Indigenous founders of a museum cafe put repatriation on the menu
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Indigenous founders of a museum cafe put repatriation on the menu
A table reserved for elders at Cafe Ohlone, on the terrace at the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, University of California Berkeley, Aug. 24, 2022. Two chefs created the cafe to celebrate the culture of the Ohlone people, an Indigenous tribe in the San Francisco Bay region. (Nicholas Albrecht/The New York Times)

by Patricia Leigh Brown

BERKELEY, CA.- One of Vincent Medina’s most vivid memories as a youngster is of a class exploring his ancestry as a member of the Ohlone people, an Indigenous tribe in the San Francisco Bay region. An elderly teacher, wagging her fingers in anger, told her young charges that nearby University of California, Berkeley was “holding our ancestors in plastic bags and paint cans” underneath the university’s athletic facilities, “even though we have repeatedly asked for a proper burial.”

The human remains had been stored in the basement of a gymnasium on the Berkeley campus.

“I think about that all the time,” Medina said recently of the lesson. “There was a silence that went all over the room.”

Today, at 35, he is co-founder of Cafe Ohlone, a restaurant and aspiring cultural center on the terrace of the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, on the same Berkeley campus where the remains of his and other Ohlone ancestors are entombed. Created in a rare collaboration with the university, Cafe Ohlone celebrates the traditions and cuisine of the people whose ancestors have lived in the region for about 10,000 years, as its members press for the return of their sacred objects and remains.

Hummingbird sage and mounds of crushed oyster shells convey the spirit of “oṭṭoy’’ — a word that means to mend or repair in Chochenyo, an Indigenous language of the inner East Bay.

Healing is what the cafe hopes to bring to its new site. One of the country’s largest repositories of sacred artifacts, the Hearst Museum has a complex and fraught history with the region’s Indigenous people. It currently holds about 9,000 ancestral remains and 13,000 funerary objects collected since the 1870s — the majority Ohlone — and it has been slow to repatriate them, according to the California State Auditor’s office and the university itself. An additional 200,000 archaeological objects in the museum are awaiting assessment by tribal experts to determine their significance.

After years of inaction, the university and museum have made the return of Indigenous cultural artifacts — which is required by federal and state laws — a priority, and the museum has largely been closed to accommodate the effort. Since 2020, 1,000 ancestral human remains and approximately 54,000 sacred objects and belongings have been returned, according to the university. (The Ohlone remains under the gym were moved in the 1990s and are now housed in a secure museum space.)

“Our role is to care for and house collections eligible for repatriation and to help advance repatriation in as expeditious a way as possible that is respectful to the tribes,” said Caroline Jean Fernald, the Hearst Museum’s executive director. “It’s an emotional process for many.”

Among those leading the way are Medina, of the Chochenyo Ohlones from the East Bay, and cafe co-founder Louis Trevino, 31, of the Rumsen Ohlones, a group from Monterey County. The university reached out to them in an effort to redress decades of what it described this fall, in a news release, as “structural violence and racism toward Native American peoples, the harmful consequences of which are still faced by communities today.”

The al fresco eatery was designed by landscape firm Terremoto, with native plants behind lit screens and miniature shell-mounds that recall Ohlone village and burial sites along the East Bay shoreline that were excavated by UC Berkeley archaeologists.

Birdsong and music sung by children and elders — family members of Medina’s and Trevino’s — spill from hidden speakers in redwood columns carved with each singer’s name. Their repertoire includes a love song to the Chochenyo language, sung to the tune of the 1960s hit “Angel Baby,” and the kind of gossipy banter that might be heard around an Ohlone kitchen table.

The cafe made its initial debut in 2018 as a candlelit communal pop-up at the back of a book store off campus, serving up acorn soup with bay nut truffles and other delicacies. From the start, it has been a deeply personal undertaking. “We created Café Ohlone because we felt isolated in our homeland,” Medina said. “We wanted to see our culture reflected on our own terms.”

Medina and Trevino, partners in life and cuisine, met eight years ago at an Indigenous language conference. They were in a parking lot when they happened upon an article in the UC Berkeley student newspaper in which Kent Lightfoot, a widely respected archaeologist and anthropology professor, suggested inviting the cafe onto the university’s campus as a healing gesture. “We realized how beautiful and symbolic it could be to bring our baskets, mortars and pestles — all these living objects — to be with the traditional objects of our ancestors until they are returned,” Medina said.

Stone pestles with oil from ancient hands, feather baskets and other artifacts “have a personhood to them,” he added. “They inform who we are. So they will sense our presence.”

Along with other Native Americans, the Ohlone were victims of genocidal acts and suppression of their language, religion, arts and even their names. They were enslaved under the Spanish Catholic mission system, and, from the 1840s to the 1870s, were targets of a “war of extermination” signed by the first governor of California aimed at removing Indigenous people from land that settlers coveted. Thousands of Native people were slaughtered by officially sanctioned militias and U.S. troops, and by vigilantes, in what historian Benjamin Madley of the UCLA has called “a well-funded killing machine.”

Seeking refuge, some Ohlones gravitated to isolated canyons in the East Bay hills — now largely suburbia — in the late 1800s, where traditional ceremonies flourished. There they encountered Phoebe Elizabeth Apperson Hearst, the museum’s founder and benefactor, who is still referred to as “Auntie Phoebe” by some Ohlone elders.

Hearst, who was UC Berkeley’s first woman regent, employed many Ohlone women, including Medina’s ancestors, as housekeepers for her 53-room Hacienda del Pozo de Verona and provided a modicum of stability.

Even before the museum’s founding in 1901, the university served as a repository for Indigenous remains and funerary objects taken without prior and informed consent from state infrastructure projects; once the museum was established, it became “complicit” in continuing such collecting, Fernald said in an interview.

In 1925, influential anthropologist Alfred Louis Kroeber, who led the museum for 38 years, declared the Ohlone people “extinct,” which two years later resulted in a loss of federal tribal recognition and rights to the land base. His view, which he later attempted to revise, was predicated on the notion that only primitive societies before European contact were authentic. Last year, the university removed his name from what had been Kroeber Hall, home of the Department of Anthropology, because, in the words of Chancellor Carol Christ, Kroeber’s actions “clearly stand in opposition to our university’s values of inclusion and our belief in promoting diversity and excellence.”

During Kroeber’s tenure, for the sake of study, the university excavated shell-mounds — ceremonial places and burial sites created by Indigenous people — and also took human remains and objects ranging from fish hooks to Abalone shell jewelry. “Our people were removed from their cemeteries in the name of research,” said Medina, who now sits on a state-appointed advisory committee under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, at UC Berkeley. “It was an undeniable crime.”

But the Ohlone ancestors sized up Kroeber and his colleagues. “When he would come around the family would hide their finery and baskets under the floorboards,” Medina said, recalling stories his parents told him about efforts to keep the cultural inheritance alive.

Linguists and anthropologists from the Smithsonian Institution’s Bureau of American Ethnology, among them John Peabody Harrington, recorded tribal elders in the mid-1900s about the “old ways” — religions, dances, hunting and gathering practices — and the injustices they experienced. These archives and elders’ recollections allowed Medina and Trevino to teach themselves the Chochenyo and Rumsen languages.

More providentially, the historic records proved to be a culinary gold mine — an Ohlone version of “Joy of Cooking” — brimming with wisdom about chia seeds, venison, gooseberries and other ingredients. Medina and Trevino began experimenting with dishes, including acorn bread, and scouring the landscape for watercress, yerba buena, and black walnuts.

Trevino’s culinary roots go back to his boyhood as a cashier at his grandparents’ restaurant east of Los Angeles (“I never met my great-grandmother but was intimately acquainted with her sauces,” he wrote in the quarterly magazine News from Native California). Their thinking about Ohlone cuisine has evolved: Pastas hark back to Medina’s Sicilian great-great-great-grandfather, who used broomsticks to dry them, and to Mexican and vaquero-inflected dishes such as Venison Chile Colorado. (They still do the cooking in collaboration with campus chefs.)

The outdoor cafe is open by reservation, and plans call for Medina and Trevino to curate an adjacent gallery when the museum reopens next fall. Their broader goal is to create a cultural beachhead -— one that might inspire law students to plunge into tribal-sovereignty issues, for instance, or architecture students to become attuned to sacred sites.

Lauren Kroiz, an associate art history professor and the Hearst’s faculty director, says the cafe will transform the museum into “a place of living and resilient cultures,’’ informing future visitors about language, food ways and other topics.

But major challenges remain. The Hearst has been “one of the most intransigent in returning stolen goods and ancestors” and complying with federal law, said Chip Colwell, author of “Plundered Skulls and Stolen Spirits: Inside the Fight to Reclaim Native America’s Culture.”

Most of the remains and sacred and cultural objects at the Hearst Museum were taken from ancestral lands of Bay Area tribes that are still not federally recognized, said Sabrina Agarwal, a bioarchaeologist and anthropology professor who chairs the state-appointed advisory committee at UC Berkeley.

The lack of federal recognition, she said, was the result of genocide, forced migration and assimilation and “salvage anthropology” by early anthropologists such as Kroeber who “believed erroneously that the tribes would die out, or already had, and wanted to save whatever they could,” Agarwal said. The university also used the lack of federal recognition as an excuse to “slow things down,” she added.

But the balance of power is shifting toward enlisting Indigenous peoples to decide whose ancestors and belongings are affiliated with whom, led by the state’s Native American Heritage Commission. (The commission set up the advisory committees throughout the University of California system to ensure that each campus complies with federal and state regulations.)

A 2001 California state law expanded eligibility for repatriation claims to tribes without federal recognition, which include the Ohlone. But the process for returning material remains complex and time-consuming, Agarwal said.

While they wait for their precious cultural artifacts and remains to be returned to the Ohlone, Medina and Trevino honor their ancestors by serving up dishes using mortars and pestles, winnowing baskets and other ancient implements, echoing the ones remaining in the museum.

They see the cafe as a “place of continuity,” where basket makers and other artists from around the state might gather under its traditional redwood shade structure, or ramada. It is already a new kind of landmark where, as Medina put it, “elders can get dressed up to the nines, come out for a Saturday night dinner and be able to sit at the head of the table.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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