San Francisco could soon become home to a Native American cultural hub in the Mission District intended to bring increased visibility and resources to a segment of the population often overlooked.
The project, called “The Village,” is being led by the nonprofit Friendship House, a 57-year-old organization providing recovery services run by and for Native American Indians.
The group intends to launch a fundraising campaign in early 2021 to fund construction of the $80 million project on a lot next to its current site at 56 Julian Ave. in the Mission District, at the heart of the recently formed American Indian Cultural District.
The plan is to begin construction in 2023 and complete the project by 2025.
Peter Bratt, a filmmaker and former Friendship House board member, said The Village would be a place “where we can not only get social services, but where we can come together as a cultural community.”
That was something he said he benefited from when growing up in the Mission District, surrounded by social activists. As a boy, he joined his Peruvian indigenous mother in the Occupation of Alcatraz protest.
“My siblings and I were movement children, but grounded in this American Indian community right here in the Mission District,” Bratt said. “There used to be an American Indian Center when I was growing up. We would spend our summers there, after-school programming. It was really a kind of a unifying force in the community. We haven’t had a American Indian Center in a long time, decades.”
The Julian Avenue site currently has a building of 6,600 square feet, which houses Friendship House’s inpatient drug and alcohol treatment center. The plan is to build next to it a six-story, 74-foot high building of 46,400 square feet.
The building would serve as a gathering place for elders and the American Indian community and house a number of services.
There would be resources and help in obtaining affordable housing, benefits and job training. The Native American Health Center would operate there as a medical and dental clinic. The site would have program space for American Indian youth and teens as well as for smaller American Indian-led nonprofits.
Included in the project are 10 to 12 units of transitional housing for American Indians looking for careers in social work.
The nonprofit also intends to relocate its Oakland-based Women’s Lodge, a treatment program for Indigenous mothers, to the new building, and transform the site into about 15 to 22 units of supportive housing for formerly homeless American Indians.
The project has received some seed money, including a $100,000 grant in November from Kat Taylor, a board member of the Oakland-based Beneficial State Bank and spouse of billionaire investor Tom Steyer. Taylor has challenged others to donate to the project.
“It’s time to return power — wealth, income, control, opportunity, and more — back to those from whom it has been taken,” Taylor recently wrote in the Chronicle of Philanthropy. “At the heart of what is needed is productive equity capital that empowers community control and ownership of assets within those communities.”
Bratt said the project is coming at an opportune time as the COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated the stark disparity in health outcomes for people of color and the nation is reckoning with past racial injustices in response to the Black Lives Matter movement and the police killing of George Floyd.
“I do think we are going through a racial reckoning about our history and the legacy and the systematic erasure of Native people,” Bratt said. “This moment of reckoning is definitely having an impact and why perhaps people like Kat Taylor are making these pledges from the world of philanthropy to create more equity and to shift the narrative.”
The American Indian Cultural District, which officially launched in March, would have an office in the new project, along with the American Indian Cultural Center, which currently has no physical location.
“We’re excited to see this cultural hub be built in the heart of the cultural district,” said Sharaya Souza, the American Indian Cultural District’s executive director. “Anything we can do to create visibility and create more options for our people is honoring the work that our past generations have already done and creating a home for our further generations and creating stability for our present generation.”
There are about 4,000 people in San Francisco who identify as Native American or Alaskan native, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, although Native American advocates believe that to be an undercount.
The district plans to make itself more visible in 2021 with American Indian murals, flag pole banners and a QR scan code project mapping out significant cultural sites with details of their history.
Members of the district’s board were also successful in getting the Board of Supervisors to begin every meeting starting in December with a land acknowledgement that “we are on the unceded ancestral homeland of the Ramaytush Ohlone who are the original inhabitants of the San Francisco Peninsula.”
Souza said it was important to increase awareness of Native Americans and correct a sometimes encountered misconception that the land acknowledgement is honoring “people that used to be here.”
“We’ve been an invisible people for so long in this city,” Souza said. “If people don’t know we are here, then they don’t know that we are suffering too. They don’t know what we are going through. If they assume we all live on reservations and live in teepees then they are ignoring the problem on their homefront.”
The project will need to receive approval from both the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors. The group plans to submit an initial project application in 2021 and expects the votes to occur in 2022.