The past and future of Native California.
By Julian Brave NoiseCat 1-24-2022 The Nation
Driving down international boulevard, East Oakland’s main inner-city thoroughfare, it’s hard to miss the Intertribal Friendship House. With its mural-rimmed courtyard featuring larger-than-life portraits of Natives, both famous and unknown, the community center, which some call the “urban rez,” stands apart from its surroundings in Oakland’s Little Saigon. And like pretty much everything involving Indigenous Americans, it’s been here a while.
Founded in 1955, the Intertribal Friendship House is one of the oldest urban Indigenous community organizations in the United States. You’d think that in a city and region that gave birth to the Black Panther Party, the Free Speech Movement, and the United Farmworkers, people would know about institutions like this. The Oakland-born Cheyenne and Arapaho writer Tommy Orange, after all, set a whole chapter of his novel There There, which was excerpted in The New Yorker, at an Indian center no doubt inspired by Intertribal. But I can’t tell you how many Oaklanders I’ve met who are shocked to learn that their city has one of the oldest and most significant urban Indian populations in the United States, that there’s a whole Native community center just a few blocks from the city’s downtown, and that the 19-month occupation of Alcatraz, which began in 1969—more or less the Indigenous rights movement’s equivalent of the Montgomery bus boycott—was organized in Oakland and the Bay Area.
After visiting her childhood home in the East Bay, which she found so completely transformed that it was unrecognizable to her, Gertrude Stein famously wrote that “there is no there there.” That turn of phrase is so overused that its origin sometimes get lost. But what Stein was commenting on in 1933—the transformation of one’s home place until it’s gone—is an apt description of how settler colonialism uprooted and remade Indigenous lands throughout North America and, in particular, California. I’m not a “California Indian”—the imperfect term for Indigenous peoples from what is now called the Golden State—but I grew up in a very Indian California, and it was under almost constant siege by a society habituated to extraction, displacement, and dispossession. I remember running around the Intertribal Friendship House with a bunch of other snot-nosed Native kids back when the nonprofit was borderline insolvent and the community garden was little more than a sandbox and jungle gym waiting to give you tetanus. The Native Bay Area and California that raised me was pocked with these invisible enclaves of Indian community: filled with love and holding on by a thread. When we moved to Oakland, my dad, an artist, used to show his work at a friend’s contemporary Native art gallery in San Francisco. (It closed decades ago.) In the spring and summer, I spent most weekends at powwows: intertribal celebrations of song and dance, held across the state in high school gymnasiums and blingy Vegas-size casinos. In the fall, there were Big Times, California Indian ceremonies held in semi-subterranean roundhouses that went on all night, celebrating the harvest, the change of seasons, and the persistence of once-outlawed cultures on tiny reservations and rancherias, like that of our Miwok friends in the Sierra Nevada foothills of Tuolumne. In the winter, we would drive back up to Tuolumne and hit the slopes with those same Miwoks at a family ski hill in the Stanislaus National Forest, a low-budget alt–Lake Tahoe called Dodge Ridge. A good fraction of the ski patrol and ski team there was Miwok.
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