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Daily struggles reality for Portland's Native Americans


NAYA elder, Louie Pacheco, participates in the Posting of the Colors at the Fall Gathering event as part of the Northwest Indian Veterans Association Color Guard.
A girl dances in regalia at the NAYA Family Center's Fall Gathering event.
The graduates of the Native American Youth and Family Center's Early College Academy 2011 smile proudly at their graduation ceremony in June. Pictured in the front row are, from left, Diana Garcia, Alma Franco, Phoenix Singer (Not an ECA student but a NAYA youth), Dora Carr-Sanders, Alexus Patrick, Courtney Clinton and Terrence Lawrence- Roberson. In the middle row, from left, are Jessica Galindo, Tucker Thomas, Kevin Corona Lopez, Stephen Good Lance, Cicilio Good Lance and Merehuka Heta-Lane. In the back row, from left, are Rebecca Kirk, Patrick Cochran, Austin James, Mason Olin, Dyami Thomas, Shawn Guerrero and Jr. Josh Muench. The ceremony was held in the NAYA Family Center gym.
Ashley Bluebird-Meanus, a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe, holds a craft she made in front of the Cathlapotle Plank house at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge during a NAYA Summer Camp fieldtrip last year.

During a snow weekend outing last winter, Joseph Palin, of the Blackfeet tribe, enjoys inner tubing at the Aubrey Watzek Lodge on Mt. Hood.
At last year's Village Building Convergence 2010, Rico “Black Bear” Guerrero, of the Klamath/Nez Perce, makes a dream catcher at the NAYA Family Center.

Patrick Cochran, of the Colville tribe, listens to a speaker at the NAYA Early College Academy graduation ceremony June 10, 2011. The ceremony was held in the Siwash House at the NAYA Family Center.

For thousands of Portland's Native Americans, the unassuming building in the Cully neighborhood that sits unnoticed by the average passersby on bustling Northeast Columbia Boulevard, is everything - their center.

The Native American Youth and Family Center, among many other things, is a place where teens play basketball, you can get your taxes done, where elders take Tai Chi classes, where families learn how to better manage their finances, and a place where any curious person can learn a tribal language that's on the edge of extinction.

Equally as important, the NAYA Family Center, housed in a former elementary school, is a place where victims of domestic violence can find support, where homeless youth can find help and positive role models, and where foster children can find a consistent home. “A lot of kids might change homes over and over again but we'll always be in their lives,” Nichole Maher, executive director of NAYA, said.

The Native American Youth and Family Center was started by volunteers in 1974 and became a formal non-profit organization in 1994. Maher said that in the past 10 years alone, she has watched NAYA grow from a handful of employees to a group that employs more than one hundred people.

With their mission “to enhance the diverse strengths of our youth and families in partnership with the community through cultural identity and education,” today, the organization serves thousands of people who represent over 380 different tribal backgrounds.
Portland is home to the ninth-largest Native American population in the country with over 55,000 Native Americans living in Multnomah, Clackamas, Clark and Washington counties, but does not seem to know it. “While Portland hasn't realized we're a large native community, the rest of the country has,” Maher said.

It is believed that the number of Native American people living in the area is largely undercounted, as those reported in censuses are only those who self-identify. The majority of people of Native American descent in Portland are multiracial and may be considered part of other ethnic groups, as well.

NAYA works diligently to maintain all various cultural traditions and connections with its wide-variety of classes and programs. These include language classes, regalia making, drum making and traditional dancing.

Elders are a vital part of the Native American community, and elder-specific programs incorporate activities, meals and programming.

NAYA outgrew its former North Portland location, moving to the former elementary school in 2006. The current space has room for offices, classrooms and indoor and outdoor recreation areas.

“We were hard for east county clients to get to [at the old location],” Maher said.

Now, at 5135 N.E. Columbia Blvd., NAYA is easily accessible by bus and other transportation services, as many clients live in the area, Maher said.

While the Native American community in Parkrose specifically is very large, Maher noted that the Parkrose School District holds a disappointing on-time-graduation rate of just 15 percent for Native American students.

But rather than focus on the community by neighborhood NAYA looks at each person on an individual need basis, opting to host youth programs at the center rather than at individual schools.

“We don't organize by geography,” Maher said. “Our community looks at things a little differently.”

And the community is growing, with 40 percent of the Native American community now under the age of 25.

Keeping up with the needs of the ever-growing Native American population in the area is a very challenging task, said Maher. “A lot of Native Americans don't really feel comfortable seeking services elsewhere,” she said. “We're just scratching the surface of meeting the needs for the community. There's still so much unmet need.”

A recent milestone for the organization is the NAYA Early College Academy - a private high school held at the center, which serves about 120 students. The academy opened in September 2007 and now holds the highest graduation rate for Native American youth in the Portland area at 88 percent.

As of last month, the Early College Academy has now graduated 46 students. “We're really proud of the academy,” Maher said. “It has been a community dream for a long time.”

The youth are at the very center of the Native American community. The Youth Services branch of NAYA serves 2,000 children and their families each year. “We're seeing a lot of kids who are growing up with NAYA,” Oscar Arana, NAYA education manager, said. The organization also has a homeless youth program branch, and is part of Oregon's Homeless Youth Coalition.

Each area of focus is tied to another, with careful intent to make sure no needs go unmet. Maher said this year NAYA saw its 100th new homeowner get house keys through classes and assistance with microenterprise development, post-secondary education and homebuyer education. In the last fiscal year, Maher said NAYA helped 800 people file their taxes.

But, as with most organizations nowadays, the needs are growing faster than the funding. “There are a lot of people who are really struggling, and there's going to be a lot more demand on resources like ours,” Arana said. “We're going to have to streamline services with the same amount of funds, or even less.”

The NAYA center is full of life, but the physical space is only an expression of the greater community as a whole: constantly learning, helping, giving and happy to share their culture and stories with any who ask. “We just need people to learn,” Maher said.

NAYA will hold its Neerchokikoo Powwow Sept. 9 and 10 at the center, and its eighth annual gala and auction for Native American Heritage Month Nov. 11 at the Governor Hotel in Portland. All are welcome to attend.

“People are quite unaware that we have a thriving native population,” Arana said. “I want them to understand that it's here and it's continuing to grow.”

For more information on NAYA, visit

Native American realities in the Portland metro area -

• Current day Portland metro area sits on traditional village sites of many tribes, including Molalla, Tualatin, Kalapuya, Bands of Chinook, Kathlamet, Multnomah and Clackamas.
• There are descendants of over 380 tribes in the Portland area.
• With over 55,000 Native Americans living in the Portland metro area, Portland has the ninth largest Native American population in the United States.
• In 1954, under the Western Oregon and Klamath termination acts, many tribes had their lands taken, social services evoked and governments abolished.
• 50 percent of Native American people live at or below poverty level.
• 40 percent of the Native American community is under the age of 25.
• Only 37 percent of Portland area Native American high school students graduate on time.
• 24 percent of the children in foster care in Multnomah County are Native American.
• 200 children currently attend the NAYA summer camp.
• There are over 20 Native American organizations in the Portland area.

Native American obtains American Dream

Mario Smith and Rachel Johnson Smith, members of the Confederated Tribe of Siletz Indians, were living in a small rental house with their two daughters, when they became pregnant with their third child, a son. The Smiths hoped to find a bigger home to call their own - and one without “such ugly wallpaper.”

The Smiths first learned about the Native American Youth and Family Center Homeownership Program after attending a Positive Indian Parenting seminar at NAYA Family Center.

At the Pathways Home Buying Education classes the couple learned about several affordable home buying programs and resources.

By combining a Section 184 Indian Home Loan with a program through Clackamas County to purchase and repair foreclosed homes, as well as with a down payment assistance loan from the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, the Smiths were able to purchase a five-bedroom house in Milwaukie with a yard for their kids to play in.

Native American Youth & Family Center regularly holds classes on home-buying and financial education.
The Smith family proudly wear matching NAYA shirts in the backyard of their new home. They are participants in the NAYA homeownership program.

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