'Healing historical trauma': Native American restaurant serving indigenous cuisine opens in Oakland

The restaurant opens Saturday, November 13 in Oakland's Fruitvale Village, adjacent to the Fruitvale BART station.
OAKLAND, Calif. (KGO) -- Wahpepah's Kitchen, a new woman-owned Native American restaurant serving a modern take on indigenous cuisine opens in East Oakland on Saturday.

Chef Crystal Wahpepah, who has owned one of the only Native American catering businesses in California for the last 12 years, is opening a new restaurant bringing her take on indigenous cuisine to the East Bay.

"Native American people, Native American food is here," said Chef Crystal Wahpepah. "A lot of people don't know that."

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The restaurant opens Saturday, November 13 in Oakland's Fruitvale Village, adjacent to the Fruitvale BART station.

"It feels amazing," she told ABC7 News Race & Culture Reporter Julian Glover. "Having this space in this restaurant, it is healing from historical trauma and colonization."

The trailblazing chef was the first Native American person featured on Food Network's hit show "Chopped," and is now adding another accolade to her list as one of a small number of Native American owned restaurants in the Bay Area.

"Me being born and raised as a Kickapoo Native American and also African American from East Oakland: If I can do it, you can too," she said.

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Chef Wahpepah invited ABC7News to get a first look at the all-new restaurant as she finalized the menu.

She paraded out a variety of dishes from a wild rice cake, to an "ancient porridge" using quinoa, amaranth, and wild rice topped with spicy chili.

Other dishes offer a twist on the familiar, like a blue corn waffle with a fried turkey wing, topped off with a fresh berry compote and house-made maple butter.

Each menu offering features authentic, indigenous foods using locally-sourced and in-season ingredients.

"Everything you see right here is something that I grew up with, it's something that inspired me," said Wahpepah.

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A pearled hominy dish with seasonal squash comes from the pages of her grandmother's cooking.

"When I see this dish and when I taste it, I can just close my eyes and go back into the kitchen with (my grandmother)."

The chef said she pulls both her inspiration and strength from her ancestors in the Kickapoo tribe native to Oklahoma.

She envisions the restaurant as a cultural exchange, where people unfamiliar with native cuisine can get a good meal and a good lesson by visiting her "Native American Food Pantry."

"Our foods are harvested and I wanted to display that for education. That is the main purpose of letting them see where our foods come from and how we use our foods in these dishes," she said.

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The decor also showcases hand-painted murals by Native American artists paying homage to the food restaurant goers will find on the menu.

Many staff members at the restaurant, from the back of the house employees to chefs, are also Native American and say the significance of this space opening during Native American Heritage Month is not lost on them.

"I've worked at a lot of restaurants, but never a Native American one," said Sonny Vierra, "This is a good opportunity for people of this community."

"Before I was always making someone else's food," said chef Joshua Hoyt. "This is the opportunity to make my food."

Chef Wahpepah considers her team Indigenous Food Warriors-a slogan you'll find on the back of staff t-shirts.

She recalls stories from her grandfather detailing how her ancestors fought for survival and now she finds her self fighting for a rightful space in our history and in our understanding of what native food is.

"We are warriors," she said. "When it comes to our food, we're on the front lines of saving our foods and reviving our foods."

Wahpepah's Kitchen is located at 3301 East 12th Street in Oakland. The restaurant opens to the public Saturday, November 13 at 11 a.m.

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