Today is Indigenous Peoples’ Day: a time to recognize indigenous people around the world for the power of their presence, activism, and culture, as well as to have honest conversations about the historical and current impact of colonialism and what we can all do together to heal and move our culture forward.
In honor of this holiday, I’d like to highlight two influential indigenous leaders in the Hipcamp community (as fellow Hipcampers and members of our local Bay Area community) who are doing the inspiring work of preserving and perpetuating indigenous traditions and culture. Vincent Medina and Louis Trevino are members of the Ohlone tribe, which comprises known surviving American Indian lineages aboriginal to the San Francisco Bay region through Monterey Bay to the lower Salinas Valley and who were also members of the historic Federally Recognized Verona Band of Alameda County.
I was especially moved to learn that Vincent used Hipcamp last year as a way to bring his tribe together after having significant difficulty finding a suitable place on public land that would permit their gathering. He told me it was the first time in a long time that many of the tribe members had gathered together to share traditional foods. I’m honored that Hipcamp was able to play a part in that process.
I took a moment to chat with Vincent and Louis to learn more about their work and how others can get involved in supporting their vision.
Hipcamp: Horše ṭuuxi (hello in Ohlone), Vincent & Louis! You co-founded a popular Bay Area organization and cafe called mak-‘amham (or Cafe Ohlone in English) with a vision to revive indigenous food traditions as part of ongoing cultural restoration. Can you talk more about this work and why you’re doing it?
Vincent: What we’re pursuing right now is part of a long, sustained effort our family has been engaging in ever since our land was colonized to protect our culture and make sure it’s moving forward into the future. By listening to our elders and our tribes, we’ve learned so much about their deep love of our traditional foods. What we want to do is see that those food traditions are spread back into the community. We do this through a series of gathering trips, formal dinners, and cooking classes so that it becomes part of the collective knowledge for our family and tribal communities. The purpose of this work is to repair and fix the damage colonization has done and continues to do. Our family has never left our homeland — our people have lived here for thousands of years. There’s a permanence we have here, but colonization is a reality we have to face. Our land was colonized and many of our traditions were actively suppressed by those trying to replace our culture.
But our families never abandoned our ways. We’ve continued to find ways to keep our culture strong, and carry it on for future generations. Louis and I come from families where our traditions were kept alive as much as possible; and for those traditions that didn’t continue, rather than say they died, we prefer to say they went to sleep. And with a new effort they can be reawakened. Decolonization means returning to our traditional culture by taking away layers of imposed identity from foreign entities made to change our culture. Knowing there are ways to undo that harm is very liberating. It’s part of a worldwide movement — we’re actually traveling to Japan right now to do the same work with indigenous people from around the world. We want to make our ancestors proud by making sure the sacrifices they made for us weren’t in vain. We want to make sure that our culture continues to thrive today and into the future.
Decolonization means returning to our traditional culture by taking away layers of imposed identity from foreign entities made to change our culture.
Cafe Ohlone is an extension of this work. When we opened up the cafe in September of last year, we wanted to create a place where our people could go and celebrate our culture — a place that was ours — but also create a place where we could educate the public about how beautiful our culture is, how delicious our food is. Having a meal together perpetuates respect for Ohlone culture, teaching people that our community is thriving today, in contemporary times. A lot of people are ignorant to that, so we’re elevating people’s consciousness. And having a lot of success.
Hipcamp: How can non-indigenous people best support the work of cultural restoration?
Vincent: I would recommend allies start by learning about the indigenous people who are in your area. Learn whose homeland surrounds you. There’s a website [native-land.ca] that’s very helpful and mostly accurate — surprisingly so for such a big project.
Learn what contemporary tribes politically represent your area. From there, I’d recommend asking what each community needs or doesn’t need from allies. In the Bay Area what we request of allyship will look much different from what people in Idaho or Florida request. There might be indigenous communities who don’t want anything from allies. There may be some that are isolated and want to be left alone, and that’s something to respect, too. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution for every tribe. But having basic pillars of respect, listening, researching whose land you’re on, and finding ways to support the local community by asking them if they want it — those are things that overlap for most tribal communities.
Another thing you could consider is sharing their stories, making it clear that their impact and culture are alive and well. If you hear any untruths or stereotypes that might be circulating, help dispel them. What we say is that Ohlone people are here and that we’re doing well — in the present tense. This is all an ongoing story and will be present in the future too. That’s what we ask for specifically here in the Bay Area. If you talk to someone else, you’ll get an entirely different response. Every community will have different needs.
Hipcamp: I’ve noticed that you intentionally focus on the present tense by underscoring the impact indigenous people are currently having. From my understanding, it seems important to realize that the use of the past tense, when talking about indigenous people, can be dangerous in that it’s been weaponized to erase indigenous history and infringe on indigenous people’s rights for a long time. It’s not just a semantic thing, but actually a strategy to violate indigenous rights. So it’s important to be aware of this framing when we talk about indigenous people. Is that right?
Vincent: You’re very right. Thanks for understanding that.
Louis: I want to share an example of long-term effects of how the misuse of language, even in obscure academic writing, can influence disenfranchisement and greater public misperception.
An academic text that UC Berkeley anthropologist Alfred Kroeber published in 1925 actually led to the termination of Vincent’s family’s federal tribe recognition, which they’ve been fighting for decades to get back. With this loss of federal recognition, they lost their rights to their territory.. And today, that territory is now the highly-populated East Bay.
In the 4th grade I read a book that was assigned to me at school. It talked about how our people (who were incorrectly referred to as Costa Noan people) were extinct, which was confusing to read as a child. I showed it to my grandmother, and she took it away from me. We never brought it back to the library, and probably got some fine as a result. I learned she took similar books from my cousins whose textbooks taught the same untruth. I asked her why she did that and she said she didn’t want any other children to read those lies. It’s harmful to us, psychologically, to be told by an intellectual authority a horrible untruth about yourself. To have that happen for decades and have the general public assume a lie — that we don’t exist — perpetuates real physical and emotional harm. By reversing that discourse, and bringing Ohlone history and culture firmly into the present tense, we’re reversing that harm. By doing these things loudly, by researching our truth and culture, we’re reversing the pain our people suffered before. We’re working to heal generations of shame and pain.
Vincent: It’s what our family always taught us: to tell our story and tell our truth, and not to shy away from the difficult parts of the truth, either. Despite these challenges, we’re still here and we’re still thriving. Every day we speak our language and keep our traditions going with our elders to guide this work for us. This goes back to ancient times. That’s not defeat at all. We see our reality today of being where we’re at and doing what we’re doing as being victorious, and that comes from the generations before us. We give so much gratitude to our ancestors to make all of this possible.
Hipcamp: How do you typically spend Indigenous Peoples Day?
Vincent: This year we’re spending it at the Slow Food Indigenous Terra Madre conference led by the Ainu people in Northern Japan.
But typically we spend it with our families. To be honest I see my family often; my mom lives just around the corner from me. My grandma and aunties live just a few blocks away. But we do what we do by keeping our families close.
Hipcamp: Before you go, quick question: what are your favorite dishes being offered at Cafe Ohlone right now and why?
Vincent: I really like the acorn bread that Louis makes.
Louis: Since we’re in the middle of fall: Vince makes a delicious venison stew.
Sounds delicious. We’ll have to try it! Thank you so much for taking the time to tell us more about your story. Safe travels and hope to connect again soon.
Kiš Horše ‘Ék-Hinnan*, Vincent and Louis!
This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.
*The closest thing to thank you in Ohlone, most directly translates to: my life-force or my spirit—everything about me—is good” And the response is not “You’re welcome.” It’s “Kiš ‘Ayye,” which means, “To me, as well.” – source: https://heydaybooks.com/qa-with-vincent-medina/
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