For centuries, tribes in the area now called Portland gathered at an ancient encampment called Neerchokiko for trade and community building. With colonization, that place was lost to Native people. But as of this summer, Neerchokiko is owned outright by the Native American Youth and Family Center – an accomplishment that many say fits within the Land Back movement.
Today, the 10-acre spot is home to the organization's offices, gardens and community center. The goal is to create a permanent home for the urban Native community here – one that reflects the land's history.
When Yakama citizen Paul Lumley joined NAYA in 2016 as CEO, the organization was deep in debt and almost had to sell the land. Three years later, NAYA prioritized “Return to Neerchokikoo,” a campaign focused on paying NAYA’s mortgage debt and renovating its buildings.
Fast forward to June 9th at 3:06 p.m., when Lumley received an email from the bank. NAYA’s mortgage was paid off in full. That afternoon, Lumley delivered the news to staff as he led his final meeting as CEO. Cheers and hugs erupted (Lumley left NAYA to take a job as CEO of Cascade Aids Project).
“It’s a beautiful, beautiful, precious place that now is permanently Native community, which I think is amazing,” Lumley said later. “The organization doesn’t have to pay rent, they don’t have to pay a mortgage — it’s theirs. This is land back.”
‘Now, it’s officially Indian Country’
The Land Back movement has been active since colonizers arrived on this continent. It gained traction and mainstream attention during the 2018 protest at Standing Rock, which sought to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Robby Burroughs is an enrolled member of the Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians in Northern California. He is the Holdings Managing Director for NDN Collective, an organization centered around the concept of Land Back.
In its simplest terms, Burroughs says the movement means putting the stewardship and ownership of land back in the hands of Indigenous peoples and communities. It’s a lot to accomplish, but Burrough is up for the challenge.
“For us, Land Back is any way, by any means necessary,” said Burroughs. “As long as at the end of the day, the Indigenous peoples or tribes are the ones on title to the land.”
One misconception with “Land Back” is that land must be given, but purchasing land for tribal jurisdiction is also common.
In fact, another example of a success story is one of the first projects accomplished by Indian Holdings, NDN Collective’s for-profit business side, which specializes in community development and social enterprise projects, and the one which Burroughs manages.
“We were able to purchase two large tracts of land on Rosewood Sioux Tribal lands, but they were privately owned, so we bought them out of foreclosure,” Burroughs said. “It was a big piece of land in the middle of the proposed KXL pipeline.”
NDN Collective partnered with the Rosewood Sioux Tribe to help make a stand against the pipeline. After it was successfully shut down, the organization transitioned to return the land to the tribe. Burrough says this success story is an example of how there are different ways to make Land Back a reality.
McKalee Steen, citizen of the Cherokee Nation, is a doctoral candidate in the Environmental Science Policy and Management Department at UC Berkeley. Although “Land Back” has recently gained momentum, Steen says the spirit of the movement came long before.
“It's something that we have continually been working towards ever since our interactions with the land have been disrupted, because we are a place-based people and so much of our culture, heritage, and language, and really everything about our identities is tied to our land,” Steen said.
While the methods to accomplish “Land Back” can differ, all examples share a history of stolen Indigenous land.
“That's a history that has impacted all of us as Indigenous people and has ramifications into today for our spiritual, physical, mental, and economic well-being,” Steen said. “Our lands have been taken and really exploited by non-Indigenous folks. As much as we can restore that, even slowly, I think it's important to be working towards that goal.”
NAYA’s achievement was made possible with help from community donors who gave hundreds of thousands of dollars. These funds were given in aid for NAYA to reclaim and steward the land, a responsibility the organization takes seriously.
Noticeable, though, is that the donor list for the payments is not long. The idea of reclamation caught on with the right select few - the first $500,000 from The East Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District, and the last chunk from Ned and Sis Hayes Family Fund of Oregon Community Foundation, who wanted to help NAYA reclaim a home at Neerchokikoo.
Now, NAYA is debt free with an over $20 million annual budget and 50 more staff positions since 2016, according to Lumley. The campus itself has transformed, with an emphasis on first foods and community gardens. What hasn’t changed is the space for educational and cultural pursuits.
Some of the donors specifically gave funds because they felt the campaign fell in line with the Land Back movement. Although Lumley said the purchase of Neerchokiko is part of Land Back, others at the organization aren’t so quick to label it that way.
“We are an organization that serves a number of different tribes. We weren't the original tribal people that lived on this land. So we want to be very careful about that,” said Ann Takamoto, director of development and communication at NAYA.
“But yes,” she added. “It's reclamation.”
Deondre Smiles, citizen of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, also of Black and Swedish descent, is a geography professor at the University of Victoria in Canada. Smiles studies Indigenous relationships to land.
Smiles said he would consider Return to Neerchokikoo a Land Back success.
Land Back includes cases where the land is going to a group representing many tribes, rather than directly to the tribe with ancestral ties to the place, Smiles said. He said the movement, and efforts to achieve its goals, are reflective of “the multitude of different complex relationships that Indigenous nations might have,” rather than a single, monolithic definition.
“When we think about Land Back from that perspective, I think it's perfectly fitting,” Smiles said. “It's still land that is coming back into Native control, even if it's a multitude of different nations.”
While this accomplishment has been reached, there is more on the horizon. Tawna Sanchez, Shoshone-Bannock and Ute, state representative and NAYA director of family services, said the organization hopes to increase its offerings of affordable housing.
“The city of Portland itself is very expensive,” Sanchez said. “So the next step is figuring out how to make this area more of what we need it to be, and have our community be able to stay here.”
Future plans also include renovations of the community garden and cultural spaces, an expansion of NAYA’s youth programs and increases to staff salaries.
To celebrate, NAYA will host a powwow on Sept. 16, themed “Return to Neerchikiko.”
‘Everything is intentional’
The hallways at NAYA are lined with portraits of elders, woven blankets with vibrant and deep colored strands, murals by artists and youth and informational and entertaining posters displaying upcoming opportunities and events. Outside, the community garden is full of butterflies and bees, surrounding tenderly cared for produce.
“Everything is intentional,” Sanchez said. “This building was designed to make people proud of this place, and proud of their home, proud of everything that is surrounding them, and to create that level of, ‘This is ours, this is mine, this is our family, our community.’”
Now, Neerchokiko is NAYA’s permanent home.
“We're now in a place of being able to determine our own future and what we want, as well as what the community wants,” said Oscar Arana, NAYA’s interim CEO.
Lead photo: The Native American Youth and Family Center was founded by parent and elder volunteers in 1974, and incorporated as a non-profit organization in 1994. After nearly five decades, NAYA continues to provide culturally-specific programs and services that guide Indigenous people in the direction of personal success and balance through cultural empowerment. (Photo by Jarrette Werk, Underscore News / Report for America)