Crystal Wahpepah has made it her mission to share her Indigenous community’s rarely seen foods with the world.
Wahpepah, who is Kickapoo and Sac and Fox, recently opened Wahpepah’s Kitchen, the newest Indigenous restaurant in Oakland, California – and likely the newest in the country.
“When I was around 6 or 7 years old, I would go pick berries and I would actually see different berries but the kinds you wouldn’t see when you’re being raised in urban areas,” Wahpepah told CNN, adding that she grew up in a family that made traditional and ceremonial Native foods. “That’s when I put two and two together. We don’t see our foods.”
Wahpepah knew early that she wanted to open a restaurant, but she needed to figure out a way to present ceremonial foods to the public. She traveled to Oklahoma and asked her elders how to market these traditional foods, and she started catering 12 years ago – which is when she noticed the lack of Native chefs or restaurants. She developed her brand at La Cocina, a San Francisco organization that offers opportunities for working-class women entrepreneurs, and soon after she was preparing food for Silicon Valley tech giants – though she noticed most people were still unfamiliar with Native foods.
After a decade of catering and research, Wahpepah has opened her brick-and-mortar restaurant. The menu boasts bison blueberry sausage with blue corn and huckleberry, Kickapoo chili, three sisters salad and chia berry pudding. And she is not alone.
Other Native-owned restaurants – and restaurants serving Native-inspired foods – are amongst those that have opened this year. Sean Sherman opened Owamni in Minneapolis, Loretta Barrett Oden started Thirty Nine Restaurant at the First Americans Museum in Oklahoma City, and Vincent Medina and Louis Trevino are planning to reopen Cafe Ohlone in Berkeley, California.
Native American eateries still remain relatively rare due to challenges linked to a history of trauma and colonization, as pointed out by Sherman and Wahpepah. But it’s important for Indigenous chefs to share their cultural traditions where they can.
“This is something that needs to be represented for our next generation,” Wahpepah said.
Why are there so few Native restaurants?
Sean Sherman, an Oglala Lakota chef, began The Sioux Chef as an Indigenous food education business and catering company. Sherman, who started cooking at a young age, said he quickly noticed a complete absence of Indigenous foods in the mainstream, a dearth of recipes without European influences, and a lack of restaurants serving foods of the land they are on.
Today, there are 574 federally recognized tribes across the US. At the start of the 19th century, about 80% of the landmass that makes up the US was under Native control, but by the end of the century, that number had dwindled to just 2%, Sherman noted in a 2020 TED Talk. Beyond losing land, Native people lost their Indigenous education – such as how to live sustainably, how to fish and hunt, and how to identify plants.
Native children were sent to boarding schools, so they could assimilate into White society. That stripped them of previous generations’ knowledge and forced them to learn nontraditional skills and speak different languages, with many subjected to physical and mental abuse.
Because of this traumatic history, according to Sherman, many Native Americans are not fully aware of their culinary traditions and are unfamiliar with many sustainable practices. The “invisibility that has been placed over us,” as well as continuing segregation, has made it difficult for many Indigenous chefs to receive the support – and money – to open up restaurants or shops, he told CNN.
“In Manhattan, you can go out for anything. If you want Peruvian food, if you want northern Japanese food, you can pick it, but you can’t get the food of where you actually are,” Sherman said.
“We felt it was really super necessary and important to showcase that there is a true food of North America and that there is Indigenous culinary history here, and it doesn’t start with European history, but it starts with Indigenous histories.”
Sherman said a lot of Indigenous chefs who came from reservations and work in restaurants started at the very bottom – since a lot of economic resources were stolen from their ancestors. Because land and natural resources were taken away from many tribes, Sherman said that there is little ancestral wealth or land to help with business development. For many Indigenous chefs, he said it’s a huge struggle to come up with necessary funding to open a restaurant, which can cost upwards of $100,000 just to get started.
Marketing Native American cuisine to the general public is also a challenge, according to Wahpepah. It took her almost two years to get the space for Wahpepah’s Kitchen, and she acknowledges there is an added risk of opening up a Native restaurant serving food that most people know little about – and is difficult to define.
For Loretta Barrett Oden, a Potawatomi chef behind Thirty Nine Restaurant, which opened in September, marketing has been not as large a problem as differentiating between different Native cuisines “because our food systems overall have been so disrupted.” She noted if she called her food “Potawatomi fare” while Sherman called his “Lakota fare,” most people would not understand these distinctions.
“There’s a very distinct difference between Italian food and French food and German food, and we don’t have that luxury here in the United States because people have been moved around so much and we don’t have distinct states of Indianness,” she said.
Previous tribal relocations significantly impacted these recipes, which were often passed down orally. There were no Native American cookbooks written by Native chefs until recently, and most Native traditions were recorded by White people, the chefs said. The long-lasting stigma associated with following Indigenous traditions further separated people from their culture, and the commodification of foods has contributed to health problems in Native communities, according to the chefs.
Through The Sioux Chef, Sherman, who grew up on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, is working with nonprofits to raise money and connect chefs with others in the industry. He’s also educating them on financial terms, and how to speak to banks. But Sherman said that for many chefs, they’re “starting from scratch.”
The future of Indigenous restaurants and foodways
Indigenous chefs in different parts of the country are finding different ways to highlight their food traditions.
Vincent Medina (Chochenyo Ohlone) and Louis Trevino (Rumsen Ohlone) opened Cafe Ohlone as part of cultural institution mak-‘amham in 2018 to honor the legacy of the Ohlone, Indigenous people of California’s Central Coast. Much of the menu is sourced from the San Francisco Bay and the surrounding area. Dishes range from bay laurel crispy duck breast to venison and gathered mushroom stew to dandelion soup with duck fat and Indian potatoes.
But Medina and Trevino did not open the restaurant – first located in the back of a bookstore – for innovative dining.
Medina noted they felt “a beautiful responsibility” to their ancestors to carry on their culinary traditions so future generations would “have access to culture and also are able to grow up culturally empowered so they can be those cultural leaders.”
Manageable rent and widespread community support – the latter of which has helped put money into Ohlone cultural programs – helped them achieve their mission, Medina said. Though they closed their first location a few days before Covid-19 mandates went into place, they continued offering 12-course Sunday Suppers for pickup and curated dinner boxes, while also conducting virtual language and cooking classes. They are gearing up to open a location at the University of California, Berkeley early next year.
“When we opened up Cafe Ohlone, we made this intentional effort in fact not to market it. We don’t want to commodify these foods, we want to make sure that they’re presented in very respectful and very dignified ways that are that are going to lead to education and awareness for those who aren’t Ohlone, but… we don’t want to go out there and market things that are very personal to us,” Medina said.
Oden had a similar story. She closed her previous restaurant Corn Dance Cafe after 10 years to move to Oklahoma and be with family. After focusing on Emmy award-winning series “Seasoned with Spirit” for a few years, she took the opportunity to share the culinary traditions of the state’s 39 recognized tribes at Thirty Nine Restaurant.
Oden sources ingredients for the new restaurant from across the Americas, from Nunavut in northern Canada to Tierra del Fuego in southern Chile and Argentina. She joked that she will never run out of ingredients to use on her “modernized Indigenous menu,” which features dishes like white bean hummus, hominy stew, bison burgers and turkey cutlets with a cranberry gastrique.
“To be able to tell the stories and to talk about this food and to really speak to the health issues, the creativity of our food ways, how our foods traveled and came back to us, how we’re still here, (it shows) we’re still here, we’re not a relic in a museum,” she said.
Out in Florida, the restaurant Ulele celebrates the ingredients from Florida waters and land once home to Native tribes. Although not Native American himself, owner Richard Gonzmart said he received the blessings of multiple members of the Seminole tribe, who gave him approval to erect a statue of the 16th-century Tocobaga princess Ulele.
Ulele’s menu features dishes like alligator hush puppies, Tocobaga tuna, freshwater catfish with root vegetable succotash and flourless chocolate torte. This menu continues evolving to become more reminiscent of the dishes that Native populations in Florida ate hundreds of years ago.
“My goal is to educate those that visit this restaurant and understand the people that lived here, how they lived, how they worked and how they respected Mother Earth,” Gonzmart told CNN.
Sherman at his new restaurant Owamni, which opened in June, takes a “decolonized approach” to his menu, avoiding dairy, wheat flour, cane sugar, beef, chicken, pork and other ingredients that were not originally from North America. Sherman also prioritizes purchasing directly from Indigenous food producers, leading to dishes such as bison tartare, preserved rabbit with fermented blueberry and corn sandwiches called choginyapi.
“We look at the world around us today through an Indigenous perspective and try to find out what is our relationship with these plants that grow around us today as our indigenous ancestors did,” Sherman said. “Is it edible, medicinal, can you craft with it, like what is the purpose, what is our relationship?”
“Indigenous peoples everywhere had figured out how to survive sustainably utilizing the world around them. That’s the biggest lesson.”
For Lois Ellen Frank, a James Beard Award-winning chef with Kiowa heritage and co-founder of catering company Red Mesa Cuisine, owning a brick-and-mortar restaurant was not the way she wanted to showcase Native American culinary traditions. Frank did not want to be constrained by a set menu that would lead to supply chain issues and instead wanted to work in Native communities with doctors, health educators and leaders in sustainability.
Frank is a proponent of “re-Indigenizing” instead of “decolonizing,” noting how the US can never completely decolonize because many European foods have become essential components of modern Indigenous diets. If a dish needs a squirt of lemon or a touch of flour, she’ll add those ingredients. She will use, for example, watermelon in her recipes since watermelon is a large part of many ceremonies, even if it came over via Europe.
It’s just one approach of many to share Native traditions with the country while working toward sustainable practices and connecting Native populations more with their cultures.
For Wahpepah, it’s opening a restaurant to show “how beautiful those foods are.” And for Frank, it’s catering and educating during a period when people are more willing to hear these stories.
“History is like a bicycle wheel. In the center is a historical event, but there are tons of spokes on that wheel that get to the same historic event, altering perspectives and differing ways of doing it,” Frank said, noting that she doesn’t know if there’s a “right” or “wrong” way to educate others about Indigenous cuisine.
“I think there are just different ways, and that’s a beautiful thing.”