The Intertribal Friendship House's urban garden grows a myriad assortment of Indigenous seeds and strains including but not limited to heirloom Hoopa tobacco, cedar, California sage and mint varieties. (Photo courtesy of Intertribal Friendship House)

Good Medicine Grows in Bay Area’s American Indian Community

Gilberto Daniel Rodriguez
2/24/11

OAKLAND, CA— At the epicenter of the Bay Area American Indian community is 55-year-old American Indian center and institution Intertribal Friendship House in East Oakland. A few years back it faced staggering financial worries and an uncertain future but now stands confidently, garnering new support from varied organizational allies, foundations, individual donors and volunteers. It is in full bloom—literally: Even in the Bay Area winter, onions and garlic bulbs, radishes, collards and various medicinal herbs are flourishing and providing a steady harvest year round. There is also the sound and movement of Indigenous language courses, Indian history and Medicine Warriors' drum and dance classes that fill the halls. All uniquely restore community wellness.

With a nearly all-volunteer leadership base, IFH has made remarkable strides the past year in building a base of support for culturally-centered health offerings in the Bay Area, home to perhaps the third largest Native community in the country with a population of more than 100,000. One such new organizational ally is a new partnership with the Northern California Society for Public Health Education (NCSOPHE), a health professional’s membership group. NCSOPHE joins longtime IFH ally Seva Foundation, an international health organization in Berkeley, in a coalition to promote health equity in the community. This coalition is working to curb health disparities by supporting IFH in increasing healthy food access through the urban gardening work, designing practical research projects, holding future diabetic prevention and management, and negotiating with Oakland area stakeholders in including Native voices in food and environmental policies.

Within the Bay Area American Indian community disproportionately high rates of diabetes, heart diseases, obesity and other health issues abound. In local Alameda County alone, 6.9% of deaths among American Indians were directly due to diabetes. The high incidence of diabetes and long term diabetes related problems such as eye and kidney disease, cardiovascular disease and lower extremity amputations are dramatic realities in need of urgent change. Addressing these health issues is all the more challenging in a setting where more than 67% of Native families live below the federal poverty line.

The NC-SOPHE-led coalition, called a Community Advocacy Collaborative, is beginning the first of 5 years of mini-grant funding made possible through SOPHE’s Health Equity Project. These funds came from a larger legislative reappropriation from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health (REACH) programs to facilitate policy, systems and environmental changes strategies, and to address risk factors associated with diabetes and chronic diseases in minority and underserved populations in the United States.

Additional support and resources through Seva Foundation will be allocated for Indigenous-led evaluation, sharing community participatory data, documenting increased Native gardening, and cooking, fitness and wellness knowledge skills. Furthermore, they will look at improving access to and capacity for staff and utilization of healthy foods and wellness activities.

“Seva has a 30-year track record of seeking outstanding community-led health projects that—with a little boost—can impact health in big and lasting ways. We find these projects, we listen deeply, and we get behind them. Intertribal Friendship House is one local partner we have always seen tremendous value in, and we’re thrilled to play a role in its ongoing growth along with the SOPHE Chapter,” stated Bonney Hartley, Seva Foundation’s Native American Community Health Program Manager.

Dr. Diane Allensworth, SOPHE Past President stated, “Community engagement and empowerment are vital if we are to make progress in achieving health equity and improving the health of individuals and families.” “We are excited about the breadth and depth of the skills, innovation and commitment that the health education will bring to this effort.”

IFH Executive Director Carol Wahpepah hopes that the collaboration will result in more of the unprecedented healthy food work through the garden and other activities, involving more than 1,000 community participants last year.

Other collaborators on the new Community Advocacy Collaborative project represent institutional ties spanning public health organizations in the Bay Area and beyond including Bowman Performance Consulting, Duke University Hart Fellowship Program, Health Career Connections, and San Jose State University Department of Health Science.
The garden, of course, grows more than food. “Maggie John, Dine’ garden coordinator cultivated Hoopa Heirloom tobacco,” said Wahpepah. “She has taken on the responsibility of curing, caretaking and sharing this medicine with our elders.”
With the assistance of health professionals working with community activists, Wahpepah is continuing to reclaim what knowledge and resources she can harness to continue fighting for better health conditions in her urban Intertribal community.

Gilberto Daniel Rodriguez, Mexica/Nahuatl, is an Urban Studies student at San Francisco Art Institute and a program associate at Seva Foundation. He can be reached at drodriguez@seva.org.

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