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After nearly seven years as CEO of the Native American Youth and Family Center, Paul Lumley, Yakama, is resigning to head up the Cascade Aids Project. There, he will be the first Native American and two spirit person to serve as CEO.

Lumley called leaving NAYA “bittersweet,” but added that he is looking forward to helping the Cascade Aids Project grow.

Lumley steered the organization back from a financial brink. When he came on board, NAYA was deep in debt and nearly had to sell its 10-acre campus along the Columbia Slough. Today, it has an annual budget of over $20 million, along with 50 added staff positions since 2016. The campus itself is transformed, with gardens that emphasize community and first foods.

As a two spirit person, it has always been important for Lumley to advocate for and support the LGBTQ2S+ community, and youth in particular.

“I come to NAYA and I see we have an alternative high school, a Native one,” Lumley said. “And I see that there are so many Native kids who are coming out of the closet because they felt safe there, because the staff felt safe. And I think it was also because of me, because I am a two spirit leader.”

Josiah Hafez, Tohono Óohdan, left, dances with Lucas Hunter, Yakama at NAYA's queer prom in 2023. Hafez is a student at NAYA’s Many Nations Academy High School and Hunter is an outreach specialist at NAYA. “I just love seeing everybody feel like they are in a safe, fun space to express themselves,” Hunter said. (Photo by Nika Bartoo-Smith / Underscore News & ICT)

Return to Neerchokikoo

When Lumley started at NAYA as CEO in 2016, the organization was deep in debt and almost had to sell its buildings and campus. NAYA’s 10-acre campus is home to the Many Nations Academy alternative high school, buildings for NAYA programming, a community garden and pathways that connect the land to Whitaker Ponds and the Columbia Slough.

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)

The campus is situated on an ancient Indigenous gathering site called Neerchokikoo. For centuries, it was used by tribes throughout the area as an encampment for trade and community building.

In an effort to secure a more stable home for NAYA, and in recognition of the cultural significance of the place, Lumley and staff began a campaign called “Return to Neerchokikoo.”

The Return to Neerchokikoo campaign raised money to bring NAYA out of debt and to repair the campus buildings. Lumley said the community really showed up, donating hundreds of thousands of dollars and working to repair buildings pro bono.

“NAYA will always be a permanent home to the Native community,” Lumley said. “This is land back.”

Lukas Angus, Nez Perce, practices a smudging ritual with his 4-year-old daughter Ramona at NAYA's Unthanksgiving event. Lukas says ‘Thanksgiving is one of these holidays that came about through colonization that I’ve been a part of through indoctrination - being an adult you see the lies. I gather with my family, but that tradition comes from our ancestors always gathering and being thankful for our harvests.” (Photo by Alex Milan Tracy)

Affordable housing

Increasing affordable housing for Indigenous community members has been a priority for Lumley since before he came to NAYA. Earlier in his career he was executive director for the National American Indian Housing Council in Washington D.C. And in his youth, Lumley himself experienced homelessness. He spent many nights sleeping along the Columbia River, according to an interview with Ecotrust.

“I’ve always felt like somebody out there is watching over me and giving me these great opportunities,” Lumley said. “I feel like I am being guided almost, maybe by our ancestors, to do the right thing by Indian country.”

Under Lumley’s leadership, NAYA more than doubled the affordable housing it offers. The organization now owns 258 units in eight properties.

“We set out this vision to try and bring Native people closer to NAYA geographically,” Lumley said. “And I knew we could through the process of affordable housing development.”

Since Lumley came on board, the organization has completed three new affordable housing projects, adding 165 units, at Nesika Illahee, Mamook Tokatee and Hayu Tilixam – all in the Cully neighborhood, near the NAYA campus. Each is covered inside and out with Native art, fostering a sense of community and home. Tenancy preference is given to Indigenous applicants.

Later this month, NAYA will host a ground blessing ceremony at Tistilal Village. The property is currently owned by NAYA, but a new development in the works will expand the number of homes from 34 to 58.

LGBTQ2S+ Advocacy

As a teen, Lumley was heavily bullied for being gay. As an adult, he has supported efforts at NAYA to create a safe space for students, particularly two spirit and queer Native youth.

“I grew up in an era when discrimination against gay people was incredible, including in Indian Country,” Lumley said. “And the HIV crisis made it worse.”

Students from Many Nations Academy gathered together for a group photo at queer prom, organized by NAYA staff.
(Photo by Nika Bartoo-Smith / Underscore News & ICT)

In 2018, NAYA hosted its first queer prom for students at the organization’s high school, the Many Nations Academy. It was an effort to create a space celebrating queer joy. In 2019, NAYA opened up queer prom to the broader Portland metro area and nearly 350 kids showed up. After a hiatus with COVID, NAYA hosted queer prom once again this year, at the Portland Art Museum.

At NAYA, Lumley helped create the Two Spirit Safe Space Alliance to support two spirit youth and allies.

“Many two spirit kids who can’t survive in the public school system like what I experienced, have a safe place to go,” Lumley said. “And I wanted to do even more than that. I wanted to create a space for these kids to feel honored for who they are. And the same with the staff.”

What’s next

At Cascade Aids Project, some of Lumley’s work will focus on HIV and AIDS prevention within the Native community.

Lumley first heard about the Cascade Aids Project in the mid 1980s, when he and his now husband, Phillip Hillaire, Lummi, moved to Portland.

“The Cascade Aids Project stood up unapologetically and fought [against discrimination],”Lumley said. “It made me feel like a real person. It made me feel like a whole person, that I was worth saving. Some of their early programming was safe sex practices, something that my husband and I took very seriously, and so neither of us have HIV. And I am sure it’s because of the early programming.”

In his new role as CEO of the Cascade Aids Project, Lumley will be helping oversee the continued expansion of the organization into the healthcare world, beyond safe sex education, and particularly its work creating gender affirming health care facilities in Portland.

“I am indebted to CAP for their early response to the AIDS crisis, and for their leadership in the fight against HIV and AIDS,” Lumley wrote in a blog post on the NAYA website.

Later this month, the NAYA Board of Directors will appoint an interim CEO and begin searching for a permanent CEO.

“We will miss him,” said Molly Washington, NAYA board chair and Apache/N’dee descendant. “He is irreplaceable.”

Though Lumley will not work at NAYA in an official capacity after July 5, he will continue to be involved at NAYA and the broader Native community in Portland.

Leaving the organization with a strong foundation, lifted out of debt, Lumley has some hopes for what future projects might look like. A few things he would like to see happen at NAYA include an increase in scholarship funding and the continued expansion into southwest Washington, with the creation of a community center like NAYA in Vancouver.

“We’re grateful and honored and really blessed to have Paul for as long as we did, through some really challenging times,” Washington said. “He will always be part of our community and we honor and support his decision to do work in other areas.”

Lead photo: Paul Lumley, Yakama, CEO of NAYA since 2016, announced his last day at NAYA will be July 5. He has accepted a new role as CEO of the Cascade Aids Project. (Photo courtesy of NAYA)

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Nika is a journalist with a passion for working to center the voices and experiences of communities often left behind in mainstream media coverage. Of Osage and Oneida Nations descent, with Northern European...