Terremoto designed Cafe Ohlone to be an Indigenous refuge in a colonial world.
By Timothy A. Schuler
Preserving The Ohlone Culture
“What would a world look like completely under Ohlone stewardship?” asks Vincent Medina, referring to his people, who originally inhabited much of the San Francisco Bay Area. “[That’s] what this space is. It’s a world that’s part of a modern-day setting but that also is celebrating everything Indigenous to this place.”
With his partner Louis Trevino, Medina is a cofounder of mak-’amham, a Bay Area organization focused on the preservation of Ohlone language and culture. The space he’s speaking of is the entry court of the historic Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley—an institution that had a direct hand in the dispossession of the Ohlone people. This August, the once-formal, now-rewilded outdoor space became the new home of Cafe Ohlone, a culinary experience curated by Medina and Trevino that launched in 2018.
Conceived as a gradual sequence from the “outside” world into a fully Ohlone one, the space was designed in collaboration with the San Francisco office of Terremoto, whose staff members contacted the couple after reading about the monthly meal kits they began offering during the pandemic—elaborate, 13-course dinners showcasing traditional Ohlone foods. Sarah Samynathan, ASLA, a designer at Terremoto, recalls recognizing among the ingredients plants she used in projects. “That was the initial interest, [realizing that] the original people on this land used those plants for survival, and we’re using them for decorating a space,” she says.
A series of long, often intimate conversations between Cafe Ohlone’s founders and Terremoto’s Samynathan, Story Wiggins, and Hyunch Sung (who recently launched her own firm, Studio Moonya) led to a site plan that divides the courtyard into three increasingly bountiful garden spaces,beginning with an enigmatic, shadow boxlike foyer shaped through fabric-covered panels and lighting that offers glimpses of the abundant world beyond. “They wanted to think of this as a sovereign space,” says Wiggins, a partner at Terremoto. “That really inspired the spatial design and the use of these screens to say, ‘Okay, you’re entering a completely new space, and it’s a sovereign nation unto itself.’”
The main dining area features tables made from salvaged redwood and mounded gardens of aromatic, edible, or culturally important plants. “Every plant, every detail has a reason for being there,” Medina says. At the far end of the café is a raised communal table under a trellis planted in ‘enesmin (Pacific blackberry), mamakwa (wood rose), and wild ginger. That table is reserved exclusively for elders and members of the Ohlone community. Throughout the space, plant tags in the Chochenyo language and recordings of native speakers reinforce the sense of Indigenous autonomy.
The partnership with the Hearst Museum was hardly an obvious one. In addition to stolen artifacts, the institution has in its collection thousands of human remains, many of them looted from Ohlone shell mounds. And it was a museum director who, in 1925, wrote that the Ohlone people were “culturally extinct,” an act that contributed to the Ohlone being denied federal recognition.
For these reasons, Medina and Trevino see Cafe Ohlone as part of a larger project they’ve dubbed ‘ottoy, which in Chochenyo means “to repair.” They hope the café can be a vehicle for righting past wrongs and generating greater visibility for their community. “Every day, people are going to be walking by the space, seeing living Ohlone people, hearing Ohlone language,” Medina says. “Once people know those things, you can’t unknow them. Whether they’re the heads of departments or students, there’s going to be an understanding, just by the presence [of the café], that Ohlone people are alive and well in our homeland.”