After shutting down a few weeks into the COVID-19 pandemic, the reopening of Cafe Ohlone at UC Berkeley is something truly worth celebrating. Founded by business partners and couple Vincent Medina and Louis Trevino, the cafe is designed to be “a love song to Ohlone culture.”
For them, this means drawing architectural inspiration from traditional Ohlone village spaces and customs with beautiful redwood tables and seating for Medina and Trevino’s elders. This vision also includes murals painted by Indigenous artists and plenty of plants growing along a winding path leading to the establishment.
All of these elements, along with piles of crushed shellmounds and boulders, remind the Berkeley community that the Ohlone community is alive and continues to adapt to centuries of oppression. Cafe Ohlone is reopening on campus, claiming its rightful place in the Phoebe A. Hearst courtyard of the Hearst Museum. The cafe is also a reminder of the Ohlone community’s resilience in the face of widespread erasure from the city and UC Berkeley — including the Hearst Museum.
In order to understand the gravity of Cafe Ohlone’s reopening, the UC Berkeley community must fully grasp the Hearst Museum’s problematic past.
One of the founding members of UC Berkeley’s anthropology department was Alfred Kroeber, a problematic figure who kept an Indigenous man named Ishi captive as a “living exhibit.” Kroeber also argued that the Ohlone community was extinct, leading to its exclusion from federal recognition. This infringed on the Ohlone people’s right to hold land and political power.
Kroeber also contributed to a culture of unethical acquisition of cultural materials; he looted the remains of Indigenous ancestors from sacred gravesites to be put on display and used in his research. Although UC Berkeley renamed Kroeber Hall to the Anthropology and Art Practice Building in January 2021, this gesture is not enough to address the continued erasure of the Ohlone community and the lack of reparations and repatriation.
Since renaming Kroeber Hall, campus professor of anthropology Kent Lightfoot has advocated for tangible steps to address the oppression and erasure of Indigenous people in Berkeley. A large part of this has been finding a place for Cafe Ohlone to reopen on campus — something that has finally come to fruition. This claim of space points to a larger hope for Indigenous people to regain recognition in Berkeley and on campus.
For UC Berkeley, this is a step in the right direction. But this step must become a stride forward — a catalyst for tangible change, recognition and reparations. Only through supporting the Indigenous community at large and addressing the problematic past of the Hearst Museum can UC Berkeley truly make progress.