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Wahpepah's Kitchen

By Kerry Hoffschneider

Crystal Wahpepah is an Indigenous chef and member of the Kickapoo Tribe. With a spirit as big as her smile, the designer of Wahpepah’s Kitchen based out of Oakland, Calif., said Indigenous Food Sovereignty is all about listening to, and honoring, her ancestors, “My Grandmother and Aunties helped raise me and my sisters. At the time, whatever they had to offer, they would cook.”

Wahpepah said her experiences in Oklahoma with her family members in the Sac-Fox Tribe, coupled with her life growing up in the Bay Area, helped her realize that knowing one’s Native food traditions is a way of, “keeping my Grandmother’s memory and also my Great Grandmother and her mother . . . It’s more of an approach to our emotional health, mental health and physical health.”

Wahpepah said her food journey began as early as age 7, surrounded by family members who were active in the American Indian Movement. She recalled celebrating the federal holiday of Thanksgiving at Alcatraz where she listened to human rights speakers, took part in the Sunrise Ceremony and, “It would be like a big potluck and everybody would bring food.”

“I realized, oh wow, we don’t have Native American restaurants in the Bay Area,” she pointed out. “It (cooking) always stuck with me and something I was good at from a young age.”

Fortunate to have a family who embraced her talents, Wahpepah eventually decided to attend culinary school, “I always knew I wanted to be a Native Chef . . . Our foods are so beautiful. I think they are so gorgeous – they speak for themselves and where we came from.”

“What you eat is what you are,” she added, noting that knowing the food of your ancestors is, “like growing a new body – a new mind.”

“One taste can bring you back to the best times,” Wahpepah reflected. “Food is medicine. Food is healing. It takes you back and helps you meditate on what is brighter to the future – how we think, how we exercise. I totally believe food is medicine and my gift does come from my Creator.”

Wahpepah’s vision began to blossom even more while she was receiving counseling at the Native American Health Center in Oakland, Calif., “I talked to one of the counselors about how I loved cooking, how it brought all of us together. At the time, she asked me if I would be willing to cater for Native American Health. I said, ‘yes,’ without even thinking.”

The “Universe knew” Wahpepah was ready though as she had been trained for this moment all those years serving food for her family. Her first catering job was 400 people and from there it has grown to inspiring Native chefs and people all over the world. She was even the first Native Chef to be featured on the popular Food Network show, “Chopped.”

While Wahpepah said it was a great honor to be chosen for “Chopped” out of nearly 25,000 chefs, it was really about elevating Indigenous foods on the world stage, “I really wanted to stress on how we’re here, this is our land, this is our food and Native chefs do exist.”

Back in California, Wahpepah is unwaveringly dedicated to her catering mission. There were times she was offered to take over a restaurant, but, “I feel like catering is more outreach. It’s more educational.”

“I cater all over the nation . . . I like to talk from my heart and my hands and how I represent these foods in a good, respectful way,” Wahpepah said, stressing that if she can reach a few of these people, “I have done my job.”

Just recently, Wahpepah was one of the Indigenous chefs featured at the Intertribal Agriculture Council (IAC) Virtual Food Summit, “IAC, it’s like family. A family that I have been waiting for. It’s like we are fighting the same battle. When we come together, it feels like my family back home when I am with them. All these beautiful producers that I dearly, dearly love because I could not create without them – it makes me embrace my gifts even more.”

Want to hear more? We totally understand. Further the conversation with Wahpepah on our IAC Resiliency through Agriculture podcast:

Follow Wahpepah’s Gorgeous Indigenous Food designs here:

Follow the Native American Health Center at:



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