Brian Oaster
Special to Indian Country Today

The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry is joining with tribes, elders and leaders of local Indigenous organizations to develop a new Center for Tribal Nations and outdoor educational park along the banks of the Willamette River in Portland.

The project is bolstered by a $750,000 grant awarded in January by the regional county governmental body, Oregon Metro, to help the museum develop a vision around planned expansion.

Rather than plan their own vision, however, museum leaders have deferred to the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission and the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, who in turn have deferred to the Indigenous community to find out what they want to see developed.

Affiliated Tribes Deputy Director James Parker, Chippewa Cree, said the project can be an anchor in Portland for Oregon’s nine federally recognized tribes.

“We want to make sure everyone has a voice in this project,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to have representation in the city, specifically around the water.”

A council of community members is now assembled, including elders, tribal leaders, leaders of local Native organizations, and Native youth, to advise on how the new venues could best meet their needs.

The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry has tapped local tribes and the Indigenous community to help plan a new tribal center and waterfront educational park on its campus along the Willamette River in Portland, Oregon. Officials hope to have approval of the project in early 2022. (Photo by Brian Oaster for Indian Country Today)

Plans are still in the listening stages, as the Affiliated Tribes and the Inter-Tribal Fish Commission work to include as broad a spectrum of Native voices as possible.

Jeremy FiveCrows, Nez Perce, public affairs specialist for the Columbia Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, says the Center for Tribal Nations will likely include not just community space for Portland’s urban Natives but also potential offices or professional spaces for surrounding tribes to maintain a physical presence in the city.

“There’s interest from tribal councils throughout the region, as well as urban Native population issues, and so there’s this huge spectrum of priorities,” FiveCrows said.

The planned Waterfront Education Park will be an outdoor museum and science exhibit bordering the Willamette River, with a connection from the current greenway and bike path to a restored stretch of riverbank, FiveCrows said.

It will offer the public an example of how Native restoration can exist in a city.

“Let’s change what our definition is of a river that flows through an urban area,” FiveCrows said. “People going by and just walking through the park are going to learn about, what does the river mean to tribal culture? What do salmon mean here? How was this river dishonored in similar ways that the tribe and the culture was dishonored and then disconnected? How can we bring that connection back?”

The museum, known locally as OMSI, has an 18-acre waterfront campus in Portland’s inner southeast industrial district, adjacent to a public transit hub at the base of the car-free Tilikum Crossing bridge.

The campus is home to the 219,000-square-foot science museum. Most of the rest of the campus, about 11 acres, includes parking lots and under-developed space.

The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry has tapped local tribes and the Indigenous community to help plan a new tribal center and waterfront educational park on its campus along the Willamette River in Portland, Oregon. Officials hope to have approval of the project in early 2022. (Photo by Brian Oaster for Indian Country Today)

Over the past several years, OMSI has been working with the City of Portland to develop the campus into a higher-density, mixed-use district. That’s when officials learned there was strong interest among the Native community for a Center for Tribal Nations, an idea that had come up in earlier planning efforts.

“OMSI was doing a lot of community listening with different communities that we serve through our programming,” OMSI chief executive Erin Graham said.

FiveCrows says one of the things that makes the project unique is the inclusion of Native voices from the very earliest stages of planning, instead of consulting with tribes after-the-fact, as happens all too often.

He sees the inclusion as part of a shift toward greater acknowledgement of the valuable data contained in oral histories and traditional ecological knowledge, and how that data benefits everyone.

“Having these millennia-long data points and observations about the environment that’s right here in this region is invaluable,” FiveCrows said.

Graham said climate change is making plain the connection between humans and natural systems, as well as the need for good resource stewardship.

“Those ideas I think are something that are core to science, and they’re something that Indigenous people have long held in their perspective,” she said. “I think that Western science is catching up. I don’t really know how to say it another way.”

While it’s still too early to set a timeline for construction, Graham said officials are hoping to be through the city approval process by late spring of 2022.

Parker said the project can serve the broader community.

"The Center for Tribal Nations is a groundbreaking economic development strategy for the Native American community,” Parker said in an emailed statement. “The Center for Tribal Nations and the associated Native components of the district will serve to facilitate the restoration of the Native community to the banks of the urban Willamette.

“The Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians’ (ATNI) long-term goal is to structure the economics of the Native elements of the OMSI District to be self-sustaining while expanding economic and social opportunities for the Native American community in Portland, Oregon, and the Pacific Northwest in general."

Indian Country Today - bridge logo

Our stories are worth telling. Our stories are worth sharing. Our stories are worth your support. Contribute $5 or $10 contribution today to help Indian Country Today carry out its critical mission. Sign up for ICT’s free newsletter.