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Native American Tribe Bets On Olive Oil

The Yocha Dehe tribe grows, mills and markets its own extra-virgin olive oil. The tribe's mill uses top-of-the-line equipment imported from Florence, Italy.

The bucolic Capay Valley is about an hour outside Sacramento, Calif., and its ranches, alfalfa fields and small, organic produce farms have earned it a reputation as an agricultural gem. It's pretty serene, except for the cacophony inside the valley's most lucrative business, the Cache Creek Casino.

That casino — and the huge crowds it attracts on any given night — has been a source of tension between local farmers and the tiny California Indian tribe which runs it, the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation. But it's because of the casino's success that the Yocha Dehe can fund its newest venture, across the highway: the tribe's own brand of olive oil — bottled in a state-of-the-art facility.

It's harvest time, and at one small farm in the valley, workers rake olives off branches on to a net which they dump into bins. The fruit is trucked just down the road and pressed into oil at the Yocha Dehe's olive mill, in equipment imported from Florence, Italy. About 40 growers from the region process their olives here.

About a decade ago, former Tribal Chairman Marshall McKay visited the olive center at nearby University of California, Davis.

"They had this fascinating tale of quality and quantity and the healing benefits of good fresh oil," he says, "and [that] it may be a burgeoning market in California."

Now the Yocha Dehe tribe is at the forefront: It's growing, milling and marketing extra-virgin olive oil. Though only in its fifth year of production, the olive oil is used in over 200 restaurants – including the famed Chez Panisse. A premium version of the oil, called Seka Hills, is sold in specialty shops and upscale farmers markets.

The olives are new, but the Yocha Dehe and other Native American groups thrived in villages here for thousands of years before European contact.

McKay says, "People, outsiders came into the valley: Gold Rush prospectors, cattle ranchers, soldiers." 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.

"I grew up in severe poverty," says James Kinter, 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 in 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 the tribe opened a bingo hall. Kinter was 5 years old. "It was great, just to see people get excited about something, and it brought us together as a tribe," he says.

They expanded, eventually opening the casino — which averages 2,000 visitors daily, swelling traffic on the valley's two-lane highway, and reportedly earning hundreds of millions of dollars a year for the tribe.

McKay says to keep the approximately 100 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. Or, as he puts it, "Are you doing something for yourself instead of just waiting for a handout?"

But casino development made waves with some neighbors. When the casino expanded in 2002, protesters drove tractors up and down the valley's small highway, citing concerns about increased traffic on rural roads.

Tom Frederick and his wife own Capay Valley Vineyards and Winery, right next door to the casino. As farmers, he says, the tribe is doing a great job. "They do the best of everything," he says, adding," I don't begrudge them that."

But he is frustrated that, because they're a native sovereign nation, some Yocha Dehe operations — like the casino and its adjoining golf course — operate under different regulations than the rest of the valley. "It's a concentration of money and power, so we just seek some kind of balance," Frederick says. He and his wife are part of a group voicing concerns about the possibility of more casino-related development in the future, and how that could impact the agricultural character of the valley.

Down the valley at Capay Organics, co-owner Thaddeus Barsotti has a different take. He 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?" he says.

Former tribal chairman Marshall McKay says with the Yocha Dehe opening up the olive oil mill, and working in agriculture, tensions with their farming neighbors in the Capay Valley have eased. After all, they're all in the same line of work now.

"That wasn't like that a few years ago," he says. "People weren't looking at us in the eye. We weren't looking at them in the eye, and now that's changed."

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