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Know the West

‘Our food from this land’

A new Native American restaurant plates a contemporary take on precolonial gastronomy.

Golden cubes of acorn squash, roasted and still in the skin, tossed with chopped pecans. A bed of greens showered with glistening strawberries, voluptuous blackberries and edible flowers so vibrant they look tropical. Wine-colored huckleberry tea. Pine nut and lavender cookies. And the centerpiece: crisped, juicy bison and blue corn meatballs, drizzled with a blueberry sauce so dark and rich you could mistake it for chocolate.

It’s precolonial. It’s decolonial. It’s decadent — and delectable — good medicine.

 

Is your mouth watering yet? This Thanksgiving, there’s a new Native American restaurant in the West, part of a movement to reclaim — and redefine — Indigenous cuisine. In mid-November, chef Crystal Wahpepah opened Wahpepah’s Kitchen, Oakland, California’s first sit-down Native American restaurant. “You can call it fusion, you can call it however you want to call it — but I call it our food,” she said. “I want people to feel prideful and happy and excited, just as we do when we go into another restaurant. Like, I love Thai food; I get excited. I want the same feeling when people come here.”

Crystal Wahpepah is a citizen of the Kickapoo Tribe of Oklahoma.

“You can call it fusion, you can call it however you want to call it — but I call it our food.

Wahpepah is a citizen of the Kickapoo Tribe of Oklahoma, and her restaurant, she explained, is fostering a return to original Native foods using dishes from her own nation, like Kickapoo chili, which combines dried sweet corn, venison and pumpkin with “a lot of spices,” as well as pan-Indian fare like Great Lakes wild rice paired with more Southern edibles, like the three sisters: corn, beans and squash. (“So you know what?” Wahpepah quipped. “That makes it four sisters.”) Wahpepah fills the restaurant’s space with her outgoing presence, interrupting herself with a rough and upbeat candor that’s disarming and often infectious. “We're in that harvesting season right now, where all these dishes are actually being harvested and served in the community,” Wahpepah told me.

Many of the world’s favorite foods today are Indigenous to the Americas: Italian tomatoes, Irish potatoes, Thai chilis, Belgian chocolate and French vanilla are all actually Native American foods painstakingly cultivated by Indigenous agricultural geniuses while Europe was struggling through the dark ages gnawing hard bread and, who knows? Possibly eating plague rats.

 

 

Classic American Thanksgiving foods are largely Indigenous in origin: Turkey, whose feathers adorn regalia throughout Native cultures, is known in Choctaw as fvkit (pronounced, yes, exactly how you’d expect — and hope — it’s pronounced) or cholokloha, after the gobbling sound it makes. Cranberries are a superfood from the Great Lakes nations. Before Americans mashed them up with butter, potatoes were an Incan food engineered from a toxic root, inspired by observing the llama-like vicuña, which nibbled clay before it ate the tubers in order to make them digestible. Thanks, llama cousins! (And sweet potatoes arrived all the way from Polynesia via international trade routes that Europeans had no idea existed.)

Squash, including pumpkin, is one of the three sisters, the sacred trinity of corn, beans and squash, three vegetables that not only grow together symbiotically but together create a complete protein for the foundation of a nutritious, plant-based diet, which flourished across North America after the spread of maize.

Line cook Joshua Hoyt (Ojibwa) prepares bison and blue corn meatballs at the grand opening of Wahpepah’s Kitchen in Oakland, California, on Ohlone land.

“Our bodies are really designed to have all these nutritional foods from our land of origin.

The idea of mixing squash with cow’s milk and baking it into a wheat flour crust seems, of course, a very French-settler take on pumpkin. “Natives come from a gluten-free, plant-based diet,” Wahpepah told me, adding that the introduction of wheat flour was disruptive to local people’s health. “Our bodies are really designed to have all these nutritional foods from our land of origin.

The way foods connect people to place is a cornerstone of Indigenous thought. If you want to delve more deeply into this rich topic, a good place to start is last year’s Thanksgiving episode of the food sovereignty podcast Toasted Sister. In one segment, Mashpee Wampanoag citizen Danielle Hill dissolves any separation between self and environment and makes stewardship of the land and water a matter of critical concern. “The more that you ingest food that has been grown in your soil and in the waters that are around you, the more you become the place that you are living,” Hill said on the podcast. “I introduce myself by saying I’m Mashpee. I don’t say I’m from Mashpee, or I live in Mashpee. I’m Mashpee because I literally eat and ingest Mashpee.”

Customers order from Isabella Zizi (Northern Cheyenne, Arikara, Muskogee Creek) at the grand opening of Wahpepah’s Kitchen.

After the United States destroyed Native foodways, partly to create dependence, it sent commodity foods like wormy flour and powdered cheese to reservations. With little else to eat, families developed frybread, a quick bread scraped together from flour, salt and baking powder, deep fried in oil — a starvation food

The disruption of healthy Indigenous foodways and connection to place continued throughout removal and continues today with urbanization and cultural disconnection. 

In mid-November, Wahpepah and I connected by phone from two coastal cities. Her nation, like mine, is based in Oklahoma. She told me she even has Choctaw relatives. But neither these Pacific cities nor Oklahoma are our ancestral lands. “My tribe are from more of the Illinois area,” Wahpepah explained, “and moved all the way down to Kansas, to Oklahoma, to the border of Mexico. Can you imagine all those seeds and all the foods that actually got lost during the way?”

Crystal Wahpepah and Sous chef Concepcion Del Rio (Mexican) prepare orders.
 “Can you imagine all those seeds and all the foods that actually got lost during the way?”

Suddenly, simply by eating from a different landscape, people were consuming foods for which their bodies were not optimally adapted. “So, our bodies are gonna go through something,” Wahpepah said, adding that the problem was compounded by the introduction of sugar. “I mean where did we get all these diseases from, you know?”

“Well, we certainly didn’t get them from the bison,” I replied. Wahpepah erupted into the gravelly, riotous laughter that punctuated our whole conversation. “Yeah. Yeah, exactly.”

She said her kitchen aims to set things right. “This is our food from this land, and health and wellness is number one.”

“So, is frybread off the table?” I asked her, somewhat forlorn at the thought of the beloved powwow snack being excluded from contemporary gastronomy. I get it, of course: Like powwows, frybread was not part of precolonial Native cultures. But still… “I come from a household that ate it every day,” said Wahpepa. “And of course, your health is going to deteriorate. But also, at the same time, we all like cake for our birthdays, right?”

Frybread won’t be on the daily menu, but it’ll still be part of Wahpepah’s Kitchen. “You can have that balance in your diet,” she conceded.

 

Matthew Young and Kiona Young (Apache, Pueblo, Cherokee,Choctaw) and other young dancers perform with the All Nations Singers at the grand opening of Wahpepah’s Kitchen (left). Crystal Wahpepah cuts the ribbon at the grand opening (right).

 

Wahpepeah is collecting seeds to cultivate her own crops, too, like Lakota squash, and soon, she hopes, a Kickapoo white bean. Her ingredients aren’t the kind you can just order wholesale from Sysco. Wahpepah says that sourcing Indigenous ingredients involved a decade-long journey of building relationships with farmers and seed-keepers. She considers these relationships a matter of trust.

“It's just not me representing Wahpepah’s Kitchen and the food,” she told me. “I’m also representing the farmers, and people that I’m actually sourcing all my ingredients from.”

The walls pop with color in Wahpepa’s Kitchen: Classic Indian teal collides with acorn squash yellow. Support columns are adorned with murals of cornstalks on electric blue skies by painter Tony Abeyta. The colors seem to draw in sunlight from the streetside floor-to-ceiling windows. Lining the squash-colored built-in shelves are jars of ingredients, looking a bit like this reporter’s own kitchen, and, Wahpepah told me, her own as well. “You come to my house, believe me, this is just a little tip of it,” she said, breaking again into her unguarded, kitchen-warming laugh. 

“We see food in our kitchen. So why not see these beautiful Indigenous seeds and ingredients that we do have here?” she said. “That's a whole corn, that is a blue corn, a chokecherry sauce, elderberry sauce, you know, so forth, different kinds of Indigenous seeds.

“If I go into restaurants, I would love to see all that, wouldn't you?”

Jars of spices and other ingredients are prominently featured in Wahpepah’s Kitchen.

Brian Oaster (they/them) is a staff writer at High Country News and a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. They are an award-winning investigative journalist living in the Pacific Northwest. Email them at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editorSee our letters to the editor policy.