PORTLAND, Ore. - The Portland Native American Youth and Family Center celebrated the opening of its Early College Academy in September. This long-held dream, more than 30 years in the making, has brought the area's Native community full circle. ''It's the community who made it happen,'' said NAYA Executive Director Nicole Maher. ''And it's for them we are having the gathering tonight.''
Maher, Tlingit, wanted the elders to be especially recognized for the achievement. ''Three years ago, when Antioch University's Center for Native Education asked NAYA to be one of 11 sites in the country to develop a Native-specific college prep school, we presented it to the community first. Every element of what the academy would encompass was laid out for their guidance - environment, policy, curriculum.'' Elder participation at the foundation was crucial, she added. Even the location, the traditional site of Neerchikikoo Indian Village, is significant.
One honoree seeing the dream to fruition is Barbara Farmer-Alatorre, Klamath. She remembers organizing urban Indian groups as far back as 1959 to combat the isolation brought on by termination-era policies and being stranded in cities. ''Even more, we wanted the children to continue learning the dances and the songs,'' she said. ''So we would get together for dancing, drumming and dinners.'' Farmer-Alatorre was president of the Portland American Indian Center, which also offered sports for the kids. ''Eventually, we invited the Lakota Club, Bow and Arrow and United Indian Students of Higher Education to form the greater United Indian Council.'' From those early organizations sprang NAYA.
Academy administrator Frank Hernandez was so excited about the idea of the school that he came out of retirement to run it. ''What's so unique,'' he explained ''is that an ethic group is taking full ownership of responsibility to educate the youth.'' So far the academy has 54 students enrolled and plans to have about 100 in attendance by the end of October.
A low student-to-teacher ratio is one of the benefits Dyami Thomas, Klamath, enjoys as a freshman at the academy. In between bowls of buffalo stew, frybread and watermelon, he confessed he felt completely embraced by everyone. ''Totally cool school, totally cool students and cool teachers, too,'' he said. ''Last week I got to attend a conference on global warming and I got to meet Rep. Nancy Pelosi [D-Calif.].'' He added that he is proud to have participated in the Generations Project Elder Portraits, photographs of elders taken by students, which now hang in the entrance lobby.
Shilo George, Southern Cheyenne/Arapaho, and Nora Farwell, Blackfeet, staff the Generations Project, which hosted the academy celebration as part of the annual fall gathering. The Generations Project also serves as part of the extensive family and community outreach available to the self-identified community at NAYA.
One of the many programs is the Talking Circle for students. ''The model was developed by NICWA and is built on the relational worldview,'' George said. Following intuitive, fluid, non-time oriented thought and tribal traditions, subject matter can cover a range of everyday topics. ''Hopefully by recognizing issues such as personal boundaries through this four-quadrant model of context, body, mind and spirit, we can help to raise balanced, healthy adults.''
Students at the Early College Academy are also provided with a plethora of other safety nets, including cultural arts and sports clubs, tutoring, housing and employment services, therapeutic counseling, relationship building and support for families impacted by domestic and sexual violence.
As the evening began drawing to a close, Maher wanted to emphasize one last thing. ''We are breaking stereotypes here. Just because we are a Native organization does not mean, for instance, that we have automatic funding. We have challenges. Critics said we wouldn't find qualified Native teachers. But we did.'' According to the Urban Institute, national high school graduation rates for Native youth is 51 percent; however students participating in NAYA activities complete the academic school year 80 percent of the time. The most rewarding part, Maher said, was that ''by attending the academy, students are able to combine earning a high school diploma while fulfilling requirements for an Associate of Arts degree.''
''We take pride in knowing we are creating the most positive Indian education environment possible,'' she concluded. ''So we want to set an example for the students tonight, showing the core values we ask of them - respect, tradition, community and giving.''
To find out more about the NAYA Early College Academy, visit www.nayapdx.org.
Mary Massie, Shawnee, is a freelance journalist living in Portland, Ore.