Profile of a Healthy 'Urban Rez'


The Bay Area Urban Indian community is becoming a national catalyst for healthy change, in large part from the cultural revitalization efforts at Intertribal Friendship House community center in east Oakland. 

The model at Intertribal Friendship House (IFH) makes sense—provide a space for community to gather, and let programs and events arise from the grassroots. Instead of a large paid staff, encourage community members to take the lead in volunteering to organize wherever possible. That way, programs actually reflect the needs and aspirations of the members, and the programs are sustainable: whether or not outside funding comes through, community members believe in the work and will carry out the programs no matter what.

However, a community-centered model like this is far from the norm. Nor is it likely to have the longevity of IFH; which, established in 1955, has weathered many different eras.

Today, there are more than 8,000 community members walking through the door each year from more than 100 tribes. The IFH membership interacts as one family, one “Urban Rez” community, though each person holds proudly to their own home tribal roots. There is no conflict between being both a member of your home tribe with knowledge and pride of your own history and practices, while simultaneously being a member of the urban Native community.

Outsiders often ask, “But how do you have a ceremony or anything with so many languages and traditions?” Instead of seeing such a diverse community as a deficit to community development, IFH has succeeded in proving that the multi-tribal makeup of the community is decidedly an asset. ??The examples of resiliency and upliftment taking place at IFH abound:

For a recent completion of a coming-of-age ceremony, the IFH community gathered to welcome the return of the young people and serve as a public witness of the transformation they had just experienced. The young people beamed with pride and inspiration of the sacred healing they had experienced that would alter the course of their lives. They shared some of their teachings—many imparted from a medicine man and other traditional practitioners—back with the community, and it was a sense of hope and rebirth of a new healthy, culturally-grounded Native generation.

The IFH community donated recipes for a Traditional Foods Cookbook such as Buffalo Tongue, Blue Corn Tamales, and Wild Rice Salad. The recipes were analyzed for nutritional content and this was presented into a table. A community member designed the layout and it is now for sale as a fundraiser for IFH health programs.

A flourishing 720 square foot community garden produces more than 60 varieties of fruits, vegetables, and medicinal and cooking herbs. As one community participant described, “It makes you feel self-sufficient. You can grow your own food. That’s the way it used to be a long time ago. We never had to go to the store.”

There are regular Elder’s Luncheons, Women’s and Men’s Health Conferences, Fatherhood Groups, Dance & Drum practice, Lakota Language classes, and Youth camps. All groups emphasize self-sufficiency. It is an intentional strategy to impart the feeling that every participant’s involvement is critical to the success, rather than a dependent approach of viewing participants as clients that are receiving services. The effect of this nurturing is apparent: “It gives you that great feeling that some people really care about what the community needs. I enjoy it every time I go there. They care about you and your health.”

In working from the ground up and drawing on community wisdom and volunteerism, IFH has become a source of inspiration to many.

Whether it is a ceremony, the garden, or a community feast, community members express a profound sense that they can take control of their own wellbeing. “I think we are all eating better now. IFH is teaching us this is what you should eat, what is healthy for you. Everybody will come together and live a healthy life,” one described.

Another shared, “At our dinners, there has been more than once that I say I have an announcement to make—the zucchini, onion, squash, tomatoes all came from our garden. And people started cheering.”

The asset-based community development model seen at IFH is one that many other “Urban Rez” communities could emulate. An urban setting does not have to be a scene of cultural loss or invisibility. In fact, IFH demonstrates something Native peoples do so well: make relatives and form extended family networks wherever they move camp.

In that way, a whole community rises.

For more on IFH’s work visit www.ifhurbanrez.org.