This story was produced in partnership with The Oregonian/Oregonlive.
On Saturday, an ancient village site was once again filled with something familiar: the sound of Indigenous people’s laughter. Song and dance returned to Neerchokikoo, the fishing village and traditional gathering place near the confluence of the Columbia and Willamette Rivers that’s home to the Native American Youth and Family Center.
The Native American Youth and Family Center’s 11th Annual Neerchokikoo Powwow doubled this year as a celebration of the organization’s Land Back accomplishment – the organization now owns outright the 10-acre campus situated on the ancient village.
“It’s a place where we belonged, and what we needed to recapture for our community,” said Tawna Sanchez, NAYA’s longest running employee and an Oregon State Representative.
On Saturday, hundreds gathered under the pavilion at Neerchokikoo for the first time in four years. They watched powwow dancers float across the arena in a rainbow blur. Synchronized with the rhythm of each drumbeat, their footsteps told a story as they danced. Percussion echoed as jingle dress dancers raised their fans with the downbeat of the drum, sending prayers of healing up to Creator.
“The powwow is an opportunity for us to bring the community together to celebrate, dance, maybe hug for the first time in many years,” said Tamara Henderson, Laguna Pueblo, chief operating officer and powwow organizer at NAYA.
This year is special because it’s first since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. It also comes at the beginning of a new era for NAYA. Earlier this summer, the organization announced it had paid off the $4.6 million mortgage on the 10-acre campus where its headquarters and community center sit.
The achievement is an example of the Land Back movement, which seeks to return land to Indigenous stewardship and ownership. It creates a permanent cultural home for Indigenous people residing in the Portland Metro area for generations to come.
“Retiring the debt and being able to reclaim Neerchokikoo is just another wonderful example of self-determination for the Native community,” said Oscar Arana, NAYA’s interim CEO.
Return to Neerchokikoo
On Saturday, the afternoon sun reflected off the freshly braided hair of three small children who held hands as they towed a suitcase holding their regalia. Under the pavilion, their faces lit up with excitement as festivities began.
“Good afternoon everybody. Who’s ready to powwow?” asked Emcee Gilbert Brown, Modoc, Klamath, Paiute and Warm Springs.
“I want everyone to look to their left and introduce yourself,” Brown said over a microphone. “Shake their hand. Now look to your right and shake their hand. The reason I ask you to do this is because Covid took a lot of people from us. Tomorrow isn’t promised.”
Since 2010, the powwow has welcomed thousands from over 380 different tribal nations to gather and celebrate culture through sharing dance, music, art and food.
“Powwows have become a contemporary way Native people have found to bring ourselves together in the community and have an opportunity to celebrate and to honor our ancestors, to celebrate our past, and to celebrate our future,” said Henderson, the NAYA powwow organizer.
Once a public school, this spot has transformed into a sanctuary for urban Indigenous people. Old baseball fields have blossomed into lush community gardens where youth come to learn how to grow fresh produce and traditional medicines like tobacco. Hallways are lined with portraits and artwork of Native people, and former classrooms have become offices for resources for Indigenous people and families.
Henderson says the annual powwow is a reminder of how far NAYA has come and where the organization is going.
“NAYA was founded in the 1970s, by parents, elders and folks that wanted to volunteer to create a safe space for Native youth to be able to sit back and play basketball, then very quickly added other services,” Henderson said. “And look at what we've become today: we're a $20 million organization with over 150 staff and growing.”
Inside the gymnasium, over a dozen vendors from tribal nations all across Indian Country set up their booths to sell handmade beadwork, clothing and artwork.
‘It made me feel like I was seen and heard’
Another first this year is the incorporation of a Two Spirit head dancer in addition to the traditional roles of head woman and man dancers.
Ei-Shah Pirtle-Wright, a citizen of the Wasco Tribe, is a 20-year-old student at Portland Community College and alumni from NAYA’s Many Nations Academy, who uses she/they pronouns.
When they were approached by their mentor, Silas Hoffer, Yakama and Grand Ronde, Two Spirit programming advocate at NAYA, they jumped at the opportunity because this was a first for them.
“It made me feel like I was seen and heard, and also honored and blessed to take on this position that represents a community that really does need representation,” Pirtle-Wright said. “Through the assimilation in boarding schools, our people have really lost the teaching of the sacredness of our Two Spirit communities – our medicine people, our Two Spirit relatives.”
Pirtle-Wright has been dancing since they were nine. They said they always knew they were Two Spirit, and wanted to dance in both men’s and women’s categories. Pirtle-Wright and Hoffer want to take gendered terms out of the dancing categories altogether.
“It makes you feel like you have to choose whether you identify as male or female in order to dance the style that you want to,” Pirtle-Wright said.
For Saturday’s powwow, Pirtle-Wright and Hoffer wanted to address this feeling of having to choose one or the other. So they decided to host a men’s versus women's dance special.
“I wanted to host a special as a way for me to both express my style of dancing and to encourage others to dance in the way that they want to,” Pirtle-Wright said.
‘I’m dancing for them’
Gina Bluebird Stacona and her husband, Jason Stacona, were head dancers at the powwow on Saturday. The couple live and work in Tulalip, Wash.
Taking on the role as a head dancer is an honor and a responsibility, Bluebird Stacona said. It’s a way to give back to the community, through assisting with giveaways, hosting a special and dancing during every intertribal.
“As I was dancing around the circle, I saw so many elders in the front row, and I just thought of many of them I've seen over the years of being here. And I just felt so honored to be able to dance. And I felt like I'm dancing for them,” the Oglala Lakota citizen and elementary school teacher said, tears welling in her eyes.
Both have history with NAYA. Stacona, Warm Springs, is a former breakdancer. He taught powwow dance classes at NAYA when the couple lived in Portland.
“NAYA is bringing back something that is very important to the Native community, bringing back a powwow and a social gathering is a celebration,” said Stacona. “It’s a time to bring drummers, dancers, families and friends to come and enjoy the day.”
Bluebird Stacona said it was especially meaningful to serve as head dancer for the powwow that celebrated NAYA’s Land Back achievement: its return to Neerchokikoo.
“NAYA is giving us such a foundation of place, this is the place that we now have for the community in Portland to say, ‘You have a place to come to,’” said Bluebird Stacona. “For the community here, the urban Natives here to have a place, that's pretty phenomenal.”
Lead photo: Ei-Shah Pirtle-Wright, a Wasco citizen of the Warm Springs Tribe, served as the first Two Spirit Head Dancer at the Native American Youth and Family Center’s 11th Annual Neerchokikoo Powwow on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023. (Mark Graves / The Oregonian)