With its perpetual focus on community building and traditional healing, East Oakland’s Intertribal Friendship House (IFH) has been green long before wellness and sustainability became buzzwords. The “Urban Rez” is now literally green, technically “Sweet Grass” green, after volunteers spent several summer days last year painting the facility as a part of routine upkeep and beautification.
Established in 1955 as one of the first community centers for Indigenous people in the nation, IFH was founded by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) to serve as a hub for Indigenous people displaced by the Indian Relocation Act, which was designed to relocate American Indians from reservations to urban cities, such as San Francisco.
Carol Wahpepah (Ojibwe) has worked with San Francisco Bay Area non-profits for decades and has been IFH’s executive director for over nine years. She said IFH owns and maintains the building thanks to volunteers and donations. “When relocation first happened, the Native community worked with them (AFSC) to start this place,” she said, sitting in the front hall of the Friendship House amid three large murals, each on its own wall, telling its own story of cultural survival, “and they donated the building. We own the building because they gave it to us.” She noted that AFSC San Francisco had been active in the local Native community for a long time and would soon celebrate its centennial. As she spoke, Lakota artist and educator Janeen Antoine highlighted how fortunate the center is to own a building of its size given the rising Bay Area rental costs. “I know what it means to be without a space because we had a gallery in San Francisco for 20 years—a Native non-profit art gallery—and then we got ‘Dot-comed.’ We were one of the only urban galleries in the country that worked with Native artists. That’s my swear word: Dot-commit! But that’s been the experience for so many Native non-profits and art non-profits. It’s displacement with the rising costs. And I feel that this place is really important and it’s so important to keep it financially solvent.” She mentioned long-time AFSC staff member Wes Huss, who had recently passed away. Wahpepah recalled how Huss was instrumental in the success of IFH and his decades-long service to the Bay Area Indian community.
The House expanded its programs over the years to counter the continual cultural displacement caused by the relocation program, and now serves over 8,000 community members per year from more than 100 tribes. One recent program is an occupational training program for Native youth between ages 18 to 24. Working with organizations such as United Indian Nations, an American-Indian managed non-profit providing job placement for Native Americans and Alaskan Natives living in the Bay Area, IFH employs about six Native youths per year through the program, Wahpepah said.
IFH Youth Development Coordinator Javier Patty (Muscogee Creek / Seminole) actively manages the youth trainees, the most recent being Boyce Duncan (Shuswap). “He really wanted to work in the garden,” Wahpepah said of Duncan. “He’s worked with me, Javier, and Janeen—she did some sage harvesting with him.” Nearly a week before helping to paint the Friendship House, Duncan dismantled the raised wooden planting beds along the House’s small, fenced-in parking lot. The impact of Duncan’s hammer against the wooden planks echoed into the neighborhood, competing with the cacophony of weekday morning International Boulevard traffic. As Duncan works, Patty explains why the beds are being removed. “This is what happens,” Patty said as he pointed to one of the beds with planks that had shifted out of place. Patty said he attended a meeting at City Slicker Farms, a West-Oakland-based non-profit urban farm, where he learned the significance of having metal incorporated into the gardening boxes. “We love their boxes,” he said, adding that it was nice to see another urban garden in Oakland. Wahpepah said the IFH job training program is important because it provides confidence and experience to young people who never had an official job. “You get to know the person good enough and find out what their goal is and what they would like to do. We had one [trainee] that really liked to cook, so he was cooking a lot. And when he left here, the staff helped him with an application to go to the Bread Project in Berkeley.”
IFH offers other programs to Native youth, including summer cultural programs and gatherings. From late June through early July last year, the center hosted “Rooted in Tradition,” in which demonstrators instructed participants from ages four to eleven in a variety of cultural workshops. The House also offers leadership opportunity within its annual youth council, which Patty said is managed completely by its members, who help with other IFH programs, as well as organize their own events. Wahpepah said youth council membership was determined through an application / interview process in the past, but members have been recently chosen from promising youth who attend or volunteer for IFH programs.
Other IFH programs include Family Movie Night, Family Gardening Day, Pow Wow Drum and Dance, Zumba, yoga, Four Directions AA Meeting, parenting workshops, community garden harvesting, traditional food classes, art exhibits, nationally known musical and comedy performances, community healing ceremonies, annual harvest dinners and holiday parties, and monthly elders’ gatherings with food distribution.
Patty said the annual harvest dinner is twofold, one for community and one for the elders. “So, we have two each for Harvest and Christmas,” he continued. “For the Harvest dinner, we feed about two roomfuls, like 300 people. We have a lot of volunteers who help us out with that too. The Elders’ Harvest Dinner is for about 45 people.
Wahpepah said she is happy about the continued community support and reiterated the importance of volunteers and donations to the House. She mentioned several donated items around the hall and in the kitchen and office before gesturing behind her, “This back room here—all the windows that are in it got replaced about four years ago. We used to have these windows that wound open and the people that walked outside got hit in the head in the dark. So, this guy shows up one day that I know from the community and he has this big, nice van and I said, ‘What do you do? That’s a nice van.’ He said, ‘I replace windows.’ I was like, ‘Just the man I wanted to talk to!’” Wahpepah said the man measured the windows and ordered them from Home Depot. “And we had about five guys just show up that Saturday to help, and they installed all those windows. We have a room upstairs where he installed them up there too. But that only costs us the money of the windows.”
IFH recently finished a five-year strategic plan, as well as a fund development plan, Wahpepah said. Planned improvements include roof repairs and a roof replacement over the main hall, new asphalt for the parking lot, and a dancefloor for the back room. She also hopes to add another full-time staff member and enhance the Native youth council. She said individual donations have improved, but she would like to increase donations from individuals and other sources.
For more information about Intertribal Friendship House and its programs, visit: ifhurbanrez.org.