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Keeping Kids on Track in the Urban World

PORTLAND, Ore. - Talk about culture shock.

In the 1950s, courtesy of two ignominious pieces of federal legislation,
the government uprooted many American Indians from traditional homelands
and shunted them off to the cities where according to the wisdom of
Washington, D.C., families would assimilate, join members of the majority
culture in pursuit of the American dream, and live happily ever after.

Things didn't turn out as planned, however. In Portland the Native American
Youth Association (NAYA) opened its doors almost 30 years ago to try and
help kids and families caught in these extraordinarily disorienting and
unsettling circumstances.

Portland was one of the cities designated to receive uprooted families in
the 1950s. Large numbers of Ojibway and Lakota people, who in keeping with
the Relocation Act's philosophy of getting families as far away from their
homelands as possible, were transported into the rainy Pacific Northwest
city. There people from the Midwest and Great Plains met other sojourners,
including significant populations of Indians from six of the nine Oregon
tribes that were stripped of federal status, sovereignty, and much of their
land base under the auspices of the now discredited Termination Act of
1954. Joining these groups were members from various other tribes, some of
them graduates of Chemawa Indian School in Salem, Ore. as well as Alaska
Natives. Today, in a city of well over a million, the tribal population is
over 31,000.

"Still, since many families and individuals came here under stress, people
are separated all over the city and out into the country," said NAYA's
executive director and Alaska Native, Nichole Maher. "Consequently our
community hasn't had the resources necessary to organize itself."


A grassroots effort, the organization started in 1975. "At the beginning,
people were concerned about youths learning their culture. Parents came
together and determined what their kids needed. Some of the first
activities were organizing basketball teams and attending pow wows, and
generally creating a family network of parents and volunteers," Maher said.
Since then the community commitment has been strong, and currently, NAYA's
staff of 30 is supported by hundreds of volunteers, largely although not
exclusively, American Indians and Alaska Natives.

"Our goal of working with youths takes us directly into the family," Maher
observed. "We try to develop programs to deal with the root causes of
problems, our community experiences."

A century and a half of disenfranchisement has left NAYA's constituency
often fearful of and disconnected to schools, social services and
governmental programs. Thus, the very group that needs what social safety
nets are available in the United States is unable to access them.

"American Indians and Alaska Natives have the highest drop out rate of any
ethnic group. We lose 20 percent of our students every year, and we have
the highest percentage of children on behavior and individual education
plans," Maher said. "Also before the Indian Child Welfare Act was passed in
1978, many of our children were taken away and adopted by non-Native

Added to problems with young people, Maher continued, "is a large homeless
population. While American Indians and Alaska Natives represent 2 percent
of the nation's population, our community makes up 8 percent of the
homeless in Portland."

Even those not homeless suffer, however. Half the Indian and Native
families in Portland live 200 percent below the poverty line according to
Maher, and it is not unusual to see a family of four living on one minimum
wage job that typically pays $15,000 a year before deductions. Poverty, of
course, creates despair and accompanying responses.

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"One of the biggest barriers we have is that struggling youths often have
parents that are dealing with their own issues of addiction, mental health
or poverty," said Maher. "Violence in urban Indian communities is very high
- 206 out of 1,000 families will experience some kind of violent incident.
Violence, of course, is not acceptable in traditional communities and is a
generational phenomenon that has arisen as part of colonization."

NAYA's Family Healing Circle helps families protect themselves from
violence. Women and children in the program often become long-term clients,
and the Family Healing Circle provides temporary safety, helps women find
housing away from abusive partners, and gets children into programs and
classes designed to ease trauma.

NAYA also has a Foster Care Support Program. "Our kids typically tend to
move homes more often and be placed in homes with larger numbers of
children," Maher said. "Also in Portland there are a limited number of
Indian foster homes, so many go into non-Native homes. When members of the
extended family are able to help out, they tend not to go to the state for
help out of fear of losing the child. This is where NAYA comes in. We
connect members of our community to the resources to which they are
entitled, to resources that make it possible for people to advocate for
their own families."

The National Indian Child Welfare Association cited NAYA as doing a good
job identifying its community's needs and collecting data on a population
that often tends to be an invisible minority in larger policy debates.

"We have the same difficulty in the public school system," Maher said.
"Since our youths are so spread out, we often have so few numbers in each
school that they get labeled as an insignificant population and are not
concentrated on like larger ethnic groups are."

In addition to the Culture and Arts Program that helps youths make pow wow
regalia and individual programming, tutoring and case management during the
school year, NAYA sponsors enrichment programs for middle, high school, and
young adults. Math and science camps for middle schoolers have run the past
seven years. By partnering with businesses and organizations including the
Port of Portland, Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC), and
Our Garden, NAYA offers a five-week program filled with field trips and
hands-on experiences to 35 middle school youths.

The kids got to go out and restore a salmon spawning bed with CRITFC,"
Maher said. "And the Coos Tribe is hosting a clamming trip where students
will gain exposure to coastal technologies."

The middle school program has been so successful that NAYA is piloting its
first summer program for high school students this year. Youths will take a
six-week series of math, science and writing classes through Portland
Community College. At the same time there will be supplemental activities
and exposure that students who tend to go on to college normally have.

Finally, through its leadership project with young adults, NAYA instills in
members of the next generation the idea that they need to take
responsibility for the world they are inheriting. Students undertake
projects like cleaning up after a pow wow.

Also, on the political side of the coin, they have been quick to realize
that the American Indian and Alaska Native voting block can be a powerful
force in an election year. Young adults in NAYA's leadership project have
undertaken a voter registration project aimed at getting their community
out to the polls - or in Oregon's case, to the mailbox in November.

That NAYA accomplishes what it does on a budget of $1.3 million is only
possible because of its volunteer base and the partnering it does within
the Portland business and philanthropic community. "People think we get
money from casinos or the BIA. But we don't. We're not tribally or BIA
funded. We're a 501c3 non-profit," Maher explained. "And it's only been the
last 11 years or so that we've been supplementing the donations that kept
us going initially with county, state, and federal grants and contracts."

Despite a modest financial base that requires NAYA to rent its facilities,
the organization served more than 500 youths and over 150 women and
children impacted by domestic violence last year. Moreover, NAYA gives
voice to an urban population of American Indians and Alaska Natives that
otherwise has historically gone unheralded.

"It's amazing to see what happens to our youths once we expose them to some
of the things the world has to offer and help them learn how to use the
tools they need. They discover that they can succeed and that they are
important because they are our next leaders," Maher said.