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New youth center location to serve Portland community

PORTLAND, Ore. – When Nichole June Maher scans the surroundings at the new Native American Youth and Family Center in north Portland, she is acutely aware of the area’s cultural significance and Native history.

NAYA’s new home is located in a busy industrial area near the Columbia Slough. In previous centuries, this land rang with the sounds of Chinook families who set up summer villages to harvest an abundance of fish. A forested trail behind the center leads to a former encampment.

“It’s just really fantastic to be in this space where, for thousands of years, this tribe lived,” Maher, the center’s executive director, said. “We have youth who are Siletz and Grand Ronde, and Chehalis and Chinook, and they all have ancestors from this area.”

The Chinook thrived in this river basin until smallpox and other diseases killed more than 90 percent of them. A malaria epidemic in the early 1830s was particularly devastating and multitudes died along the shore, where they collapsed after plunging into the cool water for relief from their high fevers. Twenty years later, most of the survivors were removed to reservations.

NAYA’s relocation to a mothballed public middle school on Columbia Boulevard in June marked a major expansion for the community center, which provides cultural activities, summer camps, employment programs, food boxes, domestic violence help, foster care assistance, gang prevention, parenting classes and student talking circles. About 1,200 youth and 600 families were served at its overcrowded old quarters last year, Maher said.

The new building is brimming with life and activity, with more than 70 children and at least 60 adults on any given day.

“Every day different elders stop by and visit. The community is getting involved and invested ... there is a lot of hope and optimism,” Maher said.

She hopes the new space will provide a concrete sense of place to the area’s American Indians and Alaska Natives, and that it will help dispel the shroud of invisibility that plagues one of Portland’s largest ethnic communities.

Multnomah County is home to some 31,000 Natives from 300 tribes.

“Portland was a relocation site,” Maher explained. “Six out of nine Oregon tribes were terminated for a time and there was a large migration of folks to the Portland area. Families were coming here experiencing racism, and not having access to social services.”

A handful of parents founded the Native American Youth Association in 1974. They organized sports and cultural activities, provided after-school tutoring and dreamed of starting an alternative school with a gym for basketball games. They moved into the basement of Sunnyside Church and, for 15 years, raised money with frybread booths and drawings. In 1990, they received their first county contract to provide after-school programs. New programs and funding followed. Four years ago, the name was changed to more accurately reflect the center’s mission. However, the acronym NAYA was retained because it is a Pueblo word that means “mother,” Maher said.

In accessing various services at NAYA’s previous site on Mississippi Street, clients were sometimes subject to racial slurs and rude treatment by affluent newcomers renovating buildings and starting businesses in a neighborhood that had for years been home to many Native and black families.

“There’s an issue of misperception sometimes about how families of color are,” Maher observed. “Just us being there essentially made some folks uncomfortable. African-Americans felt the same as well.”

Rather than dwell on the negative, Maher, a Tlingit/Haida who moved to Oregon 18 years ago, prefers to focus on NAYA’s progress and the support it receives from non-Native allies.

Eight moves and 32 years later, they finally have a place with a gym where NAYA’s seven basketball teams can hone their skills. The dream of establishing an alternative school is also coming true, due largely to the interest of Vicki Phillips, who took over as Portland Public Schools’ superintendent about two years ago. Phillips was instrumental in helping NAYA secure the new facility.

“We’ve always wanted to be in a school building,” Maher said. “She essentially looked at the needs of Native students and realized NAYA can be a critical partner in helping Native students succeed. I was so impressed by her support. It’s an example of how somebody can be an ally and help the community.”

Other alternative school partners include Portland Schools Foundation, Portland Community College and Antioch University Seattle. Antioch’s Early College High School for Native Youth Initiative granted NAYA $350,000 to help with startup costs. The new high school will stress math, science, cultural activities and college-level classes. It is scheduled to open fall of 2007.

Meanwhile, the fund-raising is ongoing, with an auction of antique and contemporary Native arts on Nov. 17. For more information, contact Maher at