NAYA Family Center has a vision of abundance for Native community garden in Portland

When harvesting sweetgrass, you thank the plant by offering tobacco, or even a bit of your hair. You cut it at the base, just below where the stalks turn purple. You only take what you need, and leave the rest for others. This is how you honor and respect the plant, ensuring its sustainability for years to come.

That is what Mick Rose, community garden volunteer at the Native American Youth and Family Center, tells the Native community members at NAYA’s recent U-Pick event.

“This whole thing,” says Rose, as they gesture to the garden, “is about learning and sharing with each other.”

Every Monday and Saturday in September, Native people and the public were invited to pick their own fresh greens, herbs and veggies. NAYA’s “market garden” provided everything from kale, lettuce, arugula and collard greens to basil, dill and parsley, as well as zucchini, cucumbers, tomatillos, beans, eggplants and a variety of both hot and sweet peppers.

In addition to the U-Pick events, NAYA piloted garden-focused Green Days. Every Tuesday in September, Green Days offered Native community members an opportunity to swing by the awning at the front of NAYA’s building to pick up bags of fresh produce.

“The Green Days event came about because of the pandemic,” says Collin McCormack, NAYA’s food services coordinator, who identifies as Chichimeca. “During the pandemic, we delivered food boxes to community members, which included fresh produce from the garden. We wanted to provide good, healthy food, not just processed stuff.”

NAYA Family Center is a one-stop location for Native American community members to access wraparound services. Its mission is to enhance the diverse strengths of Native youth and families in partnership with the community through cultural identity and education, serving 3,000 people a year.

NAYA Family Center exists on a site that was long ago a Chinook trading and fishing village called Neerchokikoo [neer-cho-kee-koo]. Adjacent to Whitaker Ponds Natural Area and the Columbia Slough, this area was a hub for trading, transport and gathering due to its location near the confluence of the Columbia and Willamette rivers in Northeast Portland. For centuries, several Native tribes in the Pacific Northwest came to or through Neerchokikoo. It is only fitting that a Native organization would now exist on this land, and that Native people would again cultivate plants, engage in ceremony, and gather to build community on it.

NAYA’s community garden centers Indigenous Traditional Ecological Cultural Knowledge, the cornerstone of regenerative agriculture. The holistic approach to agriculture developed by Native communities centuries ago, regenerative agriculture incorporates Native farming practices and ecological system health. This approach centers the earth and the beings who live on it in harmony with one another, rather than a destructive and extractive linear supply chain.

In addition to the market garden, where you can find the plants you might see in community gardens across Portland, there is a Three Sisters garden, a First Foods garden and a medicine Garden (see details below). The Three Sisters garden comes primarily from Southwest Native cultures and includes corn, beans and varieties of squash. The First Foods garden includes Inchelium Red garlic, which grew in this area pre-colonization and has been stewarded by the Colville Nation, and Ozette Makah potato, which also grew in this country pre-colonization and was thought to have gone extinct. The medicine garden includes sweetgrass (used for cleansing via a ceremony called “smudging”), Hopi tobacco, lupin, marshmallow, skullcap, feverfew, chamomile, elderberry and roses (rose hips are used in medicines).

Rose, a Dinè, Omaha and Pawnee garden volunteer, has been central to the growth of the garden during the pandemic. They served as NAYA’s culture, education, and wellness manager until earlier this year; in that role, Rose said they saw NAYA’s land, including four youth baseball fields, being underutilized.

“We had this huge, 10-acre campus that wasn’t being used for our wellness,” says Rose. “It was being used for other people’s wellness.”

Rose started meeting with Native youth and Elders, asking them how they would want to engage with NAYA’s land.

Rose found that the Native community wanted space that would be used for food sovereignty, traditional ecological knowledge and ceremony. People wanted to hold sweat lodges and other prayer ceremonies, and also to be able to use plant medicines grown on the land in those ceremonies.

Rose and other NAYA staff worked together to find ways to bring funding to the garden for a coordinator, tools, plants, materials and supplies by integrating the garden into the Many Nations Academy high school curriculum and afterschool programming. For example, NAYA staff created a “Lessons of the Sweatlodge” curriculum, teaching about plant medicines used in sweatlodge ceremonies. They encouraged the youth to stop drinking sugary drinks and taught youth to infuse water with herbs like mint and rosemary.

“I knew it was working,” says Rose, “when I saw two youth who were the most resistant heading out to the garden one day to pick herbs for infusions, holding hands and giggling.”

The youth also learned to make their own Elderberry gummies, fruit roll-ups, fire cider, salves, lotions and house cleaning items.

Right before the COVID pandemic, the garden received funding for stock tanks for raised beds. The funding and the desire to be in community in person during the pandemic infused the Native community with passion and energy to grow the garden, taking over more of the land between NAYA’s building and the baseball fields.

“We didn’t have tools, so people brought tools to share or donate,” says Rose. “Friends donated starts. We all came together to spend time the only way we could—outside.

“It was kind of ideal. We had to pause all programming for COVID, so we focused on getting good food to the community, a lot of which was from the garden.”

Monique Lopez, another NAYA community garden volunteer and previous NAYA Family Services staff member, remembers that at the height of the pandemic, NAYA staff delivered approximately 2,000 meals a week to Native community members, families and Elders. Boxes included food, plant medicines and products made with plants from the garden. NAYA started holding virtual cooking classes to show community members how to use the plants in their food boxes. Staff started helping people grow their own gardens at home.

“We started 200 gardens for community members during the pandemic,” says Lopez, who identifies as Apache, Aztec, Mayan, Basque and Latina.

The garden project grew immensely during that time, but that was only the beginning.

Armed with the Native community’s dream for NAYA’s land, Rose saw an opportunity. The Portland Clean Energy Fund put out a call for proposals in early 2022, and Rose sat down to write.

“When I was writing, I was thinking of what it looks like when our children are living in abundance, when they are thriving,” says Rose.

“I wrote from the heart.”

On July 20, Portland City Council approved Portland Clean Energy Fund’s second package of recommended funding proposals, awarding more than $100 million to fund 65 projects in clean energy, regenerative agriculture/green infrastructure and workforce development. NAYA is on their list. Rose’s Native Food Sovereignty Project has received a $3.7 million grant to bring the Native community’s vision of Indigenous Traditional Ecological Cultural Knowledge and ceremony into reality. The first step, which is being implemented this year, is to end the contract with the local Little League that uses the baseball fields.

One of the most beautiful aspects to come out of the energy around NAYA’s community garden during the pandemic is the children’s garden. In it are areas to play and interact with plants—a place to build a foundation of living in harmony with nature. The space is designed for building connections between children and the land. It is also COVID-responsive in its incorporation of wood play structures and sitting areas that allow lots of space between children during reading and storytelling time. The playground also includes a canoe carved by community volunteers. The name of the children’s garden, in Chinuk Wawa (a cultural trade language used on NAYA’s land when it was the Neerchokikoo Village), is “Chaku-Hayash Khapa Q’at Pí T’wax̣,” which translates to “where we grow in love and light.”

“We are creating the conditions for children to have a positive relationship with the world around them,” says Suzie Kuerschner from the Future Generations Collaborative. Kuerschner runs a playgroup for Native children ages 0–7, which uses the children’s garden regularly. “The programming we do in the garden also creates trust with the families, which is essential for us to be able to better address their needs and advocate for them.”

The children’s garden was borne out of a desire to extend NAYA’s Chxi San (“chee-sawn”) Playgroup for young children into more robust programming. NAYA partnered with Kuerschner and the Future Generations Collaborative to bring the children’s garden to life during the pandemic, when families most needed community connection. While building NAYA’s other gardens, volunteers came together to build the playscape. PGE also pitched in, utilizing its staff and heavy machinery to bring in boulders and big logs.

“It was a collection of dreams,” says Kuerschner.

The playgroup wrapped up their summer programming in September with a celebration in the garden. They shared what they learned during the summer and spent one last session playing, reading, telling stories and engaging in traditional ceremony. For the rainy months, they plan to go back to doing virtual circles; however, Kuerschner is excited to develop new and more robust programming.

For now, the community is preparing for its annual Unthanksgiving celebration—an open invitation for the public to volunteer in the garden to prepare it for the winter. The Nov. 24 event will include some aspect of programming for the children’s garden, as well. (Watch NAYA’s Facebook page for updates.)

In many, if not most, Native cultures, it is a priority to pass on traditions and teachings to children. This includes harvesting plants, like sweetgrass, and using them for ceremony, art and food. After sweetgrass is harvested twice, it is shared with the community, who are encouraged to plant it in their own spaces, so that it continues to grow in abundance and continues to thrive, just like the Native community’s vision for a healthy future, according to Rose.

NAYA Community Garden

Monique Lopez, left, and Mick Rose collect sweetgrass to braid at the Native American Youth and Family Center’s community garden located at 5135 NE Columbia Blvd., Portland, Ore., Sept. 24, 2022. The garden uses and teaches Native gardening techniques, growing first foods and food sovereignty. Mark Graves/The Oregonian

NAYA’s community garden centers Indigenous Traditional Ecological Cultural Knowledge, also known as regenerative agriculture. Here are some of the practices and plants featured in the project, according to Bonz Wykman, NAYA’s consultant on the garden:

Three Sisters Garden

This garden incorporates a combination of corn, beans and squash which, when eaten together, create complete proteins. Many varieties are used to grow this type of garden.

Corn: The corn serves as a pole for the beans to grow.

Beans: Once the corn is strong enough, the beans climb up the corn and provide nutrients the corn and squash need to thrive.

Squash: Squashes provide ground cover to protect the roots of the three sisters so that nothing else can prevent roots’ growth.

Sweetgrass (Hierochloe odorata)

Sweetgrass is a cool-season grass that spreads by rhizome. It grows in NAYA’s medicine garden and is harvested twice before being shared with community members to continue its spread in their own gardens. Sweetgrass is harvested, braided, dried and then burnt to use in smudging and/or prayer ceremonies by several Native American tribes.

Hopi Tobacco (Nicotiana rustica)

Hopi Tobacco is a strain of tobacco that grows in both North and South American rainforests. It is also found in the Southwest and has been cultivated by Hopi people for centuries. Hopi Tobacco is a ceremonial tobacco that has a very high nicotine content.

Inchelium Red Garlic (Allium sativum)

NAYA Community Garden

Volunteers work at the Native American Youth and Family Center’s community garden located at 5135 NE Columbia Blvd., Portland, Ore., Sept. 24, 2022. The garden uses and teaches Native gardening techniques, growing first foods and food sovereignty. Mark Graves/The Oregonian

The oldest strain of garlic grown in North America, Inchelium Red garlic originated on Colville land in the current-day community of Inchelium, Washington. In fact, it grew in Inchelium before colonization.

During the pandemic, the Colville Reservation WSU Extension received a $75,000 grant from the Native American Agriculture Fund, part of which was used to spread the Inchelium Red Garlic strain to community members and provide education about its history.

Ozette Makah potato (Solanum Tuberosum Group Tuberosum)

The Ozette Makah Potato has been used by the Makah tribe for 200 years. Its name comes from an ancient Makah village site on Lake Ozette near Neah Bay, Washington. It is speculated that the Makah people likely found the plant in the garden of an abandoned fort at Neah Bay and became its stewards. It was rarely found outside of Makah lands until the 1980s.

— Leah Altman (Oglala Lakota) is a Native American adoptee and was raised in the Portland area. She has written for several local and national publications, including Portland Monthly, Oregon Humanities, Portland State University’s Metroscape magazine, Parents.com, and Indian Country Today. Leah has also worked for Native and BIPOC-led environmental and community organizations, including the NAYA Family Center, Verde, Native Arts & Cultures Foundation, and the Intertribal Agriculture Council, for over a decade.

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