An 'invisible' people battle ignorance, injustice
Traditional ceremony bridges tribal lines
Long-suffering urban Indians find roots in ancient rituals
'Lost' tribes: Why must we prove we're Indians?
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For some tribes, casinos fulfill American dream
Renegade band blazed trail to legalized Indian gambling
Images from the series
Long-suffering urban Indians find roots in ancient ritualsBy Stephen Magagnini
Bee Staff Writer
(Published June 30, 1997)
Martin Waukazoo had his first drunk at age 7 on the squalid Rosebud Sioux reservation in South Dakota, about the time he first saw the signs in Rapid City that said "No Dogs or Indians Allowed."
At 16, he went on a bender that lasted 13 years.
"I was ashamed to be an Indian," he said. "If we'd stayed in Rosebud, I probably would have died of alcoholism."
Waukazoo means "lights in the distance," and at 24, he joined tens of thousands of Indians who came to California's cities between 1952 and 1981 in hope of a better future.
Waukazoo found himself part of the largest mass movement of Indians in American history, the government's program to get Indians off reservations and into the mainstream.
But the Relocation Program -- which promised Indians job training -- often abandoned them to fend for themselves on the streets.
"If Indian people didn't succeed in school or vocational training, the BIA (federal Bureau of Indian Affairs) would slam the door in their faces," Waukazoo said, and many sought sanctuary in Indian bars. "People died of cirrhosis of the liver and alcoholism," he said.
"The first generation born in the Bay Area also kind of got lost, tried to fit into Latino groups, drifted away from their Indianness," he said. "We began to lose some of the language, some of the old ways."
In 1981, Waukazoo finally found those lights in the distance -- he rediscovered his spirituality and has been in alcohol recovery ever since.
"In the 1980s, 5 percent (of urban Indians) were abstaining and 95 percent were drinking," said Waukazoo, director of the Native American Health Center in Oakland. "Now, it's completely reversed."
Today, California's 200,000 urban Indians are undergoing a massive recovery from government policies and programs designed to strip them of their Indian identity.
You can find them in a churchyard in San Francisco's Mission District, pounding a healing drum the size of a tractor tire with brothers and sisters from half a dozen tribes.
Or driving from a white-collar job in downtown San Diego to an east-county sweat lodge to pray with Indians from New York, Canada and Oklahoma.
Or in a Sacramento art gallery, where Stan Padilla purifies an opening with a fragrant sprig of sage, a pan-Indian sacrament.
"We've had to re-invent ourselves," said Padilla, a Sacramento-born Yaqui artist who, like many urban Indians, is cut off from his tribal roots. "I've studied with elders of all sorts of tribes."
Padilla, one of nearly 16,000 Indians living in Sacramento County, is Indian to the core, but he and other local Yaquis aren't recognized by the official Yaqui tribe of Arizona, whose Casino of the Sun is grossing $38 million a year.
"We've been "dismembered,' if you will," said Padilla. "There's only so much of the pie to go around."
The government -- which sent them to the cities in the first place -- doesn't seem to want to acknowledge their existence.
California's urban Indians don't count, as far as the BIA is concerned, since more than half come from out-of-state tribes that get their own slice of the federal pie back home. The seven largest tribes in California -- Cherokee, Apache, Choctaw, Navajo, Sioux, Blackfoot, Chippewa -- aren't from California.
Though nearly two-thirds of California's Indians live in cities, they get only 5 percent of the $85 million in federal health dollars earmarked for California Indians.
Urban Indians are often uncounted even in death. When an urban Indian dies, the death certificate rarely lists his or her race correctly, Indian Health Service studies show.
California's urban Indians are "unknown, uncountable, an enigma," said Indian Health Service statistician Lorraine McCall. "Everybody knows there's this mystery urban Indian population, but when they go to Congress for funding, they have little hard data. We rarely know who they are, where they are or the status of their health."
Indian leaders say census estimates of 200,000 California urban Indians could be short by as much as 100,000. The census put the Navajo at 7,000, while Navajo leaders say there are 10,000 Navajo in the Bay Area alone. The Census Bureau admits undercounts are possible.
Waukazoo and many other urban Indians consider themselves refugees from America's covert war on American Indian culture. They blame the following government programs and policies:
Native leaders have called urbanization "the most significant crisis to Indian identity since their initial contact with the Europeans," according to the National Indian Justice Center.
Most Indians over age 40 are products of an Indian boarding school system designed "to kill the Indian and save the man," in the words of a 19th century administrator.
From 1880 to 1970, hundreds of thousands of Indian children were taken from their families on the "res" and sent to boarding schools, often in different states. They were given haircuts, uniforms, non-Indian names and ordered not to speak their native language -- even though many couldn't speak English. Those who violated the English-only rule were often beaten or assigned latrine duty, according to Indians who attended the schools.
The schools produced thousands of intertribal marriages, blending cultures and bloodlines, and funneled graduates into jobs in Los Angeles and other cities.
"They tore apart families, and some kids never got to go home," said boarding school historian Lorene Sisquoc. As a result, some have no idea how to function as a family, and they abuse their own kids.
Other urban Indians lost their identities at birth. Thousands of Indian children have been plucked from families in turmoil and sent for adoption in non-Indian homes by well-meaning social workers unclear on the Indian concept of extended family.
So widespread was the practice that in 1978 Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act, which gave federally-recognized tribes the power to keep their young from being taken.
Many of the lost Indian children either grew up in the Bay Area or have come there in search of their roots.
Wisdom, now 31, grew up knowing he was Indian, but little else. His adoptive parents encouraged him to do things with other Indians, but he felt out of place.
"They'd say, "You're the whitest Indian I've ever known.'"
Two years ago, he finally tracked down his birth mother through a nurse at an Indian clinic who recognized his name.
"We laugh alike," said Wisdom, who is slowly piecing together his Choctaw-Chickasaw heritage.
Curtis Grant grew up in a white home thinking he was Spanish and Irish. "I never really knew I was of Indian blood until my (Sioux) birth mother found me at 25," he said.
His childhood was one long identity crisis. "I went from being a little gangster to a punk rocker to a skinhead to a longhair and back to a gangster. I could never really figure out where I sat in the world," said Grant, 29. "I got really heavy into cocaine in junior high. For 10 years, I was a heroin addict."
Grant and Wisdom's birth mothers gave them up voluntarily, but many other Indian women were pressured to give up their kids.
Wynona Whiteman, a Mandan from North Dakota who works at a Sacramento Indian clinic, said she was raped at age 14 by a tribal police officer.
"My mother said it happens to everybody, and confided to me she'd been raped by a priest while cleaning the church," Whiteman said.
When she got pregnant, a judge tried to pressure her to give up her baby girl. "He said, "I know how you Indian girls are -- by the time you're 20 years old, you're going to have five kids.' I said no, I'm keeping my baby."
In 1975, Whiteman said she almost was denied the right to become a mother again.
In the mid-1970s, 3,000 Indian women at four federal Indian hospitals were sterilized without proper consent, according to a U.S. General Accounting Office investigation.
Some, like Whiteman, said Indian Health Service doctors sterilized them without their knowledge. Others said they were told they'd lose their welfare benefits if they didn't consent.
"My son died when he was 8 hours old," said Whiteman. "The doctor wrote in my chart, "Indian girls breed like rats. This Indian woman does not need to bring another child into the this world. She's fortunate to have this child die.' I was 25 at the time."
Three years later, unable to get pregnant, she went to a doctor in Missoula, Mont., who told her she'd had a tubal ligation.
After the Missoula doctor repaired her tubes, Whiteman gave birth to her third daughter, but she still packs a lifetime of rage.
From 1952 through 1981, several hundred thousand younger Indians were persuaded by U.S. officials to leave their reservations for cities on the promise of jobs and living expenses.
To discourage deserters from the Indian Relocation Program, the BIA sent Indians as far away as possible. Some California Indians were relocated to Chicago, while Plains Indians were relocated to California.
Anywhere from 60,000 to 100,000 Indians came to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland or San Jose "on relocation."
The culture shock was tremendous.
"I was afraid to get in an elevator," said Waukazoo's wife Helen, a Navajo. "The idea of going into this room and the door shuts and you get lifted. ... " Many relocated Indians had never ridden streetcars, either, and feared that once they left their flophouses or apartments, they'd never find their way back.
Negotiating urban values was even tougher.
On the reservation, Indians who went their own way were put down, but in the city, Indians had no choice but to operate as individuals, said Donald Fixico, a national expert on relocation.
Trudy Brightman, a Rosebud Sioux from South Dakota, came to San Francisco in 1965 as an 18-year-old hoping for a better life. She was soon disillusioned.
The BIA sent her to dental technician school and put her in a boarding house in the Richmond District with 13 other Indian girls from around the country.
When she finished dental tech school, Brightman said, "My BIA counselor found me this "beautiful job,' she said, making $15 a day in Marin County. The job was in a sweatbox, in a laundry ironing men's shirts on this big machine.
"I burned myself all over," Brightman said. "I was so angry, I said, "I know I can get a job better than this on the reservation.'"
Brightman quit after three days and went back to her BIA counselor, who got her a job cleaning chandeliers. "I did that one day and said, "Nope.'"
Finally, one of the girls at her boarding house helped Brightman get a job at a dental lab. Brightman now works in the payroll department of the Oakland Army Base.
"We had no idea what we were getting into," said Helen Waukazoo, who relocated to San Francisco in 1960 and eventually got $1.50 an hour in a factory making lifesaving equipment.
"We had no skills or training," said Waukazoo, now executive director of Friendship House, an Indian substance-abuse treatment center in San Francisco. "We were never told how to look for a job, how to be interviewed, what to do or what to say."
Deroy Spencer, a Vietnam veteran from the Navajo Nation, relocated to San Jose in 1969 and enrolled in an electronic drafting class with about 20 other Indians.
Spencer met his wife in class and went on to a fruitful career with Pacific Gas and Electric Co.
"Only a few of us made it," he said. "Some hit the streets and were homeless after they finished relocation. A lot of them got into alcohol. Three of the Indians in the boarding house, two Navajo and a Sioux, committed suicide. They weren't prepared for city life and couldn't cope with it."
Indians who finished job training, or dropped out, were on their own without health care or bus fare. If they went to emergency rooms or Indian clinics, they were told to go to their reservations for treatment.
"Indians here were dying," said Anthony Garcia, an Apache who teaches a class on urban Indians at the University of California, Berkeley. "I had a student die of pneumonia. We had a young fellow in a car accident who was denied (treatment) at Highland Hospital. He was transported to his reservation in Pine Ridge, S.D., where he died in peace."
Many of California's urban Indians still don't get adequate medical care. In Sacramento, Indians are having their babies in emergency rooms because they make too much money to qualify for Medi-Cal but are too poor to afford prenatal care, said Linda Navarro, director of the California Rural Indian Health Board.
Most aid flows to Indians on large reservations. There are no federal Indian hospitals in California because in the 1950s, the government tried to shift responsibility for California Indians to the state.
Brice Lay, who ran the BIA's San Francisco relocation center in the 1950s, said Indians couldn't be forced to assimilate.
"We never failed to find a job or housing for any Indian family that was sent to us," he said, adding that he helped one Indian get four welding jobs. "We would go out and help them find the bus schedule. We showed them where to buy groceries, where to find churches, schools, but they never did become members of the white community."
On this point, Lay and many urban Indians agree. Instead of dissolving into the mainstream, many relocated Indians sought each other out at powwows, community centers and Indian bars, leading to thousands of intertribal marriages and creating a pan-Indian consciousness.
Relocation produced a "relocation generation": well-educated, politicized Indians, including ex-Cherokee Chief Wilma Mankiller and Russell Means, Dennis Banks and John Trudell, who launched the American Indian Movement.
Mankiller, whose family relocated to San Francisco, knows relocatees who are now lawyers or tribal leaders.
Today, a new generation of urban Indians is embracing the rainbow of Indian cultures.
Seventeen-year-old Morningstar Gali is equal parts California Pit River Indian, Filipina, Apache and Yaqui. Born and raised in Oakland, she's a California Pomo dancer, a Nozhoni Navajo dancer and a Sioux Sundancer.
Gali's parents met at the AIM School for Survival in Oakland. "I was born in the basement," she said, and learned beading and drums at an American Indian school in Oakland.
Gali, a receptionist at the American Indian Family Healing Center in Oakland, doesn't apologize for making Pomo, Navajo and Sioux dances her own.
"There's no Pit River dance group," she said. "Our people were killed off during the Gold Rush. Our language has virtually been lost. There are no ceremonies left."
Gali said it doesn't matter which tribe a person is born into. "We are all the same nation. Being Native American is about participating in the ceremonies and knowing native ways."
Some Indian transplants from other states are using their wisdom to make California a better place for all Indians.
Led by United Indian Nations Inc., an Oakland-based training and education program, they're transforming a 20,000-square-foot building on the old Oak Knoll Naval Hospital base into a native cultural and education center.
Beane envisions self-sufficient urban Indian villages of small businesses, performing arts, schools and housing.
"By and large, Indians don't own land or buildings," Beane said. "That's why Indian communities are so invisible, particularly in urban areas."
Beane, who helped establish 400 affordable housing units in Nebraska and now works for the Center for Community Change in San Francisco, wants California Indians to have the chance to own their own homes and businesses so they won't be dependent on the whims of federal policy.
Federal policy ties most aid to reservations, where economic opportunities are minimal and "the price of preserving your culture has been extreme poverty and social deprivation," Beane said. "That's too steep a price to pay."
"Does being an Indian mean that you live in poverty?" asked Martin Waukazoo. "Or is it about jobs, survival, self-determination?"
"Sometimes it's really hard to be an Indian today," Waukazoo said. "There's no way to live traditionally out here -- there are no buffalo in Oakland. I'm finding out that, hell, I'm a human being first, who happens to be Indian."
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