We cooked šaakani (duck) this week, delicious, savory duck breast roasted until the skin was crispy. As the duck was roasting, sokkoti (bay laurel leaves) were placed under its skin so that the bay laurel oil flavored the meat with its spicy and peppery flavor. The bay laurel was gathered with gratitude in the tribal area of saklan, the same area my ancestors are from. saklan is just east of the Oakland hills, and close to where I was born and grew up. All my Indian family is from around this area, most of us were born here, grew up here and still live close.
As the duck was roasting with the sokkoti leaves, I boiled down some local berries – wild strawberries and more bay laurel to compliment the duck, and blackberries with yerba buena from Louis’ homeland in the Carmel Valley. It was meaningful to eat these same flavors our people ate before, with the ingredients maybe even gathered from the very same trees and woodlands our ancestors gathered from and cherished. It was a meal that nurtured us in every way.
The next day, talking to a friend of ours named Nadja, I told her how good the duck came out, and how we love to taste the flavors of home. As I was talking I started to tell a story – one that reminded me of a time that this delicious food was not available to my family, even though it should have been. This story happened before I was born, even before my father or grandfather was born. It is a story recorded in our old documentation recorded by John Harrington, a linguist from Washington, DC. Mr. Harrington interviewed an elderly Indian woman named Susanna Nichols here in the East Bay in 1930, over in Niles. Susanna is the sister of my great-great-great grandmother, Avelina Cornates. People in my family still remember Susanna’s name even today, especially the elders.
Susanna remembers that when whites first came into the East Bay, they ran Indian people off the land. Susanna’s family, witnessing this injustice, went to Mr. Manyan, the first police officer in Newark. Mr. Manyan gave Susanna’s family a paper granting permission to put nets wherever they wanted to hunt ducks, but first told Susanna’s grandmother it’s your land.
As I told that story, I thought about how fortunate we are to eat these delicious Ohlone foods today, but also thought about the times in our history we could not eat like this. And this is of no fault of our own, but because people prevented and restricted us from eating our heritage foods as a result of colonization and our lands being stolen. Today, we can eat enjoy Ohlone cuisine again and remember that generations of people have fought for our foods and recognized their importance.
Of course, we still have restrictions and difficulties attaining these traditional ingredients and game, but it is encouraging to know that people in our community have always done what they could to keep these foods in our world. I think about how difficult it must have been to have to ask for permission, in ones’ own home, to hunt for the same foods that countless generations have before. I’m grateful for Susanna’s family for having the foresight and courage to take this act. And Mr. Manyan’s response is spot on.
As we eat, we are reminded of our ancestors and their sacrifices. We are reminded of home and these plants that are gathered in our birthplaces. We are reminded of the truth – the need to stay fed with good food, and stay woke against injustice everywhere facing our people and our food.
— Vince Medina