Imagining a Gathering Place for the Future

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By Guest Writer Angelo Baca on the transfer of the Yale Union Building to NACF

A place in the city is always hard to find. When you are an Indigenous or Native American person, it can sometimes feel impossible. When I first showed up in New York City, or Lenapehoking, to attend New York University as a graduate student, some of my first interactions with city folks were abrasive and harsh. It was one of being pushed and shoved, always moved aside for something or someone else, never feeling like there was a place to rest or a spot to take momentary refuge.

One day, it rained hard enough to make people find cover from the deluge. Nobody would stand next to me with my noticeable Indigenous-presenting features, including dark skin and long hair. Another Native brother took refuge in the dry section with me. He was standing next to me for a New York minute, acknowledging each other only with a brief nod of the head, and we both went our separate ways. It was enough to say so many things in that brief shared instant of two Indigenous people in the city. Finding comfort and safety with other Native folks means a lot; even if it is temporary or slightly inconvenient, it is better than nothing.

However, there is better than something. My little story illustrates why a place in the city matters because it opens up a world of possibilities. A reliable and stable location where Native American and Indigenous folks can gather relative safety is not a small feat. After centuries of displacement, removal, and genocide, no one knows the value of place-based knowledge, the feeling of home, and a sense of belonging than our own people and ourselves. Despite the ironic historic twist of the American fantasy of going somewhere where everyone belongs, no matter their original national and ethnic origins from anywhere else in the world (think “give me your tired, your poor, huddled masses…”) outside the Northern and Southern American hemispheres, it is evident that it applied to everyone but Indigenous peoples already in their lands. Here, in Portland, there is a building where Indigenous peoples can use for various reasons, not the least of which is regain that sense of belonging, inclusivity, and safety.

A place may be imbued with purpose and intention, depending on who puts forth energy into it. Prayers set the tone, a song or a chant can throw a calm, peaceful blanket over a silent, hushed crowd, and music can focus people in one emotion or many depending on their intent. People can make the most, or the least, out of place, but I have always witnessed Native folks begin everything with a prayer, a set intention, a vision of what we want to do, and how we want to do it. In this way, you can consider the new building a part of a unique ceremony: it is just beginning, something in the process of creation to bring renewal, life, and harmony within a community and culture.

A return of a place is not merely just repatriation. Just like “digital repatriation” isn’t strictly a return of an item or object because it is only digital, an image’s appearance is not properly repatriation. If we can’t be established in a place, see and touch it, and enjoy all the abilities of a location that it can offer, we cannot precisely experience actual repatriation. This Yale Union building is a form of honorable repatriation because it entails all the ideals, intentions, and vision of entire communities, including Portland itself, to reaffirm old relationships and establish new ones. A lesson yet not learned from other institutions, museums, and other organizations is that Indigenous communities would love nothing more than work with them to build better relationships. Still, the work to reach out must develop from that connection, such as tangible and genuine repatriation with some of their most beloved relatives both in this country and abroad. Moving forward, it has the potential to make a brighter future for all who pass through its halls, ushering a new way of doing things inside a new location, realizing a better tomorrow.

As Indigenous peoples, we know the importance of sharing our traditional knowledge and wisdom of our elders and culture keepers through the oral tradition over generations. However, where do we go now that the written word and the digital age of media are everywhere and valued more than the long tradition of oral history and storytelling? As Lower Elwha and Skllalam traditional storyteller, Roger Fernandez notes, “Before there was the internet, there was television. Before there was television, there were books. Before books, there was storytelling.” Usually, elders and knowledge keepers held these roles in various tribes, bands, and communities. Back then, all you needed was a place, maybe a meal that gathered people together, sometimes a fire, which are today’s television sets, and engaging and exciting storytellers taking you into other worlds.

Now, imagine all the stories that will find a place in the new building past, present, and future. Stories of intergenerational experiences regarding prosperity and struggle, failures, and successes. Most of all, the love that our ancestors and present-day relatives have for each other in this contemporary moment. So much more happens behind the scenes of art shows, musical and visual performances, and community events in spaces like these. People bring their spirit and culture into these locations and give it life in a way that cannot be replicated anywhere else because of its unique and diverse intersections of personalities, creativity, and stories.

Today, we are experiencing waves of infection within a current pandemic, struggling to see the light at the end of the tunnel where a country is attempting to reconcile its social, cultural, and environmental justice at the same time. But people are resilient, and no better demonstration of that strength is apparent than Indigenous peoples worldwide and the United States have shown us. In the face of great adversity, we celebrate each chance we get to gather (even if it must be online at the moment) and collect ourselves for changes ahead in our lives, both severe and beautiful. What will the future look like, and can we keep finding the strength to press on? As our ancestors have shown us, the answer is ‘yes” because we are the literal manifestations of their prayers and love.

Now, there is a place to go with the Yale Union building in Portland, somewhere to be. But somewhere isn’t enough; it must have an Indigenous and holistic approach where the community understands what it could be and the promise of possibilities on the horizon. Imagine the not-to-distant past where canoes of the Pacific Northwest tribes roll upon the Portland shores, asking for permission to come onto the land to gather, just like during Canoe Journeys. Now, visualize those canoes actually landing on the river banks of the Williamette River or the Columbia, ancient waterways the new highways again. Imagine folks coming together like the Confederated Tribes Warm Springs, Grand Ronde, and Siletz, just some of the local tribes of the areas around Portland, with other tribes in this space being their sovereign selves reflecting respect, equality, and acknowledgment. Imagine folks from all different walks of life, backgrounds, ethnicities, and nationalities in that same space using the highest form of human expression to build bridges, not walls, to communicate with each other: art. It is essential to imagine these things because imagination is an exercise we are rarely afforded as Indigenous peoples. When many of our people struggle daily with health, water, food, and safety, we must imagine doing well enough to thrive and not just survive. A gathering place can be an area to make those imaginings real.

This is how you re-indigenize and decolonize a place. If settler-colonialism is a structure and not an event, then we must keep “eventing” our own Indigenous cultures and existence to keep the structural system at bay and reclaim our spaces, places, and gathering spots for our community to fight back erasure, invisibility, and strive towards harmony with the land. We can find solace in the fact that home is where our people are, and if we make the Yale Union building, which is being renamed the Center for Native Arts and Cultures, filled with our people, brimming with hope, love, and imagination, it can bring healing back to the people and the land for shared future.

Angelo Baca (Diné/Hopi), cultural activist, scholar, filmmaker, and doctoral student in Anthropology at New York University

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