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First Person: San Diego Tribal Elder Turns 100

Michael Lipkin
Joe Renteria on July 7, 2017.
First Person: San Diego Tribal Elder Turns 100
First Person: Tribal Elder Turns 100 GUEST: Joe Renteria, former chair, San Diego American Indian Health Center

Joe Renteria has devoted his life to helping San Diego native Americans in helping lead the Indian health Center and the Indian resource center. Today is his 100th birthday and he still involved in fundraising campaigns. He was not brought up with native American culture. His Cherokee parents placed them in a Catholic orphanage in Kansas as a young child. As part of our ongoing first-person serious he starts his story by explaining why his parents gave him up. The main reason was because we did not have too much food or anything else. All of us were in poor health. They did not want the responsibility of continuing with me because I was fairly malnourished. They wanted me to get back to where I could be a survivor. There were no other Indian children. I was probably 728 years old. -- Seven or eight years old. I had a friend who always gave me a child horse and I got tired of it and I said let's go to the Playhouse and settle this. I was a lot faster and more him out. He fell on the wooden floor and busted his arm. The sisters knew he was hitting me and because he was white they did not pay that much attention to it. The sisters took me in and took me in and put me in a state orphanage. I finally ran away. It was cold because it was wintertime and I ran away at four clock in the morning. I got to the freight trains. The first train I got, I wanted to find out what was happening. I connected with a young man and probably figured he was 18 or 20. We teamed up together and we started writing the freight trains and stop off every so often. We will get to a town and we would go out and beg for food along the way. What we would do, we get off the train and go into the hobo community underneath the train tracks. There would usually be someone that have left a coffee pot. Other hobos would be there. Normally that's what we would do. Get off the train, go down there and see what was going on. After that we would turn around and come back down. There was a circus. I got on with the circus. I would help with the chairs and cleanup. I ended up being with them for about one year. I must have been 18 years old and went ahead and join the Army. I was not worry how much they were going to pay me but I would be able to sit down to a table. Even working in that circus there so many people there that could not find jobs. When I was a seaman at North Island we would send signals back and forth and saying I love you and what will we do for this weekend. We kept talking. Somebody in the civilian population called the OD and said someone was sending signals. The security officer came down and asked what I was doing. Said I was talking to my wife. Let me explained to you. No way. Can my wife come over and show you? All right he said. When Saturday came and she wasn't working she came over. I said would you show the officer how we do this. I showed him and we shine the light. As she was shining she was telling him what type of metals he had and what pretty close he had. I told him to get out here. Let's face it, when you are an orphan and kicked around throughout your life and all of a sudden you find out that what you are you will investigate, look into and everything else and you decide let's do something for the Cherokee people which is what I am. From then on I started looking into my heritage. I still a.m. I'm still working. Today I was with that Indian tribe. Were trying to raise $2 million for a new building. My motto is positive thinking. That's what I did in the military and that's what I've done in all the things I've done. Tell me what you want done. In the military some guy would tell you go do this or that and most of the people, two thirds of them would say I'll go to find it. I said tell me what you want done and I'll do it. Even now thinking about my son or daughter in law, I'll get up on the ladder and think I can still move. Let's go for it. They keep me going. I can't get up on the ladder anymore. It's a slow down. I'm slowing down. I don't want to but I have to. Today is Joe Renteria 100th birthday. The San Diego Indian centers having a celebration August 5 to help raise for a new building. That first-person feature was produced by Michael Lipkin.

Soon after Joe Renteria was born 100 years ago in Emporia, Kansas, his Cherokee parents placed him in a Catholic orphanage. Renteria does not know much about his parents' lives, but he believes they gave him up because it would have been a struggle to keep him fed and healthy.

Renteria says he was the only non-white child at the orphanage, which made him a target for bullies. He was transferred to a state orphanage, which he ran away from after two years, spending time as a hobo and later working for a traveling circus. He served 20 years in the Army and Navy and later ran the photography lab at San Diego State University for more than 30 years.


It was not until Renteria came to San Diego that he began to think about his heritage. But he was a quick study and was soon leading groups including the San Diego American Indian Health Center and the Indian Human Resource Center.

As part of our First Person series, Renteria shares what kept him motivated since running away.

KPBS Midday Edition's First Person series tells the stories of average and not-so-average San Diegans in their own words. Their experiences, both universal and deeply personal, offer a unique lens into the news of the day.

Corrected: October 5, 2021 at 11:11 AM PDT
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