‘Culture is healing’: Native American Health Center celebrates 50 years in Bay Area
on September 24, 2022
Charlene Harrison hadn’t danced at a powwow in 10 years. But on Saturday, the site director at Oakland’s Native American Health Center wore her jingle dress, stepped into the grass circle at Merritt College, and danced alongside family members underneath a burning sun.
“I’m a third-generation powwower,” said Harrison, who is Pomo, Paiute and Navajo. “This is what I know. So slipping on those old bear shoes, it feels right.”
Thousands of people came out to celebrate NAHC’s 50th birthday this weekend in the form of a powwow. They clapped for dancers donned in traditional regalia, ate strawberries on fry bread, and bought beaded earrings and embroidered jackets from Native American vendors.
“Nice to see you — in person” was said more than once as people gathered, some for the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This is the first powwow I’ve been to,” said Judy Aguilar of the Diné Nation. She came from her home in Oakland with her brother, daughter, and grandsons to sell jewelry and reconnect with friends. “I’m just so happy,” she added.
The pandemic disproportionately affected Native American communities across the U.S. due to underlying health disparities, lack of resources, and systemic inequities. “It’s been hard years for all of us,” acknowledged emcee Manny Lieras, who began the powwow by introducing a memorial song in honor of all who have passed.
Despite the somber undertones, the event was a joyous celebration of Native American tradition and of NAHC, which serves about 12,000 people at clinics in San Francisco and Oakland. Aguilar’s daughter Celeste, who is Diné and Kewa Pueblo, most looked forward to hearing the beating of live drums.
“You can feel it in your heart,” she said. “It reminds us that we’re alive and that we need to continue the fight.”
Celeste Aguilar participates every Friday in the Oakland clinic’s beading and weaving circle, which she says provides a respite from worrying about food and rent. NAHC prides itself on culture-centered service. It formalized that commitment recently by hiring the organization’s first chief cultural officer.
“We know that people’s health improves when they’re surrounded by social supports like family and community,” Harrison said. “Culture is healing. Culture is prevention.”
The Health Center has a department devoted to community wellness, which includes traditional healing activities and events like the Indigenous Red Market. This year’s powwow was the first the Health Center has hosted in nearly a decade.
TK Halsey, 15, participated in the teen boys’ grass dance competition Saturday evening. The San Francisco resident likes his regalia to be vibrant and include orange, because it represents his mother’s California Native tribe, as well as the sun. He said he dances for those who can’t and likes powwows because he enjoys seeing everybody.
“You don’t want to forget about the culture. If you do, you lose yourself,” he said. “You always want to have contact with it.”
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