Native American Heritage Month: Health leader Martin Waukazoo retires

On the grand staircase at San Francisco City Hall, Martin Waukazoo stood with three other community leaders to receive awards at the 2023 Native American Heritage Month celebration in November.

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

"After 41 years, I hope I did a little good for the community," said Waukazoo, "Relocation efforts and policies and boarding school policies did not wash the Indian out of us. We're stronger than ever."

Waukazoo's strength has been forged from a lifetime of challenges from homelessness and heartache to battles over healthcare that took him to meetings with top politicians and U.S. presidents.

It is a path that he never imagined when he was growing up as a native son from South Dakota’s Rosebud Sioux Lakota reservation and living in a trailer with his father.

"He wasn't allowed to park it in the white trailer court 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 that gym is where he developed a love for basketball and eventually became a powerhouse player.

"I became a high school All-American and got a scholarship to college," said Waukazoo.

But off the court, he learned that "All-American" at that time in the United States, did not apply to him.

"In the 50s and 60s…I can remember as a little boy signs on stores saying 'No Indians or dogs allowed.' And I remember my dad was really uncomfortable. Because what is he going to say to his son?" said Waukazoo.

An injury in college brought more pain.

"The doctor said you're done. Your basketball career is all over," said Waukazoo.

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

Waukazoo says in the 70s he was an alcoholic and ended up in bars along East Oakland's International Boulevard.

"I was homeless," said Waukazoo, "There were about seven Indian bars. I can name them all. Been in them. It was a gathering place for Indian people."

He says he made a decision though, one morning to make a change.

"The last place I had a drink of alcohol was a place called Golden Hour. A bar. March 12, 1981," said Waukazoo,  "9:30 in the morning and I just made a decision. I'm going to quit and go get some help. I went to detox and then went to the Friendship House for treatment."

At San Francisco's Friendship House recovery center for Native Americans, he found healing.

He also found love, eventually marrying the center's founder, Helen.

And, Waukazoo found pride in reconnecting with his Lakota heritage. As he began following Native American health traditions and talking with a community elder, he realized that connecting to culture and community can be a magical medicine that can help people feel healthy and whole. 

"We had this idea of taking our community, the native community, and getting them reconnected with their culture and traditional ways, and most important their spiritual ways," said Waukazoo.

Healing became Waukazoo's calling for four decades, joining the Native American Health Center in Oakland, and helping to 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, not many non-profits were into purchasing buildings," said Waukazoo.

That run-down, $300,000 former bar came with a million-dollar view.

"We used to dream right here. We used to sit in what do you call those garden chairs and sit back and watch the sun go down," said Waukazoo, looking out over Oakland's Fruitvale district all the way to the San Francisco skyline.

The words "Native Land" are now painted in large letters on the rooftop.

It has become a point of pride for younger generations who've grown up within its walls.

Hector Patty says reclaiming traditions of healing helped turn him away from a future at juvenile hall.

"I came up through the youth program and through Marty's dedication in the youth," said Patty, "I actually 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 last time as CEO, he walked through the doctors' offices and dental chairs that now serve thousands of patients who come from more than 100 indigenous 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, an NAHC youth group leader.

"I'm from Oakland, my mom is from Oakland, and we've been coming here since the 80s," said one woman who was there with her baby.

"The priority is the children. Because they're the most sacred gift," said Waukazoo, who leaves a legacy that runs generations deep, and has spread nationwide.

"We have six former employees who are CEO's at various urban health centers across the country. Missoula, Seattle, Sacramento, Fresno, Los Angeles, and here," said Waukazoo.

And at day's end, he finally walked to the Health Center's newest addition. Its very own sweat lodge, all built with homegrown willow, by hand, by young men Waukazoo helped raise,"

"Usually, this would be covered with tarps and there'd be a fire, there'd be an altar," said Patty, "You come out of there, it's like you're coming out of the womb again. Your sins are done. You're fresh."

On his final day of farewells, Waukazoo received a tribute from Patty in the form of a song. Patty says he'd written 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, and it's her song. And it means mother, help me," said Patty.

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

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

"To give them the opportunity to reconnect spiritually," said Waukazoo, "It's very important that the next generation takes over."

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

"These adversities you look at them and be grateful," he said.

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