing change is not only a basic Indian tradition, but I think is a fundamental necessity for any culture that wants to survive. Take language, for example. Vincent, you now speak Chochenyo, the language of the East Bay, fluently. But the language that was spoken in pre-contact times is not well-suited for the modern world. You’ve had to create words for coffee, automobiles, the telephone, etc. I’m seeing some of the same issues with food. To use only traditional foods and cook them entirely by traditional methods seems like an academic exercise, something done in a museum as part of a cultural demonstration rather than in the kitchen as part of everyday life. The question with food is how to make it vital, how to make foods that are delicious, contemporary, and fun.
Vincent: One of the really beautiful things about this revival is seeing how connected the food is to every other aspect of our culture. My cousin Tina called me not too long ago. Louis and I were in the car, she was on speaker phone, and she said, ‘suyya , suyya, ’ which means relative in Chochenyo. ‘I need to come by your house and pick up acorn flour really fast. I’m in a hurry.’ There was something about that that was so cool. Language being used effortlessly and naturally. Also, somebody in our family craving acorn flour as a commonplace ingredient again and wanting to swing by casually to get it. When Louis and I do this work, it’s exciting to see how quickly these things can change and come back to us. It’s holistic, and it touches on a lot of big things at once.
One of the things that Louis and I see is how deeply connected each of these foods is to the cycle of the land that we come from. When we’re gathering in the Oakland Hills in January or February looking for chanterelle mushrooms, we’re there at a specific time when those mushrooms are available to us. We know what that area is called, the cultural connection that comes from those old village sites. We can’t just get these things when we want them. It teaches us moderation, and patience.
Louis: There’s a redwood grove in Carmel Valley, we call it summentak (‘redwood place’), that is carpeted with Yerba Buena. The air is sweet with mint in that place. We think about these foods and all the practices that went into their being: those burnings, the cleaning away of brush, the prayers that were given for those seeds and foods. What we experience today is the result of all those things. So when we find chia in the hills, we know that was a seed that was prayed for, and we get to enjoy it today and be grateful for what those people did before so that those seeds could still be there.
Vincent: If we’re walking by an area where yerba buena or some other valuable plant might be growing, we’ll stop and gather, even if we’re on our way elsewhere. If the plant is growing there, its purpose is for us to be gathering it to make it into medicine or tea. If we don’t, one of the things we think about is that the plant must get lonely. Our way to show love is to go and gather it, giving it gratitude, and letting it serve its purpose. When we do those things, it’s much more than simply gathering. A relationship is formed where you’re interacting with your place; you’re interacting with your home.
There is a responsibility not to over-gather. Do we want people outside of our community gathering in our villages? No, we don’t. That’s just the reality that’s there too. While we’re doing these things, there’s a different relationship that’s there than people who might not have that same relationship and might not be as respectful.
Malcolm: Do you feel as native people you have a right to these plants that other people might not have?
Vincent and Louis: Yes, in our places.
Malcolm: I agree. I would defend that right. I think part of the conquest was taking that right away from you guys, and I think it should be returned. It’s a kind of sovereignty.
Vincent: That’s what we’re seeing come back. We’re thinking big. Maybe one day, we’ll see controlled burns come back. Maybe one day, we’ll see these old native flowers come back. Maybe one day, the eucalyptus will be here less. We want to be a part of that conversation and part of that dialog. As the first people of this place, we have connections and rootedness here in the East Bay that no one else does.
Louis: I think there’s an idea that people have that plants exist independently of people, and that parks or other conservancies have to protect plants from people, that people are just a harm, even Indian people. But those plants and us are an ecosystem. We exist because they exist, and they exist because of us. In our creation story, we’re taught about all of the foods and how to get them in ways that encourage those plants to grow. By digging with a digging stick you aerate the soil, when you harvest certain roots or bulbs at the right time. When certain flowers are extracted for their seeds, some seeds are ejected from the flower and land in that loose soil, and are able to take root.
Vincent: Because so much of what we have is seasonal, the menu is always changing. For example, we’ll collect traditional greens for salad, like watercress and sorrel, and purslane in honor of my grandmother, and we’ll dress that with elderberry and walnut oil and native gooseberry and native blackberries when possible, toasted hazelnuts and walnuts and popped amaranth seeds.
Malcolm: I’m drooling.
Vincent: Sometimes we’ll have a side of sautéed fiddlehead ferns that are crunchy and sweet and tasty. We’ll have that with some sea salt that we’ve gathered from San Francisco Bay, quail eggs, walnut oil, smoked venison wrapped in Yerba Buena and bay laurel, smoked for several hours until it becomes almost like a jerky and dipped in blackberry and elderberry sauce, sweetened with honey, bay laurel, Yerba Buena, elderflowers… all really tasty things.
We want people to understand that these are foods to be enjoyed, but also that these foods have a deep history. We want people to understand our identity better, the ways that our identity has adapted and has always been able to survive.
What we’re trying to do through this food [is] having it connected to every other aspect of our culture. We want to have it be a regular thing, not being something that is tokenized or a novelty. Acorn will be something that the next generation will grow up with, and it will be alongside our language and our stories.
Malcolm: I would love to continue this discussion, maybe at a future meeting of the California Native Plant Society, about the responsibility of recent arrivals in California toward Indians — toward their rights to gather native foods, medicines, material for basketry and dance regalia, whether everybody can gather or only a few. These are touchy, controversial questions, and I’d love to see them addressed —not necessarily for right or wrong, but for increasing our awareness.
Vincent: What we’re asking for is to be listened to. As the first people of this place, I feel that’s the respect we should have. That’s why we’re sharing our story, telling about who we are, having people understand that the things we’re asking for make sense.
Malcolm: I think that one of the worst things that has happened is the attempt to erase you guys. I think that if people want to preserve native plants, they have to preserve native people.
Vincent: That’s right. We’re an endangered species too. [Laughing]. But we aren’t going anywhere.
Learn and Experience More
Café Ohlone is open Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturday
2430 Bancroft Way, xučyun (Berkeley)
Follow Vincent and Louis on Instagram @makamham
For more information about Malcolm’s new organization, California Institute for Community, Art, and Nature, visit the website, www.californiaican.org .
A few examples of contemporary Chochenyo words:
sii-sirkewiš — coffee, lit. black water
sii-sirkewištak — café, lit. the place of the black water
‘irrite kool — super cool, using Chochenyo language for ‘very/super’ and our orthography
nonwentetak — phone, lit. talking place
i-nonwentetak — iPhone