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Kickapoo chef honors her heritage with Oakland's first Indigenous restaurant

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Some people wear their hearts on their sleeves, as the saying goes. And our next guest, well, she wears hers on her ears.

CRYSTAL WAHPEPAH: So these are choke cherry earrings. And I love choke cherries. I love berries.

CHANG: Crystal Wahpepah is a Native American chef in Oakland, Calif.

WAHPEPAH: I am Kickapoo and Sac and Fox from Oklahoma.

CHANG: Her love of choke cherries, these little sour berries used by tribes across North America, well, it started when she was a young girl.

WAHPEPAH: I cooked a lot with my grandmothers, my aunties and a lot of people from here in the community.

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Wahpepah always felt happiest when she was cooking, and as an adult, she eventually opened her own catering business, making the Native foods from her childhood. She began by cooking for her Native community and later for tech giants like Facebook, Google and Twitter.

CHANG: Everyone had lots of questions about her food, and she realized she didn't have all the answers.

WAHPEPAH: Where do my tribe eat, what did my tribe come from. You know, even my own Native people were asking, what is our foods?

MCCAMMON: So Wahpepah started to research and travel. Her first stop, Oklahoma, where her Kickapoo Tribe is from.

WAHPEPAH: The more I traveled, the more I got to meet Native American farmers, Native American seed keepers. And so everything that I was learning, it kind of made all sense. So it's like a puzzle that's being brought together.

CHANG: A puzzle with the final piece, her own restaurant. After a decade of research, it's opening soon in Oakland, home to the tight-knit Native community where she grew up. Wahpepah's Kitchen will be part of a modern Indigenous cooking movement that's been percolating in the U.S. for several years.

WAHPEPAH: We are doing a fabulous menu. We are doing a bison blueberry sausage with blue corn topped with huckleberries. Everything that I honor in Indigenous foods, I would like to bring all together on a plate.

MCCAMMON: That blue corn and most of her ingredients come from Indigenous farmers. And the menu is influenced by many tribes.

WAHPEPAH: We reside on Ohlone land. When it comes to that, we have the acorn. When we have the smoked salmon, it's honoring the Pomo Tribe, which is up north. And my children are Pomo.

CHANG: While she hopes to please people's palates, she also hopes the experience stimulates their thinking.

WAHPEPAH: Because I feel that Native American communities, Native American people are so forgotten. And so that's my job is to actually make everyone aware how beautiful our foods are.

MCCAMMON: And the one ingredient Wahpepah puts in all her dishes? Pride. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mia Venkat
Amy Isackson

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