A street named Waukazoo Way

Marty Waukazoo, Rosebud Sioux Native American Health Center CEO. (Photo by James Giago Davies)

By James Giago Davies,
Native Sun News Today Correspondent

OAKLAND, CA — Every cityscape strikes a stranger as soulless, but for those who call a given city home, there are distinct districts and neighborhoods, places where community resonates, and the Fruitvale neighborhood of East Oakland is no exception. Just over forty years ago, a young Lakota man named Marty Waukazoo had lost his way in life and bottomed out near the intersection of Fruitvale Avenue and International Boulevard, at a local watering hole where he routinely drowned his alcoholic sorrows.
Every life has a door, a threshold we must all step through, and if we took the time to scrutinize our life with honesty and clarity, we could identify that door, when the child we once were became the adult we are today. Marty Waukazoo left his watering hole and crossed Fruitvale Avenue, because there was a friendship house along International Boulevard, set up to help urban Indians, and there was a person waiting for Marty once he stepped through the threshold into that building. Her name was Helen Devore, and she would change his life forever.
Most of us are given one life, and even that can overwhelm many people. But Marty would live two lives, the legendary Lakota basketball player, Marty Waukazoo, turned alcoholic, and the honored and respected Martin Waukazoo, Native American Health Center CEO, transformed into a Fruitvale neighborhood icon.
To understand Martin Waukazoo, we have to look back on the life of Marty Waukazoo. Just like Martin hailed from a distinct district called Fruitvale, Marty hailed from a small town in the Black Hills of South Dakota, called Rapid City. Marty’s North Rapid neighborhood was literally on the wrong side of the railroad tracks, a neighborhood where working class whites had sought refuge after most had lost their dirt farms to the 1930’s Dust Bowl. Over 10,000 Indians had also relocated there, from a half dozen nearby reservations, most of them Lakota, and to say they struggled with poverty and overt racism would be an understatement. The Waukazoo family had once called the Rosebud Reservation home, but Marty grew up in Rapid City, and he became the greatest basketball player ever coached by a man who was then the greatest high school basketball coach in South Dakota history, Dave Strain. A cynical sportswriter once asked Strain if he had ever coached a ball club that didn’t have Indian ballplayers, and he replied, “Not a good one.”
Strain had starred as a basketball player at White River, a border town near Marty’s Sicangu Lakota reservation, and through basketball he developed a deep and abiding love and respect for Lakota people, and those affections were never more focused than for Marty and his younger brother Francis. The organizational skills that CEO Martin Waukazoo would later display, Francis had in spades, and Strain called Francis the best student manager he had ever had. Francis couldn’t play ball because of a heart condition, and because Marty played ball, Marty didn’t realize he could have also been the best student manager Strain ever had.
As it was, no person who ever saw Marty play basketball will ever forget his sleek, knifing style of play. Tall, gangly, with a signature tight haircut and black rimmed glasses, if South Dakota ever erects a statue to the Indian ballplayer, the perfect model would be Marty Waukazoo. Marty knew the meaning of the word hustle, and there was no aspect of the game that he did not exploit to his team’s benefit.
Problem is, for many of us who have experienced racism, it is usually confined to a small-scale incident, and is mostly covert. But at the 1967 South Dakota State A Basketball Tournament, senior Marty Waukazoo was subjected to a chorus of boos and jeers from a white crowd numbering in the hundreds, and they booed him for his excellence, booed him when Strain pulled him from the game, after Marty’s dominating performance had it well in hand. The boos had a devastating emotional impact on Marty Waukazoo, and to this day that wound remains unhealed in Martin Waukazoo.
Marty would go to college just fifty miles up the interstate at Black Hills State, but after the booing, he was never really the same player.
“I was a hot dog,’ Marty said of his time at State. “I was selfish, I wasn’t a team player.”
One thing he did do was get his degree. Everything else fell apart, until he landed on that Fruitvale street corner, battling his alcoholic demons, but having secured that degree was requisite for the life change to come.
Helen Devore came from the Navajo people of New Mexico. She had been traumatized at boarding school as a child and was relocated to San Francisco when she was eighteen to work as a housekeeper. Almost a decade older than Marty, she was a pillar of strength and integrity, certain of who she was, and for over five decades she was the driving force behind San Francisco’s Friendship House, a substance abuse treatment center. Inasmuch as Marty had a gift to play ball, Helen had a gift to heal others, to inspire others, to lead others, and she used all of that gift to transform the broken Marty Waukazoo into her husband, Martin Waukazoo, founder and CEO of the Native American Health Center (NAHC) in East Oakland, housed in three buildings with over 300 employees.
On Sunday, November 7, 2021, a ceremony was held in Fruitvale to rename 31st Avenue, Waukazoo Way, in honor of both Martin and Helen Waukazoo for four decades of remarkable service to the Bay Area communities. Francis was not there to help honor the accomplishments of his older brother. He journeyed to the spirit world in 2010. Sadly, Helen could not be there either, having passed from ALS the previous April. But, his voice often faltering with emotion, Martin made very clear to the crowd ringed around the small stage where he spoke, that it was Helen that had created the man that had created the growth and vitality of the Health Center: “I lost my best friend about six months ago. It’s been…a lonely journey without her. Every time I see that street sign, I will think of her. (Helen) took a broken man and put him back together, once piece at a time. That’s my strength. No one does these things alone, you always have someone who is stronger, who encourages you, who lifts you up through those hard times.”
Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf was at the renaming ceremony. “One of the first community leaders that I ever met,” she said, “and learned from in love and respect, was Martin Waukazoo. Martin. I am not just here as the mayor representing the hundreds of thousands of Oaklanders that are so blessed to have you as a leader amongst us, but I am someone who has born witness to your leadership, to your generosity of spirit, to the wisdom you have bestowed, the help you have demanded for this and every community.”
Charlene Harrison, a site director at NAHC, has known Marty her whole life. Her mother worked at NAHC for many years, and Harrison says “our lives were woven into the fabric” of NAHC, Marty wrote her a letter of recommendation for grad school, and he offered her a job while she was in school, and after school was over, Charlene stayed on at NAHC. “I’ve seen this play out time and time again with Marty,” Charlene said. “He can look through his crystal ball and bring people on and develop programs, and develop staff, and I was a direct part of his vision.”
Eulalia Valerio, NAHC’s director of COVID response, echoes much of the same relationship. “I started with NAHC twenty years ago,” Eulalia said. “My kids and myself, we have NAHC really ingrained in our lives, in our families, and our experiences. Work for me is my personal identity, and my kids feel attached to that, also. Marty was someone who really gave me the opportunity to be successful, by believing in me, and handing me projects where I had to learn and grow to make them happen.”
Back in South Dakota, the North Rapid Indian Community can be forgiven for forgetting who Marty Waukazoo was, for forgetting that he was the best basketball player Rapid City High School ever produced. The high school does nothing to honor or even acknowledge his contributions and athletic excellence. North Rapid has no idea who he became, they know nothing of Martin Waukazoo and his Native American Health Center legacy far away in the Fruitvale neighborhood of East Oakland. If the city of Oakland can name a street after Martin Waukazoo, if the Golden State Warriors can honor Waukazoo at halftime for his contributions to the entire Bay Area, it seems fitting that Marty Waukazoo should be honored back in his hometown of Rapid City.
There is a sign out front of Marty’s old high school that reads, “Once a Cobbler always a Cobbler.” There never was a Cobbler more Cobbler than Marty Waukazoo. He reveled in that identity, and his heart pounded every time he ran onto the court to the cheers of the crowd and the climax of the school fight song. There should be a bronze statue of Marty in front of his high school, his angular body stretched longer still, the ball balanced on his fingertips as he drives in for a lay-up, a statue to honor every Lakota that ever balled across the state of South Dakota.
The ghostly ping of Marty Waukazoo’s dribbling basketball, the squeak of his high-top sneakers, will echo forever up the streets and down the alleys of old North Rapid, but nothing he ever did as a ballplayer will come close to the hearts he has touched, the lives he has transformed, in over forty years as director of the Native American Health Center. Marty’s father was Chippewa, and in that language Waukazoo means “lights in the distance,” which is fitting, because all the light that Marty brought to the Fruitvale neighborhood of East Oakland can now be seen by the Lakota people back home, across the Rocky Mountains, across vast prairies of hardy buffalo grass, over 1400 miles to the east, to the sacred Black Hills, and the little Rapid City neighborhood called North Rapid.

(Contact James Giago Davies at skindiesel@msn.com)

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