Many of us that have come through the public education system know very little about the nine federally recognized Tribal nations who have existed since time immemorial in this place we now call Oregon. It’s no coincidence: The invisibility of Native people is intentional and systematized. We’ve also been fed a steady diet of biased stereotypes and indoctrinated to colonialism, which allows us to overlook how the control and exploitation of Indigenous lands impact how we relate to one another and the natural world.
Unlearning these biases and dismantling colonial systems are critical if we are to move forward in building a just, multicultural, democratic state where all people can thrive.
Meyer and other organizations will never have the formal, government-to-government relationship that federal and state jurisdictions are required to forge with Tribal nations. For us to have a productive, voluntary relationship with Native communities, then, we need first to challenge ourselves to build a solid foundation for partnership. One that seeks authentic and deliberate relationship-building, cross-cultural learning, and an understanding of Tribal history, governance and current Tribal community priorities. Only then can we be ready for productive partnership.
Meyer staff and trustees have taken this challenge to heart. We worked to develop a base understanding of Native American sovereignty, to understand that Tribes are the original stewards of the land and waters and how rich traditional knowledge can inform our collective practices. We’ve invested time to meet with each of the Native nations in our state and listen to their unique histories, customs and wisdom as well as their current priorities and how we can partner with them. And we’ve started to decolonize our language and processes. Indigenous staff members at Meyer shape the culture of the organization, provide leadership around relationship-building with Tribes and remind us of the areas where more learning is needed.
One important partner in Meyer’s journey is the Institute for Tribal Governance (ITG) at Portland State University, which has helped us acquire knowledge of history as well as current Indigenous world views, Tribal politics and tribal community priorities. After two program directors (Jill and Theresa) participated in the yearlong Professional Certificate in Tribal Relations program at the ITG, we came away enthusiastic that other organizations could benefit from cross-cultural learning and intentional relationship-building.
In early December, Meyer is experimenting with ITG to bring a Tribal Relations workshop to a group of Meyer grantees in the Housing Opportunities and Healthy Environment portfolios whose work connects with Tribes or serves Indigenous people. Over two half-day sessions, the group will receive a condensed version of Tribal history and sovereignty. It is not nearly enough time for deep understanding, but it will serve as a springboard for more learning and create connections for nonprofits to figure out together how to build a strong foundation and show up as better partners with Tribes.
If the experiment is successful, we can help folks begin to move away from transaction-focused relationships and form relationships based on Indigenous understandings of reciprocity and kinship with humans, other organisms and living systems. Together, we must learn from and honor our past, include all voices at the table in our present, and build the foundation for a thriving and inclusive future.
Interested in learning more about building a foundation for partnership and decolonizing your workplace? Here are some resources for more learning:
- Tribal Nations and the United States: An Introduction, National Congress of American Indians.
- Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance, by Edgar Villanueva.
- The First Oregonians, edited by Laura Berg.
- Institute for Tribal Government at the Hatfield School of Government, Portland State University.