Cultural district to honor Native American legacy in Mission

Half a century after activists occupied Alcatraz in a historic movement for indigenous land rights, San Francisco’s Native American community...

Half a century after activists occupied Alcatraz in a historic movement for indigenous land rights, San Francisco’s Native American community is poised to reclaim a slice of the Mission District.

Mission District Supervisor Hillary Ronen is expected to introduce legislation on Tuesday that would establish The City’s first “American Indian Cultural District” in the northwestern quadrant of the neighborhood.

The district, planned for an area roughly bounded by Sanchez Street, 14th Street, Folsom Street and 17th Street, would be The City’s eighth cultural district and requires approval by the Historic Preservation Commission and the Board of Supervisors.

Language in the proposed ordinance describes the legacy of Native Americans in the Bay Area as being “in jeopardy due to the increased cost of living, the lack of affordable housing, and lack of safe community space for cultural gatherings and events.”

The ordinance directs the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development to prepare a “Cultural, History, Housing, and Economic Sustainability Strategy Report” for the proposed district by January 2021. The report will lay out the area’s demographic and economic trends and propose legislative and economic strategies to support the district, among other things.

Last year, Ronen spearheaded legislation that helped neighborhoods threatened by gentrification to establish and funnel resources into cultural districts to counteract displacement and preserve the heritage and traditions of communities that occupy them. Funding has been made available under MOHCD to support the establishment of cultural districts, including the hiring of staff, consultants and for reports.

In the Bayview District, where a majority of residents have historically been African American, efforts to establish the African American Cultural District launched last year. In the Mission District, street signs along 24th Street distinguish the once predominantly Latino neighborhood as the Calle 24 Latino Cultural District.

Since 2014, advocates there have attempted to keep community serving businesses in place by tightening restrictions on new businesses setting up shop in the Calle 24 district. Efforts to expand the district onto a stretch of Mission Street are underway.

“The whole idea of cultural district is that it is an anti-displacement tool that is meant to reclaim land that was taken from a community,” said Ronen. “There is no community where it’s clearer that the original land that was there was taken from them than the Native American Indian community, specifically the Ohlone people, that have been living in the Mission and in this area before Europeans came.”

Native Americans make up about 0.5 percent of San Francisco’s population, according to data from the 2015 Census. Following the implementation of a 1950s federal Urban Relocation Program, Native Americans were encouraged to leave reservations for life in urban centers, and San Francisco was one of several counties in California that saw an influx of Native Americans from across the nation.

Unbeknownst to most who visit the trendy Mission District, the area for which the cultural district is proposed was once an important hub for Native American programming and services that grew out of a lack of “adequate government support,” per the ordinance.

The area now known as Mission Dolores was once the site of an Ohlone Village and burial ground. Programs and services that still exist today include the International Indian Treaty Council at 2940 16th St., the Native American Health Center at 160 Capp St., and Friendship House of American Indians at 56 Julian St., which offers substance abuse recovery services for indigenous men and women.

Established in 1963 as a drop-in center that helped Native people find affordable housing and employment and to acclimate to urban life, Friendship House has expanded under the leadership of Helen Waukazoo to a second location in the district that provides a four-story, 80-bed treatment facility.

“We have to constantly educate people who have no idea who we are,” said Waukazoo.

“I think a cultural district will help to recognize and hold space for native people in their community, but will also culturally enrich The City [and educate the public] that we are still here.”

Waukazoo said she hopes that the district will help ensure that resources remain in place for future generations of Native Americans.

“I think there is more to be done for the young people that are coming behind us,” she said.

The district is also expected to set the stage for the return of the Native American Cultural Center, which decades ago operated on the 16th Street Corridor.

The Cultural Center, which burned down in 1969, played a significant role in the Occupation of Alcatraz, during which activists pressed for the redevelopment of the island into a Native American school and cultural center.

A second center operated on Valencia at Duboce Street from 1969 to the 1980s and served as the meeting place for Bay Area American Indian organizations, according to the ordinance. Today, the cultural center offers virtual programming due to the lack of a permanent building.

“There are so many things that the American Indian cultural center represented — a place for community to come together and to create a family. People came out here during the relocation and they didn’t have their families,” said April McGill, executive director of the Cultural Center. “We [want] the cultural center back because we want to make sure our children don’t continue that generational trauma of substance abuse, depression and violence.”

Ronen described the proposed district as “tiny gesture of reparations to this community that has been assaulted” for generations.

Unlike recent efforts across the country to remove public memorials that pay tribute to colonialism, Ronen said that cultural districts “are not about getting rid of anything, but preserving what’s there and building the new living breathing version of that culture, celebrating and supporting it in an area where there is a historic connection.”

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