A few weeks ago I got up before the Portland Planning Commission to refute their statement that they had satisfied their responsibility to engage with Native American people. In other words they had done their due diligence by talking to the federally recognized tribes in regards to the treaty rights about the West Hayden Island process led by the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability and the Port of Portland who plan to place a new port in the vicinity of this pristine natural habitat and home for beautiful birds and wildlife.
After hearing the testimony of staff that they had talked to the tribes assuming that they had met their responsibility to the indigenous society of Portland and listening to much testimony about policy after policy I got my chance to speak. This is the point of clarity I want to expand on because I’m not sure everyone understood what I was saying. It’s always struck me funny that invited speakers can go on for 15-20 minutes while the community gets 2 minutes. You as a community member is expected to read thousands of pages of draft after draft of data, attend meetings where the powers that be have access to coffee and snacks and despite it being the dinner hour you don’t even have water set out for you.
You as an esteemed volunteer who does not get paid to attend the meeting sit among many who are getting paid and you get 2 minutes to express your view despite whatever expertise you may be bringing to the table for free. And yet we don’t understand why in this scenario more folks wouldn’t want to engage in “The new and improved Public Involvement process of your local government.” this is usually all after you have put in a full day of work yourself and paid taxes to the very Government employees that are paid for through your work.
So as I approached the Planning Commission the points I tried to make is to make were:
- We need to develop a better understanding as to what the word policy means to Native American people. Historically policies were developed throughout the last five hundred years to commit acts of genocide, to take land away from its original inhabitants, broken treaties, relocation, and termination to name a few.
- My second point was that because of these policies there have been created inequitable situations for Native people in the US. BPS under the Mayor Sam Adams came out very strongly announcing equity was to be in the forefront of all plans made by the City of Portland which is an incredibly noble goal. But if we are to achieve that goal we actually as a body of public employees charged with this task we cannot used the antiquated tools of past public policy to get there.
One case in point is the relationship between the City and Native American people in Portland. While a Resolution was recently passed by the City to work more closely with the Federally Recognized Tribes there was no mention of the other 40 thousand plus Portlanders who come from over 360 additional Tribal affiliations and call Portland their home as well. Portland has the 9 largest populations of Native Americans in the US. It was historical racist policy that brought much of this community to Portland in the first place.
So the point I wanted to make at the meeting was that having Planning and the Port say that they have completed their responsibility in not really true. What they may have completed was what would be a federally mandated very old process of working with Native American people but not an equitable or inclusive process and responsibility to Native American Portlanders.
An equitable process would require learning more about this community and engaging with more Native people who despite their own relocation story have come to make Portland their home and share deep spiritual and cultural relational connection to the land, nature and water. Only addressing federal mandate is not ever going to achieve equitable outcomes in regards to this community.
As a Native American person who has had to deal with the damaging results of Tribal Termination, forced assimilation by the US government and being raised away from my homeland does not negate the spiritual and cultural stewardship I feel over this land, Portland, that is my home. This is true for many Native American Portlanders I know as well.
So why does it remind me of the movie Avatar? As I was sitting in the Planning meeting the other day it occurred to me that the West Hayden Island residents have become the indigenous society fighting for this piece of land that if taken would be like removing their sacred place that they feel stewardship over. If you go to the “SaveWestHaydenIsland” Facebook page you see pictures of many of the beautiful wildlife and birds and flora and fauna that live in this secret garden- hidden away in this huge urban area. And they are fighting like the Avatar to save it because it is the last incredible habitat like it where they have developed a spiritual connection for this place they call home. Most of the inhabitants of WestHaydenIsland are humble and hardworking and they understand the true value of their Island. They have been fighting for years trying to prevent the island’s destruction in the mega-bridge project to the middle and east side of the island and they have been fighting for these few hundred acres to not be developed on the west side that will change the natural habitat forever.
Previous treaty like promises have preserved this land up until now when the powers that be say they must develop this parcel of land in the name of true progress or risk the downfall of our entire economic structure as we know it. We must acquire a certain percentage of industrial land or society as we know it will come crashing down around us.
This is how the Dominant colonizers in the movie Avatar believed as well. For the good of their civilization the Avatar had to be destroyed and their land had to be raped of the natural resources. The powerful dominant society never admitted that greed was a primary motivator and that it gave them an insane sense of power and that they saw themselves as intelligent and the Avatar as subhuman and unintelligent.
The colonizers even took lifestyle traditions and ideas from these tribes of people they called them by new names and claimed them as their own, words like sustainability ,which is the traditional indigenous lifestyle of not taking more than you need and always giving back. It comes from a sufficiency mindset that says “If I steward properly there will always be enough for myself and all my relations,”
There is a different mindset in play in dominant US society, it is a scarcity mentality that says- “There will never be enough for us all, so I must get what I can, can what I get and sit on the lid.” it is the mindset that supports man-made structures like Capitalism and the importance of Individuality.
It is not about community and it is rooted in fear. Fear so powerful it will allow you to see others like Avatar, indigenous people or the residents of WHI as less intelligent and historically sub-human which in turn will allow you to take their land, and make decisions about how they will live because you are the expert on their future. It’s what happened to the Avatar on the big screen. It’s what happened to millions of indigenous people on the name of progress in this country and it could be what’s happening in public involvement processes in your own town.
I want to end by saying that I heard one planning Commissioner respond at the end of this meeting that “The people must understand that change will happen.” I wanted to stand up and shout “Someday true change will happen when the community is heard and we collectively say no!” We slowly need to release our grip in the belief of some that “only industry will bring valuable jobs to our economy.”
But I said nothing as I feared it would give the powers that be the right to discount my words by saying “See we told you she was a savage.” and then my previous 2 minutes of testimony would be moot.
And as a member of something larger than myself, as a woman of color, and thinking and planning for 7 generations I cannot afford to throw my 2 minutes away. As a member of this community that has an intense spiritual and cultural bond to this land I also need to say that my Tribe is bigger than just a federal system of blood quantums and tribal enrollment to the Klamath tribe, it is a tribe of all colors that includes those who also love nature and justice.