Portland & Native American Voices: Dark Past, Bright Future
Bursting colors, dancing feet and beautiful Native American song filled the Chapel on March 28, as part of the 2012 Vine Deloria Jr. Lecture Series. Representing the Multnomah County Native American community, traditionally garbed young children, and other members of the Native American Youth and Family Center of Portland (NAYA), celebrated the dances they perform at pow-wows throughout each year. A painfully eye-opening panel discussion with three Native American leaders of the Coalition of Communities of Color followed the performance.
The Vine Deloria Jr. lecture series, a collaboration between Multicultural Affairs and the Office for Institutional Diversity, was founded in 2007 to call attention to the often silenced voices of Native American scholars. Wednesday’s panel consisted of Sherry Addis (Portland Area Office Supervisor), Laura L. Harris (Executive Director and CEO of Americans for Indian Opportunity), and Nichole Maher (Executive Director of NAYA). The three exceedingly competent experts answered moderator Matt Morton (Deputy Executive Director of NAYA) thoroughly and without withholding the ugly truths about how the Native American Community has been affected by federal policy in the past 10-20 years. The discussion spanned both intellectual and personal spheres of interest as all three women on the panel, as well as the moderator, belong to respective Native American tribes.
One of the main issues discussed on Wednesday was the 2011 report put out by Portland State University (PSU), “The Native American Community in Multnomah County: An Unsettling Profile”. When asked, “Why was there a need for this report”? panelist Maher explained that most Portlanders have no idea that Portland has the 9th largest Native American community in the U.S. Maher pointed out that many people are also unaware of the vast disparities that exist between need and resource for the national Native American population. Just one example of this disparity is that despite being the poorest population, Native Americans are the least likely to receive low-income housing. Prior to this report, the panelists explained, much of the data about the Native American population was disputed over or disregarded. Organizers and advocates of the recent PSU report hope that the new data will allow policy makers to stop arguing about the facts and actually enact equality via legislation.
The panelists examined possible reasons for the lack of awareness that many Portlanders have about these inequalities. They explained that Oregon is a young state. “We live in a liberal, progressive community. Folks in Portland think that we don’t have some of the deepest disparities of race.” But in fact, in Multnomah County, as Addis explained, people of color comprise 1/3 of the population, and 1/2 of children are people of color. Certain astonishing acts of legal oppression imposed on some of these communities happened very recently. Addis explained that until 1983, [the U.S. government was] still systematically sterilizing Native American women, and until 1978, it was still removing Native American children from their homes in forced assimilation.
The panelists also reflected upon the Indian Termination Policy, which until the 1960’s allowed the U.S. government to deny the legitimacy of all Native American tribes west of the Cascades. The goal, Addis explained, “was to assimilate Native Americans into the larger, American community.” The tribes were stripped of their Federal Rights. Moreover, all of their land was taken from them through taxation. Addis remarked, “It was a dark time for us. The worst crack of all was the termination, because it reaches our heart. Not only did it terminate us as a people, it goes beyond all the other things that have been done to us.”
Vine Deloria Jr. lecture series is an annual opportunity to bring these painful facts into the open and to allow Native Americans to share their voices about it. Indeed, the American majority population could benefit from the lessons of the voices shared on Wednesday night. For example, Maher noted poignantly, “One of the things I love about Native Americans is our elders. The way we view our elders. We see our elders as providing vision for the future. We don’t share mainstream society’s ideal that success is individual. We really want to work for our people as a whole.”