The Future of Food Sovereignty Takes Shape At Wahpepah’s Kitchen

by Mikena Richards

I recently visited Wahpepah’s Kitchen, an Indigenous-run and owned restaurant that occupies an unassuming corner of the Fruitvale BART station plaza. Wahpepah’s was started by Chef Crystal Wahpepah, a member of the Kickapoo Nation of Oklahoma. The food at Wahpepah’s Kitchen comes with a set of objectives: the first and foremost being to acknowledge that we live on stolen land. Wahpepah’s second objective is to recognize how acknowledging that we live on stolen land connects to the reclamation of food sovereignty, a concept that resists corporate food systems and instead functions to give power back to food providers. Food sovereignty allows food providers to independently control the production and distribution of their foods and consume what they create in their own system, on their own terms. Lastly, Wahpepah’s wants to educate communities and organizations on the health benefits of Native foodways using the knowledge passed down to Chef Wahpepah.

Indeed, all food has a story, but at Wahpepah’s Kitchen, that story is clear and distinct — like every bite is a piece of the mission standing behind it. Consuming food with direct ties to indigeneity and food sovereignty puts the eater in the position of thinking very consciously about that food’s journey and history. It is almost impossible to eat it without wondering where it was grown or raised, how it was made, or who handled it. On the other side of this is the feeling that there is a dearth of restaurants across the nation that offer to tell stories like these. I’m glad Crystal chose Oakland to tell her story.

Upon entering the restaurant I was immediately met with the delicious smell of frybread. I noticed that each and every person had something on their plate that I wanted. As I looked around the restaurant, I noticed how beautifully Wahpepah’s is decorated. The space is adorned with mementos, all given a dedicated space along the bright yellow shelves that lined the back wall of the restaurant. Each keepsake laced together a story of both personal and cultural history. Sitting just to the left of my head was a collection of jars ranging from small to large, labeled “hulled white corn,” “buffalo squash,” and “kickapoo coffee”. Wahpepah’s, as an establishment, is not only an experience of visual storytelling, but of didacticism.

On neighboring shelves sat multiple awards dedicated to Crystal for her excellence in the industry, along with a copy of the Native American Almanac (which Crystal Wahpepah has been inducted into as one of the first Native American women to own a catering business), and bundles of sage and palo santo placed perfectly as centerpieces. Looking at the menu was both exciting and overwhelming. Each dish sounded equally delicious and special. I wanted one of everything. Wahpepah’s serves meats that I have yet to find anywhere else in the Bay Area, like charred deer meat “marinated in indigenous seasonings” and, although slightly more common, bison and rabbit. We decided to order the Ihskopihpeniiya peeskoneiihi taquitos — sweet potato hibiscus taquitos hand-rolled with smoked hibiscus (something I’d also never tried), and sweet and white potatoes. We also ordered miisiikwaa keetaheehi (a bison frybread taco), and the peeskipaateeki mehsweeha, a nixtamal blue corn smoked rabbit tamal.

The taquitos were fried perfectly even, with a nice crispy texture all around and a very snappy and satisfying crunch to them. The potatoes inside were perfectly delicate, sweet, and pillowy, a perfect match for their freshly-fried-tortilla counterpart. The bison frybread taco came next. The bison was tender, with an earthy, light saltiness to it. It served as the top layer of a small tower of frybread, lettuce, and red chili salsa. I enjoyed the frybread most when ripped apart and used as a shovel. Wahpepah’s serves their frybread with a side of herby sauce and a small ramekin of maple oil. Once the bison was gone, I took the last bits of the bread, which the server described as “kind of like a beignet”, and dipped it into the maple oil. It felt a little bit like free dessert since we stopped ourselves from ordering the sweet frybread that came with mixed berries and coconut cream.

miisiikwaa keetaheeh (left) and ipeeskoneiihi taquitos (right) from Wahpepah’s Kitchen.

The food at Wahpepah’s strikes a balance that is not always easy — nutritious, without sacrificing flavor or complexity. The rabbit had the tenderness of lean, braised meat, with a sweet and savory tomato-y flavor that one would anticipate from the kind of chicken in a traditional Mexican tamale. But the tamal at Wahpepah’s is distinctly different, not only because of the herbs and spices used, but the side of traditional hand-harvested wild rice pilaf. Wahpepah’s wild rice pilaf is not like the kind of rice pilaf you’d buy in a box at the grocery store. Instead, the Wahpepah’s pilaf comes with curly ribbons of delicate rice grains. They are unlike anything I’d ever eaten; their curly shape lending itself to an exciting textural experience. The pilaf was made with cranberries and green onions; the former offering a tart and acidic tang, the latter giving the pilaf a refreshing spicy kick. It was delicious.

peeskipaateeki mehsweeha, a nixtamal blue corn smoked rabbit tamal from Wahpepah’s Kitchen.

Throughout the meal I was reminded of how little — if at all — we are taught about Native American food and food systems in American society. I’d never been to a restaurant serving deer meat and, although I have had plenty of hibiscus-flavored beverages in my lifetime, Wahpepah’s gave a whole new meaning and life to the already vibrant and multifaceted plant. The food at Wahpepah’s is unique in its flavors and ingredients. But it is also unique because of what Chef Wahpepah has chosen to do with those flavors and ingredients. I’d had bison meat in burgers and stews, but I’d yet to have it served crumbled over frybread. I’d had maple syrup, but never maple oil, nor had I eaten many (if any) maple-flavored dishes served with savory meals. It’s important to note that these meals are unique, but not “exotic” — in fact it is in this country that they originated. But the dominance colonization has over everyday matters — even our palates — is obvious, and one quickly realizes how unfamiliar they are with food made by the very people native to this land.

Wahpepah’s Kitchen is not Crystal’s first venture. The food served at her restaurant found its footing through catering, which Crystal spent the bulk of her time doing (alongside impressive amounts of time dedicated to food activism) before opening the restaurant only two years ago in November 2021. Crystal is also the first Native American Chef to compete in Food Network’s Chopped. She’s used her knowledge to do talks for countless companies and organizations in the Bay Area and across the United States. Crystal’s time traveling has enabled her to build a community with other Native American and Indigenous farmers, land stewards, and chefs. Chef Wahpepah has managed to transform a small corner of Fruitvale into a place where one can not only learn from the past, but experience the present strides of Indigenous food sovereignty workers actively resisting erasure. I left Wahpepah’s Kitchen with more questions than I entered with. What does food sovereignty look like for a restaurant and small business owner working within the confines of rules and bureaucracy? What does the future of Wahpepah’s Kitchen hold? How do you make your maple oil? May I have seconds?



Center for Equity, Gender & Leadership (EGAL)

At the heart of UC Berkeley's Business School, the Center for Equity, Gender, and Leadership educates equity-fluent leaders to ignite and accelerate change.