Will native Americans finally get a cultural center in San Francisco?

In 1969, native Americans occupied Alcatraz for 19 months over a failed proposal to build a cultural center there. They still await a center in The City. (Getty Images)

In 1969, native Americans occupied Alcatraz for 19 months over a failed proposal to build a cultural center there. They still await a center in The City. (Getty Images)


Last week, the sound of beating drums echoed within City Hall as Native Americans performed traditional dances and songs. The Bay Area has one of the largest and most diverse populations of indigenous people in the country. The American Indian Heritage Celebration, an annual event in San Francisco, is a chance for the community to come together.

“We will build our alliance to build our power,” San Francisco’s new Supervisor Vallie Brown, who is of Paiute and Shoshone descent, said to the crowd. “We will push for a seat at the table and a home for that table with a new cultural center.”

The San Francisco Native American community has not had a cultural center in The City since the original burned in the 1960s. Decades ago, activists proposed a new center on Alcatraz. When their proposal was denied, they occupied the island for 19 months from 1969 to 1971. Ultimately, they were forced to leave and Native Americans still don’t have a space in The City to call their own.

April McGill, a Mission resident of Native Californian descent, wants to rectify this. For the past few years, she has worked with a team of dedicated elders, community members and the San Francisco Arts Commission to re-establish an American Indian Community Center in The City. The effort has received support from Mayor London Breed and it could be eligible for funding under Proposition E, which San Francisco voters passed in November.

Providing a space where The City’s indigenous community can unite and build power could strengthen necessary efforts to reduce violence against Native Americans and native ecosystems. Next November will mark the 50th anniversary of the occupation of Alcatraz. It is a fitting time to create an American Indian Cultural Center in San Francisco.

McGill remembers listening to her relatives talk about their time on “The Rock.” The occupation united tribes across the country. In San Francisco, it inspired more inclusive healthcare, housing and education programs. It also inspired McGill to bring her son to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline.

“Standing Rock is the Alcatraz of today,” she told me.

Like Alcatraz, the alliances forged at Standing Rock have amplified and empowered Native Americans. This year, Ruth Buffalo was sworn in as a member of North Dakota’s legislature wearing a traditional Native American dress. In Kansas and New Mexico, the first two female Native American candidates were also elected to Congress.

In San Francisco, the indigenous community celebrated long-awaited wins in 2018 too. The racist “Early Days” sculpture depicting a half-naked American Indian lying at the feet of a vaquero and a missionary was finally taken down after a contentious, years-long battle. The Board of Supervisors also finally voted to rename Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day.

But like Alcatraz, the victories celebrated since Standing Rock are not complete. California Indians continue to fight for their sacred sites, such as the Shellmounds in the East Bay. Invasive species, overconsumption and pesticide use continue to threaten native flora and fauna upon which tribal traditions depend. Poor land use is decimating habitats and contributing to climate change and unmanageable wildfires.

“Native people have been doing seasonal burns consistently,” McGill told me. “If people would have looked to our burning methods then these fires wouldn’t have happened.”

Perhaps most troubling is a report released by Annita Lucchesi, a doctoral student at the University of Lethbridge, last month, which found that San Francisco ranks number 10 in the nation for missing and murdered indigenous women. Before the report, there was no data on this violence as it occurs in urban settings. Grandmothers, mothers and daughters simply disappeared from City streets.

Re-establishing the American Indian Cultural Center in San Francisco will not end this violence. It will not stop the continued marginalization, division, disenfranchisement and hostility toward Native American communities and cultures. It’s not possible to deconstruct colonialism by constructing four walls and a roof.

But, like Alcatraz and Standing Rock, a space can create an opportunity for the incredibly diverse indigenous community to build alliances and power. San Francisco should celebrate the 50th anniversary of the occupation of Alcatraz with a new cultural center for The City’s Native Americans.

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

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