Artist and wood-carver Greg Robinson, a member of the Chinook Indian Nation, stood on a ladder, troweling swaths of bright, red paint onto the lobby wall of an almost-completed apartment building in Portland’s Cully neighborhood. As Robinson spread the paint, it took on the shape of a house. Below him, on the floor, sat a much smaller house-shaped, wooden assembly. Eventually, Robinson and his son, Devon, who also is an artist, transformed the entire wall into a mixed-media mural depicting a ancestral family above a wood carving.

It’s fitting that Robinson’s artwork evokes images of home and family. The new building is called Nesika Illahee, which means “Our Place” in the Chinuk Wawa indigenous language. Nesika Illahee (neh-SIGH-kah EEL-lah-hee) is a housing project for low-income people recovering from drug and alcohol addiction. The twin crises of affordable housing and addiction disproportionately affect Portland’s Native American population. The apartment building, which opened in late January, sets aside 20 of its 59 units for low-income Indian people, with first preference given to enrolled members of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians of Oregon—a federally recognized confederation of 27 tribes and bands that once inhabited an area stretching from northern California to southwest Washington, including Portland.

What made this new housing project possible was a unique partnership between the Siletz Tribe, two local Native American nonprofit organizations, and a mission-driven developer. The partnership allowed the Siletz Tribe to leverage federal funding from a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Indian Housing Block Grant, making this the nation’s first project to use such funding to create homes in an urban environment. Traditionally, tribes have used Indian Housing Block Grant funds to expand or preserve affordable housing on their reservations.

“The HUD dollars in this project come from the Siletz Tribes, and thank you for your leadership,” said Jeffrey McMorris, regional administrator for HUD’s Region 10 (which includes Oregon and three other states) at a standing-room-only ribbon-cutting ceremony attended by tribal dignitaries and government officials.

The partners hope that Nesika Illahee will not only serve as a bulwark against the displacement of low-income Native Americans but also as a model for creating other off-reservation housing projects in Portland and elsewhere. “I know this is the beginning of something good that other cities can use as an example,” said Siletz Tribe Chairman Delores Pigsley.

Artist Greg Robinson, Chinook Tribe, created this multimedia mural in the entryway of Nesika Illahee to show an ancestral family watching over the family owners of a longhouse. Photo by Alex Milan Tracy/

Hard hit by the housing crisis

Affordable housing is a nationwide crisis, with both home prices and rental costs rising faster than wages in most parts of the United States. In the greater Portland area, the shortage of affordable housing is most acute for the lowest-income families, those earning less than half the median family income. Portlanders in this group need about 48,000 more affordable homes than are currently available, according to Metro, a regional agency that serves the urban portions of Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington Counties.

The Portland housing crisis has hit Native Americans especially hard. The 2018 State of Housing in Portland report from the Portland Housing Bureau found that there are no neighborhoods anywhere in Portland that have affordable one- or two-bedroom apartments for the average Native American household, which has an annual income of $29,859 and can afford about $746 in monthly housing payments.

“This is a community that was originally a Native community, and it’s a community where everyone should have the opportunity to live,” said Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler. The mayor thanked the Siletz nation for its “bold step” in using block grant funds to provide housing for Indian people living in urban areas. “Think of the stories that will happen here in this building, and the lives that will be fundamentally changed,” he said.

American Indians and Alaska Natives are the most disproportionately homeless group in Portland. The Point-in-Time Report, a biannual snapshot of how many people are living in homeless shelters, cars, and on the street in Multnomah County, reported that 11.6 percent of the homeless population counted on the night of January 23, 2019, were American Indians or Alaska Natives — who make up only 2.5 percent of the general population in the county. Overrepresentation of American Indians and Alaska Natives among the homeless has increased since the 2017 count showing 10.2 percent.

For Native Americans, the challenge of finding affordable housing has its roots in a long history of displacement. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 paved the way for settlers to usurp ancestral lands. A century later, the construction of major dams began flooding tribal villages and fishing sites on the Columbia River. In other parts of Oregon, federal policies and legislation adopted from the mid-1940s to the mid-1960s undermined tribal autonomy, removed federal support for Indian schools and health care, and authorized the sale of tribal lands.

Douglas McKay, a former governor of Oregon who became Dwight Eisenhower’s Interior Secretary in 1952, introduced new “assimilation” policies aimed at ending the federal government’s responsibility for managing Indian affairs and lands, and forcing Native Americans to abandon their traditional lifestyles. McKay championed legislation that “terminated” more than 100 tribes nationwide.

Under the Western Oregon Termination Act of 1954, 61 tribes west of the Cascades lost their sovereign status and federal services. That same year, the Klamath Termination Act forced members of the Klamath, Modoc, and Yahooskin Band of Snake Indians to choose between retaining their tribal membership and stake in reservation lands, which included valuable timber holdings, or withdrawing from membership and accepting a cash payout. As a result of termination policies, thousands of Native Americans in Oregon lost their tribal affiliations, and hundreds of thousands of acres of Indian lands were sold. Termination policies left behind a scattered, impoverished and vulnerable population.

Even before the Termination Acts passed, the federal government’s Operation Relocation had begun moving Native Americans from rural areas to Portland. The new arrivals were given little assistance with housing or jobs. Some returned home, while others ended up on skid row in the city, according to a 2011 study by the Coalition of Communities of Color and Portland State University.

Today the Portland-Vancouver-Hillsboro Metropolitan Statistical Area includes more than 45,000 people, from several hundred tribes, who identify as American Indian or Alaska Native (alone or in combination with one or more other races). The majority of Native Americans in Oregon live off-reservation.

Restoration and rebuilding

In the 1970s and 1980s, the federal government reversed its termination policy and restored tribal sovereignty to the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community of Oregon (including some tribes and bands that, like the Siletz, claim Portland as part of their historic territory), the Klamath Tribes, and others. As part of the restoration process, tribes regained some of the land that was taken from them. Five tribes of the Chinook Nation are still appealing for restoration.

By the mid-1970s, the Congressionally established American Indian Policy Review Commission reported that the problem of Indian housing nationwide had “reached a critical stage.” The Commission said states were interfering with tribal housing development and cited a need for new housing projects.

The Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975 increased tribal control over reservations. The Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act of 1996 (NAHASDA) revamped the system of federal housing assistance for tribes. NAHASDA consolidated several complex programs into a single HUD Indian Housing Block Grant that tribes can use to build or renovate housing as they see fit. This funding source turned out to be the key to building Nesika Illahee.

Using $1.7 million from its HUD block grant funds, the Siletz Tribe partnered with the Native American Youth and Family Center (NAYA), a 45-year-old nonprofit organization that provides programs and services focused on cultural identity and education and is located about a half mile from Nesika Illahee in northeast Portland. NAYA runs an alternative public high school and, in recent years, its staff had observed that up to 45 percent of the students were homeless at some point during the school year.

The partnership enabled Nesika Illahee to take advantage of a waiver in NAHASDA that allows tribal housing programs to give preference to tribal members without violating the federal Fair Housing Act. By partnering with NAYA and transferring its waiver — something that had never been done before — the Siletz Tribe was able to contribute HUD money to the $18.9 million project while ensuring that some of the apartments would be reserved for Siletz Tribal members. The building’s first two apartments were rented to tenants from the Siletz Tribe: a single man and a family of three.

The Siletz Tribe today has some 5,100 enrolled members, 80 percent of them in Oregon. The Siletz reservation is a patchwork of parcels covering about 6 square miles, mostly located east of Siletz, Oregon. However, fewer than a third of enrolled Siletz live on or near the Tribe’s reservation. “We have a lot of Tribal members that live here in Portland and have lived here for generations,” said Pigsley, the Tribal chairman. The Siletz Tribe is also working on housing projects in Lincoln City and Eugene.

Siletz members are not the only Native Americans who will find homes at Nesika Illahee. Second preference goes to applicants whose households have at least one member who is enrolled in another federally or state-recognized tribe or is an Alaska Native. These housing preferences are not based on race, but rather on the unique political status of Native Americans as dual citizens of both the United States and their tribe. Units not filled through these preferences will be filled by other tenants who meet the income eligibility requirements.

Because Nesika Illahee is classified as affordable housing, tenants cannot have a household income above 60 percent of the median household income for the area: for example, no more than $52,740 for a family of four. Rents for apartments at Nesika Illahee range from $924 per month for studios to $1,371 for three-bedroom units. That is still a “tough hurdle” for many Native Americans in Portland, said Paul Lumley, executive director of NAYA and a member of the Yakama Nation. Building managers have had to turn away many would-be tenants who have very little or no income.

Paul Lumley, NAYA, and Sami Jo Difuntorum, Siletz Tribe, celebrate the opening of Nesika Illahee, an affordable housing project made possible by the first use of Indian Housing Block Grant funds for urban housing. Photo by Alex Milan Tracy/

The partnership between the Siletz Tribe and NAYA is just one of several that made it possible to build Nesika Illahee. NAYA also partnered with the Native American Rehabilitation Association of the Northwest (NARA), which will provide behavioral health and other services onsite. The project was co-developed and is co-owned by NAYA and a for-profit company called Community Development Partners (CDP). Started five years ago by Eric and Kyle Paine, two brothers from California, CDP has worked with other groups on affordable housing. This is its first project with a Native American focus. The partnership began when CDP acquired the building site for $1.5 million in 2016 and sought to identify the biggest housing need in the community.

Major funding for Nesika Illahee came from the Local Innovation and Fast Track (LIFT) housing program created a few years ago by the Oregon Legislature. Oregon Housing and Community Services contributed more than $2.2 million in LIFT funds for the project. “We’ve taken multiple complex funding sources and put them together to make something even more complicated,” joked Eric Paine of CDP. “The Siletz took a leap of faith that we could pull this off.”

Nesika Illahee is a recovery house; drugs and alcohol are not allowed on the premises. Future projects using a similar partnership model—and planned for the same neighborhood in Portland—will have other themes. The next project, tentatively called Mamook Tokatee (which means “Making Beautiful” in the Chinuk Wawa language), will focus on housing for artists who are being pushed out of the city by gentrification. It will be built on the site of the parking lot of what was formerly Delphina’s Bakery, on 42nd Avenue at Going Street. Construction of the four-story building, which will have 56 dwelling units and a ground-floor community room and art studio, is expected to begin this summer. If the Siletz Tribe decides to contribute HUD Indian Housing Block Grant funds to this second project, “we’ll have a focus on Native arts,” Lumley said.

A third project, still on the drawing board, will include apartments that provide permanent supportive housing for the chronically homeless. NAYA is again partnering with the Native American Rehabilitation Association and Community Development Partners on this 50-unit project. The Portland Housing Bureau has purchased the property at 5827 NE Prescott Street and awarded $7.5 million toward the project. NAYA hopes to find a tribal partner for this project, too.

The firm that designed Nesika Illahee, Carleton Hart Architecture, plans to be involved in both future projects.

Pride of place

People walking or driving past Nesika Illahee might not notice the building’s name, but the large mural covering an exterior wall of the building’s second floor is sure to turn heads: It’s a brown-skinned woman holding an abalone shell. She gazes at glowing embers cupped in the shell, with smoke rising from them. She is smudging, a sacred ritual of cleansing or prayer. Toma Villa, a Yakama man who began his career as a graffiti artist, created the mural and titled it “Grandmother’s Prayers.” He spent 10 days painting the mural, in the rain, after redesigning it to give the woman a woven basket hat made in the traditional style of coastal Indians who belong to the Siletz Tribe. The painted hat is modeled after a real one made 30 years ago.

A mural by Toma Villa, Yakama, on the exterior of Nesika Illahee depicts a Siletz Tribe grandmother praying. Photo by Alex Milan Tracy/

Passersby might also notice the building’s outdoor plaza, which has bronze inlays representing salmon gills and scutes, the bony plates that run down the sides and backs of sturgeon and are the basis of traditional basket weaving patterns. Lumley placed his hand against an outline on one of the basalt stones standing outside the building’s entrance. It was a perfect fit. He was the model. Below his handprint are those of his husband and some of his high-school students. The standing stones also have glass inlays and petroglyphs and pictographs designed by artist Lillian Pitt, who was born and raised on the Warm Springs reservation in Oregon. One is a smaller version of Tsagaglalal (“She Who Watches”), which looks out at the river from a bluff near Lyle, Washington. It was the first rock image Pitt ever saw.

Paul Lumley, NAYA, was the model for one of the handprints on a basalt column outside Nesika Illahee. Photo by Alex Milan Tracy/

Inside the building are many other works showcasing the region’s diversity of Native American art. Walking down one of the building’s hallways is like strolling through a gallery. The architectural elements and materials have a distinctly Native feel. Nesika Illahee “was designed with culture in mind,” says Julia Mollner of Carleton Hart Architecture, the firm that designed the building and is involved in other NAYA housing projects. “Everything tells a story.”

Artwork on the columnar basalts rock outside Nesika Illahee was created by Warm Springs artist Lillian Pitt. Some images were made with inlaid glass and shell and others were sandblasted into the rock. Photo by Alex Milan Tracy/

The lobby ceiling has parallel cedar beams that are shaped to mimic the riverbed of the Columbia River in the Portland area. The building uses lots of wood, and many of its corners do not have conventional 90-degree angles. Signs are designed with references to Native language: Outside the elevator on the third floor, for example, a sign says “Klon” (Chinuk Wawa for “three”).

A sign on the third floor of Nesika Illahee has the Chinuk Wawa word for “three” and a basket-weaving pattern representing salmon gills. Photo by Alex Milan Tracy/

The services provided at Nesika Illahee will be as culturally specific as its art and design. The apartment building is part of a growing network of health-care services, cultural identity and educational programs, and Native American-led community development efforts taking shape in the 42nd Avenue district of northeast Portland—where the existing neighborhood association, Our 42nd Avenue, is going through a transition to become part of NAYA.

Housing is “not just four walls, a roof, and a door,” said Oregon Housing and Community Services Director Margaret Salazar.

NAYA is partnered with the Native American Rehabilitation Association of the Northwest (NARA) to provide assistance to the residents of Nesika Illahee. “The people who live here will have access to a broad range of services,” said NARA CEO Jackie Mercer.

Beverly Saluskin, a Yakama and Klamath elder who has been sober for two years and has diabetes, is on the waiting list for an apartment at Nesika Illahee. If her application is accepted, she will have easy access to onsite counseling for alcohol and drug recovery, a management program for her diabetes, dental care, and other health services.

Angelique Saxton of NARA, a certified addiction counselor, is the residential services coordinator at Nesika Illahee. The comfortably furnished “talking rooms” where she will meet with residents are intended to foster oral traditions. Talking rooms are places where residents can meet one-on-one to receive social services, counseling, and training on skills such as budgeting. These services, coupled with living in a supportive community, give residents a sense of pride about their recovery, Saxton said.

“When we talk about partnership, we’re talking about creating community,” said Eddie Sherman, Navajo and Omaha, who chairs NAYA’s Board of Directors. The organization looks forward to “creating more homes and more stability for our families,” Sherman said. “We want our people to know that they are seen and supported.”

The Siletz Tribe’s investment in an urban affordable-housing project is unprecedented, but the Tribe and its partners hope it is just the first of many such projects. “We cannot solve our community’s housing crisis overnight,” Lumley said.

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ContributorDawn Stover is a freelance science and environmental writer based in White Salmon, Washington, and a contributing editor and columnist at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Previously, she...