Goal: Save Native Community Center But Maintain Its Culture

The Bay Area Native American community has been in an e-mail frenzy in recent weeks trying to save Oakland’s Intertribal Friendship House. The nation’s oldest Native community center faces closure if it can’t raise $30,000 in unpaid taxes by March 23.

At a meeting on February 23, about two dozen members of the indigenous community gathered to discuss fund-raising efforts. But Patricia St. Onge, a former board member, said the community center has an angel investor to pull them through the financial rut if need be. According to her, the question is how to balance Native American values – like consensus decision-making – with the need for stability.

“We know from experience that people don’t take well to even someone on the board saying, ‘Here’s what we want,'” said St. Onge, whose consulting business, Seven Generations, is working pro-bono to help the center. “It’s the nature of the indigenous community. It’s not unexpected or unusual,” added Wilson Riles, St. Onge’s husband and business partner.

Money woes are nothing new for the center. Similar e-mails circulated last year asking for donations to help cover their tax bill. The problem has been poor administrative oversight, St. Onge said. “Statistically speaking, when you look at the Native community it’s by far the poorest and most invisible,” she said. “When people do think of the Native communities, they think of casinos or they romanticize — oh so spiritual. And the truth is somewhere in the middle.”

Troubles began for IFH about a decade ago when it lost funding from United Way and the Quaker organization American Friend Service Committee. That, coupled with a secretive board, led to the loss of the organization’s nonprofit status. “It kind of fell on bad times,” said Eloy Martinez, president of the board. Everything from grant-writing to remodeling, including installing a sprinkler system and putting in new floors, have been done on a volunteer basis, Martinez said.

St. Onge and Riles plan to help restructure the organization and reestablish bylaws when the center elects a new board in April. The IFH also plans to reopen its gift shop. In the meantime, local Native Americans hope a string of fund-raising events this weekend will help prevent their space from going on the auction block. For a full schedule, click here.

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