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Native Americans deserve a restored cultural center

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After the San Francisco Indian Center burned down in October 1969, Native American activists proposed re-establishing a new cultural center on Alcatraz Island. When the proposal was denied, they occupied the island for 19 months. (Courtesy Golden Gate National Recreation Area Park Archives)

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For almost a year, the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota was a gathering place for people protesting the Dakota Access oil pipeline’s threats to American drinking water. Cokaptiwin, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, recently described the events there as a “small taste of what our ancestors lived through” to a captivated audience at the Native American Health Center on Mission Street.

For days, she camped with “our brothers the buffalo” and indigenous people from around the world. They shared dances and traditions. The Lakota cry, “Mni Wiconi!” — “Water is life” — united them all. More than a year later, the cry continues to unify tribes around environmental issues and push policymakers to acknowledge Native American interests. It is also invigorating efforts to re-establish an American Indian Cultural Center in San Francisco.

“We’re the only population that doesn’t have a cultural center,” April McGill, a Mission resident of Native American decent who was also at Standing Rock, told me. “Right now, there’s a lot of tribes getting ready to celebrate the spring solstice. You have to create a space to honor those ceremonies.”

McGill and many dedicated volunteers are working with the San Francisco Arts Commission to form that space, and they may soon get some powerful help: Two San Francisco mayoral candidates have voiced their support for a new cultural center. Their leadership could help San Francisco honor the Native American community.

Members of the local Native American community gathered in the Mission to display their cultural dances at the San Francisco Carnaval. (Courtesy April McGill)

Although the Bay Area boasts one of the highest populations of Native Americans in the country, the community hasn’t had a cultural center in San Francisco since the original burned in the 1960s. After the fire, Native American activists proposed re-establishing one on Alcatraz. When the proposal was denied, they occupied the island for 19 months. Thousands joined the cause. The protest received international attention and celebrity support. It raised awareness of oppressive policies and practices. But in the end, the occupiers didn’t get what they demanded.

Today’s effort builds on the Alcatraz occupation. Once again, Native Americans from different tribes are uniting, but this time they’re fighting for the environment. Together, they are protesting other pipelines in Louisiana, Oregon, Minnesota and Nebraska. They’re getting arrested protecting buffalo from slaughter in Yellowstone. They’re resisting mining and drilling in New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon and Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument. In San Francisco, the call “water is life” is inspiring indigenous groups to push divestment from fossil fuel corporations.

“Everything involves water,” explained Kim Shuck, The City’s poet laureate and a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, as we chatted on a rainy day last week.

Shuck is part of the effort to restore a cultural center. For her, the restoration of El Polin Spring in the Presidio feels relevant to the work. For decades, the creek was buried. But in 2011, the park restored it. The creek now flows above ground as it did when Native Americans and early colonial settlers used it for drinking water. By healing El Polin Spring, the Presidio showed appreciation for Native American history and culture.

The City is healing in other ways. The Costanoan Rumsen Ohlone, a tribe with local ties, are holding ceremonies and big-time gatherings in the Presidio again. The Board of Supervisors recently voted to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day. After decades of opposition to the Civic Center’s “Early Days” statue, the Arts Commission decided to remove the depiction of a Native American lying beneath a missionary.

The City’s next mayor may build on these changes. Before her election as supervisor, London Breed was the director of the African American Art and Culture complex in the Western Addition. She told me that if she is elected mayor of San Francisco, she will work with Native Americans to ensure an American Indian Cultural Center happens.

“I am deeply aware of the importance of recognizing, celebrating and maintaining our diverse cultures,” she told me.

Breed isn’t the only mayoral candidate who responded to emails on this issue. Former state Sen. Mark Leno also said he “deeply supports” a cultural center in San Francisco.

“Native people’s history and vibrant culture deserves due acknowledgment in our city,” he said. “While spoken recognition is important, actions matter much more.”

San Francisco’s Native Americans have waited about 50 years for another cultural center to honor their ceremonies and traditions. It’s time for The City to honor them with a space.

Brave women, like Cokaptiwin and McGill, have fought on the frontlines for our future. They are protecting water, land and wildlife we’ve claimed as ours. While San Francisco is healing the past and acknowledging Native American history, a physical cultural center could be The City’s thank you for all the benefits we’ve received.


GREEN SPACE Q&A

“Cardboard milk cartons have touched food, so they should go in the green bin. However, they have the plastic spout ring, so which bin is right?” — Gerri Wilson

Those little plastic spouts are the bane of many environmentally friendly brains. But the answer is simple: Toss the whole carton in the blue bin. You don’t need to cut the plastic part out. Just make sure the carton is empty.

As a rule, San Franciscans should recycle all cardboard cartons, even though they’ve touched food. Milk cartons, soup boxes, soy milk cartons and juice boxes, with or without the plastic spout ring, all belong in the blue bin. The City believes recycling is the best use for these items.

Thanks for helping us sort that out! Email more sorting questions to bluegreenorblack@gmail.com.

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. Check her out at robynpurchia.com.

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