Corn in woven baskets at Oakland Indigenous restaurant Wahpepah’s Kitchen. Credit: Melati Citrawireja

Sign up for our free newsletter

Free Oakland news, written by Oaklanders, delivered straight to your inbox.

For many people, Thanksgiving is a time of great ambivalence. Much of November is a full-court press of menu planning, meal prep, and travel, but there’s also an undercurrent of unease, as we know that the once-common narrative of Pilgrims and Indigenous people living in respectful harmony is a lie. We all know that we live on land stolen through genocide and forced removal of its original residents, and yet here we have this holiday intended to celebrate this heist. “Cognitive dissonance” doesn’t even begin to cover it.

Nosh is so grateful that chef Crystal Wahpepah (Kickapoo), Dr. Elizabeth Hoover (Mohawk/Mi’kmaq descent), artist Tony Abeyta (Navajo), and restaurateurs Vincent Medina (East Bay Ohlone) and Louis Trevino (Rumsen Ohlone) were willing to speak with our reporter Anna Mindess about how they approach the holiday and its origins. All five of these East Bay residents shared their personal family traditions for the fourth Thursday in November, as well as their thoughts on how non-Native people can do their best to support the Indigenous community every day of the year. We hope the thoughtful approaches they suggest will deepen, enrich and add nuance to your own family traditions.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. — Eve Batey, Nosh editor

Crystal Wahpepah stands inside her Oakland restaurant. Credit: Melati Citrawireja

Crystal Wahpepah (Kickapoo), a chef and caterer, is thrilled that her lifelong dream of opening a restaurant celebrating Native foods just became a reality. Wahpepah’s Kitchen opened on Nov. 13 in Fruitvale Village, Oakland.

Ever since she was six years old, Crystal Wahpepah and her family would visit Alcatraz Island on the morning of the fourth Thursday in November. “We would go at 4 a.m., wait for the sunrise ceremony, and thank the creators for that day,” she said. The annual Alcatraz event has been held since 1975 to commemorate a 1965 protest event at the island, when members of the Indigenous civil rights movement Indians of All Tribes occupied the island for 19 months. “The most important thing” about the yearly event, Wahpepah said, “would be to find out what’s going on in Native country and about the people fighting for our rights on the front lines all over the world.”

If non-Native people really want to be respectful at this time, I would say “give.” — Crystal Wahpepah

After a ceremony honoring Ohlone land and watching the Pomo dancers, her family and other attendees would go to La Peña Cultural Center, a community space in Berkeley, to share a potluck meal where everyone would contribute different Native dishes. (Wahpepah is going make an exception to her Alcatraz trip this year, since she just opened her new restaurant, and will be preparing for an expected influx of customers this weekend instead.)

“Sometimes, instead of La Peña, our family would have its own Thanksgiving meal, with our Indian dried sweet corn, and of course, the turkey,” Wahpepah said.  “That was OK, because I always knew that the meaning of Thanksgiving is how Native land was stolen. It’s bittersweet, but everyone was off work, so we got to be with family.”

To Wahpepah, the real meaning of Thanksgiving is not only giving thanks, but also just “giving,” she said. “It was a good time to think about elders, people who are hungry and homeless. If you have extra food, you give.”

For a respectful Thanksgiving dinner, she suggests that non-Native people do an Indigenous land acknowledgement, guides to which can be found online at places like the nonprofit Native Governance Center and the Smithsonian Center’s National Museum of the American Indian. Folks can also prepare and serve a Native American dish in honor of the original inhabitants of this area, such as those in Recipes From Turtle Island, which includes downloadable recipes from Wahpepah, Vincent Medina and Louis Trevino of Berkeley’s Café Ohlone, as well as Sean Sherman and other celebrated Native chefs.

“If non-Native people really want to be respectful at this time, I would say ‘give,’” Wahpepah said. “Give to the homeless. I teach my kids, whatever we have extra, you have to give. Here at the restaurant, we do that too.”

Dr. Elizabeth Hoover, associate professor in UC Berkeley’s Department of Environmental Science, Policy & Management. Credit: Elizabeth Hoover/Twitter

Dr. Elizabeth Hoover (Mohawk/Mi’kmaq descent) is an associate professor in UC Berkeley’s Department of Environmental Science, Policy & Management. Her research focuses on Native American food sovereignty and environmental health.

Growing up in upstate New York, Elizabeth Hoover’s family’s annual traditions on Thanksgiving Day included participating in the march to observe the National Day of Mourning. This yearly ritual began in 1970, when Wampanoag chief Frank “Wamsutta” James was invited to give a speech in Plymouth, Massachusetts, on the 350th anniversary of the landing of the Mayflower.

At the last minute, James’s planned speech was rejected by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts since, instead of echoing the fictional narrative of friendly brotherhood, it referred to the Pilgrims as grave robbers and enslavers, and detailed just some of the many broken promises and atrocities committed by white settlers. After James was disinvited, he delivered his speech at the statue of Massasoit Sachem, the leader of the Wampanoag confederacy, which overlooks Plymouth Rock. This initiated an annual march that has been held there ever since.

“But when we came home from the march, we cooked up a rather conventional meal with turkey and pumpkin pie,” Hoover said. “Why? Because they are delicious foods!” And that is still the kind of meal she looks forward to every year.

As her family has grown, however, Thanksgiving dinner has become a blended affair. “I’m bringing wild rice,” Hoover said. “My sister’s Italian mother-in-law always makes lasagna and now we also have some Japanese members of the family who contribute their own dishes.”

Hoover’s suggestions for non-Native people who want to support Native causes:

Café Ohlone co-founders Vincent Medina and Louis Trevino. Credit: Cynthia Matzger (Yurok)

Vincent Medina (East Bay Ohlone) and Louis Trevino (Rumsen Ohlone) opened their groundbreaking Café Ohlone in the back of University Books in 2018. They served several meals a week of Indigenous foods, which would also include traditional Ohlone games and discussion of their history and culture, always emphasizing that the Ohlones are thriving in the present day, thanks to the strength of their ancestors. They plan on re-opening Café Ohlone early next year.

Vincent Medina warmly recalls his family’s Thanksgiving meals. “They were comforting,” he said. “It wasn’t about the narrative; it was family time with the older generation. We had the traditional turkey, stuffing, yams, and cranberries.”

People think that all Indians are resentful, sitting home on this day, bitter and upset, but we are a very nuanced community. — Vincent Medina

His partner, Louis Trevino, has similar memories of warm gatherings with extended family members. Both recall that tamales were also part of the meal, along with the traditional fixings. “Nowadays,” Medina said, “we also set the table with chia pudding, Indian tea and Louis’ great acorn brownies.”

“People think that all Indians are resentful, sitting home on this day, bitter and upset,” Medina said. “But we are a very nuanced community.” To that point, Medina said that many Native people choose not to take a Thanksgiving trip to Alcatraz. In fact, Medina said that his ancestors cautioned against ever visiting the island, even though it is Ohlone land.

“Our elders said the island has always been a sanctuary for pelicans,” Medina said. But it is “also a taboo — a cursed — place where people who acted outside the rules were banished,” he was warned growing up.

In response to the many inquiries they get regarding how, or if, Ohlones celebrate Thanksgiving in 2019, Medina and Trevino published an essay, Decolonizing Thanksgiving, in which they write:

Thanksgiving becomes a common time for the public to think critically about issues of colonization and the holiday increasingly brings Indigenous issues and people into the center of the seasonal conversation.

How can we share a more authentic, regional version of how this story has affected us in California, rather than an East Coast-heavy narrative that has no direct connection to the Bay Area? How can we rethink what this holiday means so that we can continue to celebrate with our families with laughter and joy — while rejecting the oppression of Indigenous peoples at the same time?

During Thanksgiving dinner, we hardly talk about the origin narrative around the holiday, and instead use the gatherings as a time to say what in life we are grateful for, to laugh more than our fair share, and to enjoy an excuse to overeat. We imagine this is common throughout many homes, regardless of ethnicity.

Medina and Trevino suggest concrete actions that people can take, including 

  • Begin your meal with a land acknowledgement to educate public that much of the East Bay is Ohlone land
  • Incorporate a dish into your meal that respectfully celebrates Ohlone culture
  • Speak about Ohlone people using the present tense (since they are very much still alive) 
  • Learn about and discuss contemporary Ohlone issues: e.g. Ohlones, the first people of this area, have no land base because despite “a 30+ year effort to reaffirm our federal recognition, the Muwekma Ohlone people are still not recognized by Washington, D.C.”
  • After Thanksgiving is over, think of some actions to consistently support living Indigenous people, including Ohlones (their post offers some starting points)
  • They advise against simply making a financial donation, without thought or to places that don’t actually support Ohlones, saying that a gesture like that is a hollow way to clear the conscience. They do humbly appreciate donations for their work and targeted donations for the community. But instead of just ending with a financial donation, they urge people to “continue to educate themselves and really think about what it means to be on someone else’s home.”
Artist Tony Abeyta stands next to his work inside Wahpepah’s Kitchen. Credit: Melati Citrawireja

Internationally known Native artist Tony Abeyta (Navajo) lives half time in Berkeley and half time in Santa Fe. He recently completed a painting of sacred corn reaching skyward for Wahpepah’s Kitchen in Oakland. 

“Most Native Americans I know celebrate Thanksgiving, but some won’t, and I honor those people because for them, that’s their truth,” Abeyta said. “To them, it’s a reminder of genocide, colonialism, and oppression, it’s a symbol of smallpox blankets, Christianity, land grabs and manifest destiny.” 

Abeyta acknowledges that all Native Americans have historical trauma, but that each person must make their own path. “I like the luminous path of gratitude,” he says. “I want to leave the traumas behind, because I can’t give that to my kids and grandchildren. I want to have a new form of celebration, tied to the solstice, harvest, community and, most of all, family.” 

On Thanksgiving, he always hosts a gathering at his house, mostly urban Native Americans from New Mexico, who may not have family to celebrate with. “We all cook together, go on a big hike and go to the movies,” he said. 

I understand the pain that we wish we could change what once was. Holding on to those traumas is too much for me. — Tony Abeyta

“During this time, I lean towards foods that are connected to our own culture and try to source mostly locally grown food, either in Santa Fe or Berkeley. The idea is that we eat the food that we share the same air and the same temperature with.”

One thing that will not be on Abeyta’s table is alcohol. “I came from a home that had alcohol and it didn’t work very well with holidays,” he said. “So, for that reason, we don’t drink at my Thanksgiving table. That’s my way of deconstructing that narrative.” After a pause, he continued. “I’ve lost all my family; my mother, father, siblings and a couple of nephews have all passed. Unfortunately, many of them died of alcoholism.”

“So, I know what trauma is,” Abeyta said. “I understand the pain that we wish we could change what once was. Holding on to those traumas is too much for me. I wish I could have those family members with me today, but I can’t, so I create my own community. As an artist, I want to see the beauty in life, I don’t have time to dwell on the negative.”

Abeyta encourages people to find more about the Native tribes that first lived in Berkeley and Oakland, where their descendants are now and how can you honor them. For example, he says, “as you go shopping on Black Friday on Shellmound Street, understand that this was the burial grounds of the Ohlone people’s ancestors. It’s a sacred place and it got decimated,” he said. “Remind yourself of this history we live on and even find out where are the bones of their ancestors now, and will they ever be returned?” 

“Many Native Americans tribes have a ritual practice before we sit down to eat,” Abeyta said, describing how he will take a small ceramic bowl with a little bit of every dish from the table, placing it outside as an offering to the ancestors. 

“It’s an act of gratitude that says, ‘We respect that you were here, and you once were part of these lands.’ So, we feed their spirits,” he explains. “Most native spirits never turn down venison or wild rice,” he says with a smile. “We put the bowl on the ground. You could say that the birds come and eat it or maybe it’s the spirits. Our ritual is to acknowledge the people who were on these lands before and thank them for being there and protecting the land.”

Anna Mindess

Anna Mindess has two professions. She is a freelance journalist who focuses on food, culture, immigrants and travel. Her work has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, AFAR, Lonely Planet, Oakland Magazine, Edible East Bay, and Berkeleyside. In 2018, her essay about 1951 Coffee Company was awarded First Place by the Association of Food Journalists. Anna also works as an American Sign Language interpreter and is the author of Reading Between the Signs, a book used to train sign language interpreters around the world.