American Indian youth get ready for the Dancing Feathers powwow earlier this month. Many urban Native youth struggle for recognition in their own city.

When Charles applied for a position with the mayor’s Youth Employment and Education Program earlier this year, the application asked the teenager to identify his ethnicity.

“Every [nationality] was there — South Asian, South American, European,” said the 14-year-old Pima Indian at a youth powwow earlier this month in the Mission.

“But not Native American,” he said. “I checked ‘other.’”

His friend Arianna piped in. “Apparently, we’re an other.”

American Indians — also referred to as Native Americans and Natives within their communities — were in the Bay Area long before the Spanish arrived in 1776, and long before the Americans annexed California in 1848. But despite the centuries their people have lived here, the 50,000 American Indians living in the Bay Area, including some 4,000 in San Francisco, feel there is little recognition for their culture.

Two efforts in the Mission District try to fill that void. The Friendship House on Julian Avenue is a drug and alcohol treatment center for adults that also runs a comprehensive program for youth. Marvin Paddock, the youth director, says it’s the closest thing to a community center American Indians have in San Francisco.

The second effort is the Indian Education Program, stationed at Buena Vista Horace Mann and led by Gloria Molt, a former stay-at-home mom raising kids that are half American Indian.

It’s clear these support services have plenty to do.

One teenager at the Friendship House said the lack of cultural education at school sometimes makes him mad.

“They don’t talk about us,” said Makhi, a 13-year-old part Sioux, part Cherokee Indian. “They talk about everyone else, but not Natives.”

The application for the mayor’s Youth Employment and Education Program, funded with city money, has no option for self-identified American Indian youth.

At the youth powwow earlier this month, other teenagers weighed in as well.

“There’s a lot of racist stuff in schools,” Arianna, 13, said. She said her peers throw out words like “savage” in front of her, and tease her that American Indians don’t wear shoes.

“I feel really disconnected.”

Sisters Lavinia and Nikole were perched atop a playground, watching the powwow. Lavinia, 12, said that they transferred schools when they were younger to avoid the hurtful things their classmates said, like “Natives don’t have clothes, Natives don’t have phones.”

“I always get teased to be a white girl,” Nikole, 14, said. “Apparently I’m supposed to be tan and tall, with long hair and a built body.”

She laughed, pointing to her short, straight hair and thin frame. “But as you can see, I’m not.”

Peers may be unkind to American Indian youth, and the statistics aren’t any better.

“Just staying alive,” is hard for them, said Mary Puthoff, a program specialist for the Indian Education Services in Livermore who attended the recent powwow.

Drug and alcohol abuse among American Indians is twice the national average, and 75 percent of Native teen deaths are alcohol-related, according to health statistics.

Debbie Santiago called Native Americans in the Mission a “minority within a minority” because of their lack of social recognition.

Santiago, 49, has been living in the Mission District practically her whole life. She said that, amid the changing of cultures and colors over the decades, American Indians have had a hard time maintaining their identity. The gentrification of the Mission that started in the ’90s brought ignorance toward her culture, she said.

“There was definitely a ‘You don’t exist’ message.”

Events like powwows help maintain culture and tradition within these urban settings, said Paddock from the Friendship House.

At the sixth annual youth powwow held at Buena Vista Horace Mann in early October, a soundtrack of pulsing drums and tribal chants accompanied the bright afternoon. Vendors sold beaded jewelry, dream catchers and fried food. There was a candy toss, raffle prizes and hours of tribal dancing.

Edgar Santiago said powwows showcase Native traditions to young people.

“It restores culture they have lost or have never known about,” said the 20-year-old, who teaches traditional dance, song and prayers to youth at the Friendship House.

John Smith, a self-described Mono/Muskogee Indian directing traffic outside the powwow, agreed. He said cultural traditions help urban youth discover who they are amid the noise of growing up in a city, where cultures often meld together.

Smith said he’s been mistaken for Mexican more times than he can count.

He also recalled a conversation he’s had often with people in San Francisco about powwows.

“People will say ‘What is this?’ I’ll say, ‘A powwow.’ ‘What’s that?’ ‘It’s a tradition for Native Americans.’ ‘What are Native Americans?’”

Smith sighed. “People still don’t know. That’s the sad part about it.”

Molt, 35, who runs the federally funded Indian Education Program for the San Francisco Unified School District, seeks to support Indian youth with culturally specific programs.

In its third year, the program supports the 365 self-identified American Indians in public schools with tutoring services, additional cultural material and after-school and summer programs.

“There’s a really big parent support group that’s been guiding the program,” Molt said, which is emblematic of the nature of community among American Indians.

“They’re doing it because they want to have that better education for their children.”

In the year since the program was implemented in San Francisco, Molt said, the average American Indian youth letter grade has gone up one level.

Despite the lack of social recognition, many American Indians still feel the Bay Area is one of the best places to be.

One mother at the Friendship House said she was grateful to move to the Bay Area after living in Arizona, where she was immersed in Mexican rather than Native culture.

“I didn’t understand who I really was,” said Priscilla Packineau, who moved here when she was 22. “Coming out here and being able to acknowledge who I am today — that’s a lot.”

The two sisters perched atop the playground overlooking the powwow agreed. They talked animatedly about their involvement with the youth program at the Friendship House, and despite repeated hurtful remarks in schools, they understand their role in educating others.

“San Francisco is a great place, but everywhere you go, there are people that are going to be ignorant,” Nikole said.

“But I guess it’s OK, because I get to show other people that there’s a difference in the world.”

Follow Us

Join the Conversation


  1. I truly enjoyed this article. No one should ever have to give up their backgrounds and the traditions. I have done extensive reading on the Native American history and of their culture.They were here long before we were, and everything was taken from them and they were murdered. I am very spiritual, and identify with the Native Americans respect for the earth and it’s creatures. I have no Native American background, but I hope these pow wows and other traditions continue in order to bless their youth with the richness and pride of their culture and ancestry.

    votes. Sign in to vote
  2. one on the best articles I have ever read! It changed my life! However, I am for not asking that stupid aquarium I’n the first place. If we are here, this is where we are I’n earth! We are on a planet that needs the wisdom and culture of your ancestors…they were I’n the Bay Area! You are grounded and gave been for eons!

    votes. Sign in to vote
Leave a comment
Please keep your comments short and civil. Do not leave multiple comments under multiple names on one article. We will zap comments that fail to adhere to these short and very easy-to-follow rules.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *