Opinion By Stephyn Quirke
The past few months have seen growing conflict over rising rent, houseless sweeps, home demolitions, and a rapidly transforming city.
Such displacement has a long history in Oregon. For a meaningful understanding of it, we would have to grapple with racial and class dimensions, starting with the European occupation of present-day Portland on the traditional village sites of the Chinook, Multnomah, Kathlamet, Clackamas, Tualatin Kalapuya and Molalla tribes.
“Portland sits on the traditional lands of indigenous peoples who were forcibly removed to the Grand Ronde Reservation in 1854, and who now make up the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde. In the winter of 1856, other Native peoples were gathered near present-day Medford and forced to march over 263 miles to this new reservation under the force of US military officers. This became known as the Grand Ronde Trail of Tears. Like other Columbia River tribes, including the Chinook Nation (which is made up of Chinook bands distinct from those of the Grand Ronde), these tribes were displaced by Europeans whose view of development meant damming the river, crushing the salmon runs, and forcing Natives to either assimilate or move.
Last June 27, Jewell Praying Wolf James of the Lummi Nation called out the lack of respect for the Chinook Nation at the Oregon Convention Center. “They were so important to Lewis and Clark when they came here,” he said, “Someone had to feed those guys.”
The irony may be lost on Portland, but not on the descendants of Lewis and Clark. In September of 2011, Lotsie Holton, a seventh-generation descendant of William Clark, ceremoniously gave a 36 foot canoe to the Chinook Nation, proclaiming “We are here to right a wrong”.
Holton and her family came together with members of the Chinook Nation to make a repayment for the canoe that was stolen by the Lewis and Clark Expedition during the winter of 1805-6, and to give support to their call for federal recognition.
Ray Gardner, then chairman of the Chinook Nation, told the press “It’s a great start to the healing”, adding “If an individual family can step up and correct a wrong, why can’t the federal government do the same thing?”
The habit of celebrating “development” when it actually displaces residents was set in this colonial era. Portland currently has the ninth largest Native American population in the United States, yet local Native people are disproportionate members of the urban poor.
Many arrived in the 1950s when the disastrous federal policy of termination and relocation destroyed their tribal status, seized some of their last remaining land, and gave them nothing but a one-way ticket to the city.
The policy was strongly encouraged by corporations who wanted to privatize and ‘develop’ vast timber lands held by Native Americans starting with the Klamath in southern Oregon.
The Chinook Nation was dealt one of the worst deals in federal Indian negotiations. It signed a treaty that the federal government insisted was never ratified – which means its provisions were honored by the Chinook but not by European settlers.
The Chinook were only acknowledged as rightful heirs to their traditional land in 1958. In 2001 they were finally given formal status as a federally-recognized Indian Nation, but the George W. Bush administration revoked that status 18 months later.
Remembering this history helps to put current debates about displacement into perspective. It shows how this has been the norm and not the exception. To confront displacement and develop a sense of place means making commitments outside of economics – based instead on our sense of morality, cooperation and human decency.
The fight against displacement in Portland must acknowledge that the city itself originated with the forced removal of indigenous peoples to the Grand Ronde Reservation. With this fact in mind we can begin to prioritize human shelters and human needs over confused notions of “development”, whether that means protecting tarps and tents on Burnside St. or supporting neighbors fighting eviction.
Public funds and public lands should not be spent on development projects that do not help those most in need. The selling of the Grove Hotel is a great example of what not to do.
Despite Portland’s ban on ‘public camping’, we currently have two models for basic human shelter that work – Right to Dream Too and Dignity Village. Both are essentially camping projects and Portland should allow such projects to expand instead of making the perfect the enemy of the good.
When it comes to issues like extreme poverty and hunger, it seems obvious we are dealing with issues of bedrock importance to the well-being of society, as well as our moral, ethical, and spiritual duties – all of which are critical to maintaining a democratic society.
The right to human shelter should be absolute – even when that means starting with a tarp.
Editor’s Note: The original version of this article incorrectly stated that Portland sits on the traditional territory of the Chinook Nation. Portland does sit on the homeland of several Chinook bands, but not the Lower Chinook which comprise the Chinook Nation. The Chinook Nation is the westernmost of the Chinookan people, and is a confederation of tribes that has always inhabited the lower Columbia River, and continues to do so today. Several Chinook bands who lived in present-day Portland are currently recognized as part of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde – including the Clackamas Chinook. We apologize for any confusion stemming from the error in the original print.