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The American Indian Cultural District (the “District”) is within a geographic region that is of great historical and cultural significance to the American Indian community. This corridor holds a unique concentration of historical events, cultural resources, and Native American-based programming, services, and gathering spaces that are historically and presently important to the American Indian community in the San Francisco Bay Area.
San Francisco is the aboriginal home of the Ramaytush Ohlone Peoples. There are known and documented Ohlone cultural resources and sacred sites within the District, including the home of a once-thriving Ohlone village called “Chutchui,” which was located in the area currently known as Mission Dolores Park. Nearby within the District is Mission Dolores. Many American Indian community members see the Mission as a reminder of the painful history of the Mission Era, which lasted from 1769 to 1833. During this time, thousands of American Indians were forcibly removed from their homelands and moved into the missions. The missions were created to convert American Indians to Christianity and to give the Catholic Church authority over American Indians so European territory could be expanded in North America with fewer barriers. Historical documentation of missions reflects enslavement, forced religious practices, division of families, forced labor, rape and prostitution of men, women, and children, and cruel punishment including the use of irons and whips. The mission system decreased the populations of Native Americans in California in some areas by up to 90%. The average lifespan of a Native American in the mission system was ten years. The areas we now call Dolores Park and Mission Dolores hold a unique historical perspective to the American Indian community. First Nations people do not just see a park and a mission, they recognize an area that started as a thriving village site and transitioned to an area of great suffering, where California Native Americans suffered, died, and were buried for the purposes of European land expansion.
Following the Mission Era, government policies stripped American Indian people of millions of acres of their land. The government also created boarding schools that forcibly separated American Indian children from their homelands, families, traditional language, tribes, and culture. Boarding schools that ran until the 1970’s were created to “civilize” American Indian children and assimilate them into American society by “killing the Indian to save the man.” To deepen the process of assimilation and land removal, policies were implemented to end government assistance to tribes and incentivize American Indians to move into urban areas. In 1952, the Bureau of Indian Affairs implemented an urban Indian relocation program to assimilate American Indians into “modern culture.” This program gave American Indians one-way tickets to urban areas. Major cities, including San Francisco, received a large influx of American Indians from all over the United States. American Indian people waited for days and weeks at local bus and train stations for government representatives to meet families and carry out the promise of stable employment and success in the urban cities.
San Francisco was one of the largest relocation cities in the United States. As the urban American Indian population in San Francisco began to expand, the Mission District became a home base for the community. To create a remedy for the lack of adequate government support and resources, the community developed its own support systems. Support systems included social services, cultural retention efforts, employment and housing opportunities, education, political empowerment, and Native American-owned and supported businesses. The community also came together to develop cultural programming, language preservation programs, education courses, and annual events, and to establish community gathering spaces, such as an American Indian Cultural Center (AICC), and some of the first urban pow wows. These American Indian-based enterprises and the rich cultural history of the area are at the heart of the proposed District.
The District was home to the first American Indian Center (AIC), which from the 1940’s to 1969 was located between Mission Street and Valencia Street. The fire that burned down the AIC in 1969 played a significant role in the Occupy Alcatraz Movement. Activists pushed to create a new American Indian Center and Native American school on Alcatraz Island, which remained open there until June of 1971. From 1969 through 1970, the AIC also held an office space at 16th and Guerrero Streets. From 1970 to 1988, the AIC was located at 225/229 Valencia Street. This site offered a wide variety of services, programing, and resources to the community. This site closed in 1988 due to a mishandling of funds. In the 1990’s, the Indian Center of All Nations (ICAN) was located at 16th and Mission Streets. ICAN closed in 1995 due to a lack of steady funding. The Centers over the years have been run by several different community members, but they all had the same goals of providing a community space, cultural retention, resources, events, and programing for American Indians in the San Francisco Bay Area.
From 2005 to 2007, a group of community members began meeting with Members of the Board of Supervisors at City Hall and with the San Francisco Arts Commission, to advocate for program funding and a new community space. In 2012, Mayor Ed Lee attended the Dancing Feather Pow Wow and announced his intention to help find a new home and funding for an American Indian Center. As a response to Mayor Lee’s announcement, an American Indian Advisory Council formed in 2013. This Council met, and still meets every month, to discuss the future and vision of an American Indian Cultural Center. The San Francisco Arts Commission and local Native American-based funding initiatives provided funds to help create the American Indian Cultural Center (AICC). The AICC is composed of the American Indian Advisory Council, a functioning Board, Executive Director, a Program Director, and student interns. In 2019, the AICC was formally recognized as a virtual Cultural Center, operating to provide arts and cultural programs without a fixed location or gathering space. AICC is currently in the process of obtaining 501(c)(3) status.
The buildings that housed the various American Indian Center locations and the surrounding areas hold great importance to the community and have provided a home for historically and politically significant events. The AIC was the meeting place for Bay Area American Indian organizations and home of the United Bay Indian Council, which brought together 30 clubs into one large Council. The American Indian Movement originally held an office in the AIC before moving to the International Indian Treaty Council on Mission Street. Across the street from the AIC, Al Smith owned a trading post where the Native American community came together to sell arts, crafts, and beadwork. Other meeting spots in the area included places such as Aunt Mary’s, a cafe across from the Roxie Theater on 16th Street where the Native American community would gather for breakfast, and the Rainbow Cattle Company, a popular Native American bar on Duboce and Valencia Streets. Muddy Waters and Modern Times were popular spots for artists, poetry nights, and speaking engagements, have also been located on Valencia Street. These gathering places reflect the history of a strong cultural connection to the area among Native American people.
The District was also at the center of the Red Power/American Indian Movement and was home to famous Native activist, Richard Oakes. Oakes met within the District regularly with Adam Fortunate Eagle, Chairman of the United Bay Area Council of American Indian Affairs, to plan the 1969-1971 occupation of Alcatraz by “Indians of all Tribes.” This movement changed federal Indian termination policies, created a new era of self-determination, and brought attention to the needs of the American Indian community in San Francisco. On February 11, 1978, “The Longest Walk,” a five-month, cross-country march began in San Francisco on Alcatraz Island. The march concluded in Washington D.C. on July 15, 1978, and raised public awareness about the growing governmental threat to American Indian sovereignty. Although President Carter refused to meet with the marchers, Congress responded to the public pressure by declining to pass a proposed anti-treaty bill and passing the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, Public Law No. 95-341, 92 Stat. 469 (Aug. 11, 1978).
The Redstone Building, also known as the Redstone Labor Temple (and formerly called The San Francisco Labor Temple), located at 2940 16th Street, was a hub of union organizing and work activities, historic labor communities, and various programs for over 50 years. American Indian programs that have been housed in this central space for community building include the International Indian Treaty Council, American Indian Film Institute, 500 Years Coalition, and the Big Mountain Support Group.
American Indian events and services initiated in the District continue today, including San Francisco’s first Pow Wow, which initiated at 5051 Mission Street in 1975, and the AICC, which was established in 1968. As of 2019, the AICC is in the process of re-establishing its roots in the District with a Cultural Center to bring back a space for American Indian programming, events, and community services. Other examples of American Indian services that originated and still operate in the District include The Friendship House of American Indians, the Native American Health Center, and American Indian education programs.
The Friendship House of Association of American Indians, located at 56 Julian Street, was established in 1963 as a drop-in center that helped Native people find affordable housing and employment and develop urban survival skills. As of 2019, Friendship House was under the leadership of Helen Devore Waukazoo, who relocated from the Navajo reservation to San Francisco in 1956. Friendship House is the oldest social service agency in the United States run by and for American Indians. Friendship House helps Native people recover from substance abuse, builds job training and education skills, and oversees several community-wide programs. Since Helen Devore Waukazoo became Executive Director in 1980, Friendship House has expanded to two locations including a four-story, 80-bed treatment facility in the District.
The Native American Health Center (NAHC), founded in 1972, is located at 160 Capp Street between 16th and 17th Streets. NAHC was created as a direct result of the needs of American Indians following the Indian Relocation Act of 1956. NAHC expanded to two additional sites to help further meet the needs of Indian people throughout the Bay Area. One office is in Oakland, another site is in Richmond, and NAHC also operates eight school-based health centers. NAHC provides medical, dental and family services to Native Americans and the residents of the surrounding communities. This expansion reflects the needs of American Indians and their ongoing presence in the Bay Area.
Native American education also has roots in the District. The State and Federal Indian Education Program, known in various iterations over the years as Titles IV and VII, was located in the San Francisco Unified School District bungalows at 1950 Mission Street. The Indian Education Program supports the unique educational and culturally related academic needs of American Indian/Alaskan Native students in the San Francisco Unified School District (the “School District”). In 2014, the Indian Education Program advocated to the School District to be given a permanent services center. Ultimately, through the advocacy of parents, youth, and the larger American Indian community, the School District provided a space for the Indian Education Program at Sanchez Elementary School on 16th Street. The Parent Advisory Committee formed to help determine the Indian Education Program’s goals and advise on the distribution of funds for the program services that will be provided.
In the 2014-2015 school year, the California Department of Education reported over 270 American Indian/Alaskan Native students in San Francisco. The Department found that Native students disproportionately have the highest dropout rate in the School District as compared to students of other ethnicities. The Indian Education Program addresses these academic challenges, but these statistics also reflect the importance of cultural-based programming and a place for American Indian students to connect and be proud of.
While the American Indian community has had its roots in the District from time immemorial, the community also recognizes the shared cultural and historical importance of the area to the Latino and other Indigenous communities. Since the enactment of the Relocation Act, countless programs, efforts, and support systems have been developed cross-culturally in these communities. In pre-colonial times, Northern Native and Southern Native communities co-existed with intricate trade routes and shared ceremonies. Similarly, in current times, many programs, gatherings and ceremonies take place together and co-exist in this District. American Indians, Latino community organizers, and Southern Native groups have come together to support the District as a small manifestation of justice and repatriation.
According to 2015 Census data, American Indians make up roughly 1.6% of the population in California (723,225 persons), and 0.5% of the population in San Francisco. There are over 500 tribal nations in the United States, and over 150 tribes in California, 109 of which are federally recognized. One in nine American Indians lives in a city, and 90% of the American Indian population in California resides in urban areas. The legacy of American Indians in the Bay Area is in jeopardy due to the increased cost of living, the lack of affordable housing, the lack of community-specific resources and political representation, and the lack of safe, reliable community space for youth, elders, cultural gatherings, and events. The District will honor American Indian culture and provide a recognized home base for the American Indian community to ensure that American Indian history and contributions will not be forgotten or overwritten. The District will not only benefit the American Indian community, but it will help foster cultural competency in the broader San Francisco community, serve as a model for the rest of California, and honor First Nations people and their longstanding history in San Francisco.