“Weaving a basket of hope”: Multnomah County honors Indigenous Peoples’ Day

October 11, 2021
“Every day is Indigenous Peoples’ Day.” 

That’s how Brianna Bragg,(Ihanktonwan, French, & Norwegian), described the Native community’s connection to their history and their future. But the formal declaration of Indigenous Peoples’ Day is still a day to remember, Bragg said, as it represents generations of work to assert Native sovereignty. 

Observing and celebrating Indigenous Peoples' Day is an act of healing and self-love, said Bragg, who works as a program specialist senior in Multnomah County’s Public Health Division. It’s an opportunity to recognize Native heritage and acknowledge and prioritize their history and survivance.

“This day and this proclamation are important, not just for remembering our history, but for reclaiming it and celebrating the very fact that we are still here,” Bragg said. “Despite historical and ongoing colonization and genocide, we are still here. Despite erasure from data and historicizing us in textbooks and museums, we are still here.”

Bragg was among the invited guests Thursday, Oct. 7, as the Board of County Commissioners proclaimed Monday, Oct. 11 as Indigenous Peoples' Day in Multnomah County. The proclamation featured testimony from Bragg along with Suzie Kuerschner (Haudenosaunee, Scottish, and Irish), who owns SPIRITS; Jillene Joseph (Aaniiih), the executive director of the Native Wellness Institute; and Jordan Mercier (Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde), the Cultural Education coordinator for the Chachalu Museum and Cultural Center. 

Multnomah County first recognized Indigenous Peoples' Day in 2015, after the hard work of Native community members like Anna Marie Allen and Nicole Buchanan. The observance began as a counter-celebration to the former holiday, which evoked harmful memories of the colonization and attempted genocide of Native people. Many governments have since begun observing Indigenous cultures and heritage on this date. 

“Each year more and more jurisdictions join the movement to celebrate the second Monday of October as Indigenous Peoples' Day,” said Chair Deborah Kafoury. “By doing so we continue to raise awareness that Indigenous people are still here and that, despite centuries of systematic efforts to forcibly remove and eliminate Indigenous people, they have fought back against genocide — not only to survive, but to thrive.” 

In another step forward, the County included funding for a Tribal Relations position in the Government Relations Office in its final fiscal year 2022 budget. The position allows the County to develop services, engagement strategies and policies informed by the Native community living in Multnomah County and Tribal governments.

“This board, as a whole, is really committed to the principles of equity overall and really committed to the hard work of repairing the broken ties our governments and the tribes have had,” said Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson. “Partnership and working with Native tribes has to become the norm, and not the exception, in all of the work we do as a government.”

Weaving a “basket of hope”

While Joseph serves as the Native Wellness Institute’s executive director, she is also the engagement lead for Future Generations Collaborative (FGC). Native community members, organizations, and Tribal Nations co-created the collaborative with the Health Department in 2011 to promote healthy pregnancies and healing in the Native community. 

Through educational programming, community engagement, Indigenous-led evaluation and research, and policy development, FGC strives to prevent fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and provide lifelong support to families impacted by FASD. Rates of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder are higher among Indigenous and Native people, even though alcohol consumption among Native people is not higher than other groups.

Joseph uses the term “chemical warfare” to describe the impact of alcohol on Native people. Liquor was unknown to the Tribal population until European colonizers introduced them to alcohol hundreds of years ago. 

“Hundreds of years ago our people experienced chemical warfare through the substance that we today called alcohol,” Joseph said. “Today that spirit continues to haunt many of our people, and many of our people turn to it to hide and to deal with the hurt and the pain.”

The Future Generations Collaborative exists to mitigate the harm the Native community has experienced. More importantly, Joseph said, it seeks to bring healing — physically, mentally emotionally and spiritually. 

“I’m so grateful for the way that you remind us both of the importance of remembering history, remembering genocide, remembering oppression, and using that not to stay stuck there, but as a mechanism to propel us forward,” Commissioner Susheela Jayapal said. 

Kuerschner likened the Collaborative’s work to a basket of hope. Strings of traditional knowledge are contained in the warp and weft that are woven together to create the baskets that hold that hope, she said. Within that basket, she added, are Indigenous tools of help. 

“Today is a day in which we are really grateful, profoundly grateful, for the privilege of sharing this story of healing and the beauty of remembering together,” Kuerschner said. “We’re grateful for this day of respect.”

In a historic moment, Jordan Mercier, (Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde), honored ancestors from the tribal bands who lived on the land now known as Multnomah County by reading the proclamation in the Chinuk Wawa language, the language of the land.

“The Native American, Alaska Native and Indigenous heritage of Turtle Island, or what we now call the United States, extends since time immemorial and is a vital influence in our country’s prosperity,” he said, repeating in Chinuk Wawa:

“hayu x̣luyma shawash-tilixam ɬaska kəmtəks uk nim kʰapa uk iliʔi kakwa iɬagwa-tənəs-iliʔi. x̣luyma tilixam ɬaska kəmtəks uk bastən nim kʰapa uk iliʔi kakwa united states. kwansəm anqati uk shawash tilixam ɬaska miɬayt kʰapa ukuk iliʔil yakwa. uk kimtəks pi yaʔim kʰapa ɬaska munk kʰanawi tilixam manaqi skukum alta.”

“I was so, so moved by hearing the proclamation in the Chinuk language,” Commissioner Sharon Meieran said. “We have to acknowledge the history, the genocide, all of the trauma that happened in order to reclaim that history and move forward.” 

“There’s so much going on in our lives and our world right now,” Commissioner Lori Stegmann added. “Sometimes just to stop and take a breath and honor the contributions of our Native and Indigenous people is so important.”