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Portland, Oregon Indians Seek to Maintain Role in City Government

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Education, housing, the Oregon casino bill and environmental concerns, as well as employment, top the list of issues that the Portland Indian Leaders Roundtable (PILR)—a body of 24 Native organizations represented by top-level leadership located in Portland—is looking for action on from candidates for mayor and city council.

The group, organized in 2007 to address the lack of data and knowledge available about urban Indians in Portland, recently completed a series of meetings with candidates up for election next week. It was part of a push by the five-year-old organization to facilitate early conversations with office hopefuls about the priorities of Portland’s unique urban Indian community and to continue cultivating the relationship that American Indians have fostered with current Mayor Sam Adams, who is finishing out his final term.

Portland has the ninth-largest urban Indian community in the United States and is home to 28 Native organizations, whose combined resources equal over $50 million in local revenue for taxes, businesses and services.

Currently PILR holds quarterly meetings with the mayor’s office, and they meet with Adams himself at least once a year, in addition to having a dedicated liaison in his office. Besides looking for input on several issues, PILR asked mayoral candidates to designate a high-level staff member with decision-making authority as a liaison to the Indian community.

“While establishing a good relationship with urban Indian communities does not replace cultivating positive relationships with tribes,” said Lai-Lani Ovalles, the coordinator for PILR, “it does show the commitment of our city government. While our goal is not to infringe on the tribal voice, we do need attention brought to our issues as taxpayers and as members of tribes.”

The candidates’ responses to the representative request helped PILR gauge which one best understands treaty and other obligations toward Indians.

“Jefferson Smith was receptive to the idea,” said Ovalles of the mayoral hopeful. “However, he came in acting like he already knew our issues and didn’t need to discuss them any further with us. Charlie Hales was a better listener and seemed like he would actually follow through, but he said he would have to think more about designating a liaison.”

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Hales’ hesitation was based on the concern that other minority communities would expect the same treatment, PILR indicated.

PILR’s position is that every government, including city government, has a responsibility to uphold and protect treaty and other unique rights designated to Native American communities and prioritize that other minority issues. This responsibility includes urban Indian communities.

In fact Mayor Sam Adams and City Commissioner Amanda Fritz recently co-sponsored a resolution that publicly recognizes the sovereignty of the city’s tribal government partners, starts the formal process for government-to-government relations and commits to respecting traditional Native religious and cultural beliefs. The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, the Confederated Tribes of Siletz, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, the Nez Perce Tribe, the Confederated Tribes of Umatilla, and the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission (CRITFC) all spoke when the resolution was introduced on July 11.

Not long after the resolution was passed, another was introduced by Adams and Fritz recognizing the importance and validity of community-verified, community-collected data regarding equity for minority communities. This one directly validated a series of reports published by the Coalition of Communities of Color, including one released last year about the Portland Indian community, The Native American Community in Multnomah County: An Unsettling Profile. The report detailed the stark statistical realities of urban Native life: poverty rates triple those in white communities, with an average poverty rate of 34 percent, as compared to a rate of 12.3 percent in other communities, for one. Resolution 36942 was passed on July 19.

“Without community advocacy and the commitment of our city government to prioritize tribal and urban Indian interests, these political strides for our community would not have happened,” said Matt Morton, executive director of the Native American Youth & Family Center and a PILR member.

PILR has also met with the candidates for the two city commissioner seats, Amanda Fritz, Mary Nolan and Steve Novick. Fritz and Nolan are in a standoff for seat one, Fritz’s current seat, while Novick has already beaten the competition for seat four. While PILR is not an endorsing body, individual members are allowed to make their own endorsements; while no endorsements have been made by individual organizations, some individuals have endorsed Nolan. And while PILR had a strong relationship with primary candidate Jeri Williams, who ran against Novick, PILR appreciates Novick’s intensive focus on the environment.

PILR is also scrutinizing the hot-topic issues affecting urban Indian and tribal people. The Portland Public Schools Bond, which aims to invest $482 million in taxpayer money in modernizing schools, improving safety and enhancing science education, will also create construction jobs for the economy. Two members of PILR are representatives of Grand Ronde and Siletz and have provided extensive education about the Oregon casino bill. Finally, PILR is concerned about the cleanup of the Portland Harbor Superfund site along the Willamette River, adjacent from Kelley Point Park—a launch site for tribal canoe journeys.