Charles Trimble: Tocabe -- A Native culinary treasure in Denver

My wife Anne had seen Guy Fieri’s TV program Diners, Drive-ins and Dives in which he featured a segment on a Native American-owned and -operated restaurant in Denver. The place is called Tocabe, and it is under the management of the young owners, Ben Jacobs and Matt Chandra.

Anne said that the owners were Osage from Oklahoma; that the American Indian food in the TV program looked delicious and the ambiance of the place was striking and tasteful. So we decided that on our way to the Rockies for respite from the scorching heat of Omaha, we would stop in Denver to have lunch at the Tocabe.

We would arrive there at about 1:30 pm, and figured that we’d have no trouble finding an open table for a late lunch. Not so -- the restaurant was packed when we entered, with people waiting in a line all the way out the front door. But nobody was complaining and the servers were very efficient and we were served and seated in short order.

From the wide Native menu, we enjoyed the best Indian tacos either of us had ever eaten – light, tasty, non-greasy frybread filled with roasted jerked bison meat and topped with an excellent salsa. As we ate I motioned the lady busing tables to come over to ours. She was obviously Indian, late middle-aged and very attractive, but she appeared too elegant to be clearing and wiping tables; so I guessed she was one of the owners and asked her.

She said that she was one of the owners, so I guessed she was Osage – which she confirmed. Then I asked her if she knew friends of mine who were Osage from Oklahoma: Andrew Gray and his family, who were friends of ours when we lived in Denver during the 1960s, and the late Georgiana Robinson, a friend from my time with the National Congress of Americans in the 1970s. Yes, she said, Andrew was her uncle and Georgiana was her mother. When I introduced myself, she came around to where I was sitting and asked me to stand because she wanted to give me a hug.

She said she had clipped and saved a column I had written about the outstanding women who were the leaders of NCAI while I served as Executive Director of the organization; and one of them I wrote about was Georgiana.

She went into the kitchen and brought out her son Ben to meet us. He is impressive, even in his reversed baseball cap and apron. He and his business partner – a close friend from his college days – run a happily hectic operation smoothly with well trained, friendly staff of young Native servers. Where it is situated, it is a neighborhood restaurant, but it is obvious that people from all over the metro area come there regularly.

Ben described plans to expand operations via franchise, and early connections even call for some to be in major professional sports facilities, such as stadiums and arenas. He gave me a business summary plan that is convincing that he knows what he’s doing, and his plans are thorough and realistic. I had little doubt from talking to him that I was talking to an entrepreneur destined for success – perhaps a future Famous Dave Anderson.

His mother Jan and I talked about Georgiana Robinson and her days on the NCAI Executive Committee in the late 1960s. Georgiana was a warm elegant lady and gentle. But there was never any question of her strength, resolve and leadership.

We recalled the 1969 NCAI Convention in Albuquerque, which was the first convention I had attended. It was an especially memorable event for it was the first time young Indian militants would come to disrupt and harangue the membership and elders as sell-outs and has-beens who need to get tougher on the federal government, especially the BIA. That was to set a pattern that would occur at the NCAI conventions for several years in the future, and nearly bring NCAI down.

At the Albuquerque convention, the opening ceremonies were disrupted as some militants, led by activist Lehman Brightman out of the University of California, attempted to take the stage . The out-going NCAI President at the time was Wendell Chino of the Mescalero Apache, who was either delayed or chose not to face the embarrassing confrontation.

Being the chair of the Credentials Committee, Georgiana began the official opening of the meeting with the roll call of tribes, but was stopped when one of the young militants attempted to take over the microphone. Gently but firmly, she refused to step aside and stood her ground. After several minutes of this, the young raise-hell obviously decided that he was not going to succeed in bullying this elegant lady and left the stage, still haranguing, but clearly outclassed. The meeting opened.

In an earlier column about outstanding women in the history of NCAI, I wrote, “Georgiana Robinson, Osage, attended every NCAI convention up until her death, and during the conventions seldom saw the light of day, let alone the limelight of a leader. She had dedicated herself to the NCAI Credentials Committee, which she saw as the most important body of the organization. Her days and nights were in a smoke-filled meeting room making the committee work efficiently.”

In response to a piece done by a national Lakota columnist that described urban Indian communities as akin to Jewish ghettos where displaced Indians of diverse tribes wasted away, ruing their plight at having been coerced to move from their reservation homes to various cities as part of the federal Indian relocation program. I noted that, although there were probably many situations where the program failed the relocated Indian people, there were also many instances where the Native communities that formed in the cities showed Native resilience and made the most of the opportunities, and many families not only coped, but prospered.

One such outstanding family was that of Andrew Gray, the brother of Georgiana Robinson. I don’t know the situation of their being in Denver in the 1960s – whether or not they were relocated, but they were a solid family and adjusted well to life in the city because of their Native confidence. Later, in the 1980s, they returned to their Oklahoma homelands and brought much to their reservation community – including much talent and leadership. Their children are all successful – in entrepreneurship, in the arts, and in tribal leadership.

This is the Native stock of the Grays, from which Georgiana Robinson, her daughter Jan and her grandson Ben found confidence, strength and determination to make it in any world.

Charles “Chuck” Trimble was born and raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and is a member of the Oglala Lakota Nation. He was principal founder of the American Indian Press Association – fore runner of the Native American Journalists Association -- in 1969, and served as Executive Director of the National Congress of American Indians from 1972-1978. He is retired and lives in Omaha, Nebraska. He can be contacted at cchuktrim@aol.com and his website is www.iktomisweb.com.

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