Countering an Anthropological Myth of Extinction at mak-‘amham Cafe Ohlone in Berkeley
By Karin Louise Hermes
Our food is full of power, and our food dispels stereotypes. Our food connects us to those we love, and to our land, which we also love. – mak-huššištak, “our vision”
In preparation for my trip to Berkeley for the Transregional Academy “Histories of Migrant Knowledges in and across the Transpacific: Agencies, Scales, Translations” in the summer of 2019, I tweeted that I was going to be in the Bay Area and asked for suggestions for what else to see and do. An account called “Native Spirit” replied with the website link to mak-‘amham (“our food”) or Cafe Ohlone, located in the backyard of a bookshop on the traditional lands of the Muwekma Ohlone, which is currently known as the town of Berkeley in California.
Before travelling from Berlin, I was in contact with two other participants of the Transregional Academy about our shared discussion group on decolonising the Pacific and settler colonialism. According to the Cafe’s schedule it was only open a handful of times a week. Coincidentally, one of the pop-up hours was the afternoon of my arrival, with a bit of time to spare settling in. There was a teatime scheduled at Cafe Ohlone, and I suggested we go there and meet in person that first afternoon before the academy began. As it turned out, one of the other participants had not only previously heard of the cafe, but actually taught about it in her class on decolonial methods at Harvard.
mak-‘amham closed early in the pandemic, in March 2020. The two co-founders and hosts of the cafe are Vincent Medina (Chochenyo Ohlone) and Louis Trevino (Rumsen Ohlone), who hold regular tea/lunch/dinner events with seasonal menus and presentations on their passion for Ohlone language revitalization. Cafe Ohlone is set to reopen in the Hearst Museum of Anthropology at UC Berkeley in the next months, as its bookstore home closed for good. During the pre-vaccination pandemic, the cafe team curated meals for physically distanced consumption, as infectious diseases brought by colonial settlers are also a central memory of Native American health and histories.
In California, the Native American genocide was not precipitated by Pilgrims and Puritans, but by the Spanish Missions and California Gold Rush settlers. During the nation’s history, many of the original people of the land did not become legal citizens of the USA until 1924. In solidarity with the East Coast Wampanoag and Pequot, as well as other tribes whose massacre by the Pilgrims the original Thanksgiving goes back to, Medina and Trevino describe their awareness of the trauma as complementary and in kinship: “We celebrate the dinner at home with our loved ones, while simultaneously rejecting the colonialism that the day embodies.”
The Ohlone have their own traumatic history with not only federal and state governments, but also with the University of California and its Anthropology Department. Under anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber, the Ohlone people of California were declared extinct in 1925. This situation led to the Ohlone being state-recognised, but no longer among the 574 federally-recognised Native American tribes or nations. Kroeber was not only famous for having declared the Ohlone extinct, but also for having taken in the Native American known as Ishi as a living museum or house specimen.
In 1908, the last known Yahi community had been encountered near Oroville by settlers, and two of the four of them had fled the looting of their village. Ishi was presumed to be the only remaining member of his Yahi tribe at the time, due to the lack of family and the linguistic study of Yahi as distinct from related Yana language groups in the region. Ishi (meaning ‘man’ in the Yana language) was the name given to him by Kroeber after he was found starved and taken into the county sheriff’s jail, to be released and ‘employed’ as a janitor in the Museum of Anthropology. His real name was never known as it was a cultural taboo to be spoken by Ishi himself.
Kroeber’s second wife Theodora later wrote Ishi in Two Worlds: A Biography of the Last Wild Indian in North America, giving a distinct narrative with the trope of the ‘noble savage’, through which Kroeber’s views on the Ohlone as extinct can be interpreted. Ishi died of tuberculosis in 1916, and Theodora had not met him, publishing the book in 1961. The daughter of the Kroebers, Ursula K. Le Guin, went on to write speculative fiction or futuristic novels, inspired by the circumstances and stories her parents brought into their Berkeley household.
When the three of us arrived at the independent bookstore, we were informed that because of the summer break it looked like we would not be joining a larger group, which would leave more teas and snacks for us to sample from. Pre-pandemic mealtimes included educational storytelling on Ohlone foods and the language, after a brief introduction round by Medina and Trevino. Since we were such a small group, we were all asked to speak and introduce ourselves, as Indigenous cultural protocols often necessitate establishing relations and intentions. We mentioned that we were visiting for a summer school and working with or researching about respective Indigenous communities at the Australian National University, Harvard University, and Humboldt University in Berlin, Germany.
We sat among basketry and other artefacts that the two co-founders and their team decorated Cafe Ohlone with, around a long redwood table scattered delicately with acorns and flowers, on benches covered in multicoloured blankets to keep warm against the Bay Area breezes. Later on, some of the other Transregional Academy participants trickled in as well.
Nettle or rose hip teas, chia pudding, hazelnuts, oysters, salmon, or duck are not the most unfamiliar ingredients, but here they are prepared in more culturally specific and also contemporary ways. The most striking information was that chia seeds, a proliferous superfood found in any German grocery store by now, are a traditional Ohlone food. Here, they were prepared for us to try with hazelnut milk. We were given three different unsweetened brewed teas, similarly made from herbs and, most commonly, nettles from the region. Another treat that I can recall well, more than two years later, was the chocolate brownies using fresh duck eggs and Bay-Area-sourced sea salt. I was able to get extras (seconds, maybe thirds) because of our session’s reduced attendance.
In the introduction round, I mentioned that my own familiarity or at least awareness of the Ohlone people came through my friend and later roommate at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, who took the same Hawaiian language class as me in my first semester. When I had asked him where Ohlone lands are, since I was unfamiliar with the culture, he had summarised the Bay Area as ‘Alcatraz Island’. This former prison island became another site of pan-Indigenous resistance in the American Indian Movement (AIM) occupation in 1969 to 1971. Annually, on Indigenous Peoples’ Day and on Thanksgiving, a sunrise ceremony is held by Indigenous groups paddling out in the Bay to Alcatraz in canoes.
The concept of mak-‘amham is truly decolonial in the sense that it reclaims the space of unceded lands in Berkeley, educates on Ohlone life and history, and provides a resurgence of Ohlone foods in various forms: more traditional recipes collected from oral recordings made by earlier generations, paired with conventional foods like the brownies modified with local ingredients. The mission of the pop-up cafe is not only to inform visitors about the Ohlone as a living culture, but also to provide diners with a decolonial experience of locally sourced and sustainably grown foods.
One suggestion Cafe Ohlone makes for a critical engagement with traumatising events, like Thanksgiving specifically and the general history of their people, is an appeal to speak against Kroeber’s erasure and ethnocide: “Respectfully encourage those around you to use present-tense pronouns when talking about Ohlone people.” Trevino and Medina’s interest in this cultural perpetuation is done through their culinary revival and linguistic resistance, and should be a part of scholars’ itineraries when visiting Berkeley.
The Museum of Anthropology in San Francisco that once housed Ishi as a curiosity moved to the Berkeley campus in 1931, and will be home to mak-‘amham nearly a century after the Ohlone were erased and relegated to the past by anthropology. The Berkeley Anthropology Department only recently, in 2021, separated itself from bearing Alfred L. Kroeber’s name on its building, which is currently unnamed on Ohlone lands, overturning Kroeber’s Indigenous erasure.
 Transregional Academy. “Histories of Migrant Knowledge in and across the Transpacific: Agencies, Scales, Translations.”
 National Congress of American Indians. “Tribal Nations & the United States: An Introduction.”
Karin Louise Hermes is a Filipina-German scholar-activist focusing on climate justice, Indigenous rights, and political philosophies. She is finalising her PhD in American studies at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin with a dissertation titled “Growing Intercommunalist ‘pockets of resistance’ with Aloha ‘Āina in Hawai‘i,” and holds an M.A. in Pacific Islands Studies from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. She has lived in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines and Hawai‘i, and is currently based in Germany.