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Back to the Land: Giving Thanks, Ohlone-Style

December 16, 2019
by Leah Worthington
Ohlone food

Once upon a time, Berkeley wasn’t Berkeley at all—but the sacred, uncolonized land of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe. This week, as families around the country gather to cook and consume great feasts, share stories and bicker over politics, we decided to return to California’s native roots and ask two local Ohlone people about their Thanksgiving traditions. Vincent Medina and Louis Trevino, the latter a graduate of UC Berkeley’s linguistics program, are the cofounders and owners of Cafe Ohlone, a pop-up behind University Press Books that specializes in pre-colonial cuisine. (Read more about the café here.)

Do you have your own traditions to celebrate or honor this time of year?

It’s all about being with family, which is a core part of our culture. The holiday gives us a day off to be with those we love. This time of year in general—fall—is a time for celebrating the drop of acorns and anticipating the coming of mushrooms and the impending slowness of winter.

What’s your idea of a gracious and grateful meal?

One that’s full of abundance and good people where people can be honest and respectful of one another. When we think about Thanksgiving in the future, we would like people to reframe how they view it so there are regional versions of a revised Thanksgiving narrative. It’s important to use this time to give special recognition to Indigenous peoples—recognition that should be occurring year-round—a time to think of the land, who the Indigenous people are, and how their culture looks today. We want people outside our Ohlone community to think about these things in a big way and to understand that our people are still a part of our world today. That’s being gracious.

What would a traditional meal have looked like for your tribal ancestors?

During this time, a traditional meal would be centered around acorn—usually acorn soup, which is rich and nutty and sweet; a protein like smoked venison, duck, or goose; roasted mushrooms, which are just starting to come up; nuts such as hazelnuts and walnuts incorporated into the meal; native teas such as mint, yerba buena, tart rosehip, and sweet elderberry; and caffeinated bay nut truffles, which have a chocolate-espresso taste and keep people energized during the busy times of gathering. All the different bites would be served together to impart a taste of the season.

What do you wish people knew/understood about Thanksgiving?

We wish people would be aware that the romanticized mainstream narrative is a myth and we want the public to take the time to learn about the land they are living on, the original people who are indigenous to there, and the harm of colonization—as well as learning about the contemporary Natives who continue to live and thrive on our traditional lands. The national narrative was completely fabricated, and we want people to understand that under colonization, the Native peoples were abused and maltreated, and we are still feeling the consequences of that mistreatment today—however, despite these challenges we are still present today and steadfastly working to heal the wounds of the past.

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