Indigenous Foodways: The relationship between culinary arts and Indigenous culture

Professor Mayo Buenafe-Ze, the director of USF’s Cultural Anthropology program, organized and hosted the Indigenous Foodways event online Oct. 13./PHOTO COURTESY OF MAYO BUENAFE-ZE

Food is much more than what is on our plates, it is a type of knowledge that can be passed down from generation to generation. On Oct. 13, two days after Indigenous Peoples’ Day, the online event, “Indigenous Foodways,” showcased the idea of food as a pathway to ancestral knowledge and shared culture. 

The event featured a conversation and cooking demonstration with Vincent Medina and Louis Trevino, the founders of mak-‘amham: Contemporary Ohlone Cuisine and Cafe Ohlone. According to their website, mak-‘amham (mahk-am-haam) means “our food” in the Chochenyo Ohlone language, which is the Indigenous language of the East Bay. Trevino and Medina are both Ohlone people who are, as noted on their webpage, “working towards a full revival of Ohlone Indian food traditions as a part of the larger, ongoing cultural restoration that empowers Ohlone people to decolonize ourselves of layers of forcibly imposed identity and return to an identity that is aligned with that of our ancestors.” 

Thacher Gallery led the initiative to get the grant that made this event possible, in conjunction with its current exhibition, “All that you touch: art and ecology.” Thacher Gallery director Glori Simmons brainstormed with Professor Mayo Buenafe-Ze, the director of the Cultural Anthropology program, and the idea for the event began to coalesce. Included in the exhibition is a zine created by Buenafe-Ze’s Anthropology of Food class from Spring 2020, which is an autoethnography zine about “connecting to nature,” and includes “recipes and ways to heal and care for yourself.” 

“We wanted the exhibition to center Indigenous identity, culture, and art,” said Simmons. “For example, at the center of this exhibition is Linda Yamane’s work, who is an Ohlone basket weaver. All of the artists interact with nature as a part of their art practice. Food is also an art form and a piece of culture, and obviously comes from nature, which was how we began thinking about the event.” 

Buenafe-Ze, a multiethnic Indigenous Filipina, educator and activist, led the efforts to organize and facilitate the event. “Something that I learned from community organizers, and I tried to incorporate, is let’s not just have this event,” said Buenafe-Ze. “Let’s have a very intentional action to help people think through, okay, now that you met these people and heard their story and witnessed their brilliance, what are you going to do with it?” 

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As attendees trickled into the Zoom meeting, they were greeted with the music video for “Land Back Loops,” a song by Apsáalooke rapper Christian Parrish Takes the Gun, known professionally as Supaman, with one of the main messages of the song being that “every day is Indigenous Peoples’ Day.” Following the song, Buenafe-Ze presented a land and labor acknowledgement which said that USF is “located in the territory of the Yelamu and part of the unceded and occupied land of the Ramaytush and Muwekma (Ohlone) peoples.”

Buenafe-Ze also shared her poem, “Kapwa-tid/Tribal Conversations,” featuring three sections about what she learned from elders and leaders of various Indigenous communities she has visited, including the T’wali Ifugao people of her homeland in Northern Luzon, Philippines. She called the poem an offering, in lieu of not being able to taste and share the food prepared in the cooking demonstration.

Part of the poem, from the second section about what she learned from the Omaha tribe in Macy, Nebraska, reads, “Keep a place / For all people to come and / Take their rest / And go on again. / Let them know / That they can come in / And eat some leftovers. / There is no need / to ask for anything, / Everything here / Is handed-down.”

The poem introduced Medina and Trevino’s conversation, which was formatted as an interview facilitated by Quinn Ruggiero and Cole Habeck, Buenafe-Ze’s teacher’s aides and students in her course titled “Special Topics in Decolonization and Indigeneity.” 

“The main themes that we wanted the conversation to focus on were the complexities of decolonization through the diet, revitalization of ancestral knowledge and practices, and how non-Indigenous people can work in solidarity with Ohlone communities,” said Ruggiero. “I hope everyone was listening when Vincent was talking about how non-Indigenous people need to be centering Indigenous peoples and lands in conversations. They are not just some part of history, they’re a living culture and their presence should not be ignored.”

One of the questions that Habeck asked during the interview was what Medina and Trevino would suggest as a call to action for the allies of Indigenous people. Medina responded that we should talk to our elders, “keep an ear open,” and educate and correct people when they refer to Indigenous people and traditions in the past tense, and to make sure that visibility around Indigenous people is never tokenized or performative. To present an example of the ongoing revival of the Bay Area’s Indigenous languages, Medina shared a video of his niece reading from a children’s book in Chochenyo.

“Louis and Vincent were sharing that Ohlone people are still here, and they’re doing amazing things in their community,” said Buenafe-Ze. “If you’re in a space where you’re hearing people talk about Indigenous peoples, make sure they’re talking about us in the present tense. Their presence and what the whole event was about is also such a powerful way to show representation, you now get to meet someone who not only is Ohlone, but knows how to cook Ohlone food, is learning the Chochenyo language, learning the Rumsen language, so you have very visceral examples of who Indigenous people are.”

Another part of the discussion revolved around acorns and acorn soup. Medina mentioned that acorns are the centerpiece of their traditional diet and can be traced back through generations.

“I think acorns also really are a metaphor for the resilience of our community,” Medina said. “Our elders today still make acorn soup in the old way. Those are things that we value in our culture, being intentional and being rooted in where we come from. Specific to our traditions, acorn soup is a comfort food.” 

The topic of traditional ingredients in Ohlone meals coincides with the concept of decolonization through our diets, which Buenafe-Ze described as a journey that looks different depending on one’s individual identity and heritage. “Decolonization does not look the same for everybody. We’ve all been colonized in different ways,” said Buenafe-Ze. “And with decolonizing our food, in the context Louis and Vincent were coming from, was how it was a reclamation of their ancestral knowledge that had been violently wiped out from the consciousness or memory of their communities. Reintroducing those foods to their community is that decolonizing act for them, because decolonization is an action to dismantle forms of colonialism.” 

For the cooking demonstration, Trevino and Medina made chia seed porridge, or “pattih,” an old time food in California. Medina mentioned that, “in the old days,” chia and other ingredients were gathered “primarily by women going out with beautiful burden baskets.” Trevino held each component of the dish up to the camera before returning it to his preparation table as he and Medina narrated the process. To accompany the porridge, they put together a blackberry and bay laurel sauce and made rose hip tea. Most of the ingredients they used, such as candied mushrooms and dried fruit, like chia, are native to California. “Our food, it looks like the land,” said Medina.

“A big takeaway for me was just how significant the process of obtaining ingredients and cooking food is, it’s just as important as actually eating food,” said Ruggiero. “That’s something I think we tend to forget in such a consumerist society, that our food actually came from somewhere, that every ingredient has a story behind it.”

Many of the questions in the following Q&A had to do with sourcing ingredients, which, as emphasized by Buenafe-Ze, is “not gonna be as convenient as hitting up your local Whole Foods.” 

Medina explained that when gathering ingredients, such as acorns in the East Bay, the first drop has to be left for other life. He said that Ohlone people have “no word for famine because we always have enough,” but do have a word for having too much. They find ways to source ingredients that do not put stress on the land, and in order to be respectful of their homeland, sometimes substitute traditional Indigenous ingredients with more sustainable alternatives similar in taste. 

“As far as where we source our ingredients, we have to be innovative, because we can’t gather everything in the traditional way,” due to the colonial degradation of their homeland, Medina said. He continued that they source ingredients from places such as student organic gardening associations, grown by allies of their community and in home gardens, and develop relationships with local farmers. They also offered suggestions about modifications to the recipe for those without access to harder-to-find ingredients.

“I felt really honored, like you’re being invited to somebody’s table,” Simmons said about the demonstration. “If I do and when I make it, I will be thinking about Vincent and Louis, their community, and the culture they shared.” 

Buenafe-Ze praised the cooking demonstrations’ simultaneous simplicity and complexity, and said that it is a form of “Indigenous pedagogy.” She said that the intergenerational transfer of knowledge is a healing tool for their communities.

“If you’re learning this stuff from Indigenous people, acknowledge who you got it from, and use that knowledge for the way it was intended,” said Buenafe-Ze. “Cooking is an experiential form of learning. It sits with you and it makes you kind of expand. What is your relationship with food, with the environment and with other people? It makes you think about all of those things at once. And that is inherently an Indigenous way of teaching and learning.” 

Cafe Ohlone is planned to reopen as a full-fledged restaurant in the courtyard of the Hearst Museum of Anthropology on the University of California, Berkeley campus by 2022. 

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