At Oakland's Indigenous Red Market, Art, Food and Activism Celebrate Native Identities

5 min
Indigenous artists, chefs and vendors celebrate Native culture at the Indigenous Red Market.  (Joey Montoya)

On the first Sunday of every month, a parking lot in the heart of Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood transforms into a vibrant marketplace featuring Indigenous artists, performers and chefs.

Since its start over a year ago, the Indigenous Red Market, organized by Urban Native Era and the Native American Health Center, has become more than a place to buy handcrafted items and mouthwatering foods.

“It’s a gathering place where we can come and be Native,” said Noah Gallo (Ysleta del Sur Pueblo) one of the event organizers with the Native American Health Center. “There is this misconception that Natives don’t exist anymore, but we do. We're human beings. We have jobs. We live out here just like everybody else.”

Although Oakland is home to a number of Native American community centers, including the Intertribal Friendship House, Gallo says it’s important to also have spaces where all Indigenous people — including those from Latin America and the Pacific Islands  — can come together.

Mexica dance group Calpulli Coatlicue dances at the Indigenous Red Market in Oakland.
Mexica (Aztec) dance group Calpulli Coatlicue dances at the Indigenous Red Market in Oakland. (Joey Montoya)

Kickapoo Chili

The food options cover a wide range, too. At one corner of the market, you might find fry bread tacos. 'Otai, a Tongan watermelon drink, is sold in another corner.

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On a recent weekend, the Wahpepah's Kitchen food stand is slammed with customers waiting to order elderberry hibiscus tea and Kickapoo chili, a thick soup with bison and hominy topped with microgreens. The chef behind the popular food booth is Crystal Wahpepah (Kickapoo/Sac and Fox).

“[The chili] is something out of Oklahoma," said Wahpepah. "It’s very inspired by my grandmother and all the Kickapoo ladies from Mexico all the way up to Oklahoma to Kansas to Michigan.”

Wahpepah's family moved to Oakland from Oklahoma not long after the 1956 Indian Relocation Act, which encouraged rural Native Americans to leave their reservations for urban areas. The federal government circulated posters that promised “good jobs” and “happy homes” in places like Oakland, with the expectation that Native Americans would assimilate.

But many of those promises for quality housing and job training didn't materialize.

A relocation recruitment poster from the 1950s distributed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
A relocation recruitment poster from the 1950s distributed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. (Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration)

Despite pressure from the federal government to assimilate, Wahpepah's family didn’t abandon their culture. Instead, they got involved with the local American Indian movement and held onto their traditional foods.

Wahpepah grew up among many Native Americans who also hung out at the Intertribal Friendship House. She wondered why there weren't any restaurants where her community could eat Indigenous foods. That’s what ultimately inspired her to learn the recipes of her Kickapoo elders.

Fast forward a couple of years, and Wahpepah became the first Native American chef on the Food Network show "Chopped."

Nowadays, she’s busy running her booming catering company, but the Indigenous Red Market is her favorite place to share her food.

“When we do food booths this is the one I like doing, because it represents who I am and where I'm from,” she said.

'Strong Indigenous Babes All Around Is My Theme'

The Indigenous Red Market also provides a platform for activists and artists to report on social issues like the construction happening on sacred lands, including Mauna Kea in Hawaii.

These issues are at the forefront of Jackie Fawn’s (Yurok/Washoe/Filipino) work. Her illustrations of Indigenous women — stylized like the characters of the comic "Sailor Moon" — are on display at her booth.

One of the many posters artist Jackie Fawn has for sale at the Indigenous Red Market.
One of the many posters artist Jackie Fawn has for sale at the Indigenous Red Market. (Courtesy of Jackie Fawn)

“My favorite poster is a woman riding a horse into battle. She’s fighting a black snake, which symbolizes the pipelines," said Fawn. “Strong Indigenous babes all around is my theme of work.”

On the other side of the market is jewelry maker Desiree Adams (Diné), who blends her Native culture with Bay Area aesthetics. Her handcrafted hoop earrings are intricately beaded in the pattern of Diné baskets and integrate the colors of local sports teams like the Oakland A’s and the Golden State Warriors.

“We’re not all on reservations. We’re urban. We’re just trying to bring awareness to who we are as people and let society know that we're still here,” said Adams.

She also wants to share the diversity of Native people. “A lot of people think we're just all one tribe," said Adams. "We're multiple tribes, multiple clans."

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Honoring and sharing different histories and identities is what draws many Indigenous people in the Bay Area to this market — and others have come from as far as Sacramento, Los Angeles and New Mexico.

For drummer and singer Manny Lieras (Navajo/Comanche), the market is also a place to share powwow drumming and singing.

To close out the event, he invited the crowd to join his family in a communal dance. Toddlers, 20-somethings and elders linked arms to form a circle. Together they stepped to the beat of the drum.

“All right, give yourselves a big round of applause for being out here at the Indigenous Red Market," said Lieras. "Thank you for your time. Thank you for your participation. Thank you for your good vibes.”

Then friends, old and new, made plans to see each other at the next market.

The market is located at 3124 International Blvd, Oakland. For information on market dates, follow @indigenousredmarket on Instagram or the market's Facebook page.