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Oakland’s Intertribal Friendship House will celebrate 56 years of supporting Native American community

on October 22, 2011

One of the most diverse cities in the world,Oakland hosts a variety of community centers where newcomers who speak little English and know nothing of the local customs can find information and meet others like themselves. Almost all of these groups serve immigrants from foreign countries, but one of the oldest such places was never meant to serve immigrants at all.

On Saturday, October 22, Oakland’s Intertribal Friendship House will commemorate the 56th year of its existence with food and performances from local tribal dancers and drumming groups. Tucked away in a mural-covered one-story building on International Boulevard in the San Antonio District of East Oakland, the Friendship House has long held a place at the center of the lives of Native Americans in the region by providing them with space to gather, exchange information and maintain cultural traditions and ceremonies.

According to the 2000 Census, 45,382 people of solely Native American and Alaska Native descent live in the Bay Area. The region has the fourth largest population of Native peoples anywhere in the country, after Los Angeles, Phoenix and Tulsa, Oklahoma.

The day will be a celebration, said Carol Wahpepah, executive director of the Friendship House.  But the roots of the organization begin in a period of turmoil for Native Americans throughout the country.

In 1952, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA)—a federal agency tasked with overseeing America’s 310 Indian reservations—embarked on a well-documented plan to relocate Indians to urban centers, under the premise that moving them closer to jobs would improve their quality of life. The program began when BIA field offices in four Western cities—Salt Lake City, Los Angeles, Denver and Chicago—were refitted to oversee the great urban shift, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office.  After two years, due to an apparent lack of jobs in the area, the Salt Lake City office was itself relocated to Oakland.

On reservations all over the Southwest and Plains states, Native Americans were promised jobs, then issued one-way bus and train tickets and dispatched to the four cities.  But as early as 1958, the Government Accountability Office identified issues with the policy: Many of the incoming migrants knew little or no English. Often they arrived to their chosen offices wearing clothes that were “threadbare, torn, or otherwise worn,” the agency’s investigators noted in their report. Some arrived still wearing the traditional clothes of the reservation.

Meanwhile, BIA offices were underfunded and understaffed.  According to a 1990 report written by an anthropologist working with the Friendship House and sponsored by the US Census, job training was rarely provided for new migrants, and even with training, the promised jobs didn’t always materialize.

The federal relocation program ended in 1979. By the end, according to BIA records, nearly 200,000 Native Americans had been shifted from their birthplaces on reservations to cities around the country—including thousands to the Bay Area—the overwhelming majority having traded poverty in one place for poverty in another.

Many of those relocated eventually returned back to their reservations, but others stayed on and sought each other out.  Finding each other was difficult, since the BIA had deliberately placed relocated Native Americans in disparate corners of the region to accelerate their assimilation into Western society, according to the Census report.  But as they found each other, divisions which had earlier existed between the varying tribes broke down as Native Americans gathered found commonality in the shared experience of being uprooted.

In the 1950s, relocated people organized semi-formal social groups, meeting in bars and at the YMCA.  Like at least one foreign immigrant population in Oakland today, they also started their own sports teams.

Witnessing this incredible overflow of migrants and the need for a place for them to gather, a few Native Americans living in the Bay Area prior to the relocation period founded the Intertribal Friendship House in 1956 to give newcomers a more formal place to gather and meet each other, according to the Census report.

From the start, the Friendship House provided youth programs during the summer, dinners during the holidays, activities for the elderly, counseling, and crisis intervention services.

Mindy Woolbert, the chair of the Friendship House’s board, left the White Earth Reservation in North Dakota with her parents through the BIA program.  A member of the Ojibwe Tribe, she arrived in Oakland when she was six years old and has been living here since.  She says the Friendship House was instrumental in making her transition possible.

“Going to an all-white school and not having anyone who was like me, they called me a ‘dirty Indian,’” said Woolbert, who attended Emerson Elementary School near Oakland Tech. “But at the Friendship House, you were like family.”

Woolbert says the Friendship House was instrumental in fostering a new, pan-tribal identity which could bridge the gap between the new urban reality of the relocated Native Americans and the reservations of their upbringing. “It gathered all nations,” she said.  “You formed a bond with other native peoples.”

Relocated Native Americans from different tribes all over the country shared their customs and traditions with one another.  By the late 60’s, when the radical American Indian Movement arose to address poverty, housing and land issues experienced by Native American groups both urban and rural, some of the movement’s early adherents on the West Coast held meetings at the Friendship House, according to Woolbert.

Saturday’s event will honor both the pioneering radical Native Americans, and the pan-tribal heritage of the Friendship House itself, Woolbert said.

In the early afternoon, there will be a screening of the documentary film “Making the River,” about Jimi Simmons, an American Indian Movement member who was falsely accused of killing a prison guard.

A feast reflecting the different regions from which the Friendship House’s members came will also be served, with fry bread and tortillas from the Southwest, salmon from the Northwest, and mutton stew and barbeque buffalo from the Plains states.

Performances by local groups All Nations Drum and Medicine Warriors Dancers will be featured, and some of the Friendship House’s volunteers will be honored.  Some of the organization’s original founders, now in their 80’s, will also be present.

Wahpepah says anyone interested in Native American people, the Friendship House, and the community which has formed around it over the past 56 years is welcome to join in the celebration at 523 International Boulevard.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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