The Multnomah County Board of Commissioners declared Oct. 14, 2019, as Indigenous Peoples’ Day; a day to acknowledge the immeasurable history, culture and forced invisibility of Native American and Alaskan people.
Members of the Native American Youth and Family Center or NAYA who also represent Shoshone-Bannock, Cherokee and Blackfeet nations spoke to board members on Thursday (October 10). The declaration marks the fourth year the County has recognized the rich history and sacrifices of native nations and touches the surface of the displacement, lost lives and continued disparate impacts on native communities.
“Our nation was founded on the fundamental ideals of equality, opportunity and prosperity,” said William Miller, Community Advocacy Manager for the Native American Youth and Family Center and a Cherokee and Blackfeet nation member.
“We were taught in primary education that ‘Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492.’ His voyage westward might have been true however there are entire parts of the story that were omitted in order to paint a beautiful picture of Columbus' contact with the Indigenous people,” Miller said.
Citing an excerpt from a brochure by the Portland Indian Leaders Roundtable, Miller said:
“After European contact, what followed for the Indigenous people was a series of territorial and federal policy decisions engineered to eliminate and later assimilate native people.
The 18th and early 19th centuries brought diseases that decimated populations often killing 9 out 10 native people.
The boarding school era policies marked the beginning of a long campaign to integrate Indigenous into western culture ….
Federal relocation policy which began in the 1950’s forced over a third of native populations to relocate to 7 major cities, Portland being one of them.”
By acknowledging Indigenous Peoples’ Day, Miller said, “the County is allowing our people to reclaim identities stolen from us. And making our often-invisible population, visible again.”
Oregon State Rep. Tawna Sanchez, who also serves as director of Family Services for the Native American Youth and Family Center, and is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock, shared her work alongside Anna-Marie Allen, fellow Shoshone-Bannock tribe member and policy advisor to Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury on House Bill 2625.
The bill, for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, directs Oregon State Police to study how to increase and improve criminal justice resources relating to missing and murdered Native American women and girls, which has been grossly under investigated and reported.
According to 2016 data from the Urban Indian Health Institute Report on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women & Girls, there were 5,712 cases of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls nationwide, yet only 116 of those cases were logged into the U.S. Department of Justice database. The bill is designed to create a better relationship between the state police and the tribal populations — and provide a better understanding of how disappearances and deaths are done.
“Our lives have been diminished because of the different laws across the country. It’s so important that we change the way this is happening,” said Sanchez. “Young people who are affected by this — in particular kiddos in foster care — are extremely disenfranchised.
It’s sad and embarrassing the state we are in, in foster care and that Native youth are overrepresented,” Sanchez said. But, she said the bill gives her “great hope.”
The speakers emphasized the importance of advocating for Native nations including increasing people’s participation in the 2020 Census and efforts to get an accurate count.
NAYA has launched a robust 2020 Census campaign to address the hard-to-count population, said Miller, who serves as co-chair on the Oregon County Statewide Tribal Count Community.
“It’s critical that we support the work of the City, County and other partnering organizations to in order to get an accurate count of those who live in our community,” he said.
“The census is very near and dear to my heart,” said Commissioner Lori Stegmann, whose office is leading 2020 Census efforts in Multnomah County. “That is a high priority for my office is to make sure Indigenous people are counted. I know that’s easier said than done,” Stegmann said. “There is great fear and it’s warranted — we have a lot to overcome, but I know this board and I am committed to trying.
Thank you for your leadership.”
One of the first attempts to bring forward a proclamation honoring Native populations happened back in 1977, Sanchez said.
“It’s very important that we acknowledge this day as not the day that someone came to claim our land and to claim our people and community and families.
And we need people to know and be aware of that.”
Board members react:
CHAIR DEBORAH KAFOURY
“I appreciate Rep. Sanchez that you mentioned the missing and murdered Indigenous bill and work we’re doing here locally,” said Chair Deborah Kafoury. “We know that this is a first step and that it needs to be much broader and bigger and I appreciate the partnership that we’ve had with you."
“One other small act of decolonization that we’re going to be working on locally — Multnomah County recently joined other jurisdictions to have a community effort to look at the land acknowledgement language," said Kafoury. “We’re looking at other communities and we’re looking at our local community to craft some language we can use, especially for those of us who are non-native to remind people, on whose lands we stand. We are continuing to move our community awareness forward and we are so thankful we have partners like you and the many others who do this work."
COMMISSIONER SUSHEELA JAYAPAL
“Your comments William really reflect what I was thinking about as I came to work today,” said Commissioner Susheela Jayapal. “And I was thinking about erasure. I was thinking about the fact that this country was not founded on those values that you described but rather on the erasure — literal — in terms of disease, war and massacre and in terms of forced assimilation, cultural assimilation another form of rendering invisible Indigenous people.’’
COMMISSIONER JESSICA VEGA PEDERSON
“I just appreciate the connection between what we’re doing today and the stories that need to be told about what’s happened in this country and the lives that have been erased. But also that we are doing our best to lift up, acknowledge and really embrace because I think for all the work that is happening and for all of the communities this is a time where we need to acknowledge the strength.”
COMMISSIONER LORI STEGMANN
“There seems to be a theme in many marginalized communities and it seems like there are forces out there where people, or norms, want to make certain populations small and invisible,” says Stegmann.
“What I love about the County is that proclamations like today just blow that out of the water and say, “Indigenous people have a huge history and this is their land and we took it.” And telling that truth is the beginning of healing. It’s an honor to uplift that truth, history and acknowledge it. “
COMMISSIONER SHARON MEIERAN
“I want to add my thanks and gratitude for you being here today work that you do,” said Commissioner Sharon Meieran.
“Representative Sanchez I want to echo Commissioner Stegmann. Your leadership on work on missing and murdered Indigenous women, it is so important … you are constantly working and committed and you seem to be everywhere doing work on behalf of the Native American community.”