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California Foodways: Native American Tribe Bets on Olive Oil

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Olive trees belonging to the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, with their Cache Creek Casino in background. (Lisa Morehouse/KQED)

The Capay Valley in Yolo County is bucolic, with ranches, alfalfa fields and small, organic produce farms that have earned this valley a reputation as an agricultural gem. It’s pretty serene, except for the cacophony inside its most lucrative business: the Cache Creek Casino.

The casino is huge, with a 200-room hotel, 10 restaurants and a golf course. On average, tribe officials say, the casino brings in 2,000 visitors a night, swelling the valley’s population and traffic. That has caused tension between local farmers and the tiny California Indian tribe that runs it, the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation.

It’s because of the casino’s success, however, that the Yocha Dehe can fund its newest production across the highway, the tribe’s own brand of olive oil bottled in a state-of-the-art facility. It’s only in its fourth year of production, but over 200 restaurants -- including Berkeley's Chez Panisse -- use it. The premium oil, called Seka Hills, sells in specialty shops and upscale farmers markets.

Tribal Chairman Marshall McKay says the land the tribe bought next to its tribal housing isn’t ideal for agriculture, but he learned olives aren’t so picky. “You don’t need Class A soil, and you don’t need a lot of water, not like nut trees, not like alfalfa,” he says, referring to two crops grown in the Capay Valley.

McKay sits on the board of the UC Davis Foundation. He says that when the tribe started getting interested in agriculture, he visited the olive center at the nearby university.

Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation Tribal Chairman Marshall McKay. (Lisa Morehouse/KQED)
Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation Tribal Chairman Marshall McKay. (Lisa Morehouse/KQED)

“They had this fascinating tale of quality and quantity and the healing benefits of good fresh oil,” he recalls, “and it may be a burgeoning market in California.”


Now the Yocha Dehe tribe is at the forefront: It’s the first and only known Native American tribe to grow, mill and market extra virgin olive oil.

The olives are new, but the Yocha Dehe and other Native American groups thrived in villages here for thousands of years before European contact. The Capay Valley was a kind of thoroughfare, connecting native peoples from the Bay Area and the Central Valley with those around Clear Lake and the Mendocino Coast.

McKay says, “People, outsiders came into the valley: Gold Rush prospectors, cattle ranchers, soldiers,” and his ancestors fled to the hills. But many were still massacred.

“We were in the way, so we were removed,” he says. “It was genocide.  It just hasn’t been talked about in history.”

Those who survived were relocated to barren land, a way of slowly killing the tribe, according to McKay. Eventually, only a few families remained. A persistent tribal elder negotiated for years for better land, and the tribe eventually moved to the town of Brooks, where the casino is now. Still, life remained tough through the 1980s.

“I grew up in severe poverty,” says James Kinter, the Yocha Dehe’s tribal secretary. “Growing up here on the reservation, we used to go pick walnuts on the side of the road for dinner sometimes. My mom, she used to work the fields, worked as a waitress. She was a single mom, raising three children. And everybody was kind of in that situation in the tribe.”

In the 1980s, laws regulating Indian gaming began to loosen, and Kinter remembers when the tribe opened a bingo hall in 1985. He was 5 years old.

A worker bottles fresh olive oil from the Capay Valley. (Lisa Morehouse/KQED)
A worker bottles fresh olive oil from the Capay Valley. (Lisa Morehouse/KQED)

“It was great, just to see people get excited about something, and it brought us together as a tribe,” he says. The council encouraged tribe members who’d left the Capay Valley to return. The bingo hall expanded, federal acts and state propositions allowed for Las Vegas-style gaming, and in 1999 the Yocha Dehe entered into a compact with the state to build the casino they have now.

The casino has been really successful; just how successful is a little hard to pin down. I ask McKay about an article from 2007 that said the casino generates $300 million a year, and he responds, “The casino is generating a lot of money. I don’t feel comfortable disclosing that either, but I would say that’s not out of the ballpark.”

That kind of money is going to make waves with some neighbors. “You can be a hell of a farmer with that kind of income,” says Tom Frederick. He and his wife own Capay Valley Vineyards and Winery, right next to the casino. They’re part of a group challenging some nonagricultural development.

“They do a great job,” says Frederick. “They do the best of everything when they do the farming, so I don’t begrudge them on that.” He is frustrated that, because they’re a native sovereign nation, some Yocha Dehe operations like the casino and golf course operate under different regulations from the rest of the valley. “It’s a concentration of money and power, so we just seek some kind of balance.”

Top-of-the-line malaxer machines imported from Florence, Italy make olives into paste. (Lisa Morehouse/KQED)
Top-of-the-line malaxer machines imported from Florence, Italy, make olives into paste. (Lisa Morehouse/KQED)

Down the valley at Capay Organics, co-owner Thaddeus Barsotti has a different take. “I think anytime anyone does something different, it’s going to be polarizing. They’re clearly doing something different,” he says, “but they’re following the rules just like I am. It’s a different set of rules, but that's what our society has decided was fair. It’s hard to blame them for that.”

Barsotti grew up going to school with tribe members, in tougher times. “I think it’s a cool story anytime you see people not having a lot and taking advantage of the opportunities they’re given and ending with more than they had.  That’s the American dream, right?”

With the Yocha Dehe’s success, and investment in agriculture, they’re making partnerships. Capay Organics has contracted with the tribe to grow organic produce, and they often include those items and Seka Hills olive oil in their CSA boxes. The tribe rents land to other farmers, and is letting about 40 olive growers pay a fee to use its mill.

It’s harvest time for one of those growers, Big Red Farms outside the town of Guinda. They hand-harvest here, so workers use small rakes to scrape olives onto nets, and then gather the nets and dump olives into bins. In a couple of hours, they’ll go to the Seka Hills olive mill.

Farmer Mike Mitchell oversees the operation. “We’re really blessed they’re 5 miles down the road," he says, because the next-closest mills are over two hours away. “The faster you get the olives to the mill, the better oil you got.”

Mike Mitchell of Big Red Farms holds freshly harvested olives. (Lisa Morehouse/KQED)
Mike Mitchell of Big Red Farms holds freshly harvested olives. (Lisa Morehouse/KQED)

At the mill, Mitchell watches bins of his olives come off a truck. “The forklift is taking them over to the scale and weighing them,” after which they get cleaned, then pounded into a pulp, then churned in a machine called a malaxer that separates solids from the oil before it’s decanted and stored. All the equipment here is top of the line, imported from Florence, Italy.

McKay says that with the Yocha Dehe opening up the mill, and working in agriculture, tensions in the Capay Valley have eased. They’re in the same line of work now.

“That wasn’t like that a few years ago. People weren’t looking at us in the eye.  We weren’t looking at them in the eye, and now that’s changed,” he says. “We have the same concerns with weather, and allocations, and seed costs and fuel costs. We can relate to it now.”

Because of the casino, the tribe definitely has a lot more capital than its neighbors. McKay says to keep the approximately 70 tribal members grounded and engaged despite their newfound wealth, they receive higher incomes if they’ve graduated from high school, or work, or attend college full time. “Are you doing something for yourself instead of just waiting for a handout?” McKay says.

All members belong to committees to learn about tribal governance and casino operations, and now farm and land management, so they can make thoughtful decisions about their future.

“I think our main objective now is acquiring pieces of land that have significance, that have meaning.” He says all of this valley has meaning to his tribe.

Vickie Ly provided additional reporting for this piece. Reporting for this story was funded in part by Cal Humanities.

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