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Bay Area Indians honored at San Francisco City Hall

SAN FRANCISCO - The sound of drums and the pounding of feet from American Indian Intertribal dancers reverberated throughout San Francisco's City Hall Nov. 2, as the Friendship House Association of American Indians joined Mayor Gavin Newsom and public television station KQED to host the third annual American Indian Cultural Celebration.

The cultural event was co-sponsored by the Native American Health Center, the Barona Band of Mission Indians, Dry Creek Rancheria, Community Health Charities, United Way of Monterey County, Sober Spirits and others.

''It was a celebration of who we are,'' said Helen Waukazoo, CEO of Friendship House, and a way ''to help raise public awareness of American Indian culture and contributions.''

Contributions to the Indian community by Natives and non-Natives were honored with the Gary Rhine Memorial Awards and the KQED Local Heroes Awards.

Rhine was a film producer whose work on American Indian issues garnered much acclaim before his death in a plane crash last year.

Rhine awards were given to Tom Phillips, Kiowa/Muscogee Creek, for his work as master of ceremonies, spiritual counselor and community leader; Sherlee Rhine for her business leadership and support of the American Indian community; and Johnny Radzik for his documentaries depicting the lives and struggles of American Indian and indigenous people.

KQED Local Heroes awards went to gender rights activist natoyiniinastumiik (Holy Old Man Bull); the Rev. Hank LeBeau and his wife, Sherry, of the Indian Health Center of Santa Clara Valley; and Ron Rowell, program officer for social justice at the San Francisco Foundation.

''Serving this community gives you so much more than you can put into it,'' said Rowell, of Choctaw and French descent.

California has the largest Indian population of any state in the country, he said, and it is primarily urban.

''Having celebrations like this is really important to bring us out into the light of the general public to see that we are still here,'' he added, giving special thanks to the Ohlone people, the original inhabitants of the Bay Area region of what is now known as California.

Newsom, who recently ran virtually unopposed for his second term, was also honored for his work with the San Francisco Indian community.

''Fifty percent of our city looks different from me, which is a good thing,'' said Newsom, who is Caucasian, to chuckles from the largely Indian crowd. ''Forty-six percent of our city speaks a different language at home. We are truly an international city.

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''But it's altogether fitting and proper that we not just talk about our newcomers. Let's talk about the folks that were here before anyone else, and that's Native Americans.''

After the awards ceremony, the drumming and dancing continued at the Indian Art Market sponsored by Friendship House, a 45-year-old residential drug and alcohol treatment center.

Waukazoo, Navajo, had been organizing a Native cultural event at Friendship House for several years before Newsom contacted her and offered to host the event in city hall.

''As new leaders come in to city government, they don't have an awareness of the large Indian population in the Bay Area. So we have to let them know that we are here, that we have been contributing to the city and county of San Francisco in a lot of ways.''

The Native population of the greater Bay Area, including San Jose, is about 150,000, Waukazoo said.

Like many Bay Area Indian elders, Waukazoo came to the region as part of the Federal Relocation Project of the 1950s and early '60s. Employment and health issues were major challenges for people who were bused, unprepared, into urban life from reservations throughout the country. Alcohol and substance abuse soon began to devastate homes and families.

''There were no services then,'' she said. ''We thought we were the only poor Indians around.''

As a 19-year-old, Waukazoo volunteered at what later became Friendship House, answering phones and making plans with other relocated Indians over tuna sandwiches, chips and Kool-Aid in a dilapidated old building, with holes in the rugs.

''I had these dreams,'' she said. ''We need to do something better than what we were doing as Indian people. Why do we live this way? Why can't we have better facilities? What's stopping us? It's us.''

Waukazoo and others continued to push for better funding for Friendship House, educating successive city governments about Native issues and marching with signs in front of the board of supervisors ''to get a piece of our land back'' with a new facility.

In 2005, Friendship House opened its own 80-bed healing center. It uses a substance abuse treatment model that incorporates Native ceremony and spiritual values.

Next year, Waukazoo said, she has plans to convince the city to close off Julian Street, where Friendship House is located, so the cultural event and Indian Market after the awards ceremony can fill the whole block.

''What's going to be important in the future is the development of strong leadership and using what we know as Indian people,'' she said. ''My father was a spiritual man. He always said, 'Take good things from your tribe and good things from the others, and use them both.'''