February 22, 2024

Health pioneer Martin Waukazoo is retiring

On the grand staircase of San Francisco City Hall, Martin Waukazoo stood with three other community leaders to accept awards during November’s 2023 Native American Heritage Month celebration.

It was an extraordinary day for Waukazoo. The honor of his work as CEO of the Native American Health Center came the day he stepped down to retire.

“After 41 years, I hope I’ve done some good for the community,” Waukazoo said. “The relocation efforts, policies and boarding policies have not washed the Indian out of us. We are stronger than ever.”

Waukazoo’s strength has been forged from a life of challenges, from homelessness and heartbreak to health care battles, that have taken him to meetings with top politicians and U.S. presidents.

It’s a path he never imagined growing up as a native son of the Rosebud Sioux Lakota reservation in South Dakota, living in a trailer with his father.

“He wasn’t allowed to park it in the white trailer lane because he was Indian,” Waukazoo recalls, explaining that a priest let them park in the church parking lot, right next to the gymnasium.

Waukazoo says he developed a love for basketball in the gym and eventually became a powerhouse.

“I became a high school All-American and got a scholarship,” Waukazoo said.

But outside court he learned that “All-American” did not apply to him in the United States at the time.

“In the 1950s and 1960s…I remember as a little boy putting signs in stores that said, ‘No Indians or dogs allowed.’ And I remember my father feeling very uncomfortable. Because what is he going to say to his son?” Waukazoo said.

An injury in college brought more pain.

“The doctor said you’re ready. Your basketball career is over,” Waukazoo said.

Waukazoo graduated and joined thousands of others in the U.S. government’s relocation program to move Native Americans from reservations to urban areas. But for some it was an isolating experience. Alcohol became a medicine to ease the pain of loneliness, racism, boarding school abuse and poverty.

Waukazoo says he was an alcoholic in the 1970s and ended up in bars along East Oakland’s International Boulevard.

“I was homeless,” Waukazoo said, “there were about seven Indian bars. I can name them all. Been there. It was a gathering place for Indian people.”

However, he says one morning he made the decision to make a change.

“The last place I drank alcohol was a place called Golden Hour. A bar. March 12, 1981,” said Waukazoo, “at 9:30 in the morning and I just made a decision. I’m going to quit and get help. I detoxed and then went to the Friendship House for treatment.”

He found healing at the Friendship House recovery center for Native Americans in San Francisco.

He also found love and eventually married the center’s founder, Helen.

And Waukazoo was proud to reconnect with its Lakota heritage. When he started following Native American health traditions and talking to a community elder, he realized that connecting with culture and community can be a magical medicine that can help people feel healthy and whole.

“We had this idea of ​​reconnecting our community, the indigenous community, with their culture and traditional ways, and especially their spiritual ways,” Waukazoo said.

Healing became Waukazoo’s calling for forty years. He joined the Native American Health Center in Oakland and helped expand services and give Native people a home in a high-rise building where a bar once stood.

“In ’84, we bought this building. We bought it for $300,000. At that time, there weren’t many nonprofits that were in the business of purchasing buildings,” Waukazoo said.

That dilapidated $300,000 former bar brought with it a million-dollar view.

“We used to dream here. We would sit in what you call those lawn chairs and sit back and watch the sunset,” Waukazoo said, looking out over Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood all the way to the San Francisco skyline.

The words “Native Land” are now painted in large letters on the roof.

It has become a point of pride for the younger generations who grew up within its walls.

Hector Patty says reclaiming healing traditions turned him away from a future in juvenile detention.

“I was created through the youth program and Marty’s dedication to youth,” Patty said. “I made a life-changing decision right outside our building down the street. Do I want to take this route or this route?”

As Waukazoo walked through the Native American Health Center building for the final time as CEO, he walked through the doctors’ offices and dental chairs that now serve thousands of patients who come from more than 100 Native communities.

People stopped to show their gratitude. Generations of native and indigenous people have found a place to heal physical and spiritual wounds.

“He’s an incredible man. He’s always had our backs. He always listens. He cares about the community, about our well-being, about our families,” said Rene Gonzalez, a NAHC youth group leader.

“I’m from Oakland, my mom is from Oakland, and we’ve been coming here since the 80s,” said a woman who was there with her baby.

“The priority is the children. Because they are the most sacred gift,” says Waukazoo, who leaves a legacy that goes back generations and has spread across the country.

“We have six former employees who are CEOs of several urban health centers across the country. Missoula, Seattle, Sacramento, Fresno, Los Angeles and here,” Waukazoo said.

And at the end of the day he finally walked to the newest addition to the Health Center. His own sweat lodge, all hand-built from homegrown willow, by young men who helped raise Waukazoo,”

“Usually this would be covered in tarp and there would be a fire and there would be an altar,” Patty said. “When you come out of there, it’s like coming out of the womb again. Your sins are done. You’re fresh.”

On his final farewell day, Waukazoo received a tribute from Patty in the form of a song. Patty says he wrote it in memory of Waukazoo’s late wife.

“I made this song for her, actually Mother’s Day 2021. It was right after she passed away, and it’s her song. And it means mother, help me,” Patty said.

It was a reminder of what health and healing are all about.

As Patty sang, the melody was like medicine, a blend of native culture, community and love.

“To give them the opportunity to reconnect spiritually,” Waukazoo said, “it’s really important that the next generation takes over.”

And as for the hardships he’s faced in his life, Waukazoo had a message for the next generation.

“You have to look at these setbacks and be grateful,” he said.

Jana Katsuyama is a reporter for KTVU. Email Jana at jana.katsuyama@fox.com or call her at 510-326-5529. Or follow her on Twitter @JanaKTVU.

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