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At the southern end of the Portland State University (PSU) campus sits a building that’s shaped like a fish. If you’ve passed by the Native American Student and Community Center (NASCC), you may have appreciated the building’s unique architecture jutting up from its roof. If you happened to walk up to its ADA-accessible rooftop, you’d find cultural sculptures by acclaimed Native artist Lillian Pitt and a rooftop garden filled with medicinal and ceremonial plants indigenous to the region. But few people notice the building’s fishlike shape. After all, the salmon design is really only visible from an aerial view (or the model of the building on display in its lobby). This is fitting, not only because of the rich fishing traditions of Pacific Northwest tribes, but because Portland’s urban Indian population is significant and vibrant — yet largely unseen.
“We’re a pretty invisible community, in general,” says Melissa Bennett, the NASCC program coordinator. In educational materials it has created, the Portland Indian Leaders Roundtable (PILR) echoes that theme of invisibility, which exists despite our city having the ninth highest Native American population in the United States. PILR points out that Portland’s urban Native people have the highest rates of poverty, unemployment and homelessness among the city’s distinct demographic groups. Foster care rates are high and timely high school graduation rates are low. Yet the PILR cites that because of stereotypes, incomplete data and false perceptions about tribal revenue, Native Americans in Portland are too often restricted from access to equitable distribution social services.
For those Native American students who attend college at PSU — and there are roughly 1,500 who self-identify as Native American, Alaskan, Hawaiian and Pacific Islander — Bennett sees many challenges. “There are issues of systemic racism, institutionalized oppression—it’s all there and we feel it,” she says. “A lot of the work we do [at NASCC] is helping our students who are experiencing all of that plus the things in their own families and their personal lives. We focus on how to offer cultural support to help them make it through school and support them in their academic journey, so they can go out and be a benefit to the community.”
In addition to work done at PSU, there are a number of notable community organizations that work to benefit Portland’s Urban Indian population. The Native American Youth and Family Center (NAYA) was founded by the community, for the community. NAYA provides “culturally specific programs and services that guide our people in the direction of personal success and balance through cultural empowerment.” NAYA points to census statistics that note 25 percent of Native people in the metro area make under $10,000 per year, and another 25 percent earn under $24,000. This deep poverty only compounds challenges and leads to increased rates of homelessness and incarceration. NAYA works to empower Native people to combat the systemic challenges that have placed indigenous people in such a precarious situation.
NAYA is located in northeast Portland, on a site that was originally an Indian village named Neerchokikoo, one that dates back to the late 18th century and was included in Lewis and Clark’s journals. The organization provides such vital services as emergency energy assistance, clothing and food distribution, homeless services and domestic violence interventions. But NAYA also goes far deeper, offering early childhood services, camps and seasonal programming, community economic development (including financial wellness classes, small business classes and tax assistance), foster care support and elder services.
Meanwhile, the Native American Rehabilitation Association of the Northwest (NARA) operates under the mission to “provide education, physical and mental health services and substance abuse treatment that is culturally appropriate to American Indians, Alaska Natives and anyone in need.” Since 1970, traditional culture and spirituality have been at the core of NARA’s services, as they strive to assist their fellow community members in overcoming obstacles brought by centuries of institutionalized abuse. To fully realize the extent of the wounds on Native American communities, it’s imperative to understand the historical roots of these injustices.
A troubling history
Just look at a map and you’ll see evidence of the Native peoples that once thrived in the Portland metro area. Multnomah, Clackamas, Tualatin, Molalla — these monikers are all derived from tribal names. Additionally, the Kathlamet and Chinook people also thrived here amid the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia Rivers, living off the region’s many natural resources. In fact, the Oregon territory was mostly populated by Native Americans until the Oregon Donation Land Act of 1850. Over the course of seven years, legislation displaced tribes and offered (for free, initially) 2.5 million acres of tribal land — including all of what is now Portland — to white settlers, who flooded the area.
Many of us know the unsettling repercussions that Euro-American contact had upon Native Americans. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, up to nine out of every 10 indigenous people perished from an onslaught of new diseases trafficked into the region. Sadly, more deliberate forms of extermination also existed, as various states and territories placed bounties on the heads of Native people. California’s governor even called for full-on genocide in 1851, declaring his wish to see war waged with indigenous people until the “Indian race has become extinct.”
As the United States began to further take shape, new states were built upon promises unkept and treaties unfulfilled — a mindboggling 500 treaties were broken by the U.S. government. Voting rights were federally withheld until 1924, and in practice some Native Americans in Oregon weren’t able to cast a ballot until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Even the more seemingly benign dealings with the government and indigenous peoples split communities apart and tamped down expressions of culture. “Kill the Indian, save the man” was a common slogan in these dark times.
Boarding schools played into that directive, as children were shipped off and trained in Euro-American standards that were intended to strip them of their culture and indoctrinate them away from their own spiritual traditions. This push to assimilate Native people into mainstream American culture took on greater urgency between the 1940s and 1960s. “Termination” brought about the end of the U.S. government’s recognition of the sovereignty of tribes, which also took away protected land status from many Native people.
In 1953, the government terminated over 60 Oregon tribes. Three years later, the Indian Relocation Act of 1956 was passed, which forced Native people living on or near reservations to migrate to cities, displacing up to a third of the Native population. Portland served as one of seven relocation cities. As Bennett explains it, “When the government was trying to eliminate reservations and Native people, they said, ‘You can go to the cities and get jobs,’ but, of course, there were no jobs.” While these termination policies were overturned in the 1980s, reestablishing the sovereignty of tribal governments once more, their effects had lasting repercussions. The fact that Portland was a relocation city and also has one of the 10 highest urban Indian populations in the country is no coincidence.
Preserving culture, empowering future generations
While the Native Americans who reside in Portland descend from over 380 tribes, there are currently nine federally recognized tribes in Oregon. A 2000 census recorded nearly 20,000 Native Americans of one race and close to 39,000 multiracial Native Americans in the area. And the community is young, with some 40 percent under the age of 25. This is where centers like the NASCC play an integral role in providing support to preserve traditions, while ushering in the newer generations of Native peoples.
Three different student groups work out of that salmon-shaped building on the PSU campus. Bennett credits the United Indigenous Students in Higher Education (UISHE) group with being very active at PSU, putting on an annual powwow and engaging with other student groups of color. The Pacific Islander Club (PIC) hosts an annual luau and is also very involved with campus activism. Meanwhile, the local chapter of the national American Indian Science and Industry Society (AISIS) also operates out of the center.
To celebrate and preserve Native culture, NASCC holds a daily smudge ceremony (a prayer involving the burning of herbs, some of which are grown on the facility’s rooftop garden), a beating (drum) circle once a month, a potluck every quarter with a guest speaker and an annual Honor Day graduation ceremony. In her role, Bennett strives to bring the students and greater Native community together, which includes many alumni. The organization partners with the Native Wellness Institute and Future Generations Collaborative, which focus on Native wellness.
Lately, NASCC has also done work with the Living Islands organization. Located in Lake Oswego, Living Islands serves Oregon’s substantial Marshallese community (people indigenous to the Marshall Islands), which Bennett cites as a population that has faced both historical displacement due to nuclear testing and current displacement due to rising ocean levels brought about by climate change. NASCC has spent a year working with Living Islands on building a 25-foot outrigger canoe crafted by a traditional Washington carver. Its mast and sail are being completed in the Marshall Islands before the canoe returns to Portland to raise awareness about the plight of the Marshallese people.
Bennett commends the on-campus activism of Native American students. “People are really involved. They’re also really vocal,” she says. “I feel like Native students are really at the forefront of speaking up and speaking out.” In fact, last December’s “Students of Color Speak Out” event provided five hours of testimony that ultimately led the university president to support the creation of two new cultural resource centers, one for African American students and one for international students in study abroad programs.
Increasing the visibility of Portland’s robust Native population remains an imperative, as these groups of people continue to face obstacles. “We get a lot of stereotypes. We get a lot of micro-aggressions,” Bennett says, “People don’t know, and there’s a lot of ignorance about Native peoples and Native communities.” And while knowing the history of oppression and outright extermination that has been suffered by Native Americans throughout history is certainly a good starting point, it’s also not enough. “One of the things we run into a lot is that people want to keep us in history. They want to keep us trapped there,” Bennett says. Through this work, Bennett hopes more people will look to her largely invisible population and see that they are not consigned to history or the stoic paintings on a wall, but rather that “we’re contemporary, living, thriving communities with our successes and our failures and all of our great things and all of our hard things, too.” Organizations like NASCC and NAYA do crucial work in making people from these otherwise invisible communities both seen and heard.