TThe Bay Area is among the most racially and ethnically diverse regions in the US, but it is only slowly grappling with its self-understanding as a home for significant Native American populations. An ambitious project hopes to help address a challenge that the region’s native population has faced since the occupation of Alcatraz Island in the late 1960s and early 1970s: an invisibility crisis.
The Village, a multi-year project funded by philanthropic investor Kat Taylor (who is married to Tom Steyer, the billionaire financier and short-lived Democratic presidential hopeful), is destined to become a center of Native culture and heritage. The effort is an outgrowth of the 57-year-old Mission District House of Friendship, which describes itself as “the oldest social service organization in the United States led by and for Native Americans.”
“San Francisco and the general population need to know that the natives are still here,” says filmmaker and advocate Peter Bratt, who briefly lived on Alcatraz as a child and served on the Friendship House board for more than 20 years. “What also comes with being invisible is that you also become a neglected community.”
By creating a physical space that provides full medical services in addition to youth services, senior services, a women’s shelter, and other elements, the Village will have what Bratt calls “a cultural center where we can celebrate and prosper and just be indigenous.” .
“This project, as far as I know, there is nothing like it anywhere,” he says. Abby abinanti, Chief Judge of the Yurok tribe and the first Native American woman admitted to the California Bar.
More than 70% of the American Indian population resides in or around cities, a legacy of the Indian Relocation Act of 1956. Apparently an anti-poverty measure, it encouraged the displacement of Native Americans. in urban areas like San Francisco, often from regions where their ancestors had already been forcibly evicted decades earlier, a side wave of dispossession that is frequently erased from American history.
“Native Americans have lived here for a generation or two, some of them three generations from home, and this has become their home,” says Abinanti. “I have often said that if the situation is reversed and we are forcibly relocated to another state, I hope that the people who live there will come to us and say, ‘Welcome, my relatives. I’m sorry this happened to you. What can we do to make this work for you? What do you need?'”
Kat Taylor believes in asset redistribution, so she is putting her money into a restorative justice model that differs from previous eras of philanthropy.
“I just don’t think we’re going to have a good life for everyone if we don’t start trading wealth,” he says. Referring to white Americans who bear much of the responsibility, he adds: “We have to deeply consider our history. It has not been precisely stated or recognized as driving current social outcomes. “
The Village is one of five projects to which he has donated $ 100,000.
“We deeply respect your [Friendship House] process, which is very collective in nature, based on long-standing indigenous customs, ”says Taylor. “We will give them the resources and then we will get out of the way.”
Within five years, the Village will have brought together disparate organizations from across the region under one roof. In doing so, it aims to be the crown jewel of San Francisco’s newly formed American Indian Cultural District, which opened in March, just as Mayor London Breed ordered a shutdown in the face of the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic.
Sharaya Souza, the executive director, wants the nascent district to become home to new generations of Native Americans. But he also wants people to know that he already is.
This week, San Francisco signed into law a land recognition, to be read at every meeting of the Board of Supervisors, that recognizes the city as the home of the Ramaytush Ohlone people. Still, “there are people who don’t know we are here,” says Souza. “I’ll be sitting in town meetings and people will say, ‘We’re glad you recognized the people who used to live here, the people who lived before us,’ and I say, ‘No, we’re still here. We are still alive! ‘”
To remedy this, Souza wants to see the installation of banners, murals, and flagpole statues. She is also working on what she calls the “Indigenize Project,” which will allow people to take a walking tour of the neighborhood and scan QR codes at various sites to learn its history. (The passion for statues is stronger. On June 16, protesters in Golden Gate Park removed a century-old statue of Father Junipero Serra, the recently canonized 18th-century Spanish priest who forcibly assimilated many Native Americans into what which would eventually become California).
Change is coming, albeit unevenly. This year, the state suffered a horrific wildfire season that is not over yet, and it is clear that California’s future is tied to reviving indigenous eco-friendly practices, including prescribed burns.
“While I appreciate the superpower of being invisible, it may not have been what I personally chose. I do not think it is good in a society to create pockets of invisible humans, because that is not a society that is a united society ”, says Abinanti. “We have to understand at this point in our lives, are we going to move on together and survive together, or we will all sink.”
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