When it comes to serving her community, Jennie Brixey’s work is rooted in the mission of the Northwest Indigenous Food Sovereignty Alliance: restoring Indigenous food systems and sharing its bounty.
Brixey—who has Choctaw and Welsh heritage—is a program specialist with the County’s Community Partnerships & Capacity Building team. She’s new to the County but has been involved with the Future Generations Collaborative as a natural helper and community health worker since 2015. There she received mentorship and support that has helped her leverage her lived experience to address Indigenous health disparities.
Because of her cultural background, Brixey is uniquely positioned to promote collective healing from the trauma of colonization.
“I’m hopeful for the future,” Brixey told the Board of County Commissioners during the Thursday, Nov. 16 board meeting. “I know I have a seat at the table that was not built with enough chairs for Native peoples.”
Brixey was one of several invited speakers as the Board proclaimed November 2023 Native American Heritage Month in Multnomah County. And while the group was honored to express their thoughts, they believe it’s important not to take credit without acknowledging the Native community as a whole.
“We do this work for our people,” said Brianna Bragg, a Health Department employee who also spoke on the panel. “We are first and foremost community members, and second County employees.”
This year’s proclamation comes on the heels of a pair of milestones: Chair Jessica Vega Pederson’s action to implement a new County floating holiday in honor of Indigenous People’s Day and the creation of a new Native Employee Resource Group, mamuk tillikums. Additionally, the Board is scheduled to vote at next week's Nov. 30 meeting to formally approve a new name for the Sauvie Island Bridge recommended by a historic workgroup of tribal representatives.
“Today is an important day in the history of Multnomah County,” Chair Vega Pederson said. “Not only does the Board have an opportunity to celebrate and honor November’s Native American Heritage Month with a proclamation, but today is also a chance to reaffirm my commitment to working with Native employees and uplift the work of our Indigenous County employees.”
Native communities share rich culture and history in Multnomah County
Multnomah County is home to the 11th-largest Urban Native population in the United States. Over 380 tribal communities are represented in Multnomah County. In the 2020 Census, there were 63,000 self-identified Natives living in Multnomah County, and likely many more because Native Americans and Alaska Natives are often lost in the “two or more races” category in data gathering processes.
“It’s quite safe to assume the number of Natives residing in the County is even higher, which makes the work we do and the connections we deepen to foster self-determination within Tribal communities so critical,” said Nicole Buchanan, a senior policy analyst with the County’s Office of Sustainability. Buchanan is Sugpiaq, Italian and Norwegian, and a member of the Native Village of Afognak.
In the 1950s, a series of policies known as “termination” ended the federal government’s recognition of the sovereignty of tribes. Dozens of tribes were victims of this policy in Oregon alone. Only nine were restored.
The impacts of colonization are still felt today, reflected in health and economic disparities and systemic barriers. Native American Heritage Month offers an opportunity to celebrate the strength and resilience of Native communities, along with their rich cultural histories.
Eva Red Bird, who’s Hunkpapa-Lakota and Yankton-Lakota, is a fifth-generation Multnomah County resident. Her grandparents moved to the County from their reservation during World War II, living in segregated housing in Vanport. Her grandmother was active in the civil rights movement for Native people, and now she’s carrying the torch, she said.
Red Bird is an Indigenous outreach specialist for the Multnomah County Library — one of nine Indigenous people on her team. She’s also a member of a newly established Native Employee Resource Group (ERG). The collective, already boasting 19 members, is a space for Native American and Alaska Native County employees to celebrate their identities and break down barriers throughout the organization.
“We’re working to Indigenize spaces and empower our next generation to be proud to be Native, and have our stories heard and seen and reflective in an accurate way,” Red Bird said. “It’s really powerful to be part of the County and to be part of making such historical, positive change.”
Brianna Bragg (they/she)—a senior program specialist for the Native American/Alaska Native Community and coordinator for the Health Department’s culturally specific Future Generations Collaborative—said the new ERG is an important part of addressing ongoing impacts of colonization.
Bragg, who’s Ihanktonwan, French and Norwegian, is the descendant of a boarding school survivor. As someone who is queer, Disabled and Two-Spirit, Bragg says they carry all those identities when they show up to work at the County.
Bragg encouraged the Board to continue uplifting Native voices and promoting policies and programs that account for the cultural context or trauma historically experienced by Indigenous people.
“Our people deserve to be valued for our strengths, the beauty of our many cultures, and the impact that our cultures, our science and our traditional knowledge have and continue to benefit the County at large,” Bragg said.
Specifically, Bragg and their co-presenters called for more staff with Native knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs); increasing opportunities for meaningful institutional change; incorporating more Native voices who hold a community of support; more culturally-specific programming, and continuing to address colonial county policies that make it challenging to do their work in a way that honors Indigenous values.
“Representation matters,” said Commissioner Julia Brim-Edwards, who noted the value of employee resource groups in adding employee voices to major decisions throughout the organization.
Native community helps County deliver culturally specific services
Native employees bring unique knowledge, traditions and relationships to their work. Working in partnership with natural helpers, the Future Generations Collaborative helped drive meaningful change throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for Native communities.
The program’s public health work is an example of how it’s grown from its original founding goal of reducing fetal alcohol syndrome disorder among Indigenous people. The team now works to support the community in addressing an array of community health issues facing the region’s Native population. Many of the people involved with the collaborative are driven by a mission to make the County’s resources more accessible.
“The FGC was what brought me to the Public Health Division,” Brixey said. “I came to the County for the possibility of serving my community in a new capacity, to be able to support making resources the County stewards more accessible.”
A few months into the pandemic, Future Generations Collaborative quickly became an access point for essentials including food and hygiene products. The program even helped households cover funeral expenses and transportation to hospitals. They also began hosting COVID-19 testing and vaccination events.
Buchanan, the co-panelist who works for the Office of Sustainability, received her first COVID-19 vaccine at an event organized by the FGC. She said the culturally specific programming was the most effective way to reach those in her community who needed healthcare the most.
“I think I speak for everyone on this panel when I say that we as Native employees are dedicated to this work, not only because it’s important and necessary, but because it is profoundly personal,” Buchanan said.
Celebrating the spirit of Native American heritage
Commissioners acknowledged the work that has happened — and the work that must continue — to break down barriers for the Native community.
“I want to hear what more we can do in our budget, what we can support, how we can take action at the County to support you and our community,” Commissioner Sharon Meieran said.
“It is clear that governments can harm,” Commissioner Jesse Beason told the panel. “The work that you all are doing here is to prove that governments can also repair and they can also be part of healing.”
Chair Vega Pederson encouraged Multnomah County residents to celebrate Native American Heritage however they can, including learning more about Oregon’s nine federally recognized tribes; exploring Native book displays at a Multnomah County library location; and visiting Native-owned businesses at the Portland Indigenous Marketplace.
“I just encourage folks to really take the spirit of the proclamation and use all of the opportunities that are here this month to celebrate and learn more about Indigenous culture,” Chair Vega Pederson said.