Urban Indians need a seat at the table to discuss the issues that matter to their communities, and to preserve their values and traditions.
By Abby Abinanti, Special to CalMatters
Abby Abinanti is a member of the Yurok Tribe and the first Native woman to be admitted to the California Bar. She is chief judge of the Yurok Tribe and board member emeritus of Friendship House.
Strong urban Indian communities today are the legacy of survivors who refused to let the colonizers win.
Tribal people from across our lands were sent to boarding schools and forced to relocate to cities, all in the hopes of disconnecting them from family, home and culture. Generations of U.S. politicians worked to slowly “kill the Indian, and save the man.” Instead, they fueled a resistance.
Today more than 70% of Native people live in America’s cities far from our homelands. Here in California, it’s more than 90%, many forcibly removed. This is the result of laws created by white people to rob us of our homelands, our language and our spiritual connections. The result of these violent policies is trauma and divided communities. But it’s our way as Native people to connect.
Friendship House in San Francisco was born out of one Navajo boarding school survivor’s vision of helping her people heal. My friend, Helen Waukazoo, saw how the trauma of separation can create a cycle of addiction, poverty and family disconnection. She began Friendship House in a Mission Hill church basement to help the city’s Native people who struggled with addiction recover and reconnect with their cultural ways.
In 2025, Friendship House’s The Village SF will be a place where our urban Native community can grow even further. The development will anchor California’s first American Indian Cultural District and will provide interim supportive housing, community space, health care, nutrition services, recovery and treatment programs (including a dedicated women’s program), a food sovereignty project and garden, and cultural resources like sweat lodge and ceremony space.
Today’s urban Indians are the survivors of colonization. Whether we are born in the city, or relocated by force or by choice, we are all impacted by the centuries of policies aimed at separating us from our culture. But we have always found a way. Instead of forgetting our traditional ways, we shared them across tribes and with each other, an act of defiance to preserve our values in the heart of a city that was supposed to make us white.
The Village SF is the result of Indigenous people creating solutions and opportunities for Indigenous people. But we can’t do it alone. The majority of Native people live in cities, but the same level of limited resources that exist for our relatives on reservations don’t exist for us. Urban Indian services have been underfunded for too long. It’s time for governments to invest in our communities.
Democratic Sen. Alex Padilla has asked the Biden administration to create an interagency advisory group of urban Indian organizations. Urban Indians need a seat at the table to discuss the issues that matter to our communities, and we need a forum to directly engage with the White House.
Through his amendment to the infrastructure bill, Padilla has also made it possible for organizations like Friendship House to seek federal dollars for capital projects like The Village SF. The California Legislature is considering funding for urban Indian services during this session, and as a matter of social justice, should invest more in serving our urban Native communities.
We’re still here, connecting to our culture, each other and to those who need to learn from us how to care for this place we now must share. Piece by piece, we’re reclaiming what was taken from us, what was taken from our ancestors. For decades, we have made our way and preserved our traditions in spite of, not because of, U.S. policy. Now, governments must step up and do more to repair the harm they caused.