On a July afternoon in 2017, Joe Waukazoo, a tall and athletic 62-year-old, jaywalked across 31st Avenue in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood. He paused before the skeleton of the Ghost Ship, a warehouse-turned-artist collective, burned hollow in a blaze that took 36 lives on a December night in 2016. He stops here often to pay homage to the victims, mostly artists. “This is like a collision of two kinds of forces,” Waukazoo told me. “You got the gentrification, and you got the community.”
No American place offers a clearer vantage point on that conflict than Oakland. The city is caught in a boxing match between the invisible hand of Silicon Valley capitalism and the defiant fist of Bay Area radicalism. As Ivy League-educated Millennials brandishing computer science degrees move in, rents shoot up. Investors looking to cash in on the latest California gold rush are developing properties throughout the city. Speculators want to brand West Oakland, former headquarters of the Black Panther Party, #WeOak. In East Oakland’s historically Latino Fruitvale neighborhood, the trajectory is the same. Every few blocks, a bar or restaurant has popped up to tap the wallets of the new techie settlers.
In this zero-sum game, where new residents and businesses move in and old ones are displaced, Waukazoo lost his home. “I was just priced out of the market. I didn’t have money for rent, and that’s the bottom line,” he told me, somewhat oversimplifying things. Now, he spends his days hanging out at a bus shelter, just across the street from the Ghost Ship.
His story echoes many across the city. As the workers, artists and hustlers who made Oakland its gritty self are priced out, homelessness has shot up. At the same time Joe lost his home, an estimated 5,629 people were sleeping in doorways and empty lots in Oakland’s Alameda County, up 39 percent from two years earlier. Slow-food eateries and artisanal boutiques appeared in old neighborhoods, while tent camps sprouted under BART tracks and freeway overpasses.
Joe Waukazoo came to the Bay Area as a child as part of the federal Urban Indian Relocation Program. He is among the more than 66,000 Native Americans who live there today.
Waukazoo is even less visible than his fellow street folk because he is Native American — Lakota and Odawa. He is an urban Indian — a demographic that has no place in the public imagination. Native people are generally relegated to history books or remote reservations, not row houses and apartment complexes. They fight cowboys and pipelines, not landlords and rents. But according to the U.S. Census Bureau, seven out of 10 Native Americans — or 3.7 million people — reside in cities. More than 66,000 urban Indians live in the Bay Area alone.
I used to be one of them. As a traditional powwow dancer, I learned many of my original moves watching Waukazoo high-step through Thursday night drum and dance practice at Oakland’s Friendship House.
With nearly one in four Bay Area Indians living in poverty, Native people are the region’s most impoverished racial group, according to PolicyLink. As Silicon Valley transforms the Bay Area into a boundless Google campus, the urban Native population is shrinking, down by 19 percent from 2000 to 2010.
But Native Americans cannot escape the housing crisis by fleeing cities. On the reservations and in the border towns of Indian Country, the problem is equally acute. In the twilight of the Obama administration, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) estimated that these communities urgently needed 68,000 new units — 33,000 to eliminate overcrowding and 35,000 to replace deteriorated stock.
The Waukazoo family — Joe and Marlene, their eldest daughter Phyllis and eldest son Joseph Jr. — has been stretched to the breaking point by two housing crises. Joe and Phyllis live in rapidly gentrifying Oakland. Marlene Waukazoo, née Sandoval, divorced Joe two decades ago. She lives with Joseph Jr. and her extended family in Torreon, New Mexico, where quality shelter, electricity and running water are hard to come by.
The housing crisis is one of the most-discussed global political, economic and social problems of our time. Yet people like the Waukazoos rarely feature in any of its narratives. The politicians, pundits and professors focused on the urban housing crisis overlook or omit urban Indians. Meanwhile, housing problems on reservations are equally out of the frame. In an era of inequality, the Waukazoos — struggling for visibility, dignity and basic housing security — represent some of the most forgotten of our nation’s forgotten people.
From the earliest days of white settlement, fortunes have been made and dynasties built on land taken from Native Americans, this continent’s first victims of gentrification. Over the coming decade, 2.1 million people will settle in the Bay Area. By 2040, in a story as old as America, this space-constrained, affluent megalopolis of 9.3 million will displace our nation’s forgotten, including untold numbers of Native families like the Waukazoos.
Joe Waukazoo pauses by a memorial at the Ghost Ship, a former artist’s collective and makeshift home for some, where 36 people died in a fire.
Joe Waukazoo, like many Native people, considers Oakland home. He came to the Bay Area in 1964, when he was just a child, with his mother, Muriel, his sister, Sally, and his brother, Martin. Muriel, who died in 2005, was a legendary matriarch in Oakland’s Native community; everyone called her “Grandma Waukazoo” or just “Grandma.” Her family remains prominent here. Martin runs the Native American Health Center, kitty-corner from the Ghost Ship, and his wife, Helen, is CEO of the Association of American Indians of San Francisco.
The Waukazoos were part of the first generation of Native people relocated to the Bay Area under the federal Urban Indian Relocation Program. The program, established in 1952, encouraged Native Americans to leave reservations for cities and assimilate into the laboring classes. Many who were part of this socially engineered diaspora settled in Oakland, where, in 1955, they established the Intertribal Friendship House (IFH), one of the first urban Indian community centers in the country. IFH, which lies a couple miles northwest of the Ghost Ship, has served as the political, social and cultural heart of Oakland’s Native community ever since.
IFH played a central role in organizing and supporting the dramatic Native occupation of Alcatraz from 1969 to 1971, which brought national attention to broken treaties and the cause of Indigenous rights. The occupation of Alcatraz was the Indigenous rights movement’s equivalent of the Montgomery bus boycott, and IFH was the communal fortress where the real planning and community building of the movement went down.
Joe Waukazoo was raised in this world. His mother helped organize the 1971 occupation of Mount Rushmore and played a supporting role in the 1973 standoff at Wounded Knee. Joe tagged along to protests and became a traditional dancer on the local powwow circuit. But his real passion was another, perhaps even more hallowed Native tradition: basketball.
Long-legged and nimble, Waukazoo was a killer on the court who could outmaneuver and out-shoot almost anyone. In the game’s 84-by-50-foot rectangles, he found the opportunity to escape the broader, restrictive geometry of a society that stifles so many young Native men. After graduating from Oakland’s Dewey High School, Waukazoo played at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas, in 1973.
Waukazoo’s hoop dreams ended there, but he held onto his athletic physique and handsome features. Even on the afternoon I met up with him, days after his last shower, whiskered and missing more than a few teeth, his good looks shone through the hardships etched into his aging body. More than a few women have taken interest over the years.
“You know I have an associate’s degree, but I don’t have no big career job. So I’m kind of a — I hate to say it, but I’m kind of, well, a showy husband,” Joe told me, laughing. “Even my mom used to call me a gigolo and all of that.”
Marlene Sandoval first noticed Waukazoo dominating a pick-up basketball game in an Albuquerque gymnasium in 1979. She, in turn, caught and held his attention. The two stayed together for the better part of two decades. In 1980, they had Phyllis. After a short stint in the Bay Area with their newborn daughter, the young couple moved back to Torreon on the Navajo Nation, where they had five more children: Joseph Jr., Sally, Wakinyan, Sage and Tate.
Eventually, Waukazoo grew restless. Without explanation, in 1997, he left Marlene and the family in Torreon. Maybe he fell out of love; maybe he was homesick for his other home, Oakland. Maybe something happened between all those protests, powwows and moves that he doesn’t want to talk about. Maybe he was chasing after the same dreams he once chased on the basketball court —freedom, opportunity, escape.
Waukazoo returned to the Bay Area and has remained here ever since. In Oakland, he met a woman named Jennifer Kehoe, with whom he lived for years. The two of them — Joe wearing basketball shorts, Jennifer sporting comically tall platform shoes — were often among the crowd at IFH on Thursday nights.
Cancer ended Kehoe’s life in 2011, and Waukazoo fell into depression. “We were 24/7,” he says. Now a widower, he lived with his daughter Phyllis at the Seven Directions Apartment complex, but he had no income and struggled to find work. Phyllis, meanwhile, was navigating a breakup with the father of her special-needs baby son, Luciano. Home life was tumultuous. Waukazoo had been a far-from-perfect dad, and there was conflict on multiple fronts.
He couldn’t cover his share of the rent — just $250. He didn’t want to be a burden. His daughter needed her space, and he needed his as he grieved for his longtime partner. Despite deep roots and a prominent family, he became homeless in October 2016.
Most days now, he hangs out on the west side of 30th Avenue, a few blocks from Phyllis and just one block from the Ghost Ship. There’s a bus shelter on the corner next to a Wendy’s. It’s one of two spots where Oakland’s homeless Native folks hang out.
Joe Waukazoo and friends at the bus shelter where he and other Native American homeless people hang out.
Among this community, a fluctuating cast of a few dozen characters, Waukazoo inherited his mother’s mantle and tries to look out for his people. “We are all friends,” he told me. “We all have different needs, and we all help.” This is essential. It can get wild in East Oakland, especially late at night. “You have to constantly be alert or at your wits,” he said, pointing across the street to the site of a recent robbery, and toward the intersection, where a recent beating occurred. Prostitutes work the corners in Fruitvale. Norteños, a prominent Northern California gang, claim the neighborhood as their territory. Waukazoo has tried to stay out of trouble. Fortunately, crime rates have dropped here in recent years — a possible side effect of gentrification.
The day I met up with Waukazoo, he took me to his bus-shelter hangout, where we found a few other homeless Native folks: Georgina Yazzie, Yolanda Ellenwood and Fern Martin. Martin used to sleep at the Ghost Ship once in a while.
I took their photo while they joked that they were going to be on the cover of Esquire and People magazine. They asked if I knew some of their nephews around Oakland. I knew a few — childhood friends whose names conjured up memories from years past. They asked if I was available for any of their nieces. I laughed.
We talked about where each of us “come from” — a phrase that, in the Native world, means, “My people are X nation and come from Y community or reservation.” I thought about my own nations, the Secwepemc and St’at’imc, and my own communities, the Tsq’escenemc and Lil’wat — proud strongholds that defy Native invisibility. Waukazoo and Georgina Yazzie, who is Navajo, started in about clans.
“There’s four of them,” Yazzie explained. “Two from your mother and two from your dad.”
“Right, right.” Waukazoo said. “You have to know how to introduce yourself in a certain way.”
“Exactly, exactly,” Yazzie responded. “You don’t want to get lost in that part because you have to know your clan for when you go back home. It’s very sacred — you have to know.”
Later, I drove Waukazoo down to IFH for the dinner that is served every Thursday before drum and dance practice. “It’s changed since I came here for the third time in 1997,” he said, as we ate fry bread and buffalo stew. “We still had, at that time, an Indian basketball league and all that. … That shows you the number of Indians around then, but there’s nothing like that now.” He continued, “A lot of people go back to the reservation. That’s always been a thing.” But Waukazoo felt at home here in what some call the “urban rez.” He had no plans to go anywhere.
Phyllis Waukazoo feeds baby Luciano at their home in Fruitvale, California, where her dad, Joseph, also used to live. Now that he’s moved out, she no longer qualifies for the Section 8 housing unit.
Four blocks away, Phyllis Waukazoo, 37, buzzed me into the faux-adobe Seven Directions apartment complex just down the street from her father’s bus shelter hangout. The complex is home to 36 low-income families. Built with funding from the city of Oakland and private sources by the East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation in collaboration with the Native American Health Center in 2008, it is the first combined housing, health clinic and cultural center in the nation designed to serve urban Indians. The building, which features a courtyard ceremonial space, stained concrete medicine wheel and two totem poles, is home to just three Native families. The rest of its residents are other low-income people of color.
I took the elevator up. Phyllis, her daughter, Kayden, her baby son, Luciano, and I sat in her combined living room and kitchen and caught up over tacos from a truck down the street.
“It’s nice, the lady across the way is like an auntie,” Phyllis, her long black hair tied into a neat bun, said. “I go over sometimes and talk to her. Or if I need her to watch my son for five minutes, she’ll watch him.”
Phyllis and Joe won a lottery to live here when the building first went up. If their number hadn’t been called, Phyllis would have moved back to Torreon. “We almost didn’t make it in,” she recalled. “At the very last minute they told us we didn’t qualify, so we kind of had to make a little fuss and then they fixed it up.” That was just the first time Phyllis would have to argue her case to avoid losing her Section 8 home.
Established by the Housing Act of 1937, Section 8 is administered through vouchers that provide rental assistance to low-income tenants. Qualifying residents spend 30 percent of their income on rent and receive a federally subsidized voucher to cover the rest. The voucher is capped at the “fair market rent,” calculated annually for each metro area by HUD.
In the decades since the 1970s, cities turned away from public housing projects, making Section 8 essential for keeping poor residents off the streets. Today, more than 2.2 million low-income families rely on the program.
Phyllis has “project-specific” Section 8. Unlike the more common housing choice vouchers, which can be used on the open market, her vouchers are attached to the Seven Directions project. Her rent was set at $685, based on her income when she moved in.
Phyllis had steady employment for a decade, but she recently lost her job. Section 8 is designed to cope with that kind of financial shift, but the sluggish bureaucracy did not adjust her rent, which should be $420, based on her current income.
Then she gave birth to Luciano, who has Down syndrome. The extra economic and emotional expense added to the strain on the household, and shortly thereafter, Luciano’s parents split up. By the time Joe Waukazoo moved out, things were falling apart.
“Right now, I get TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) for Kayden, I get unemployment and then I also get SSI (Supplementary Security Income) for him (Luciano),” Phyllis explained. “So, that’s about $1,400. And then about half of that goes to rent,” she added, calculating her income. The scant remainder — supplemented by food stamps — has to cover everything else they need, from groceries to the phone bill to clothes and school supplies.
Waukazoo’s departure left his daughter in violation of a strict Section 8 rule regarding the number of occupants in her unit. Management told her that if she didn’t find a family member to move into his room, she would be forced to move out. There is a long waitlist of families eager to take her spot.
Suddenly, the bureaucracy built into Section 8 — a program designed to shelter the most vulnerable — turned into yet another attack on a household facing heart-twisting hardship. It’s easy to imagine the weight of forces stacked against you collapsing your last pockets of hope, scantily collected, carefully counted and delicately preserved.
“Lately, my son has been helping me deal with everything — he’s just like a little clearer of stuff because he’s so happy and smiley … and Kayden too, she is a lot better teenager than I was, which I’m so thankful for.”
Kayden is a straight-A student who played varsity basketball last season, as a freshman. She dreams about playing college ball like her grandfather and maybe becoming a doctor for special-needs children like Luciano. “But other than that, I don’t know how I deal with it,” Phyllis sighed. “I go to Zumba when I can.”
At least once a year, she tries to escape to Torreon — a home filled with relatives far away from the hard-knock life in Oakland. “If I had a choice, when I grow old, that’s where I want to be,” she said. “I know how to survive out there.”
Fannie Mae Sandoval and her sister, Grace Pedro, return to one of the two hand-built homes on their family homestead, on the Navajo Nation near Torreon, New Mexico. Sandoval, who speaks only Navajo, has lived and herded sheep here all her life, and has watched her family and community members move from the reservation to the city and back again.Donovan Shortey
A dusty white lamb gamboled through the front door of the Sandoval homestead in Torreon, New Mexico, across the dirt floor of the kitchen and into the expectant arms of its adoptive mother, Fannie Mae Sandoval. Sandoval, a hardy elder whose white hair is tied back with a headscarf, bottle-fed the castaway, abandoned by its mother. Without this lamb, the Sandovals’ dwindling herd would have diminished chances for survival. A chicken followed, also in hot pursuit of food, but Fannie shooed it away.
The Sandoval homestead consists of two hand-built homes, 18 sheep, three chickens, two dogs, an unknown number of cats, and a small crop of squash and corn. It sits at the bottom of a canyon beside a shallow arroyo in the Torreon Chapter of the Navajo Nation. Fannie, 72, who speaks only Navajo, has lived and herded sheep here all her life.
Fannie is the last of her generation. As fluent Navajo speakers pass on, she grows lonely. But she loves her animals and never wants to leave. I asked her why. Her answer, translated by her daughter, Marlene Waukazoo, is elegant and simple: “I was born here.” Watching her family and community emigrate from reservation to city and back again, Fannie took solace in her family home — a place that has been unequivocally theirs for generations.
Her grandnephew, Joseph Waukazoo Jr., 30, moved back two years ago to escape the Bay Area’s meth scene. He helps his great aunt tend the sheep, which they herd into a small pen separating their two houses. I had imagined sheepherding to be humble and spiritual work, but Joseph assured me that it can be quite entertaining. That morning, he lost track of the sheep and tramped all over the high desert behind the homestead in search of his wayward flock (and familial inheritance), only to find them waiting for him back home under a shade tree. “Sheep are awesome,” he told me, chuckling.
Joseph lives next door to Fannie in a gray brick home built by his father when the family lived together in Torreon. His sister, Sage, scrawled the family name on the back of the house when she was a kid. As we walked the Sandoval plot and talked, Joseph paused in front of the faded white lettering: Waukazoo.
“Going back and forth makes you appreciate all the small things like water, you know … having access to groceries,” Joseph told me. “In Oakland, you can walk right down to the food bank — you have food right then and there, you know — but out here you have to go to Cuba, Crownpoint, or to the store miles away. That’s one thing about being out here — if you don’t have no ride, you’re stuck.”
Joseph Waukazoo Jr. moved to the Torreon homestead two years ago to escape the Bay Area’s meth scene.
Marlene, who lives just down the road from the homestead in teachers’ housing, pays $700 in rent, remarkably high for this area. She stays nearby to look out for her aging aunt and recovering son. She’s their support and their ride. “That’s how I grew up,” she told me. “We never say I love you or anything, we never hug or anything, but there was a sense of being loved there.”
Torreon is part of the “checkerboard” area of the Navajo Nation. Land on this eastern edge of the reservation was subdivided and allotted to individual Navajos under the Dawes Act of 1887, leaving it a patchwork of allotment lands held by individual tribal members, trust lands held by the federal government on behalf of the Navajo, fee lands owned by Navajo and non-Navajo as well as commons held under various tribal, federal and state jurisdictions. This particular allotment, a perfect place for sheep, has been home to Sandovals for generations.
The homestead has no electricity. Just two years ago, Indian Health Services retrofitted homes in the area with running water. “We got all kinds of problems,” Marlene Waukazoo told me. “But not as bad as some people in some areas who don’t got no electricity and no running water.”
Indian housing is administered through HUD’s Office of Public and Indian Housing. Federally recognized tribes are largely dependent on Indian Housing Block Grant funding to house their citizens. The grants have remained nominally constant at around $650 million per year since they were established through the 1996 Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act. In real terms, inflation cut that funding by a full third over the intervening two decades. At the same time, the Indigenous population became one of the fastest-growing in the United States. Remarkably, many tribal governments managed to build just as much housing with reduced block grants as they did with full funding. Many observers take hope from this, even as the Trump administration slashes $150 million from Indian Housing Block Grant funding — more than 20 percent of HUD’s Native housing budget.
The Navajo Nation, however, is not one of these success stories. The tribe urgently needs to build or repair as many as 50,000 homes to shelter its 175,000 on-reservation members. According to a multi-part investigation by the Arizona Republic, Navajo households continue to suffer from poor quality or inadequate housing, while the Navajo Housing Authority (NHA) does little. The Housing Authority has received $1.66 billion in federal funding since 1998, but built just 1,110 units. None at all were built between 2008 and 2011. The Republic’s series prompted Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to launch his own investigation into alleged NHA mismanagement.
(The housing authority’s CEO, Aneva Yazzie, resigned pursuant to the investigations and did not respond to requests for an interview. Meanwhile, the NHA board released a statement disputing some of the investigations’ most egregious findings, while acknowledging blunders and committing to transparency and accountability in the future.)
Fannie Mae Sandoval tends sheep on the family homestead near Torreon, New Mexico, where she’s lived her whole life.
Despite all these problems, those residents who make it off the waitlist are grateful for the agency, which provides homes unavailable anywhere else.
I sat in on an NHA resident meeting in Torreon. People brought home-cooked food to eat potluck-style while they talked about normal community things — fixing broken utilities and making sure the neighborhood was a healthy place to raise kids. After the meeting, an NHA employee showed me the rent roll for a 20-unit subdivision. The highest rent paid was just $125; the majority stayed for free.
Outside the Navajo Housing Authority, Navajo people have little choice but to buy mobile homes or build their own shelters. But both require land. Navajo citizens who want to live on tribal trust land must apply for a home-site lease from the Navajo Land Department. The waitlist runs for years. As allottees, the Waukazoos and Sandovals were one step ahead, since they already had a plot.
Still, building and maintaining quality homes with limited resources is a challenge. Communities need planners, contractors and skilled laborers. They need a government with the capacity to aggregate capital for infrastructure like utilities and roads. These resources — the kind of resources most Americans take for granted — are few and far between on the reservation. The Waukazoo and Sandoval dwellings, like more than half of the households on the Navajo Nation, are substandard. No matter how many sheep they herd, how hard they work, or how remarkably (and ironically) well they embody the Western ideal of the rugged American individual, Navajo families simply cannot build themselves out of the housing crisis. Yet that is precisely what they have been left to do.
Fannie Mae Sandoval, right, and her sister, Grace Pedro, enter the hand-built adobe home on land where their family has lived for generations, on the Navajo Reservation near Torreon, New Mexico. Donovan Shortey
People like the Waukazoos give a human face to the housing crisis, reminding us that it is not just about housing, but about the concept of home. The Waukazoos may seem unlucky, but their story is not an uncommon one for Indigenous people in the United States and across the Anglo-colonized world — in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. To be poor and Indigenous in a city or on a reservation is to live with the constant threat of displacement. It is not so much a choice about where to live as it is a trade-off between modes of survival. To move toward justice and equity, policymakers and the people who put them in power cannot think just about econometric values. We have to consider human values, too.
“There’s a lot of families that don’t have nowhere to stay,” Phyllis Waukazoo told me in her living room. “I’ve met so many people out here that’s going through the same struggle.”
The story of Indigenous displacement and survival is America’s origin story. Centuries ago, Indigenous people fought to protect their territories from invading settlers. Today, long after the cowboys, wagon trains and railroads have vanished, the daily fight to defend Indigenous dignity and hold on to what is ours continues. For Indigenous people, the crisis of the home is intergenerational. This is what scholars, policymakers and even activists too often misunderstand about the housing crisis: Today’s problems do not represent momentary inequities. They are structural constants, deeply rooted in the system. They cut into Indigenous families over generations, not just economic and political cycles.
How else to explain the origin of this country than as continent-sized gentrification, entailing the deliberate displacement of Indigenous homes? How else to view the socially engineered postwar diaspora of Native families to cities like Oakland? How else to tell the story of the Waukazoo family and so many others around the world today?
Stretched to the breaking point by urban and reservation housing crises, Native families face limited and tough choices. Why? Some blame economics, others government. I myself wonder if there is something radically challenging — even fundamentally unsettling — about respecting the Indigenous home in a nation premised on its theft.
After one of our interviews, Joe Waukazoo sent me a note titled “My Gentrification Process.” In it, he wrote: “What I showed you yesterday is the remaining bottom rung of the economic ladder who nevertheless are still human beings despite their own personal problems. I help them because it helps me, and so that is how the love goes around.”
Joe Waukazoo in Oakland, California, outside the Intertribal Friendship House, established in 1955 as one of the country’s first urban Indian community centers. Julian Brave NoiseCat
Julian Brave NoiseCat is the 2017 recipient of The HCN/PLAYA Diverse Western Voices Award. He was formerly an Urban Fellow in the NYC Department of Housing, Preservation & Development. A proud member of the Canim Lake Band Tsq’escen and a descendant of the Lil’Wat Nation of Mount Currie, he writes from Washington, D.C.
Reporting for this story was supported by the HCN/PLAYA Diverse Western Voices Award.