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To live in, move to or pass through San Francisco is to spend a warm afternoon at Mission Dolores Park. The sloping, verdant city park spans two city blocks in the heart of the Mission District and has hosted parties, playdates, performances, smoke sessions and more than one fist fight. Would visitors be galavanting in such ways if they knew what the land represented to its original stewards?

Before it was an actual park, the land of “Dolo” did serve as a Jewish cemetery site in the 19th century, with the city’s plans to turn it into a park finalized by 1905. But the 1906 earthquake and fire slowed the new park’s recreational use, and the space was a campsite for people displaced by the quake’s damage for a couple years.

The park’s patronage grew and fluctuated and grew again with the completion of the J streetcar line in 1917 and the arrival of thousands of immigrants from Latin America after World War II. It now has tennis courts, a replica of the Mexican Liberty Bell, functional bathrooms and an up-to-code playground.

This stereoview image from 1866 shows Mission Dolores Park when it was a Jewish cemetery. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

As of December 2020, it’s also part of the expanded American Indian Cultural District, in what hopes to be a starting leap toward acknowledging and maintaining space for the various nations that make up San Francisco’s American Indian and Alaska Native communities.

The district is “a combination of Native people, history and [significant] sites. Without the organizations and the people in the district, we’re just a place on a map,” says Sharaya Souza, the executive director and co-founder of the American Indian Cultural District of San Francisco.

“I hope we can use these borders to say we need to take care of organizations and attract Native businesses,” she says. “It is extremely rare to have a Native American business owner, and we don’t talk about that.”

Andrea Carmen, executive director of the International Indian Treaty Council, speaks at an Indigenous Peoples’ Day event on October 12, 2020, in Golden Gate Park. Sharaya Souza (left), executive director of the American Indian Cultural District of San Francisco, and April McGill (center), the executive director of the American Indian Cultural Center, are with her. (Courtesy of Norm Sands)

The city’s American Indian Cultural District was initially established without Dolores Park at the end of March 2020, to acknowledge the city’s indigenous diaspora and create definitive safe spaces and a clear path to social and economic resources for San Francisco’s first communities, all despite the chaos and constraints of the pandemic.

While it is the largest district of its kind in the country, comprising more than 20 city blocks, Souza says the district’s budget is severely lacking for the work that remains, compared with other cultural districts in the city.

Independent research conducted for the district indicates American Indian and Alaska Native people make up 1.1% of the city population, but local census data and confusing self-identification questions have led to funding that would indicate they only represent 0.03% of the city, which Souza says means fighting for “barely a million dollars.”

To the best of my knowledge, there is no evidence that there [was] either a [Ramaytush Ohlone] village or a cemetery at the current site of Mission Dolores Park.

Jonathan Cordero, founder of the Association of Ramaytush Ohlone and professor of sociology at California Lutheran University

Funding is crucial for fostering visibility, retaining and expanding the district’s borders and collecting data on what Native communities and individuals the district will serve.

American Indian and Alaska Native people are more than twice as likely to be unemployed as the general population, Souza says, and are 17 times more likely than the general population to be unhoused, but it’s difficult to qualify this. “There’s massive amounts of missing data,” she says.

On January 21, Souza read a land acknowledgement written by the district’s policy and external relations chair and Ramaytush Ohlone member Gregg Castro at a rally at Dolores Park organized by Galería de la Raza.

An updated map shows the new borders of the American Indian Cultural District in San Francisco, including Mission Dolores Park. (Courtesy of the American Indian Cultural District)

Castro has lived the majority of his life, like his family, in what is now San Jose. He has always been proud of his American Indian identity, devoting decades of his life to preserving the history and bettering the current circumstances of California Indians like himself, serving as the Tribal Chair of the Salinan Nation Tribal Council, a member of Society for California Archaeology and a co-facilitator for the annual California Indian Conference.

But it wasn’t always safe for him and his family to express that publicly. He says, “growing up, as Native Californians, we are thought of as extinct. I still say that most of the people I grew up with did not know I was Indian.”

The acknowledgement was also adopted by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in December 2020 to be read at the start of every meeting.

“We acknowledge that we are on the unceded ancestral homeland of the Ramaytush Ohlone who are the original inhabitants of the San Francisco Peninsula. As the indigenous stewards of this land and in accordance with their traditions, the Ramaytush Ohlone have never ceded, lost nor forgotten their responsibilities as the caretakers of this place, as well as for all peoples who reside in their traditional territory. As guests, we recognize that we benefit from living and working on their traditional homeland. We wish to pay our respects by acknowledging the ancestors, elders and relatives of the Ramaytush Community and by affirming their sovereign rights as First Peoples.”

Castro is also a part of the Association of Ramaytush Ohlone, founded by Jonathan Cordero, Ph.D., professor of sociology at California Lutheran University. Cordero, who descends from the last surviving line of Ramaytush Ohlone as well as the Chumash of Thousand Oaks in Ventura County, founded the ARO to address misinformed notions about the Ohlone from within and beyond academia.

The nonprofit has been around for upwards of a decade working with various organizations and communities, be it consulting, social projects or crafting curricula, to make visible the reality that the Ramaytush Ohlone, like many other Bay Area tribes, endure in their homeland to this day. Part of that work is dispelling what the history of the district’s borders entailed.

“To the best of my knowledge, there is no evidence that there [was] either a [Ramaytush Ohlone] village or a cemetery at the current site of Mission Dolores Park,” Cordero says. Specific cultural practices and migration patterns of the Ramaytush make these theories “possible” but unproven.

Both Cordero and Castro refer to themselves as California Indians because of the unique experience of West Coast nations that involved not only the arrival of the Spanish missionaries in the 18th century, but also the influx of non-Natives from the Gold Rush in the 19th century.

An 1816 drawing by German-Russian painter and explorer Louis Choris shows two Ohlone people walking toward what could be Mission San Francisco de Asis, a.k.a. Mission Dolores. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Most California tribes, the Ohlone included, are not federally recognized. Even though the Bay Area has one of the biggest urban American Indian populations thanks to Congress’ Indian Relocation Act of 1956, many American Indians, Castro says, “came with the same school knowledge that a lot of the people here were taught, that we’re extinct.”

Souza had been working with Friendship House, an organization within the district that has provided housing and substance abuse programs run by and for American Indians since 1963, when the San Francisco mayor’s office reached out to her with the opportunity of a lifetime: creating legislation to found the American Indian Cultural District.

Souza’s background in policy and planning and working with the likes of Governor Jerry Brown’s California Department of Water Resources, the American Indian Recruitment and Retention program at UC Davis, the California Native American Heritage Commission and Twitter came in handy, but it’s been a hard, bureaucratic fight.

Sharaya Souza — with April McGill and Restoring Justice for Indigenous Peoples executive director Morning Star Gali — speaks at a 2020 event on Alcatraz Island. (Courtesy of Black Zebra Productions)

A leading priority for Souza and her team is the reconstruction of an American Indian Cultural Center, something the city has lacked since the previous one burned down in 1969.

April McGill, the cultural center’s executive director and Director of Community Partnerships & Projects for the California Consortium for Urban Indian Health, knows how important it is for American Indians to have safe physical spaces of their own to heal from generational trauma rooted in colonization, rape and genocide.

“We’ve always been here,” says McGill, whose great-great-grandfather, a Yuki man, lived in the city. “But we’ve been displaced. American Indians are the only community that does not have a cultural center.”

American Indian Cultural District executive director Sharaya Souza says in 2021 she hopes to increase the district’s visibility and budget in San Francisco. (Courtesy of Sharaya Souza)

Meetings with architects and campaigns for capital are in the works, and Friendship House has offered to house the cultural center until its own space is ready.

Both Friendship House and the American Indian Cultural Center will be housed in the Village, a space currently in development, which will include the district’s offices and other Native resources and organizations. The Village is meant to facilitate communication and collaboration among Native leaders about the district’s needs.

In 2021, Souza hopes to increase the district’s visibility and budget and work toward Native representation in city government, which currently has no Native representatives. The district’s board is currently organizing a shared cultural hub outside the district at Fort Mason Center and seeking funding for a Truth & Healing Task Force to better address concerns brought to the city’s Human Rights Commission back in 2007.

Just as the American Indian Cultural District seeks to create a viable network of resources, representation and autonomy, the Association of Ramaytush Ohlone has long term goals to acquire land in San Mateo County; this space will rematriate land for the Ohlone and help realize the association’s goals of cultural revitalization and ecological restoration. As part of the ARO, Castro and Cordero say they are now overwhelmed with inquiries and requests from institutions, organizations, communities and individuals seeking insight, curricula and collaborations.

“We hope, that the political work that we have been doing with the Indigenous Peoples’ Day Proclamation, the formation of the American Indian Cultural Center, the American Indian Cultural District, the land acknowledgement that’s being read highest levels of the city and county governments,” Cordero says, “we hope that those political elements will translate into the kinds of things that really make a difference for indigenous peoples in the city and county of San Francisco. The beginning is there.”

* Learn more about the American Indian Cultural District at https://americanindianculturaldistrict.org/.