Underscore News

The Food Sovereignty Project tells stories about traditional Indigenous knowledge and practices that honor and strengthen the relationship to the plants and animals that sustain all of us. The seven-story project was co-managed by Nicole Charley and Jackleen de La Harpe for Underscore News with generous support from The Roundhouse Foundation. Read the entire series here.


The old building on a small highway that houses the Native American Youth and Family Center (NAYA) is as industrial as it is utilitarian. But go around back. The building sits on 10 acres of land nestled along the Columbia Slough. The spot was once a Chinook village and trading site called Neerchokikoo.

Most of the organization’s land holds acres of grass and baseball diamonds, leased to local non-Native little leagues for decades. Four years ago, NAYA surveyed elders, staff and high school youth to determine the best use of its outdoor spaces. The response was clear: Indigenize the land. Return the land to uses that would meet the needs of Indigenous people.

That work is now underway.

Last summer, the Portland Clean Energy Fund awarded $3.7 million to the organization for its Native Food Sovereignty Project. The project will integrate Indigenous Traditional Ecological Knowledge with spiritual practices to fulfill a vision for holistic health for Portland’s urban Native community.

The grant funding will be used to convert the baseball fields into a farm that includes a traditional plant medicine garden, a hedgerow of native trees, and a Camas swale and restoration area focused on native perennial species. The space will also provide a First Foods preparation and cooking area, a children’s playscape, community gathering areas, ceremonial spaces and a field for Native games.

The baseball field the borders Whitaker Ponds Nature Park at the Native American Youth and Family Center (NAYA) in Portland, Ore., seen on October 29, 2022, will be made into a garden and ceremonial space for the community as part of the community garden expansion project. (Photo by Alex Milan Tracy / Underscore News)

Rebuilding the old ways

Portland has the nation’s ninth largest Indigenous urban communities in the U.S., represented by more than 380 tribes. Oregon is home to nine federally recognized tribes and many tribal members live “off reservation,” away from their traditional lands. In many cases, tribal members leave their homelands to pursue jobs, education, and career opportunities to support themselves and their families.

The Native American Youth and Family Center (NAYA) is a landing place for urban Indigenous people and often one of the first stops for Indigenous youth and families when they first come to Portland.

NAYA got its start with an effort led by Native parents in the 1970s. They started an after-school sports and tutoring program in the Portland area to give their kids positive activities.

“At the time,” said Paul Lumley, NAYA’s Chief Executive Officer, “the graduation rate [in Multnomah County for Native kids in the public school system] was only 24%.” Now, that number has more than doubled to just over 50%, according to this year’s Oregon Department of Education data.

Since then, NAYA has grown to more than 140 staff, eight departments and a 10-acre campus. In 2006, NAYA, now located on Columbia Boulevard in the Cully neighborhood, moved from its old location in North Portland to its current location at what was once a school campus.

Today, NAYA provides an array of services to the 10,000 members of the Indigenous community it serves each year, from social gatherings and food boxes to elder support and energy and rental assistance. It is also taking the lead in visionary and groundbreaking work in urban environmentalism and food sovereignty. With its new grant, it has the potential to strengthen the community through an emphasis on food and culture.

Food as spiritual nourishment

The Cully neighborhood, where NAYA is located, is considered a food desert, where access to fresh produce and nourishing food is sparse and grocery stores are few. More than one-quarter of Cully residents live below the federal poverty line. About half are people of color. Food insecurity in the Native community in Portland, as elsewhere, is prevalent.

“Our Elders are the most in need,” said Collin Chavez-McCormack, NAYA’s food services coordinator, who runs the organization’s food box distribution program, which distributes food to any Indigenous community member in need. “We include lots of produce from [NAYA’s] garden in the food boxes, which people appreciate. And during the pandemic, we even helped community members start their own gardens at their homes.”

Portland State University Capstone student and Navajo Nation member Shandiin Sloan holds freshly harvested Makah Ozette potatoes at the Native American Youth and Family Center (NAYA) community garden in Portland, Ore., on October 29, 2022. (Photo by Alex Milan Tracy / Underscore News)

“The pandemic really brought to light the food insecurity in our community, when we saw the requests for food boxes rise dramatically,” said Lumley, who is also the former executive director at the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. “We had food stacked floor to ceiling in the food pantry. People come to our events just to eat.”

Feeding children, feeding elders

Lumley said that while much of the food goes to youth, elders, and community members who are part of NAYA’s programs, it also feeds those who live at one of the six Portland housing properties owned by NAYA. Along with the garden expansion, Lumley envisions powwow grounds, sweat lodges, and hoop and grow houses (for season extension, winter production, and protection from extreme weather events).

A multipurpose food processing area will be used to process and wash farm food — following food safety standards — before sending it to the NAYA kitchen, food pantry and community.

Beyond growing food, the project emphasizes the spiritual importance of food. In addition to powwow space and areas specifically designed for Native games like lacrosse, the project will include ceremonial spaces.

“The community has always desired to have a sweat lodge at NAYA,” Lumley said. Every tribe follows different protocols for ceremonies, which are reflected in the style and preparation of the space. The type of sweat lodges and ceremony spaces will largely depend on who steps forward in the community to lead ceremonies.

One of the most exciting components of the project, according to Lumley, is teaching Native youth who attend NAYA’s Many Nations Academy. Teachers and program staff already incorporate teachings from the garden in their lessons and programming. During the past year, the academy’s youth learned how to make infusions with herbs and vegetables from the garden, like mint and cucumber.

Community garden volunteer Mick Rose, Diné, is pictured among the vegetables during the Wapas Nah Nee Shaku Unthanksgiving Garden Work Party. (Photo by Alex Milan Tracy / Underscore News)

Before launching the project, NAYA held a ceremony with community members involved with the local little league, who leased the baseball fields on the property. The event included a call to service, in which the little league children and their parents spread mulch on the garden’s pathways.

“They thanked us for the use of the property for decades,” Lumley said. “And then they left.”

Strong Indigenous communities

NAYA’s Food Sovereignty Project is one component of its Return to Neerchokikoo campaign, which seeks to realize NAYA’s vision of creating a safe home for Indigenous communities displaced from their traditional lands. NAYA wants to reclaim land that was once an area of great cultural significance and develop it as a sanctuary for Native families. That vision includes healing and spiritual connections to the land and water that was once Neerchokikoo.

“The Return to Neerchokikoo campaign ensures that this [land] will always be an enduring home for the [Indigenous] community,” Lumley said.

Lead photo: Community Health Worker Program Coordinator Jennie Brixey of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma transplants sweetgrass at the Native American Youth and Family Center (NAYA) community garden in Portland, Ore., on October 29, 2022. (Photo by Alex Milan Tracy / Underscore News)

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Leah Altman, Oglala Lakota, is a Native American adoptee and was raised in the Portland area. She has written for local and national publications, including Portland Monthly, Oregon Humanities, Portland...