Credit: Kari Rowe

Columbia Insight

On an overcast Saturday in March, Serina Fast Horse stands in a ring of freshly planted, 12-foot-tall willow cuttings. Soft white buds are just beginning to emerge from their gray stems.

Easing the tips of the willows toward the center of the circle, Fast Horse holds them in place while another volunteer ties them together with twine.

Fast Horse and about three dozen others have gathered at Shwakuk Wetland, five acres of land situated between a residential neighborhood and a freight warehouse in north Portland, just south of Columbia Edgewater Country Club.

In time, the trees they plant and gently shape will grow into a willow dome—a living structure people can gather around for ceremonies, educational programs or just to enjoy the space.

Shwakuk, which is pronounced “show-kayk” and means little frog in Chinook Wawa, is a unique site co-managed by the local Indigenous community and Portland’s Bureau of Environmental Services.

When the city acquired the land in 2016, it was a pumpkin patch.

Since then, the team responsible for stewarding it has worked to restore the wetland. Now it’s used to to cultivate first foods, medicines and basketry plants.

It’s also reconnecting area residents with the land.

Fast Horse, who is Lakota and Blackfeet, serves as a community liaison on the Shwakuk project, bridging the gap between the local Indigenous community and city employees.

Since getting involved with the project, the 28-year-old Portlander has also gone on to found Kimímela Consulting. Her goal is to bring the Indigenous community into environmental decision-making processes at the city and state level.

“When we’re able to come together and uplift Indigenous knowledge—and learn from each other, too, because there are things from western science and ecology that are important for restoration—we can change these systems to be more regenerative,” says Fast Horse.

Up and at ’em: Volunteers construct a willow dome at Shwakuk Wetlands in March 2023. (Columbia Insight)

“Indigenizing” not “de-colonizing”

For Fast Horse, the choice to use the word Indigenize rather than decolonize is intentional.

“When we say Indigenize, it’s centering the Indigenous perspective and being forward-thinking instead of centering colonization and that experience,” she says.

In restoration work, the Indigenous perspective hasn’t often been taken into consideration.

“Our program has always used native plants, but the selection wasn’t necessarily based on the Indigenous communities’ needs or desires,” says Toby Query, a natural resource ecologist with Portland’s Bureau of Environmental Services. “It was more about what would survive and what would fulfill our agency’s goals as far as shading the water, wildlife habitat and structure, and so forth.”

At Shawkuk, the Indigenous community put together a list of desired plants, which included first foods, medicines and plants used for traditional crafts.

That list has guided Query and the rest of the team involved in day-to-day restoration work at the site.

So far, they’ve had success at growing tule, a sedge used in basketry and canoe-making, along with yarrow, a medicinal plant, and camas, a plant with an edible, bulb-like root. They’ve also planted yampah, a wild carrot.

Instead of spraying herbicide, the restoration team uses vinyl from old billboards to block the sun and kill invasive grasses. Sometimes, they’ll braid invasive grasses around native plants, like yellow dock, horsetail and cattail, so that they stay low to the ground and do not choke out other plants.

“It takes a lot of effort to do it,” says Query, who has spent many hours braiding reed canarygrass alongside workers from Wisdom of the Elders, an Indigenous-led group. “While we were doing it we were enjoying conversation, and it was kind of a healing process.”

Query has implemented many techniques he’s learned from the Indigenous community at the 20 or so sites he stewards across the city.

“It’s really informed what I plant, and how I take care of plants,” he says.

Tending parties, wild tea

Healing is a critical element of Indigenizing restoration work.

In fact, says Fast Horse, “my deepest wish for this work is to bring folks together and to heal our relationships to each other and to the earth.”

At Shwakuk, she’s brought people together by helping organize “tending parties” that attract members of the local Indigenous community, students from Portland State University, city employees and others.

The groups learn about a site, spend a few hours helping with a restoration project and gather for lunch.

Oftentimes, Judy BlueHorse Skelton, an assistant professor at Portland State University who has helped lead the Shwakuk restoration, will make tea for everyone.

She makes the tea using a sprig of Doug fir gathered onsite, and sometimes rosehips, Oregon grape and western redcedar.

“We’re taught that to sip tea together is to become a relative, or to form a relationship,” says BlueHorse Skelton, who is Nez Perce and Cherokee. “It’s also deepening our intimate relationship with the plant world. It’s a big part of Indigenous traditional ecological and cultural knowledge, and it’s embedded in the work that we’re all doing.”

Intern to owner

Restoring Shwakuk was pivotal for Fast Horse, who first got involved with the project as an intern with Environmental Services.

“I was able to be an internal advocate to make sure what the community was saying was being upheld in a really meaningful way,” says Fast Horse. “I would be in these internal meetings, and so that perspective got woven throughout the process.”

In those meetings, the impact that she could have as a community liaison became clear.

From Query’s point of view: “To have somebody that has an Indigenous perspective, but is also willing to be part of the agency side of things, and to be able to walk between those two cultures has been really important.”

Fast Horse began giving presentations about lessons learned from Shwakuk and found that other city agencies and organizations wanted Indigenous input on their projects, too.

Portland has recently become more proactive about reaching out to the Indigenous community. The city hired its first full-time tribal relations director, Laura John, in 2017—a move BlueHorse Skelton says has been “immensely transformative.”

Two years ago, Fast Horse founded her own company, Kimímela Consulting, based in Milwaukie, Ore. She’s continued to act as a liaison between the Indigenous community and various agencies and organizations.

Most of her work has to do with land restoration, but she’s also working with Portland State University to rename a street. The campus’ Native American Student and Community Center is currently located on a street named after President Andrew Jackson, known for enforcing the genocidal Indian Removal Act of 1830.

“She’s been providing a voice and venue for the Indigenous community, including students and folks across all agencies, to get involved—including just the average community member who may not have a voice,” says BlueHorse Skelton.

A reconnected future

According to BlueHorse Skelton, the work that Fast Horse is doing to ensure the Indigenous community is part of decision-making processes is critical.

“When cities look, today, at how to heal, how to begin to restore, how to protect what’s left,” says BlueHorse Skelton, “we have to be part of it.”

She sees Fast Horse as the first of a new, emerging generation of Indigenous leaders in the region.

“As some of us become elders, who carries that work forward?” BlueHorse Skelton asks. “That’s Serina.”

“A lot of times people put us in the past, and that’s a huge misconception,” says Fast Horse. “We’ve always been adaptable people. We’re not trying to revert back to anything, we’re going into the future.

“We’re all interconnected in this physical and spiritual plane. With Indigenous knowledge, we can reconnect to that and live in a way that is more in line with natural systems that are regenerative and life-giving.”

Lead photo: Next gen: Serina Fast Horse is part of an exciting environmental movement. (Photo by Columbia Insight)

Columbia Insight, based in Hood River, Oregon, is nonprofit news site focused on environmental issues of the Columbia River Basin.

Julia Kane is a journalist who covers climate change and environmental justice. Her work has appeared in Inside Climate News, Grist and other outlets. Prior to becoming a journalist, she served in the...