New school, old soil
TRIBTOWN - NAYA facility links to the past with room for the future
After two years of silence, the halls of Whitaker-Lakeside Middle School in Northeast Portland are once again echoing with the sounds of children.
One snowy night last week, noise spilled out of a classroom where a handful of teenage girls bounced in time to drum beats coming from a stereo. In another classroom, middle-aged men sat in a circle as they chanted and beat a drum. And in the gym, the tennis shoes of dozens of teenage boys squeaked as they ran up and down the court for basketball practice.
Portland Public Schools closed Whitaker-Lakeside two years ago when administrators decided to keep kindergarten through eighth-graders together in a different school. It sat empty until this past June, when an American Indian services organization, called NAYA, moved in.
The nonprofit organization recently changed its name from Native American Youth Association to Native American Youth and Family Center, but it kept the acronym.
NAYA provides after-school tutoring, sports, cultural activities, family services, employment and housing assistance to approximately 600 families each year. For the past eight years, NAYA had stuffed all of its services in a small ballroom space at North Mississippi Avenue and Shaver Street.
'We constantly did not have enough room for all the youths who wanted services,' said Nichole Maher, executive director of NAYA. She estimates NAYA serves at least 70 students each day.
New site has own history
The new location also has historical significance for the organization. The school, at 5135 N.E. Columbia Blvd., sits on an old Multnomah-Chinook village site above the Columbia Slough, where Native families once fished.
'That's one of the reasons this space is so important to us,' Maher said. 'We are literally standing on a traditional village site.'
Now that there's room to breathe, Maher has big plans for NAYA. She intends to fulfill the wishes of NAYA's founders who, 32 years ago, dreamed of creating a school for American Indian students. NAYA has received state approval to open up an alternative high school.
'Our graduation rates are so low overall for Native students and the challenges are so great that we need to move immediately to create a school where we can really, truly serve the population,' Maher said.
Starting next fall, NAYA will pay Portland Public Schools approximately $300,000 per year to rent the entire campus for classes. Maher anticipates 100 students during the first year, but says plans call for 300 students within four years. The school will focus on math, science and Native culture. NAYA received $350,000 in start-up funds from Antioch University in Seattle, which is supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Other funding for the program comes in the form of various private and government grants.
The alternative school program is meant for students such as John Anderson, 20, who has roots in the Klamath and Lakota tribes. Anderson attended Wilson High School until his senior year, when he participated in NAYA's alternative classroom, the demonstration project that paved the way for the new high school program.
'It just feels more comfortable here,' Anderson said. 'My teachers used to think I was Hispanic.'
'An invisible community'
Maher says Anderson's story is a common one. Native Americans, she says, are often mistaken as Hispanic or black students, and they have a hard time connecting with their peers. Maher herself has been mistaken for Caucasian even though she is a member of the Tlingit and Haida tribes of Alaska.
'People usually only see the Irish in me,' she said.
NAYA estimates there are 5,000 Native youngsters in Portland and 38,000 total - adults and children - in Multnomah County. Portland has the ninth-largest American Indian and Alaska Native population among major U.S. cities.
'We've become an invisible community,' Maher said. 'And we've been quiet for a long time.'
That invisibility, Maher says, comes from fear. She says many families felt persecuted up until a few decades ago when the U.S. Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act in 1978. Before then, Natives weren't allowed to practice many of their religious rituals.
Portland was also a relocation site for several decades when six of nine Oregon tribes were 'terminated' in the 1950s as part of the federal government's policy to assimilate American Indians into the general population. It took until the mid-1980s for the tribes to be re-recognized by the government. During that time, many migrated to Portland where, Maher says, they experienced racism.
'For a long time the community was very fearful, and they thought it would be better to be invisible,' Maher said. 'A lot of things that people consider the distant past, for Native Americans, are actually quite recent.'
Once the alternative school is up and running smoothly, Maher would like to strengthen NAYA as an advocacy organization for Portland's Native American population. She says she admires the way the local African-American community has become an advocate for itself.
'We have a lot to learn from them,' Maher said. 'We need to learn how to advocate for ourselves and engage our community, while maintaining our cultural values.'