Reconnecting land and culture
Part 1: Native American community, Metro work together to provide culturally appropriate access to public land
Part 2: The roots of Portland's Native American community
Part 3: Integrating traditional practices into Metro land management
Like any good Native American storyteller, I need to start at the beginning. Not with a creation story, not at 1492, but where this story begins for me.
Salish Kootenai College is nestled at the foot of the tribally managed Mission Mountain wilderness range on the Flathead Indian Reservation in Pablo, Montana. Students, both tribal and non-tribal members, walk to and from class with the view of the mountains, the sound of occasional drumming and the smell of pine. This is my alma mater. This is the place that reminds me of what is important.
Tribal colleges, like the one I attended, receive both federal and state funding to supplement student tuition. During my freshman year, the college president asked me to be one of the students to testify before the Montana Legislature, which was considering slashing money to my college.
The experience opened my eyes to how tribal communities are underrepresented at the local, state and federal levels. My lesson on that trip from Salish Kootenai College to the state capital was that if you do not show up, you risk being left out of the process that determines how government decisions and policies impact your community.
Today, I show up. Today, I am a policy coordinator at Metro. Upon arriving at Metro in 2013, I was asked to serve as a Metro liaison to the Native American Community Advisory Council that is convened by Portland Parks & Recreation. I showed up. I listened. I built relationships and trust. Trust from the Native community afforded Metro the opportunity to talk about what else could be done to improve access to more than 17,000 acres of land managed by Metro because of voter investments in the 1995 and 2006 natural areas bond measures.
Community conversations led to the creation of Metro’s intertribal cultural resources specialist, a position that was created by listening to what the Native community was saying – that culturally appropriate access to land and traditional ecological knowledge land practices matter.
Metro’s intertribal cultural resources specialist is thought to be the first position of its kind to be funded by a local or regional government. The sole purpose of the position is to listen to what the Native community needs and to be responsive in ways that align with Metro’s core values under the parks and natural areas levy, including to provide access to nature for communities of color. In this case, the community of color happens to be the country’s first people, the people indigenous to the land.
The Native community has been gathering for several seasons at Quamash Prairie south of Hillsboro. Gatherings at Quamash Prairie intertwine Indigenous knowledge, Western scientific practices, and community engagement and serve as a great example of how a public agency can create culturally appropriate access to public land.
At the request of the Native community, Metro tested a regional traditional food found at Quamash Prairie for herbicides, since the site was a farm for many decades before Metro acquired it. The results detected that a residual amount of herbicide was found in the traditional food. However, the amount detected is under the Environmental Protection Agency’s food safety threshold, so the Native community collectively decided to continue to harvest and consume small quantities so we could reconnect to the important first food.
Metro is now moving towards making institutional changes to the way it ensures access to the land and how it is managed. When the Native community asked Metro to create a culturally appropriate permitting process, there were many conversations around the cultural protocols that would take the place of Metro’s formal protocols. Metro’s special-use permit has now been updated to allow members of the Native community to come together for educational purposes. Metro will not ask applicants about culturally sensitive information. Instead, we will have a conversation with applicants about how Metro staff can facilitate the request.
Our cultural protocols often involve members of the Native community coming together on the land to pray, give thanks to our plant relatives that offer themselves to us so we may live, show our gratitude, listen to the teachings of our elders, teach our children, tell stories, tell jokes and heal ourselves by healing the land. We do not take more than what our plant relatives offer, and we do not waste what is given.
We listen. We remember. We learn. We reconnect.
Building and maintaining trust takes time. Our work at Quamash Prairie has evolved to a place where we are now entering into conversations about co-management. This work will take a commitment from Metro and a commitment from the Native community. I know we will have moments of tension, just like any relationship. I am not afraid of tension, because I know what rests on the other side is a more honest relationship – a relationship that is built on respect and is mutually beneficial.
Every time I approach this work I wear two hats – that of a public servant and that of an enrolled tribal member. Tribal values differ from a public agency founded on Western principles. Tribal people have different ways of building consensus, different ways of “project management,” different notions of power and influence and different cultural protocols we must follow.
Sometimes I do not know how to best align my cultural protocols with my public servant values. Many Native people refer to this as “walking in two worlds.”
Public service requires accountability and project results, but my cultural protocols are always telling me to slow down. I hear the bones of my ancestors tell me that the land holds our spiritual beliefs. It holds how we relate to one another. It holds the key for how we can move forward – in a good way – to strengthen cultural connections that were interrupted by Western colonization. My elders tell me that doing things in a good way is more important than results. Humbly, I silence myself and listen to what they are telling me.
Reconnecting with the land
Since time immemorial, tribal people have had a relationship with the land. We are still healing from being separated from our traditional lives and our deep connection to the places we called home. Our patience has been called upon while we regain those connections. My culture is resilient. We will wait for our reconnection to the land to be done in a good way, and we will not proceed until it is right.
I have left so much out of this story because it is not my place to share certain things. The only way I can explain it in western terms is to say that much of this work has a cultural copyright. Out of respect for my plant relatives, I have not told you stories of their medicine or their names. Out of respect for my tribal community, I have not told you stories we are taught that speak to traditional ways of knowing ecological sustainability. To share these stories without the proper cultural permission would be cultural plagiarism.
When I was at Salish Kootenai College, our elders would say that education is the new buffalo: It will provide what we need to survive in Western society. My education taught me how to be a Native American woman in a Western world. It helped me find my place. My place within my community is to show up, listen, respect the answer I hear and find an approach to the work that honors my community and also follows one of my public agency’s core values: respect.
Amy Croover-Payette is a policy coordinator at Metro and is a member of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska.
Native American community members can learn more about gathering at Metro destinations for educational purposes