A message from mak-’amham/Cafe Ohlone

Illustration of traditional Ohlone food served on a table with garnishes.
Emily Bi/Senior Staff

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We opened Cafe Ohlone in Berkeley, a part of mak-’amham — “our food” in the Chochenyo language — behind the now-closed University Press Books on Bancroft Way for two reasons. First, we wanted to provide a physical space in our urban homeland where our Ohlone community could feel seen, where we could see ourselves, our rich culture and our cuisine represented in a dignified, respectful manner.

Our secondary goal was to teach the public, through taste, about our unbroken connection to the East Bay and demonstrate how alive our culture and presence are. We believe that our food is interwoven with every other aspect of our identity, including the Chochenyo and Rumsen languages, religion, story and land stewardship practices.

We opened Cafe Ohlone with towering goals, and this work is deeply personal to me and my partner Louis Trevino, mak-’amham/Cafe Ohlone’s co-founder.

Let me share a glimpse into why this work matters so greatly.

I come from an old East Bay Ohlone family, and I grew up in the center of halkin-warép, the Chochenyo-speaking preinvasion nation where my ancestors had always lived. It is located along San Leandro and San Lorenzo Creeks in the contemporary San Leandro-San Lorenzo-Hayward region, about 15 miles south of Berkeley.

My family has always lived there, for millennia, continuing to remain in halkin-warép during painful colonization and in spite of efforts from Spanish missionaries and Anglo-American squatters to push our people out. My family experienced violent acts, such as the walling off of mak-rummey, or San Lorenzo Creek, so our people could not access water.

Those efforts to remove us failed because of the undeniable strength of our family from before. As a result of their sacrifices, bravery and resilience, this land is where I was born and raised, surrounded by my Ohlone family. I’ve always known I was home, right where my people have always been.

The elders in my family did everything they could to keep our culture moving forward, even though the culture, like our people, was heavily suppressed and experienced needless abuse.

During the mission times, when my ancestors were enslaved by the Spanish at Mission San Jose, our language was outlawed, as was our traditional religion, and people were held in those Catholic institutions. When Americans invaded during the Gold Rush era, the first American governor of California, Peter Hardeman Burnett, legalized a genocide as well as state-sanctioned slavery against my people.

While we were still living on the old Pleasanton rancheria, UC Berkeley’s Alfred Kroeber erroneously wrote in 1925 that our community had gone extinct. Two years later, the Bureau of Indian Affairs took away our tribe’s federal recognition. Our religion was not legalized in the United States until 1978.

The list of injustices is long and painful, but survival, resistance and triumphs are also part of our story.

Our East Bay Ohlone people always found a way to keep moving forward, to remain here in our home. We always knew the inherent value — and power — of our culture. Generations before refused to give up, and this love for culture has continued. We learn from our elders and see their strength in action, and we know that our love for this land is too deep to ever fully express in words. The East Bay has shaped our identity and our culture. This land has always protected us. It’s our only home.

As a young person, I could only see our culture reflected in the homes of my family. I saw healing happen all around — our language revitalized, our religion expanded, our stories revived. I wondered why our culture was not more visible in the world around us, especially in our homeland.

I learned from my elders that in order for our culture to stay safe and to continue, we had to keep it private, away from the public eye. It hurt to learn how our family from before was sent to mission orphanages and boarding schools, or worse, if it was discovered they were Indian. It helped me better understand why our culture couldn’t be practiced more outwardly. Our people did what they had to do to stay safe — and alive.

While they were isolated, our family did as much as possible to educate the public, in a safe way, that we are here and our culture is alive. But this would often fall on deaf ears of non-Natives in the Bay Area.

Still, our family kept persisting, educating and carrying on the culture internally in spite of those efforts to erase us. Ever since our land was invaded in 1776, every generation in my community has done their part to keep the culture moving forward.

Because of them, we now feel a sacred responsibility to follow in the footsteps of our elders and our family from before — to ensure their sacrifices were not made in vain.

mak-’amham/Cafe Ohlone is an extension of this work — work that’s been done for centuries — to provide for our community while also teaching the public about how alive and beautiful our culture is. Prior to COVID-19, Cafe Ohlone’s Berkeley space held robust, culturally centered Ohlone meals three times a week that celebrated our identity and cuisine.

Our Indigenous foods are rich and luxurious. We feel proud to prepare dishes, such as our sweet black oak acorn bisque, local oysters and mussel-cooked pickleweed and native onions in a kombu broth. Some of our other dishes include caramelized Indian onions, umami-heavy California chanterelles roasted in duck fat, brownies made with valley oak acorn flour and gathered East Bay salt and teas of rosehip, stinging nettle, elderberry and artemisia sage.

By centering these foods, we strengthen our presence as Ohlone people here in our homeland, provide a physical space where we feel seen and teach the public, in a meaningful way, of our enduring presence in this beloved place.

Though Cafe Ohlone’s Berkeley location can no longer operate after the closure of University Press Books, we have pivoted to meaningful, curated meal boxes celebrating these ingredients. We are continuing to share our message in a way that is safe during the pandemic. We are also carefully working to develop our next restaurant, which will function as a cultural center for our community in a post-COVID-19 reality.

Berkeley and the inner East Bay have always been Ohlone land. The food and message we share at Cafe Ohlone is rooted in justice for our Ohlone people.

It’s a beautiful thing to witness our culture made visible in our homeland.


Vincent Medina is a co-founder of mak-‘amham/Cafe Ohlone and the captain of ‘Itmay Cultural Association.