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5 things you should know about San Francisco’s Indigenous past & present

Bay Area residents Ellie Madril, 6, and her father, Eddie Madril, gracefully compete in the potato dance during the Two-Spirit Powwow at the Festival Pavilion at Fort Mason. | Photo by Yalonda M. James/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

In San Francisco, the local Indigenous population share is tiny: Just 0.5% of the city self-identifies as American Indian or Alaskan Native, according to 2021 Census Bureau estimates.

Nonetheless, the Bay Area has one of the biggest urban American Indian populations—in part because of the Indian Relocation Act of 1956—and Native Americans have long served as stewards of the unceded land that the city sits on today. 

Put simply, if you live in San Francisco, you live on Ohlone land. 

Despite the long heritage and history of Indigenous folks in the Bay, many San Franciscans might not realize just how far Native culture stretches throughout the city’s past and present. 

“This city is known as a space that honors Native people, and yet there’s a lack of visibility, a lack of representation,” said Sharaya Souza (Taos Pueblo, Ute, Kiowa), executive director at SF’s American Indian Cultural District. Souza wants to encourage non-Native folks to support projects that increase visibility for SF’s Native community—and not just in November.  

For National American Indian Heritage Month, we’ve gathered five SF Native American histories, landmarks and events that you should know about:

Daniel Scholfield of Redding, Calif., dances a traditional men’s fancy dance with his group, All Nation Singers. | Justin Katigbak for The Standard

1. SF Is the Original Home of the Ramaytush Ohlone People

Well before San Francisco earned its modern title, more than 10,000 Indigenous people coexisted in dozens of tribes across the Bay Area. Though these groups spoke different languages and operated as separate groups, today they are collectively placed under the umbrella term “Ohlone.” 

In San Francisco, the Ramaytush Ohlone are the peninsula’s original peoples, most of which belonged to the Yelamu group, an independent tribe located within modern city limits

Color map of Ohlone territory in the Bay Area with tribal bands indicated | Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The Ramaytush once numbered in the thousands, but the arrival of the Spanish in the late 1700s decimated the Ohlone population in the Bay. Just one Ohlone lineage has produced living descendants.

Of course, not all of SF’s Indigenous population identify as Ramaytush Ohlone, and the city’s Native community is home to Indigenous people from tribal affiliations across the country—and world.

2. One of SF’s Most Famous Religious Landmarks Was Built by Forced Native Labor 

Constructed between 1782 and 1791, the Mission San Francisco de Asís is the city’s oldest standing building—and it’s hard to miss, painted bright white and seated just steps away from SF’s famed Dolores Park.

It was also built by the Ohlone people, whose forced labor constructed the building for Spanish missionaries, led by the Franciscan priest Junipero Serra. 

The exterior of Mission San Francisco de Asís, now known as Mission Dolores | Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

These missions were designed to convert California Indians to Christianity. In reality, they were used as forced labor and concentration camps, where Spanish missionaries displaced, physically abused and tortured Native Americans—all in the name of Christianization and education. The collective abuse all but destroyed the Ramaytush Ohlone population in SF, with some death toll estimates stretching past 5,000 by 1832. 

Today, the Mission’s complex legacy has invited San Franciscans to challenge popular narratives about European-Native cultural harmony.

In 2004, for example, the SF Mission appointed Andrew A. Galvan as its curator, electing the first American Indian to oversee a California Mission; and city agencies—including the Board of Education and supervisors—have implemented land acknowledgments into their meetings. Other organizations across the Bay have renamed buildings and toppled statues honoring Junipero Serra. 

The Fort Mason Flix drive-in featured an onscreen message acknowledging the unceded tribal lands of the Ramaytush and Muwekma Ohlone people. | Photo by Miikka Skaffari/Getty Images

3.  Alcatraz Has a Native Past, Present and Future

Alcatraz Island, known to most as the home of one of America’s most notorious prisons, has a lesser known but major historical significance to Native Americans in the Bay Area.  

In 1969, Native American activists reclaimed Alcatraz, protesting on the island for 19 months. Members of the movement demanded the U.S. government return all out-of-use federal land to Native Americans who previously lived there—efforts which led to wider visibility for the Native American civil rights movement and the formation of the International Indian Treaty Council. 

Native Americans gather on Alcatraz Island in front of the main cellblock during the protest on Nov. 11, 1970. | Photo by Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

It wasn’t until 2009 that the San Francisco Board of Supervisors officially recognized the importance of the Alcatraz protest. SF’s Native Americans, on the other hand, knew that the island had become emblematic of the centurieslong struggle over Indigenous land rights and sovereignty. 

Since the 1969 protest, local Native Americans have honored Alcatraz’s legacy by celebrating “Unthanksgiving Day” on the island. Each year on Thanksgiving—a holiday that, to some, symbolizes European colonial violence against Native people—intertribal community members gather on Alcatraz, commemorating the survival of Indigenous peoples.

The 44th Indigenous Peoples’ Thanksgiving Sunrise Gathering will be held this year on Nov. 25, hosted by the International Indian Treaty Council. 

Canoes make their way across the San Francisco Bay from Aquatic Park to Alcatraz. | Photo By Carlos Avila Gonzalez/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

4. SF Has the Largest Two-Spirit LGBTQ+ Gathering in America

San Francisco is known for its status as a queer mecca, and that also rings true in the city’s Native community. 

“Two-spirit” describes Native American people who have both a masculine and feminine spirit within them, and who experience the world through the lens of multiple genders. Because Western LGBTQ+ terminology cannot fully capture the nuances of two-spirit identities, many see “two-spirit” as an umbrella term to describe gender variance, as well as sexual and spiritual identity among some Indigenous people. 

San Francisco is home to the largest two-spirit powwow in the world. The Bay Area American Indian Two Spirits (BAAITS) convene the annual powwow in February, inviting two-spirit individuals across tribal affiliations to gather and celebrate the intersection of their Native and queer identities. 

A grand entry is performed by multiple tribes during the Two-Spirit Powwow at Festival Pavilion at Fort Mason. | Photo by Yalonda M. James/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

BAAITS strives to de-gender and decolonize traditional powwows, encouraging individuals across gender and sexual identities to participate in activities once reserved for certain genders or opposite-sex couples alone.

If you don’t want to wait until the next powwow, San Franciscans can engage more with two-spirit community members at an upcoming online event at the California Institute of Integral Studies. 

5. Indigenizing San Francisco Now

Today, community members across the Bay Area are engaged in numerous projects honoring American Indian heritage. By foregrounding Native perspectives and experiences, many of these events and organizations push San Franciscans to engage more proactively with Native culture today, and to stop talking about Native culture in the past tense.

American Indian Cultural District (AICD) 

Established in March 2020, the American Indian Cultural District aims to indigenize San Francisco through projects that honor and celebrate American Indian culture. Located in the heart of the Mission, some of AICD’s recent efforts include opening a cultural district hub at Fort Mason, commissioning public Native artworks and establishing historical truth and reparations committees with city officials. 

Native American Health Center (NAHC) 

Native Americans have long experienced disproportionately lower life expectancy rates and higher disease burdens than other Americans—and SF’s Native American Health Center aims to close that health gap, providing services to the Bay Area Native population and other underserved communities. NAHC is one of the oldest and largest Urban Indian Health programs in the U.S., providing culturally conscious care for more than 15,000 members annually.  

Alcatraz Cultural Center

Many have called for the establishment of a Native American cultural center on Alcatraz, given the island’s cultural and historical significance to local Native communities. Upcoming AICD panels will address the creation of a new cultural center, as well as the “next steps” for the Ramaytush Ohlone in San Francisco. 

Native American activists who occupied Alcatraz Island from 1969 until 1971 left graffiti on the prison's walls. | Photo by Robert Alexander/Getty Images

Native Stories Walking Tour

Citygoers can learn about Native heritage on-the-go, thanks to a walking tour project currently in development by the American Indian Cultural District and SF Heritage. Guests can tour through the city and look for QR codes at historically and culturally significant locations.

Ramaytush Ohlone Waterfront Trail

The trail serves as an acknowledgement that visitors are on Native land and that the Ramaytush Ohlone never ceded or abandoned their stewardship of the land. The digital walking tour includes informational alcoves featuring facts about Ohlone history, as well as a bayside trail that will be accessible from the Exploratorium all the way to Crissy Field. 

The Village

Nonprofit The Village aims to “reclaim, rebuild and Indigenize” San Francisco by creating a central space for Native culture and community. Set to open in 2025, the six-floor building in the Mission District will offer interim housing, health services, ceremonial spaces, a sweat lodge and a medicinal plant garden.

SF Arts Commission Native American Arts

The SF Arts Commission supports local artists and art organizations through community grants and other programming—and a handful of recent grants have gone toward Native American artists and organizations. In 2019, for example, the Arts Commission launched “The Continuous Thread: Celebrating Our Interwoven Histories, Identities and Contributions,” an initiative that centered Indigenous history in exhibitions, art projects and public events.  

American Indian Film Festival

The 47th American Indian Film Festival will take place Nov. 4 through Nov. 12 at several San Francisco theaters and auditoriums. Hosted by the American Indian Film Institute, the festival will feature 79 films, awards and a panel discussion centered on how films can create social change.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the number of years the American Indian Film Festival has been running. This year is its 47th year.