PORTLAND, Ore. - From the corner of the spacious glass and wood Gathering
Area, "Fisherman" scoops a flailing salmon from the waters in his dipnet.
The muscles in the figure's arms are buff, and. he wears a loincloth
secured below his navel. Long black hair streams down over his glistening
chest. He is sculptor Jim Jackson's homage to the ancestors from the
The Gathering Area, by contrast, is a celebration of the present. It's the
main hall of Portland State University's year-old Native American Student
and Community Center - a sacred song to those living now and especially to
those who find themselves in an urban area, a place where students and
community members find academic and social support.
Roughly 60 percent of self-identified American Indians and Alaska Natives
reside off-reservation, with 50 percent or over 600,000 in urban settings.
Although as members of a minority, many urban Indians have difficulty
stabilizing employment, housing and health care.
That said, as the Harvard study entitled "Native America at the New
Millenium" noted: "A moment's reflection must force acknowledgement of the
phenomenal resilience of the Native people of North America. From the
moment of European contact, their identity and survival has been under
siege ... But at the dawn of the new millennium, the Indian voice is
rising, population is growing rapidly, economic muscles are being flexed,
and the winds of extermination and de-identification are being weathered."
Leave it to Harvard to sum things up - and leave it to PSU to get the
message: carve out a place on prime downtown property for the Native
American Student and Community Center.
In its second year of operation, the center hosts trainings, meetings,
conferences, meals, dances, parties and celebrations.
It also teams with PSU's new Native American Studies program that offers an
undergraduate minor and is in its second year as well.
As often as not, drums greet visitors and the smell of roasting salmon
fills the air. Students use the space regularly and are testing out movie
nights as well as holding fund-raisers. Seniors come in twice a month for
lunch, a group of community leaders are starting a playgroup for children
under 3, and for-credit dance classes make good use of the spacious
Gathering Area. Theresa Julnes, Ph.D., associate professor of public
administration at PSU and Shoalwater Bay tribal member, will also teach
graduate courses at the center.
PSU president Daniel Bernstine appointed a Native American Community
Advisory Board to monitor the center's fiscal health and update him on
budget matters. Composed of three student representatives and three members
of the community, the group has been working on how to fund operational
costs and charge users for the use of the facility, as well as resolving
unfinished work by the contractors as well as heating and cooling issues.
Wrote Judy Bluehorse Skelton, board co-chair, "We're creating 'new' ways of
working together that, from a traditional Native perspective are very old."
Tribal life renewing itself in Portland, Ore.? In an urban setting? If all
involved get their way, the answer is an overwhelming yes. Players know
that it's not the rural scene or the reservation that makes American Indian
culture what it is. Rather, the idea is that focusing on family, making
decisions by talking things out until everyone is on the same page and
generally walking the upright, narrow path is what Indian country is all
That's not to say, of course, that urban Indians don't feel strong
connections to the land and honor all traditions that value the earth. So
the center hosts a "Natural Way: Indigenous Voices" program series, now
entering its ninth season. The forum partners with the United Indian
Students in Higher Education in seeking out indigenous elders willing to
share traditional knowledge and beliefs about the earth related to
preserving and enhancing earth-based, sustainable living. Indeed, while
dipnetting salmon from the Columbia River might not be widespread as it
once was, those associated with the center remain focused on the general
principle - that of living in harmony with Mother Earth and Father Sky.
Children, seniors, food, environmental sustainability, tribal
decision-making. The "Fisherman," frozen in time, monitors it all from his
place in the corner of the Gathering Area. If those involved - those who
believe in the dream - have their way, he'll be there watching for a long
time to come.