(CNN)Crystal Wahpepah has made it her mission to share her Indigenous community's rarely seen foods with the world.
Wahpepah, who is Kickapoo and Sac and Fox, recently opened Wahpepah's Kitchen, the newest Indigenous restaurant in Oakland, California -- and likely the newest in the country.
"When I was around 6 or 7 years old, I would go pick berries and I would actually see different berries but the kinds you wouldn't see when you're being raised in urban areas," Wahpepah told CNN, adding that she grew up in a family that made traditional and ceremonial Native foods. "That's when I put two and two together. We don't see our foods."
Wahpepah knew early that she wanted to open a restaurant, but she needed to figure out a way to present ceremonial foods to the public. She traveled to Oklahoma and asked her elders how to market these traditional foods, and she started catering 12 years ago -- which is when she noticed the lack of Native chefs or restaurants. She developed her brand at La Cocina, a San Francisco organization that offers opportunities for working-class women entrepreneurs, and soon after she was preparing food for Silicon Valley tech giants -- though she noticed most people were still unfamiliar with Native foods.
After a decade of catering and research, Wahpepah has opened her brick-and-mortar restaurant. The menu boasts bison blueberry sausage with blue corn and huckleberry, Kickapoo chili, three sisters salad and chia berry pudding. And she is not alone.
Other Native-owned restaurants -- and restaurants serving Native-inspired foods -- are amongst those that have opened this year. Sean Sherman opened Owamni in Minneapolis, Loretta Barrett Oden started Thirty Nine Restaurant at the First Americans Museum in Oklahoma City, and Vincent Medina and Louis Trevino are planning to reopen Cafe Ohlone in Berkeley, California.
Native American eateries still remain relatively rare due to challenges linked to a history of trauma and colonization, as pointed out by Sherman and Wahpepah. But it's important for Indigenous chefs to share their cultural traditions where they can.
"This is something that needs to be represented for our next generation," Wahpepah said.
Why are there so few Native restaurants?
Sean Sherman, an Oglala Lakota chef, began The Sioux Chef as an Indigenous food education business and catering company. Sherman, who started cooking at a young age, said he quickly noticed a complete absence of Indigenous foods in the mainstream, a dearth of recipes without European influences, and a lack of restaurants serving foods of the land they are on.
Today, there are 574 federally recognized tribes across the US. At the start of the 19th century, about 80% of the landmass that makes up the US was under Native control, but by the end of the century, that number had dwindled to just 2%, Sherman noted in a 2020 TED Talk. Beyond losing land, Native people lost their Indigenous education -- such as how to live sustainably, how to fish and hunt, and how to identify plants.
Native children were sent to boarding schools, so they could assimilate into White society. That stripped them of previous generations' knowledge and forced them to learn nontraditional skills and speak different languages, with many subjected to physical and mental abuse.
Native Americans did not become US citizens until 1924. Various tribes were relocated or dismantled over the course of the late 1940s into the early '60s.
Because of this traumatic history, according to Sherman, many Native Americans are not fully aware of their culinary traditions and are unfamiliar with many sustainable practices. The "invisibility that has been placed over us," as well as continuing segregation, has made it difficult for many Indigenous chefs to receive the support -- and money -- to open up restaurants or shops, he told CNN.
"In Manhattan, you can go out for anything. If you want Peruvian food, if you want northern Japanese food, you can pick it, but you can't get the food of where you actually are," Sherman said.
"We felt it was really super necessary and important to showcase that there is a true food of North America and that there is Indigenous culinary history here, and it doesn't start with European history, but it starts with Indigenous histories."