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Cathy Robbins Thinking Aloud

A Remarkable Woman, from Navajo to San Francisco

Helen Waukazoo hasn’t changed much since I saw her last in 2005, when a dream came true. On a brilliant sunny spring day in the San Francisco's Mission District, the new Friendship House opened with a dedication ceremony.

Helen had guided Friendship House for more than 30 years, arriving from boarding school, a relocated Navajo who nearly fled the city on the Bay. She had never seen so many people in one place. Even after nearly 40 years in the Bay Area, Helen still has traces of her singing Navajo language. She returns to her home on the reservation near Crownpoint, New Mexico at least twice a year.

On that spring day, a drum group drawn from various tribes, with dancers in regalia and singers, VIPs from the city, and other visitors from the American Indian community in San Francisco and beyond represented the promise of the new Friendship House.

In the crowd, the building’s Chinese-American architects looked puzzled as they surveyed the thickly woven Pendleton blankets given to them. Someone finally explained to them that the blankets were gestures of respect and thanks.

The spanking fresh building they had designed was an 85-bed treatment facility for substance abusers and alcoholics and, frankly, any American Indian floundering in the big city or who simply wanted to see a familiar Native face or receive a healing touch. Friendship House has the only licensed sweat lodge in San Francisco—just one example of its culturally-based healing.

Friendship House had come a long way since Helen arrived in the 1960s. After boarding school, she and some girlfriends knew that jobs would be hard to find on the reservation, a place of excruciating beauty and painful economic distress.

They opted for San Francisco, where Helen took a job as a clerk-typist at the Christian Reform Church's Friendship House, which received a growing number of relocated--and disoriented-- Indians. By 1973 the American Indian community in the Bay Area increased by 27 percent and a new generation of Indians far from home appeared at Friendship House's door, as culture-shocked as she had been. Helen had moved up to bookkeeper, and she would become executive director in 1987.

The ribbon-cutting for the new Friendship House spoke of a long history and a long promise for thousands of American Indians in San Francisco. The budget is at $4 million, and the $12-million Friendship House is the nation’s largest facility for Indian substance abusers.

Helen is 70 now and she knows Friendship House's leadership will change, so she’s writing a “practices” manual and a history for the new boss, whoever that is. Sitting before me, she dispenses advice on caring for elderly parents, fields phone calls, and grills me about my book. I’d just given her a thank-you copy. One entire wall of shelves in her sun-drenched office holds family photos, awards, and Navajo and other Indian pots, baskets and art. I can’t imagine anyone else at that desk.

For more, see pages 110-112 of All Indians Do Not Live in Teepees (or Casinos). Read More 
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