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We HonorHelen Waukazoo

Helen Waukazoo

“In the end, it’s up to you to be
strong. Take control of your
life, your own responsibilities.”

Why WE Honor Her


Growing up in New Mexico, Helen Devore Waukazoo remembers her beloved Navajo father telling her she would “walk in two worlds:” that of the Native American and the white American.

At 13, Helen and two of her siblings were torn from their family and forced to attend boarding school in a government attempt to move and integrate American Indians from their reservations into non-Indian communities. Helen’s school was in Utah, a thousand miles and a world apart from any life she had known. Separated from her parents, she was forced into a foreign world in which she was forbidden to honor her own culture and language. It was a traumatic experience and the moment she was free to leave, she did. But she never forgot what it was to feel isolated, powerless and alone.

She headed to San Francisco where she confronted new realities of being an American Indian in a non-native world.  There she and her peers faced discrimination of a new sort, a lack of support services and almost no understanding of the differences in culture. Helen’s mission became to bridge that divide. Forty-six years later, she has succeeded in helping to do so.

It began in her early 20’s, when she volunteered at a drop-in center started by a church group, a place for American Indian people to connect in the midst of what often felt like a foreign world. As the times changed, so did the needs of many of the people who came to the center for friendship and services. The group recognized the high rate of addiction Helen’s people struggled with—both to alcohol and drugs. As she rose from volunteer clerk-typist to paid bookkeeper to co-Founder of the American Indian Friendship House in the 1970s, the mission for the center changed as well.

Today Friendship House exists to help keep Helen’s native people sober. Many who come to her are often not just addicted, but homeless and unemployed. Through a unique program approach, most leave committed to sobriety and in a position to regain their footing and their dignity.  Friendship House’s relapse rate is half that of the average treatment center. Part of the reason is the program’s unique blend of 12 Step, Western psychology and Native American traditions. What Helen realized was that Native Americans are more prone to addiction when they abandon tradition. At Friendship House, recovery includes prayers, medicine men, healing ceremonies, talking circles and a sweat lodge. Clients are encouraged to stay up to a year, during which time they are also provided life and job skills.  She has also started a 10-bed facility for mothers whose children have been removed by the courts. Here they are taught not just parenting skills, but how to cook and nurture their children incorporating many Indian traditions.

The staff of Friendship House, 80 percent Native American, now provides Indian Health services in neighboring Alameda and Santa Clara counties.  Friendship House has grown into an 80-bed facility in a brand new building and serves as a regional treatment center for the entire Bay Area, the largest center for Indian Americans in California.  Beyond its successful alcohol and addiction treatment programs and its facility to reunite mothers and children, Friendship House today helps in finding jobs for clients and in providing youth services.            

Waukazoo’s innovative blending of Native American traditions with non-Indian substance abuse strategies has been honored many times. She is also a member of the state Commission on the Status of Women. She compares what Friendship House does to weaving: “Weaving broken lives back into their families and community. Success comes from many threads carefully woven together, one by one."