Richard Arlin Walker
Special to Indian Country Today

Portland, Oregon’s urban Native population ranks among the nation’s largest, with residents from more than 380 federally recognized tribes.

Yet only 96 of the nearly 7,500 people employed by the state’s largest city self-identify as Native American.

Native Americans also face deeper economic challenges in Portland when compared to other communities of color, according to a recent city resolution.

Now, the city is taking steps to change that with a sweeping new series of directives, including plans to adopt a formal land acknowledgement — a rarity for a major U.S. city.

The directives approved Dec. 17 by the Portland City Council are the culmination of nearly a decade of work that has yielded government-to-government consultation agreements between the city and tribes, the declaration of the second Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples' Day in Portland, the creation of the Tribal Relations Office, the convening of an annual summit of tribal and city leaders, and daylong cultural trainings for city employees.

They were developed through the council’s Regional Collaborative Land Acknowledgement Project to “promote consistent awareness and inclusion of Native people in all city business, and more equitable outcomes for Native people.” Besides the city, members of the project include local and regional governments, the Port of Portland, the Oregon Historical Society, regional utilities, the Portland Trailblazers, and local trusts and foundations.

Officials started working on the project two years ago and “wanted to do it in a very respectful way and involve tribal councils and Indigenous people in the communities that are most affected,” said Amanda Fritz, who retired from the City Council the last day of 2020 and was a chief proponent of the project.

The official city statement of land acknowledgement will be written in 2021 in collaboration with tribal governments.

“Because we have been engaging with a broad variety of First Peoples and Indigenous input, the actual statement ... is not yet final,” Fritz said. “We wanted to do some of the actions before the work. We’re often saying we’re supposed to walk the talk. Well, let’s do as much walking as we can ahead of time, then the words will have even more meaning.”

Robert J. Miller, Eastern Shawnee, professor at Arizona State University's College of Law, said land acknowledgements are significant in several ways.

Professor Robert J. Miller, Eastern Shawnee, of Arizona State University (ASU photo)

Many Americans don't understand that the U.S. has a federal government, state governments, local governments — and tribal governments, he said.

Land acknowledgements reinforce the fact that tribes "are still here," he said; that they have a government-to-government relationship with the United States; that the treaties they signed are, according the the U.S. Constitution, the supreme law of the land; and that tribes exercise treaty-reserved rights and responsibilities in their historical territories.

"I believe that land acknowledgements are very valuable so that all Americans can learn and remember who the original owners of our lands are and that it was taken from the Indigenous owners and nations," Miller said. "Most importantly, it teaches Americans that these Indigenous Nations and peoples still exist today."

Other directives approved as part of the project:

  • Indigenous Peoples Day will be an annual paid holiday for Portland's city employees, beginning this year. The City Attorney’s Office, Portland Parks & Recreation and the tribal relations director will explore options for park fee waivers for American Indian and Alaska Native gatherings and ceremonies “based on the unique political status of tribal people.”
  • The Office of Government Relations, tribal relations director and Bureau of Human Resources will collaborate on the creation of strategies, including an American Indian and Alaska Native employment preference, to improve recruitment and retention of Native people in the city workforce.
  • The Office of Equity of Human Rights will partner with the tribal relations director to create a recurring “Tribal Nations and People” training that is mandatory for all city employees.
  • City departments will develop annual work plans detailing how they will “collaborate with sovereign tribal nations” in providing services to the urban Native community, as well as an annual report of outcomes.

Many are looking forward to a deeper understanding of, and relationship with, Oregon’s First Peoples.

Siletz Tribes Chairman Dee Pigsley said Oregonians familiar with what the state’s First Peoples endured since the settlement era feel tribes “got the shaft when it came to having to enter into treaties and living on reservations.”

Siletz Tribes Chairman Delores Pigsley (Photo by Sam Beebe)

But their knowledge about what the treaty means becomes apparent when tribes “put those gears into motion” and exercise their sovereignty, she said.

“When we built our casino, we had to go out and talk with different state officials and local officials,” said Pigsley, who goes by the title “chairman” because that title is in the constitution of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians.

“A lot of people didn’t have a clue. Some came out who were opposed and said, ‘Why do you think you have the right to do this?’ and it’s because [we have] a sovereign right to negotiate agreements. That’s when it became evident that most average citizens don’t have a clue about what a treaty is, what it means, why there is a treaty and the fact that if there wasn’t a treaty they wouldn’t be on the land they’re living on right now.”

Other issues have contributed to cultural clashes in the state.

For years, students in public schools were more likely to learn about Sitting Bull than Chief Joseph or about the Great Plains tribes than Oregon’s First Peoples.

“Very few know there’s an Indian school in Salem,” Pigsley said of the historical Chemawa Indian School. “It’s been there 130-something years.”

According to the city of Portland, the lack of accurate and complete curricula “may contribute to the persistent achievement and opportunity gaps between Native American and other students.”

Of Oregon’s 4.2 million residents, 6.7 percent are Indigenous – American Indian, Alaska Native and Indigenous Mexican – yet there are only six people of color in the state Legislature. State Rep. Tawna Sanchez, Shoshone-Bannock and Ute, is the only Native American.

On the state level, the Legislature passed a law in 2017 directing the Department of Education to create K-12 Native American curriculum for inclusion in Oregon public schools. As of January 2020, the curriculum — Tribal History/Shared History — featured 45 lesson plans in a range of subject areas.

Cynthia Castro, senior policy adviser in Portland’s City Hall, said the city’s new directives were presented at a tribal summit, and the staff-education directive received an endorsement as the most necessary.

“We were hearing from tribal leaders that the directive around training and education was something very necessary for city employees and something they would like to see in order for us to have a consistent understanding of sovereignty and treaty rights, as the city is looking at investing more in partnerships with our tribal governments and Native peoples,” she said.

Castro said the staff-education directive is important because city employees didn’t have the information offered by the Tribal History/Shared History curriculum that K-12 students have today.

“That’s something we’re looking at following,” she said. “We’re wanting our workforce to be able to catch up with what our youth will be learning in schools and to help inform our meaningful, respectful work with our tribal nation partners and Native people.”

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Richard Arlin Walker, Mexican/Yaqui, is a journalist and mariner living in Anacortes, Washington, about 80 miles north of Seattle.

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